Athleticism trumps weight for many top DL draft prospects

INDIANAPOLIS -- At 225 pounds, it was only natural that South Carolina DE/OLB Melvin Ingram played basketball in high school. He's athletic. He's powerful. And yes, even if he's more massive now at 264 pounds, he was also pretty large then.

Here's the part that isn't natural: Ingram played point guard.

"I was a scorer," joked Ingram, asked if he was a shooter or a pass-first player.

As top-rated defensive players like Ingram tipped the scales with their massive measurements Saturday at the Scouting Combine, there was another common thread between many of them that seems to be getting more freakish by the year: These guys aren't only athletic for their size. They're athletic -- period.

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"You'd be surprised how many defensive linemen played other (football) positions in high school, too," said defensive tackle Kendall Reyes, 6-4, 299 pounds. "I played receiver and tight end in high school. It sets you with a good base.

"If you have the type of frame that can put on weight, you can have certain advantages over some guys who don't."

It might be among the more common misconceptions amongst the general public when evaluating a defensive lineman: If you see a giant man (both width and height) at a young age, he has the potential to be a great football player. Instead, as you could have witnessed Saturday as a draft class stocked with top-end talent at several positions in the defensive front seven, the best players often add the weight after the athleticism.

LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers, another first-round prospect, is another perfect example of this.

"When I transferred from an end to tackle in college, I was getting bounced around," Brockers said. "I had it on my mind they're not going to move me any more. I went on an eating binge so they couldn't move me anymore.

"That's what you see today: This physique."

This physique -- at a massive 6-7, 322 pounds -- combines the type of power that could allow him to match up inside with some seriously bulky offensive linemen while also delivering the type of speed that should give him an extra step on the opponent.

Bigger, faster, stronger? You'd better believe it.

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"I'd work out and later get on the scale, and I'd say, 'Oh, snap! I'm 322 now!'" Brockers said. "It's a shock at first. But I guess I'm just blessed to have this body frame and still be quick with it."

Brockers said he definitely noticed a change in his speed when he jumped from 280 to 310 (his 40 time went up .2 seconds), but the increase in size was proving to be far more beneficial than the decrease in speed.

Now, Brockers is being hailed as one of the "quickest" big men in the draft -- a quality that has been shared by some serious NFL stars like Julius Peppers and Jevon Kearse. But the LSU player, as you've noticed, isn't alone in this year's draft.

So why are more and more players trying to add weight to develop into big -- but fast -- players? For one, versatility is becoming a major premium in the league. Even when you hear of a team that plays in a 3-4 or 4-3 base, those defenses often play just as much in the opposite scheme. Nickel and dime defensive packages are also increasingly popular because of three-wide-receiver sets, and every position gets impacted.

Forget being big. Forget being fast. These days, you'd better be both.

"Versatility," said Ingram, asked what he thinks his greatest asset is. "I feel like playing so many roles helped me. I feel like my coach gave me the opportunity to show my athletic ability in every way."

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Ingram, who can do a back flip from a flat-footed position, is so athletic that his coach in college once had him take the snap on a fake punt, which led to a 68-yard touchdown run. Because he wore the same number as a tight end on his team (a rule in college football allows players to wear the same number if they aren't on the field at the same time), people assumed the player running the ball was not Ingram - but the tight end instead.

And that's the moral of the story here: These defensive players might look beastly, but they also move swiftly. Heck, Mississippi State defensive lineman Fletcher Cox even ran as a member of the 4x100 relay team as a high school track star.

"I was a high jumper, but I didn't like high jump," Cox said. "I just wanted to run."

Now? Fletcher is 298 pounds. Like some of the other draft prospects in this class, he's massive. He's strong. And he's capable of tossing around offensive players with ease. Combined with the athleticism of old, it's no wonder these players have become so coveted in this class.

"I feel like at 322, I can move a lot better than some guys can move," Brockers said. "That's the biggest strength: How quick I am and how big I am."

And how versatile, too.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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