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The case for ... drafting Northwestern DE Dean Lowry

Northwestern DE Dean Lowry doesn’t quite have the skill of Joey Bosa or DeForest Buckner, but he could be drafted sooner than many expect.

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There were 64 players in the defensive lineman category at this year’s scouting combine, and three of them checked in at 6' 6" or taller and 290-plus pounds: Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, Mississippi State’s Chris Jones and Northwestern’s Dean Lowry.

Buckner is widely considered to be a top-10 pick, while Jones should should be drafted somewhere between the bottom of Round 1 and top of Round 3. What to make of Lowry, then? Obviously, there’s much more to a player evaluation than simply his size—this isn’t like the old Nintendo “Ice Hockey” game where every big guy is a physical monster and every skinny guy is super fast—but there is something to be said for a player who blows through the standards set by his fellow prospects.

Lowry (6' 6", 296 pounds) said he weighed around 240 when he arrived at Northwestern. Four years and nearly 60 pounds later, Lowry very quietly has set himself up to be a mid-round draft pick later this month. He spent the majority of his time with the Wildcats as a 4–3 end, but he also slid down to play tackle on occasion. His size fits the 3–4 end bill, too.

“A lot of 3–4 teams have talked to me about potentially playing that five-technique in their defense, so I’m excited about it,” Lowry said at the combine. “I think it’s something I can definitely do, so we’ll see where it goes.”

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Lowry finished his Northwestern career with 31.0 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks (more on that total in a minute) and three picks, but his best individual game, statistically, came in a 30–28 win over Nebraska last October. (His tape from that game is available here, thanks to the good folks at Draft Breakdown.) Shy of picking off Cornhuskers’s QB Tommy Armstrong, Lowry put his full game on display. He helped set the edge against the run, got his arms up in Armstrong’s passing lanes and, at times, shifted inside to create issues against Nebraska’s guards.

Lowry’s game does not feature the raw power of, say, Buckner, and he’s also lacking the athletic explosiveness of a Joey Bosa—if Bosa had Lowry’s overall size, we might still be talking about him as the consensus No. 1 pick. But he has enough in each category, on top of his height and weight, to make him an attractive D-line talent.

“You know, I think a good inside pass rusher, especially a three-technique in a two wide, but also I think outside I play the run very well,” Lowry said. “I think I showed that. And also I had 17 [pass breakups] the past three years, so I think I can affect the quarterback in different ways, instead of just sacks.”

Therein lies a bit of the rub—“Instead of just sacks.” For a three-down player who mostly lined up outside in Northwestern’s four-man front, Lowry’s average of four sacks from 2013 to ’15 does not jump off the page. He simply does not get to the quarterback all that much, to the point where he can seem content to hold back and attempt to bat down a pass at the line.

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Since we’ve talked so much about measurements, his short arms (31") deserve some blame. Longer offensive tackles were able to lock out Lowry, and he does not yet have a complete bag of tricks to break free with counter moves. He will play too tall with that 6' 6" frame, which contributes to his occasional ineffectiveness.

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Spending some time being coached up an NFL staff should help—Lowry mentioned that one of his big takeaways from the week-long Shrine Game event was “a lot of new techniques they taught us there.” He also stands to benefit from even more reps at tackle, because he can hold up physically against guards but also has the burst off the ball to get past them. And that’s going to determine whether or not Lowry outperforms his draft slot: Can he be more of a factor on passing downs?

“I would say my outside pass rush [is something I need to work on],” Lowry said. “You know, having even more of a plan ... whether it’s the rip or the swim, you know, having more of a plan at the edge to get to the quarterback.”

The floor on Lowry is relatively set, and any interest NFL team will take comfort in that. At worst, he will be a high-motor player who can serve as a backup at any D-line spot, shy of perhaps nose tackle. The ceiling is more difficult to gauge without knowing if Lowry has it in him to be better as a pure pass rusher. 

Think of a player like Jared Crick—formerly of the Texans, now a Bronco. He notched 20.0 sacks during his Nebraska career, but just one in his final year and 5.5 as a four-year pro. But he carved out a starting job as a DE in Houston’s 3–4 front, before signing on to be a versatile piece for the defending champs. The dream of every NFL draft prospect (and of the teams selecting them) is to become a perennial All-Pro. Players like Crick are quite valuable in their own right.

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So even if Lowry, as of right now, does not stand out like a Buckner or Bosa as a potentially dominant defender, there should be no shortage of interest in him. The Chicago native and Northwestern grad will hear his name called from the Auditorium Theatre, and that moment could come earlier than people expect.