The pre-draft process is an intel-gathering mission on prospective employees. And although certain prospects tend to attract groupthink in the scouting community, others generate the varied opinions that come from 32 different franchises with 32 unique approaches to talent evaluation. Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks is taking a closer at some of the most notable -- and polarizing -- prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft, to determine draft range and team fits.
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FLOOR: Bottom half of the first round/top of the second -- Buffalo Bills (No. 19), New York Jets (No. 20), Cincinnati Bengals (No. 24), Seattle Seahawks (No. 26), Arizona Cardinals (No. 29), Tennessee Titans (No. 33, No. 43), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 39), New York Giants (No. 40), Chicago Bears (No. 41).
What I like
Spence is the most disruptive edge rusher in the 2016 class based on his stellar career at Ohio State and Eastern Kentucky, along with his sensational performance at the Senior Bowl. The 6-foot-2, 251-pound hybrid (defensive end/outside linebacker) flashes exceptional quickness, burst and snap-count anticipation coming off the edge. He flies past offensive tackles with a "dip and rip" maneuver that showcases his balance and body control when turning the corner. In addition, Spence flashes a "swipe" (two-hand knockaway) move that serves as an effective counter to offensive tackles anticipating his speed rush. Studying Spence's performance against elite competition in Mobile, Alabama, I was not only impressed with his speed and finesse maneuvers, but I loved his energy and non-stop motor. He wore down opponents with his relentless approach, which leads me to believe that he will develop into an outstanding "closer" (fourth-quarter sack artist) as a pro. Most importantly, Spence's dominant play against a number of top-tier prospects vaulted him into consideration as a top-10 talent heading into the NFL Scouting Combine and reminded scouts that he was emerging as a blue-chip prospect at the time of his dismissal at Ohio State.
Why the range?
Spence's draft value is all over the place when I speak to evaluators. Some teams view him as a destructive force off the edge with the pass-rush skills and first-step quickness to create chaos on passing downs. However, skeptics view Spence as an average athlete with less-than-ideal measurable traits (height/weight/speed). In fact, I had an AFC defensive line coach question his arm length and forearm thickness -- saying it is important for rushers to have thick wrists and big hands to deal with physical offensive tackles in the NFL -- when I quizzed him about Spence's potential as a pro.
In addition, I had a few AFC executives express concerns about Spence's work ethic and motivation during his time at Eastern Kentucky. The scouts wondered if Spence relied strictly on his superior physical talents to dominate small-school competition instead of honing his craft through diligent work on the practice field and in the film room. These questions arose after Spence shared his blueprint for a dominant Senior Bowl performance. According to scouts I spoke with, Spence studied film on every offensive tackle on the Senior Bowl rosters and created a specific game plan for each player that he faced. But he told evaluators that he didn't take the same approach during his final collegiate season.
Spence's significant character concerns (multiple failed drug tests at Ohio State that eventually landed him in a drug-treatment program for his Ecstasy addiction) also threatens to torpedo his stock on draft day. Despite encouraging signs of recovery since his dismissal from Ohio State, executives are still trying to determine whether he can avoid the temptations that led to his downfall as a highly touted, five-star recruit. Granted, we've seen a number of players with character issues enter the NFL as top picks, but the fear of bringing a "party boy" into the locker room could prompt some teams to look elsewhere early in the draft.
Where would he excel?
Spence's talent as a disruptive pass rusher is undeniable. He is one of the few defenders in the draft with the potential to notch 10-plus sacks annually as a designated QB hunter off the edge. While it is debatable whether he is best suited to play as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 rush linebacker, it is more important for Spence to land in the right environment for him to grow as a person and player.
Surveying the NFL landscape for places where troubled players have thrived, I believe the Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals would be perfect destinations for Spence. In Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis has put together one of the more talented rosters in the NFL by taking chances on a few "high risk" characters on draft day and in free agency. Although the critics will point to the epic meltdown on Wild Card Weekend as reason why the Bengals should bypass adding another character risk to the roster, I believe the five straight playoff appearances cannot be ignored for a franchise that spent quite a bit of time as an NFL bottom-feeder.
Seattle is also a viable option based on Spence's fit in the Seahawks' scheme as a "Leo" and the team's strong veteran leadership. Seattle has found a way to blend together a number of unique personalities into a championship-caliber roster that's reigned over the NFC for the past few years. With Pete Carroll and his staff adept at getting exceptional performances from misfits and castoffs, Spence might thrive in the Pacific Northwest as a designated pass rusher in the team's "see ball, get ball" system.
Arizona's success with Tyrann Mathieu leads me to believe Bruce Arians and his staff have put together a blueprint for helping troubled players stay on track as professionals. With that in mind, the Cardinals can formulate a plan to help Spence thrive on and off the field as a young player. From a schematic standpoint, Spence's skills as an energetic pass rusher would complement Markus Golden and give the Cardinals a pair of young hunters to unleash on opponents on passing downs. Considering the blitz-heavy tactics the Cardinals have used to rise to prominence, the addition of a disruptive pass rusher could take the defense to another level.