The pass-happy nature of the NFL makes it imperative for general managers to add pass rushers at every turn. While every decision maker would love to add an explosive edge player to the lineup with the requisite size and physical tools to thrive as a full-time contributor at defensive end or outside linebacker, the college game simply doesn't produce enough big-bodied defenders with the traits needed to thrive as three-down players in the NFL. As a result, scouts are forced to take draft-day gambles on productive-but-undersized pass rushers with the potential to thrive as disruptive specialists off the edge. Given the remarkable numbers posted by Utah DE Nate Orchard, scouts could have a tough time settling the "production vs. potential" debate that will ensue when evaluators take a long, hard look at his film.
From a playing standpoint, Orchard is a high-motor player with a relentless approach off the edge. He outworks blockers at the point of attack and deftly uses a variety of hand-to-hand combat maneuvers to get around the corner. Although he lacks exceptional first-step quickness or athleticism, Orchard flashes the kind of closing burst and acceleration that allows him to gobble up quarterbacks from the backside. He is a monster when positioned in a "wide-9" alignment and freed to attack the quarterback off the edge. Orchard simply displays a knack for getting home that can't be ignored despite his lack of ideal size (6-foot-4, 255 pounds) or extraordinary playing strength. From his ability to turn speed into power to his ability to get past blockers with a handful of finesse moves, he put on an impressive display of pass-rush prowess on the way to notching 18.5 sacks this season.
Against the run, Orchard is a surprisingly stout defender at the point of attack. He rarely concedes ground to big, physical blockers despite the significant size disparity when facing offensive tackles weighing 300-plus pounds. Orchard played well against the top talents in the Pac-12, particularly Stanford OT Andrus Peat, flashing the kind of disruptive skills that make NFL defensive coordinators salivate in the film room. Although he will inevitably struggle at times against the premier run blockers at the NFL level, Orchard certainly isn't a liability on the edge and his ability to play as a serviceable run defender could help his supporters sell his skills as a "three-down" defender.
Scouts unwilling to look past Orchard's size concerns will attempt to peg the Utah standout as a potential 3-4 outside linebacker, but his underwhelming performance as a hybrid playmaker for the Utes early in the season will make it a hard sell in pre-draft meetings. Orchard didn't display the movement skills or agility to be an effective space player; scouts weren't impressed with his ability to make disruptive plays from a stand-up position. Thus, he can only be viewed as a "rush" linebacker in a 3-4 scheme or a traditional defensive end in four-man fronts.
Speaking to several NFL scouts throughout the season about Orchard's talent and potential, I heard a wide range of opinions about his ideal role at the next level and where he should be taken in the draft based on his talent, potential and production. Most scouts viewed him as a borderline "Day 2 prospect" (Rounds Two and Three) due to his non-stop motor and production, but his questionable size and athleticism prevent scouts from getting fired up about his NFL prospects. In addition, he is viewed as a bit of a "one-year wonder" following his remarkable spike in production as a senior (Orchard posted six sacks in his three seasons at Utah before notching 18.5 sacks in 2014).
When I look at Orchard, I believe he can function like Bears DE Willie Young or Patriots DE Rob Ninkovich as an "Elephant" defensive end. He is at his best rushing the passer from a three-point stance, which allows him to play to his strengths as a relentless edge defender. Of course, a defensive coordinator must be willing to play with an undersized defensive end or one-dimensional linebacker in a scheme, but Orchard's production and performance make him an intriguing option.
Orchard's draft value will ultimately be determined by his play at the Reese's Senior Bowl and his performance at the NFL Scouting Combine. Although he has flashed enough disruptive potential throughout his final college season -- including a strong showing against Colorado State and OT Ty Sambrailo at the Las Vegas Bowl -- to make a slow and steady climb up the charts when general managers and coaches take a closer look at his game leading up to the draft, he must convince evaluators that his production will match his potential at the next level.