Noah Spence has all the talent in the world as an edge rusher. But there are very real questions about whether his off-field behavior will keep him from reaching his lofty potential.
Get all of Doug Farrar’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
With the 2016 NFL draft just weeks away, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to finish the process of getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar has assembled his own Big Board, with his top 50 players.
The SI 50 uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and explain why they’re slotted as such. As we approach the top 10, the scouting reports get deeper. We continue with an edge rusher who has all the potential in the world, if he can keep himself out of trouble off the field.
12. Noah Spence, DE/OLB, Eastern Kentucky
Height: 6' 2" Weight: 251
Bio: Given the constant need for pass rushers and Spence’s obvious talent, he’s going to cause a lot of interesting debates in front offices around the league. He signed with Ohio State as the No. 2 defensive end prospect in the country and a Parade Magazine All-America, and he lived up to that five-star potential as a sophomore in 2013 with 24 solo tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, two passes defensed and a forced fumble.
On the field, Spence’s future looked very bright. Off the field, however, things were getting complicated. Spence tested positive for a form of ecstasy at the 2013 Big Ten title game, and was subsequently suspended for the Orange Bowl and the first two games of 2014. After a second positive test in September 2014, Spence was banned from the Big Ten permanently.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer set him up in a drug treatment program and pointed him towards Eastern Kentucky after Spence decided to spend another year playing college football instead of declaring for the draft. Spence was arrested in May 2015 for public intoxication and second-degree disorderly conduct, but the charges were expunged after community service.
Spence has spent all spring answering questions about his past and how it applies to his future, trying to convince teams he has moved on from his mistakes.
In his one season with Eastern Kentucky, Spence proved he hadn’t missed a beat on the field, finishing with 63 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. There’s absolutely no questioning Spence’s ability and potential. It’s how he wants to apply them that will have teams’ valuations up in the air.
Strengths: Long-legged player who stays low in his stance and uses his body to create impressive leverage. Snaps to the point of attack out of two- and three-point stances. Has a rare ability to get up to full speed from his first step. Will run right around tackles if they don’t turn to start their arc right off the snap. Bends the edge with footwork more than a natural dip-and-rip, but it’s very effective in his case. Hits his first inside angle move with true suddenness—it’s tough for blockers to catch up. Moves to the quarterback at a consistent inside angle, reducing pocket room and forcing edge blockers to pinch inside. Once he gets to the tackle’s inside shoulder, Spence has a natural ability to turn inside, beat the block and close to the quarterback very quickly. Eagerly gets his hands up to deflect passes if he doesn’t get to the quarterback—a big asset against quick passing games.
Doesn’t possess an inside counter, but will use foot fakes to juke tackles into taking the wrong side and letting him by. Can leverage his way inside with speed and power. Very persistent pass-rusher who will work through multiple blockers and double-teams. Played in a four-man front, but his speed rush out of a wide-nine set will have 3–4 and hybrid teams easily projecting him as an outside linebacker. Upper-body strength allows him to use a raw swim move to push forward, and he’s able to stand up to blockers who outweigh him by 50 pounds. Can play strongside and weakside end effectively—isn’t tied to a pure pass-rushing role. As a run defender, will move laterally and sift through trash, and he has true potential as a sideline-to-sideline chaser. Spence has the adjustment skills to re-direct quickly to the ballcarrier after starting upfield on the pass rush.
Weaknesses: Spence’s game is mostly about speed and power at this point as opposed to technique, and that may leave him open to being eaten up in the NFL for a while. Taller, wider tackles can rag-doll him too easily at times. He desperately needs a credible inside counter to make the most of his get-off at the snap—when he’s boxed out of the arc, he tends to stay there. Has the strength to use rip and swim moves very well, and has the agility to work a spin move into his repertoire, but he’s not there yet. Plays frantically at times, allowing opponents to use his momentum against him. May be too stiff in the hips to create a real bend around the edge. Can drop into coverage, but it’s not a strength at this point. Play strength can be hit-and-miss against tackles with better feet who can mirror him around the pocket—arm length (33 inches) leaves him at a disadvantage, and has him letting blockers into his body too often.
Conclusion: While there are a lot of really good multi-gap, multi-role pass rushers in this draft class, no pure 4–3 edge rusher has stood out to me from a pure raw talent perspective as much as Spence has. He has every attribute you’d want in a pass-rushing defensive end and/or linebacker, and with time and training, he could be one of the best at his position in the NFL. Spence has been up front about his missteps, and while one never knows how a guy will take things forward, one tends to hope that Spence will work it all out from a human perspective. He’s a rare talent with a very bright future. All he has to do is see the path, and follow it.
Pro Comparison: Brian Orakpo, Titans (first round, 2009, Texas)