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Don't sell 'em short: Diminutive pass rushers all the rage

Donna McWilliam / Associated Press
TCU's Jerry Hughes stands tall among college football's top defensive end prospects.


After watching a certain Elvis (the Denver Broncos' Elvis Dumervil) tear up the league this season, scouts are descending on college campuses looking for diminutive edge rushers like fans flocking to Graceland.

The ascension of Dumervil to the top of the sack charts has scouts rethinking the importance of traditional measurables when evaluating edge rushers.

Denis Poroy / Associated Press
The Broncos' Elvis Dumervil ranks among the NFL's best sack producers over the past four seasons.
Sack leaders over past four seasons
Rk
Player
'06
'07
'08
'09
Total
1
11.5
14
20
4
49.5
2
7.5
15.5
14.5
7.5
45
3
Aaron Kampman
15.5
12
9.5
2.5
39.5
4t
8
12.5
9
6.5
36
4t
8.5
12.5
5
10
36
4t
13
2.5
14.5
6
36

For years, evaluators seemingly ignored the production of sack artists who fell below the established 6-2 Mendoza line. The premise behind the standard height measurement, as explained to me by a college director when I first broke into the scouting business, is that pass rushers need to possess a certain height-and-arm length to deal with the mammoth offensive tackles that play in the pro game. Big blockers easily engulf smaller edge players and render them helpless in one-on-one situations.

However, that thinking appears to be changing when watching some of the league's top pass rushers this season. Pittsburgh's James Harrison (6-0), Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney (6-1) and Dumervil (5-11) all rank among the NFL's top five in sacks. While the majority of the list is still full of giants, the fact that the diminutive trio has been able to produce at a high level has opened the eyes of many personnel men.

Dumervil, who was drafted by the Broncos in the fourth round in 2006 after leading the nation with 20 sacks as a senior, has amassed 36 quarterback takedowns in his career. That total surpasses the 33.5 sacks tallied by the No. 1 overall pick (Mario Williams) of the same draft, and places the undersized pass rusher tied for fourth among sack leaders since 2006.

With the success of Dumervil firmly in their minds, scouts are giving more consideration to a host of shorter pass rushers set to enter the league. TCU's Jerry Hughes, Auburn's Antonio Coleman and South Carolina's Eric Norwood, each measuring below 6-foot-2, have enjoyed prolific collegiate careers. And their skills are ideal fits for the aggressive zone-blitz schemes that are prevalent throughout the league.

As more and more NFL teams move to hybrid 3-4 systems that allow prolific sack artists to hunt off the edge, scouts are willing more than ever to consider undersized pass rushers in the early stages of the draft.

Must-see college games for NFL scouts this week

Cincinnati at Syracuse, Saturday at noon ET

The possible return of the Bearcats' Tony Pike has put this Big East contest on the radar of scouts in the Northeast. The prolific passer has shot up draft boards after dazzling scouts with his accuracy and touch during the first half of the season. However, his wrist injury raises concerns about his durability and a quick return to the lineup could salvage his standing as one of the top signal callers in the 2010 draft. For the Orange, all eyes will be on defensive tackle Arthur Jones. The senior has been a model of consistency with his steady play, but scouts would love to see him display better skills as a pass rusher. Given the Bearcats' explosive offense, Jones will have plenty of chances to show off his pass-rush abilities.

Penn State at Northwestern, Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET

Scouts are paying close attention to this Big Ten battle to see if Wildcats defensive end Corey Wootton has regained his dominant form. While he has experienced an up-and-down year while battling back from the torn ACL suffered in the Alamo Bowl last season, he has started to show glimpses of his old self in recent weeks. Wootton recorded his first sack against Indiana last week, and could use a big day against Penn State to alleviate scouts' concern about his durability and long-term potential. For the Nittany Lions, scouts will check out the play of DT Jared Odrick and LB Sean Lee. Both carried high grades heading into the season, and evaluators will want to see if the duo can sustain their high level of play through the end of the season.

Louisiana Tech at Idaho, Saturday at 5 p.m. ET

This unheralded matchup will not garner much attention on the national level, but it features an intriguing battle in the trenches between Vandals guard Mike Iupati and Bulldogs DT D'Anthony Smith. Smith is lauded by scouts for his exceptional quickness, but needs to show that he is more than a one-dimensional interior speed rusher. Thus, scouts will closely evaluate how well he fares against the rugged Iupati to see if his skills translate well to the pro game.

Southern California at Oregon, Saturday at 8 p.m. ET

Nearly a dozen NFL prospects will square off in this game. Scouts will pay close attention to the matchup between Trojans safety Taylor Mays and Oregon TE Ed Dickson. Though Mays is lauded by scouts for his rare combination of size, speed and skill, Dickson is an elite tight end with the athleticism to give even the best cover men problems. How well each performs in this matchup could determine if they emerge as the top candidate at their respective positions. Additionally, scouts will extensively study Trojans TE Anthony McCoy to see if he is worthy of the growing buzz that has been attached to his name. USC tackle Charles Brown is another high-riser looking to solidify his lofty draft standing with a solid showing against the Ducks. He has started to generate some late first-round grades on some boards, and could vault into the first stanza with another stellar performance.

Texas at Oklahoma State, Saturday at 8 p.m. ET

Scouts in attendance will hope that this Big 12 matchup turns into a shootout to see Texas QB Colt McCoy and OSU's Zac Robinson fill the air with footballs. Although McCoy is seeking to cement his status as the top senior signal caller in the draft, Robinson is hoping to show that he is worthy of consideration in the middle rounds. A high-scoring affair would also allow scouts to focus on the matchup between OSU LT Russell Okung and Texas LB Sergio Kindle. Given that Okung has been widely regarded as the top offensive line prospect, a stellar showing by Kindle will enhance his draft status as a potential impact pass rusher. Another battle of interest is the showdown between Longhorns WR Jordan Shipley and Cowboys CB Perrish Cox. On the surface, the matchup appears to showcase a dynamic receiver against a playmaking corner, but evaluators will closely watch the impact each brings to the return game. Shipley has recorded two kickoff return touchdowns this season and is emerging as one of the most dangerous players in college football. Cox, who has five return touchdowns (four on kickoffs and one on a punt) in his career, ranks as the all-time Big 12 record-holder in kickoff return yardage and has shown big-play potential with the ball in his hands.
 
Prospect to watch
Kyle Wilson

Kyle Wilson, CB/KR, Boise State

The Broncos' cover man is not only regarded as an elite corner, but scouts rave about his exceptional skills as a returner. Wilson returned three punts for touchdowns last season. Although his production has slipped in the return game this year, Wilson's speed and explosive running skills make him a threat to take it the distance whenever he touches the ball. Throw in his natural ball skills and grittiness at corner, and it is not surprising that he is steadily climbing charts as a potential early round selection.
Sleeper to watch
Thaddeus Lewis

Thaddeus Lewis, QB, Duke

Scouts have typically flooded Duke's campus, but most were from pro basketball teams looking to pluck talented players from their highly touted hoops squad. However, David Cutliffe's transformation of the Blue Devils' previously downtrodden football team has opened the eyes of scouts looking for competitive players with potential.

Lewis has thrown for more than 300 yards in three consecutive games, including an impressive 459-yard showing against North Carolina State two weeks ago. While scouts have expressed concerns about his height and arm strength, some are intrigued by Lewis' leadership ability and his success directing Cutliffe's system. Given the head coach's past success tutoring Peyton and Eli Manning, it is not surprising that Lewis is starting to attract some attention as a possible late-round prospect.


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