* DE Whitney Mercilus is a player I’ve failed to write about enough this year. Let’s change that. The Junior from Illinois had a breakout year and emerged as one of the nation’s top pass rushers. He led the nation with 16 sacks and 9 FFs, a mind blowing total. 9 FFs is good for a career. Doing that in a season is just crazy. The numbers are real. Mercilus is a very good player on tape. Plays both LDE and RDE. Very good athlete. One thing that impressed me is that he played under control on run downs. Some speed rushers fly off the edge on every play. Mercilus didn’t totally cut loose unless it was 3rd down or an obvious passing situation.
Mercilus (6’4, 265) is a natural pass rusher. Good burst off the ball. Able to stay low and bend around the OT. Good pad level for a tall guy. He uses a variety of moves. Has the speed to just fly upfield. Will mix in spin moves and other times rush to the inside. Sometimes he was lined up as a DT and OGs had a very hard time blocking him. They aren’t used to guys with Mercilus’ kind of quickness and agility. Mercilus uses his hands well when fighting to get by blockers. Good effort.
He should definitely be a 1st round pick. 4-3 teams will love him as a DE. 3-4 teams will project him to OLB. Not sure if he’s made to play in space. He is a good athlete so you would think he could adjust to that role. One knock against Mercilus is that he’s a one-year wonder. Only had 24 total tackles and 2 sacks coming into 2011.
* Let’s shift gears to another Junior DE, Chandler Jones from Syracuse. Jones is a player that I think is a bit under the radar right now. Has a great frame at 6’5, 265. Very good athlete. You’ll see him use speed off the edge. He’s good with a swim move and rip move. The thing that really fascinates me with Jones is his strength/power. He’s able to bull rush and drive OTs backward. He can move blockers out of the way when he cleanly gets his hands on them.
Generally played RDE for Syracuse. Occasionally would line up at DT on some passing downs. Good motor. Had 30 or more solo tackles in each of his 3 years. Quinton Coples, another big DE, only broke 30 once. Jones missed 5 games in 2011 with a lower body injury. He finished the season with just 4.5 sacks. He only had 10 for his career and that is a concern. He did finish his career with 27 TFLs, 5 FFs, and even an INT so it isn’t like he didn’t make any plays. I’m not sure why Jones wasn’t more productive as a pass rusher. It certainly isn’t a lack of athleticism or natural ability. It will be interesting to see how he does at the Combine. Could a great showing push Jones into the 1st round? Solid 2nd round pick who does have excellent potential.
* Another Syracuse defender of interest is S Phillip Thomas. He’s also a Junior. Entered the draft when he was suspended by the school for a year. There are rumors that failed drug tests were the issue, but I have no confirmation on that. Whatever it was…Syracuse took the issue seriously. On the field, Thomas is a gifted player. Led the team in tackles and had 6 INTs this year (9 for his career). Good tackler. Can be a good hitter. Opening play of the USF game was a quick screen to a receiver. Thomas flew upfield and leveled the guy. Great play. Clean, but physical. Lean, but muscular build. Athletic enough to be a centerfielder, but also a solid run defender. Can play in the box. Sometimes will get sloppy with tackling and go for hits instead of trying to wrap up his targets. Legit Safety prospect in a poor S class. Will be affected by the issue that got him suspended.
* Wisconsin WR Nick Toon is an impressive prospect. Big WR who can go up and make some spectacular catches. Son of former Jets star Al Toon. Nick really benefited from the presence of QB Russell Wilson. He finally had an NFL quality QB throwing him the ball. Toon had the best season of his college career, 64-926-10. One major factor with Toon’s value is injuries. He missed 4 games as a Junior. He missed one as a Senior. He is currently dealing with a foot issue. That kept him out of the Senior Bowl and will cause him to miss the Combine. This foot injury goes back to 2011 spring practice and is the reason for the missed game this season. Foot issues in a big receiver will raise serious red flags. Doesn’t seem likely to be a Top 100 pick anymore.
* One Senior who is doing well these days is Cal OT Mitchell Schwartz. He is hardly an unknown guy, but his showing at the Senior Bowl got some people’s attention. Schwartz was the one OT who had some success against Quinton Coples. Schwartz played both RT and LT at Cal. 4-year starter. Good size. Better run blocker than pass protector, but good enough to play OT. I’m not sure most teams would project him to LT. Lacks ideal athletic ability. He could be a very good RT or even G. Cal had a similar player named John Welbourn that was taken in the 1999 draft. He started at RT, but got hurt and then settled in at LG for a solid career. Schwartz could go as early as the 2nd round. If not there, 3rd or 4th. Won’t last beyond that unless there is some strange issue. Schwartz is fun to watch as a run blocker. He really gets after it. Actually put Coples on the ground in the Senior Bowl.
* Schwartz’s teammate Mychal Kendricks is also a fun guy to watch. The 6’0, 240 MLB was the Pac-12 Def. Player of the Year. He led the Golden Bears in tackles and TFLs, and also added a pair of INTs. Kendricks plays with a ton of energy and flies around the field. He has good speed and range. If he was a step faster, Kendricks would be a terrific prospect. He makes a lot of plays now, but that extra step would make him deadly. Good blitzer. Cal lets him attack on a regular basis. Had 3 sacks this year and 8.5 last season. Kendricks can be a downhill attacking LB or he can sit back, read plays, and chase the ball. That will help him appeal to a lot of teams. Good tackler. Tries to wrap up his targets. Has pop when he hits. I’m shocked he only had 1 FF in his career. That’s low for a tough, physical player. I like Kendricks as a 3rd round target.
* Mississippi State Junior Fletcher Cox is emerging as a serious prospect. Originally I thought of him as 2nd round material. The more I watch him, the more I like him. Gifted athlete. Looks as much like a DE as he does a DT. If you want a run stuffer, look elsewhere. Cox lists at 6’4, 295. He is at his best on the move and attacking upfield. MSU plays him at DE and DT. Equally effective at both. There was a play in the Kentucky game that impressed the heck out of me. Cox was the RDE. Came off the ball quickly. Stayed low and started to get by the LT. Cox saw the QB move up in the pocket so he used a very good spin move to get by the OT to the inside. Cox then hit the QB just after he got rid of the ball. You just don’t see DTs flash that kind of quickness, speed, strength, and agility very often. I think he’s absolutely a 1st rounder now. Question becomes how high? I think 3-4 teams will covet him as a DE. You saw what JJ Watt did for the Texans. That could be Cox for someone else. I am curious to see how he measures in at the Combine. I hope he’s not 6’3, 285. That would change things a bit.