Inside the War Room: Defensive End Edition


John Blair
Florida State's DeMarcus Walker is Inside the War Room's top defensive end entering the 2016 season. | Photo Credit: Melina Vastola - USA TODAY Sport

In this week’s Inside the War Room, John Blair takes a look at the top senior defensive ends in college football. First, he highlights the top senior defensive ends in college football and then showcases a player he thinks will have a breakthrough season this year in UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley. He then highlights a few players who either hurt or helped their draft stock recently including a player who qualified for the Olympics. He finishes up his weekly column by giving his weekly “Scouting Notes” and the players he will be watching this year at the defensive end position.

TOP FIVE SENIOR DEFENSIVE ENDS

This year’s defensive end class is led by two players I project as defensive tackles in Alabama’s Jonathan Allen and Michigan’s Chris Wormley (who I will highlight next week when we take a look at the top defensive tackles in the draft). The top college defensive end who I project to play defensive end in the NFL is Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker, who is one of the top pass rushers in the ACC. The class also features some athletic pass rushers including  Dawuane Smoot of Illinois, Deatrich Wise Jr. of Arkansas and Kylie Fitts of Utah. An underrated defensive end who I expect to shine this year is Takkarist McKinley of UCLA.

1. DeMarcus Walker, Florida State  (6'3", 273 lbs.)

One player who rose his stock significantly with a strong junior season was Florida State defensive end DeMarcus Walker. Walker only had two sacks going into the 2015 season but exploded as a junior posting 10.5 sacks on the season to go along with 58 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, and five pass breakups. One of the reasons he was able to register so many sacks last year is his flexibility coming off the edge. He more than holds his own in the running game as well as he shows the strength to hold his ground, although I would like to see him do a better job of getting off blocks in the run game. If Walker can have another solid season as a senior I would expect him to earn a late first  or second round draft grade.

2. Dawuane Smoot, Illinois  (6'3", 265 lbs.)

Illinois defensive end Dawuane Smoot is one of the better pure pass rushers in this year’s senior class of defensive ends. He has a great burst off the line of scrimmage which was one of the main reasons he was able to record eight sacks as a junior. To go along with his excellent quickness he has the athletic ability to attract scouts attention. Unfortunately, he relies too much on his athletic ability at times and must do a better job of using his hands and reading his keys. He also lacks the power to be a force vs. the run at this time and I could see him getting looks as a 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level.  

3. Deatrich Wise Jr., Arkansas (6'5", 273 lbs.)

Despite playing in less than 50% of the team’s snaps in 2015 Arkansas defensive end  Deatrich Wise Jr. has attracted his share of NFL interest. The main reason Wise has caught the NFL’s eye is due to his pass rushing ability as he recorded eight sacks last season. He shows the skill set to transition to the NFL as well including a quick first step, a variety of pass rushing moves, and impressive athletic ability. Unfortunately, he is not much of a threat against the run as he lacks the strength to hold up at the point of attack which is the main reason he saw limited playing time at Arkansas.

4. Daeshon Hall, Texas A&M (6'6", 260 lbs.)

Daeshon Hall is another lengthy defensive end who may have trouble vs. the run. As a pass rusher, he shows an excellent first step and also shows great overall agility. However, against the run he has trouble holding his ground and will have to start out in the NFL as a situational pass rusher. One more concern with Hall is that he plays out of control at times and needs to do a much better job of keeping containment on the edge.

5. Kylie Fitts, Utah (6'4", 265 lbs.)

Despite only having one year of starting experience one player who stands out to me is Utah defensive end Kylie Fitts. What impresses me so much with Fitts is his impressive size, athletic ability, and overall pass rushing ability. He has the size to be an every down defensive end in the NFL as his size allows him to move well as a pass rusher or hold his ground vs. the run. He shows the athletic ability I love as well. This athletic ability comes in handy when rushing the passer as he shows excellent agility to get around the edge and to be a headache for opposing offensive coordinators even when he doesn’t get to the passer as he batted down nine passes last year. He also has the ability to get to the quarterback as well as he finished 4th in the Pac-12 with seven sacks on the season.  
 

