This is an article from the March 4, 2013 issue
A periodic look at some of the most intriguing draft prospects in sports
Hitters were ahead of the pitchers as the 2012 NFL season climaxed. Defenses reeled. The lowest-scoring divisional playoff game was 30--28. The Super Bowl, a matchup between two of the top 12 defenses, turned into a 34--31 barn burner. Athletic quarterbacks were meteors across the NFL sky, but the decidedly immobile Peyton Manning and Tom Brady threw 71 touchdown passes between them. And so representatives from the 32 teams came to the 2013 NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last week looking for answers. How can we cope with so many offensive styles?
Who better to tell us how to play the varied looks that are becoming the norm in the NFL than Gus Bradley, the new coach of the Jaguars? As the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks last season, Bradley prepared his players to face three of the new-wave option quarterbacks—Colin Kaepernick of the Niners, Carolina's Cam Newton and, in the playoffs, Washington's Robert Griffin III. Bradley also game-planned for pocket guys who can make plays on the move in Tony Romo of the Cowboys and Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay. And Seattle faced a master of the hurry-up no-huddle in Brady. The Seahawks went 6--0 against those QBs, allowing 13.5 points a game.
So as Bradley attended his first combine as a head coach, what was he looking for to repair his defense, which ranked 30th in the NFL last year? The short answer, other than "everything," was this: disciplined speed.
"Take defensive end," Bradley said last Saturday in a corridor of Lucas Oil Stadium, as the offensive linemen were working out inside. "You're asking a defensive end to put his hand on the ground and give a great rush, but if you're playing an option team, you want him on his feet. And you say on one play, 'Play a two-point stance and play the dive [the running back up the middle] and then take the quarterback.' Most defensive ends say, 'I'm here to rush the quarterback. Now you're having me take the dive and the quarterback?' That's discipline."
Finding a versatile end—a strong pass rusher who is at least competent against the run—is a never-ending quest. In conversations in Indy with coaches and general managers about the most important roles in light of the new offensive unpredictability, two positions emerged: the cover corner strong enough to knock fast receivers around in the five-yard bump zone, and the three-down inside linebacker who can corral both strong backs and fleet passers. On offense, the attention getter was the athletic tackle who can block both for pocket and for mobile QBs. SI looks at the top prospect at each of those three spots:
The athletic offensive tackle Luke Joeckel Texas A&M
The best thing that ever happened to Joeckel's pro prospects? Protecting the blind sides of two completely different passers—pocket QB Ryan Tannehill in 2010 and '11, and frenetic scrambler Johnny Manziel in '12. "And I was an island every play," Joeckel said at the combine. "When you play in two totally different offenses, I don't know how you can be better prepared for anything you might encounter in the NFL."
Some tackles are mountainous, with big guts and chests, and must work to chisel their frames into NFL bodies. The 6'6", 306-pound Joeckel is different: He has big thighs and a strong lower body but an upper body that could pass for that of a big tight end. He brings to mind Browns left tackle Joe Thomas. "Natural strength," one G.M. said of Joeckel. "He's got the kind of body you could see lasting 15 years in the league because nothing about him is over-worked-out." Or, as Joeckel put it, "I've always looked lighter than I am."
Joeckel has the strength and quickness to fend off both heavier ends and speed-rushers. And like a Joe Staley of San Francisco, he will be able to pull outside and wipe away linebackers and safeties on running plays. In a QB-poor draft he'll be a strong candidate to go first overall. (Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who has the top pick, has a history of taking linemen very high.)
"I played two years as a tighter-area tackle, and I probably like that more than the style we played with Johnny quarterbacking," Joeckel said. "But I'm really comfortable playing either style." The way the game is evolving, he might have to play both styles on the same series.
The three-down middle linebacker Alec Ogletree Georgia
Watch a few plays of Ogletree—rushing the quarterback, chasing down receivers from behind, hog-tying running backs between the tackles—and it's no surprise to hear him say, "I've watched Ray Lewis all my life. I really like the way he plays." Ogletree is the closest thing in this draft to the sideline-to-sideline playmaker Lewis was. He has the kind of quickness that makes some teams believe he could play on the outside, and that's where he'll end up if he struggles against the run. But the consensus is that the 6'3", 232-pound Ogletree will be able to shed blocks and take on backs and also spy quarterbacks as runners or passers.
There's a cloud over Ogletree, though. He was suspended for the first four games of Georgia's season last fall for reportedly failing a drug test, and he was arrested for DUI in Arizona in February. "If he were clean, I'd be banging the table for Ogletree to be a top 10 pick," says NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.
At the combine several teams seemed willing to take a chance. As one personnel director said, "He seems like a country kid who needs structure more than anything else." Still, any team spending a first-round pick on Ogletree—he'd be perfect in Dick LeBeau's scheme in Pittsburgh, which picks 17th—will be wary.
"I think I can play the different styles in the NFL pretty well," Ogletree says. "I like going after the quarterback who's a sitting duck, or I think I can stay with any one of them who plays the mobile game." The tape says Ogletree's right. Now he'll need to prove that he can be trusted.
The physical corner who can run with speed guys Xavier Rhodes Florida State
"Whatever scheme you play," says Bradley, "you've got to create disruption at the perimeter." Enter Rhodes, the 6'2", 212-pound corner with safety size. Over the next two months he must prove he can run with speed receivers. There's no question he can joust with them: As a senior he clutched and grabbed and pushed—subtly—like a five-year NFL vet.
Rhodes does occasionally whiff on his bumps, and that will hurt him against speedy NFL receivers. Bumping is critical for corners now because more quarterbacks are holding the ball longer, waiting to find an open target—and there will be more plays against mobile QBs where corners won't have safety help because the safeties are spying or playing closer to the line. Cornerbacks who can divert receivers have a better shot at forcing passers to look elsewhere. "At Florida State we play in-your-face football," Rhodes said on Sunday. "I'm a corner who's physical. That's the way I've been taught."
Those aren't the only three prototypes NFL folks are studying. There's the move tight end, who can shift and line up all over the formation and keep plays alive for a scrambler. There's the blitzing safety, always in demand but now with the additional responsibility of watching for the running quarterback. And of course there's that versatile defensive end, whom coaches are always looking for creative new ways to use. "Last year against Seattle and San Francisco," says Rams coach Jeff Fisher, "we played four defensive ends across the front sometimes. You've just got to be imaginative."
"That's it," said Bradley. "You've got to have speed, and you've got to be disciplined, but football is always going to be a game of adjustments." Now more than ever.