The two top-rated defensive end prospects -- North Carolina's Robert Quinn and Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers -- are spurring a vast range of opinions from NFL decision makers the week before the 2011 NFL Draft. There are enough questions about both to allow California's Cameron Jordan to possibly become the first or second defensive end taken overall.
While concerns over Bowers' knee already have him sliding, I've spoken to coaches who said they're also concerned that he doesn't get off blocks well -- which has been a consistent issue for years. That is something that can be fixed with coaching, but there are too many times he gets locked up and can't escape, an AFC assistant coach told me this week.
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Bowers is still a talented player who could make an impact, but the on-field questions as well as concerns over his surgically repaired knee -- enough that some teams rate him as a high risk -- could have him falling to the back half of the draft's first round.
Quinn, meanwhile, is a physical specimen, but more and more the teams that I talk with are concerned about his ability to hold up in the running game. Now, that's based off his 2009 game film because he was suspended last season. But there are league personnel men and coaches who view him -- based on his history -- as more of a pass-rush specialist than as an every-down player.
One coach also said Quinn isn't nearly as effective as an inside rusher on twists and stunts. He's a monster coming off the edge, he said, but doesn't like to wade through traffic inside. That could hurt his stock, according to one defensive coordinator who said he would not draft Quinn if he had the call, which he doesn't.
All that being considered, I haven't spoken to one personnel evaluator or coach who said that Quinn isn't a special talent. It's just a matter of whether he is a top-10 talent.
Jordan, meanwhile, was referred to me twice this week as the cleanest of all the defensive ends because he's smart, has good closing speed and arrives with violence. He's viewed as more of a top-15 selection, one GM said. That still could be high enough to make Jordan the first defensive end drafted.
On issue of overcoming issues
South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders, who entered last season as one of the top tight end prospects in college football, visited with the Pittsburgh Steelers this week. Pittsburgh was the only team that extended an invite and the majority of questions he was asked surrounded his character -- Saunders was kicked off South Carolina's team for lying to the NCAA about receiving improper benefits (the lying turned out to be more of a problem than the infraction).
"The general manager, Kevin Colbert, told me everything he read and heard about me and in the end he thought I was a different guy," Saunders said. "He didn't know I was this polished and well-spoken. It (stinks) to know that's what the perception is for a lot of people and that's probably why some people don't want to grant the opportunity to sit down with me. It's nobody's fault but my own."
Saunders is on a redemption mission. But it might be too late to help his draft status, which probably has him being taken around the fourth round. His goal to restore his name will have to wait until he gets the chance to play again.
"I want to be that guy with a squeaky clean record," he said. "My play will speak for itself."
Saunders is still recovering from foot fracture surgery, which he opted to have after his pro day. He's mainly doing upper-body weight lifting and non-weight bearing rehab in a swimming pool. He has a lot of work to do to be a contributor this season -- especially given that he hasn't played since 2009.
But Saunders is an immense talent who is now motivated. One thing that I took from our conversation is that he previously probably took a lot of things for granted because he was simply better than a lot of other players. But having football stripped away because of his own misgivings, breaking his foot in postseason workouts and then having only one team invite him for an interview has hurt him.
"As they say, 31 teams can hate you but all it takes is one to like you," Saunders said.
Concerns for safety
My colleague, Bucky Brooks, recently broke down some of the safety prospects for this year's draft. If you noticed, he pushed the fact that some of the top players all have cornerback backgrounds. One of the reasons teams are looking at converted cornerbacks is because they are not impressed much with this safety class.
I spoke to a defensive coordinator this week who spent a lot of time evaluating safeties, and to say he wasn't impressed is an understatement. One general manager said he doesn't see more than one or two being selected before the third or fourth round.
The issue with most of the guys in this rookie group is their unwillingness to tackle and overall inconsistent open-field tackling. That bucks the trend of what's needed in the NFL these days.
The fact that a lot of the safety prospects posses cover skills is a plus since so many offenses use three- and four-receiver sets to spread out defenses. With that, the game is played more in open space, and defenses play often in nickel and dime packages with one or two linebackers. On running plays those linebackers could be out of position, so it's up to the safeties to make tackles -- especially before the ball carrier gets too far up field.
This defensive coordinator was almost exasperated talking about the safety class because there is now a tremendous emphasis on toughness at that position. The consensus is that not many of these prospects want to mix it up.