SLEEPER OF THE WEEK

This week’s “Sleeper of the Week” award goes to UCLA defensive end Takkarist McKinley who, despite being miscast in a 3-4 defense last year, was able to record 35 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He also is this week’s “Sleeper of the Week” due to his impressive pass rushing ability.

McKinley started his football career off at Kennedy High School in Richmond, California. He battled some tough situations as a kid including his mom walking out on him when he was five years old, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. Thankfully, McKinley was able to overcome these issues and thrive as a high school athlete. As a football player, he recorded 26 sacks over his junior and senior season. He also stood out on the track team as he qualified for the California State Track meet in both the 100- and 200-meter dash and posted a time of 10.58 seconds in the 100-meters. His strong performance as a high school athlete allowed him to sign with California coming out of high school but unfortunately he did not qualify academically.

Since McKinley was unable to enroll at California he was forced to go the junior college route, which he did by enrolling at Contra Costa College. In his one year at Contra Costa, McKinley put up some impressive numbers including 18 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. He was all set to return to junior college as a sophomore but after UCLA found an error in his transcript in September of 2014 which would allow McKinley to be eligible for FBS football, he transferred to UCLA in September.  

Even though he did not playing until the fourth game of the UCLA season, McKinley was able to make a significant impact on the Bruins football team in 2014 as he recorded 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in only 10 games. He then was miscast in the team’s defense as a junior when he was forced to play on the inside shade of the tackle and even head up on the offensive guard at times despite being only 250 pounds. Despite this misuse of his talent, he still finished third on the team in tackle for loss (7.5) and sacks (4.5). This offseason UCLA decided to move to a 4-3 defense which will allow McKinley to play in a six-technique as a traditional defensive end in this defense. Due to this switch in defenses schemes and his strong spring ball, I fully expect him to see his production increase as a senior.

When scouting this prospect the first thing that stands out is his excellent speed. He has one of the quickest first steps in this year’s senior crop of defensive ends and is able to use this speed to both rush the passer or shoot gaps against the run. Another positive with him is his overall athletic ability. He has no trouble turning the corner against offensive tackles which is another reason he is such a dangerous pass rusher. One more positive with McKinley is that he has the athletic ability to switch to an outside linebacker if drafted by a team that runs a 3-4 defense.

The biggest concern I have with McKinley is that he is on the smaller side as UCLA listed him at 6'2", 250 pounds, although he is trying to get to 265 pounds before the 2016 season. His lack of size creates some concerns especially when it comes to defending the run since he does not have the bulk to hold up against NFL sized offensive tackles. While it was unfair for him to play inside last year, he was dominated at times against offensive guards in the run game due to this lack of size. Another concern is whether or not he has the length to get off blocks or to prevent offensive tackles from getting into his body.

When projecting him to the next level I see him primarily as a situational pass rusher in a 4-3 defense due to his lack of bulk, or as a 3-4 outside linebacker. With that being said I have him with a high day three draft grade due to his excellent speed and overall pass rushing ability.

 

DRAFT STOCK MARKET

Stock Up

Jordan Willis, DE, Kansas State

One player who should see his stock raise this season is Kansas State defensive end Jordan Willis who didn’t even make honorable mention All-Big 12 last season. This came as a surprise after Willis recorded 36 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks on the season. He has also been used in a variety of different ways at Kansas State including as traditional defensive end, a player who can drop into coverage, and even lining up at defensive tackle at times. If Willis can have another strong season as a senior he should make the All-Big 12 team, and be a relatively high draft pick.

Devon Allen, WR, Oregon

One name college football fans will be keeping an eye during the 2016 Olympics is Oregon wide receiver Devon Allen who won a spot on the team after finishing first in the 110-meter hurdles with a time of 13.03 seconds. Allen who is one of the fastest players in college football will return to the football team shortly after the Olympics end on August 21.

Noble Nwachukwu, DE, West Virginia

West Virginia defensive end Noble Nwachukwu had a breakout season last year when he led West Virginia in tackles for loss (13) and also led the team in sacks (8). In fact, he had more sacks against Texas (3) then he had all of his sophomore season when he was only able to record two sacks on the season. For his strong junior season, Nwachukwu has been named to the Bednarik Award Watch List which goes to the top defensive player in the nation.  

Trey Hendrickson, DE, Florida Atlantic

A Group of Five defensive end to make the Bednarik Award Watch List is Florida Atlantic’s Trey Hendrickson. Last season, Hendrickson finished with 13.5 sacks on the season which was the second most in the FBS following the regular season. He also had one of his best games of the season against the team’s toughest opponent when he was named C-USA Defensive Player of the Week after registering five tackles, two sacks and one blocked PAT against Florida. If Hendrickson can have another strong season as a senior he should hear his name called late in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn

A player that got a lot of praise at the SEC Media Day is Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson. His head coach Gus Malzahn said that Lawson is in the best shape he has seen him in. Lawson also mentioned that he will graduate this December so it would not be a shock if he entered the 2017 NFL Draft if he can stay healthy this season. Of course staying healthy is a big question with Lawson as he has only started 18 games during his Auburn career due to a variety of injuries.

 

Stock Down

Ken Ekanem, DE, Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech defensive end Ken Ekanem saw his production drop significantly as a junior as he went down in tackles (53 to 39), tackles for loss (14.5 to 9.5) and sacks (9.5 to 4.5) from his sophomore season. His defensive coordinator Bud Foster also told ESPN that he did not see the same quickness out of Ekanem that he saw in 2014. Part of the reason his production may have dropped is due to a shoulder injury that kept him out of spring ball in 2015. If Ekanem is to hear his named called during the 2017 NFL Draft he will have to produce like he did as a sophomore.

Larance Hale, DE, Lamar

Lamar defensive end Larance Hale might be your classic example of a "one year wonder" as he only made 22 tackles and six tackles for loss for Southern Arkansas in 2013 and had to sit out the 2014 season after he transferred to Lamar. However, he came on the scene last season when he recorded 86 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Unfortunately, it does not look promising that he will be able to post back to back strong seasons as he was dismissed from the football team in March, although Danny Shapiro of Beaumont Enterprise tells Inside the War Room that he is in the midst of a trial period to get back on the Lamar team. If Hale is to have any chance of making it into an NFL camp he will obviously have to make it back on the team and have a strong senior season.

Lewis Neal, DE, LSU

A prospect who may slide in the draft due to his "tweener" frame is LSU’s Lewis Neal. Despite leading the Tigers in sacks last season (8) and being a fundamentally sound player, I am not sold on Neal as anything more than a late day three draft prospect. The main reason for this is that he is too short to be a highly regarded defensive end. LSU lists him at 6'2" but I would expect him to come in closer to 6'1" at the NFL Combine. He also lacks the speed and overall athletic ability to transition to outside linebacker at the next level.  

Hunter Dimick, DE, Utah

A shoulder injury cost Utah defensive end Hunter Dimick most of his junior season as he was only able to start five games and play in seven games. His production also dropped significantly from his sophomore season when he made 52 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, and 10 sacks. On the positive side, Dimick was able to play in the team’s bowl game against BYU and looks to have a strong senior season.

 

SCOUTING NOTES

  • A team that runs a 3-4 defense may want to give Notre Dame’s Isaac Rochell a close look. Part of the reason he would make sense for this type of defense is his overall strength. He does a great job of playing the five-technique for Notre Dame and shows the power to hold up at this position in the NFL. His speed is the best fit for this type of defense as well. He lacks the quickness to be a pass rushing threat in a 4-3 defense but shows a solid first step for a 290-pound defensive end. The last reason why he makes the most sense in this defense is that he is not much of a pass rusher, having only recorded 3.5 sacks during his Notre Dame career.

  • A small school pass rusher to watch this coming season is Youngstown State defensive end Derek Rivers. Going into his senior season he has already broken the school record for sacks (26) and should significantly add to this total as a senior. He has also earned his share of honors as he was named to the All-Missouri Valley Football Conference in both 2014 and 2015. If Rivers can come up with a strong senior season, have a strong all-star performance and put up solid testing numbers, he has a strong chance of being drafted on day three of the draft.  

  • Chattanooga defensive end Keionta Davis might be getting a lot of preseason hype, but I am not sold on him as the top small school pass rusher. While he did put up impressive statistics last season including 17 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks, I question how well he will transition to the NFL. The first concern I have is that he lacks a great burst off the line of scrimmage. While he is a productive pass rusher he gets most of these sacks off of hustle and quite a few of his sacks was due to good coverage by the Chattanooga’s secondary. He also does not have the overall strength to make up for his average speed and athletic ability. While he goes into the 2016 season with a free agent grade, that could change if he shows more explosion or functional strength on the field next year.

  • Michigan State is loading up on graduate transfer defensive linemen this offseason as they added Nebraska’s Kevin Williams in May and added Delaware State’s Gabe Sherrod last week. Sherrod would have been the top senior defensive end in FCS last season if he had stayed at Delaware State as he recorded 64 tackles, 25 tackles for loss and eight sacks as a junior. These stats are even more impressive when you factor in that he has only played defensive end for two seasons as he made the switch from tight end to defensive end in the spring of 2014. When evaluating Sherrod as a prospect, the first thing that stands out is that for a player his size (6'4", 266 pounds) he shows impressive athletic ability. This athleticism helps him on the field in a couple of ways including allowing him to have a good burst off the line of scrimmage, the flexibility to get around an offensive tackle in pass protection and the ability to change direction in a fluid way. With that being said he sometimes relies on his athletic ability too much and will have to learn how to use his hands better and get off of blocks on a consistent basis in order to raise his draft stock.  

  • A player who will likely go undrafted in the 2017 NFL Draft but could make an impact on a team as an undrafted free agent is Kent State defensive end Terence Waugh. The reason I expect him to go undrafted is due to a lack of height as he comes in at only 6'1". With that being said, he is definitely a player I would have an interest in after the 2017 NFL Draft for a couple of reasons. The first reason I would have an interest in this prospect is due to his playmaking ability. Last season, he led the team with 12 tackles for loss and nine sacks despite missing two games due to injury. He shows a solid combination of strength and speed as well which could allow him to make a team despite being on the smaller side.

 

SENIOR DEFENSIVE END WATCH LIST

Below you will find the top senior defensive ends to watch during the 2016 season. As always if you think I have missed a prospect please leave a comment below.

  1. DeMarcus Walker, Florida State
  2. Dawuane Smoot, Illinois
  3. Deatrich Wise Jr., Arkansas
  4. Daeshon Hall, Texas A&M
  5. Kylie Fitts, Utah
  6. Isaac Rochell, Notre Dame
  7. Jordan Willis, Kansas State
  8. Bryan Cox Jr., Florida
  9. Takkarist McKinley, UCLA
  10. Taco Charlton, Michigan
  11. Trey Hendrickson, Florida Atlantic
  12. Gabe Sherrod, Michigan State
  13. Noble Nwachukwu, West Virginia
  14. Derek Rivers, Youngstown State
  15. Lewis Neal, LSU
  16. Hunter Dimick, Utah
  17. Ken Ekanem, Virginia Tech
  18. Terence Waugh, Kent State
  19. Karter Schult, UNI
  20. Tanoh Kpassagnon, Villanova
  21. Alex Barrett, San Diego State
  22. A.J. Jefferson, Mississippi State
  23. Keionta Davis, Chattanooga
  24. Nik D’Avanzo, New Mexico  
  25. Dylan Bradley, Southern Miss
  26. JT Jones, Miami of Ohio
  27. Larance Hale, Lamar
  28. Sam Van Ginkel, Northwestern (Iowa)

Check out previous editions of Inside the War Room: Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers | Tight Ends | Offensive Tackles | Offensive Guards | Centers

For more NFL Draft updates from John and Pro Football Spot, follow them on Twitter @nfldraftitwr and @spotdraft.





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Excited to see how Devon Allen does in the Olympics. Also interested to see how he adjusts to playing at Oregon so soon after competing in Rio. It seems really ambitious for him to do both.

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