Kyle Van Noy closed out his junior season with a bang. Should we expect an encore?

Here are some of my initial thoughts on the pass rushers who will try to make their mark as seniors before they enter the draft in 2014.

Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech

The way Jeremiah Attaochu’s statistical arc is headed, he’s in for a productive senior season.  His sack totals have risen from three as a true freshman to six as a sophomore and ten as a junior.  Attaochu utilizes an explosive first step to win as a speed rusher around the corner first and foremost.  He also excels stunting back to the inside and using his speed to catch slow-reacting interior pass blockers off guard.  His repertoire of pass rush moves is limited though.  He doesn’t convert speed to power the way a pass rusher who has space to work with should.  When he’s forced to go frame-to-frame with an offensive tackle, he gets locked up too easily.  Attaochu’s effectiveness against the run is surprisingly high when you consider his stature and lack of hand usage as a rusher.  He understands his responsibility against the run and is very consistent.  He sets the edge well and pinches down runs from the outside while keeping his outside shoulder free.  He also takes proper pursuit angles from the backside so not to overrun ball carriers.  Attaochu’s nose for the football and ability to get to the ball at a high rate can’t be understated.  He needs to become a more technical tackler when he gets there though.  He has a tendency to drop his head and lunge in an attempt to land a knockout blow.  In coverage, Attaochu is right at home.  He looks very comfortable dropping into shallow zones and locates receivers with his head on a swivel.  He’s even shown an ability to get his hands up to deflect passes on occasion.  When it comes to his senior season, the biggest step Attaochu needs to make is in his technical development as a rusher.  If able to develop a repertoire of pass rush moves that involve more effective use of his hands, he’ll be able to utilize his athletic ability on a more consistent basis while keeping pass blockers guessing.

Anthony Barr, UCLA

Barr really burst onto the scene as a junior with 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss.  The scary part is that it was his first season on the defensive side of the ball after making the transition from the running back position.  Barr had games where he completely took over with his ability to turn the corner.  His signature move is to engage the tackle first before darting to the outside and bending the edge.  He’s a flexible athlete who maintains his balance when running the circle in a way most pass rushers cannot.  He flashes a strong initial bullrush at times, but it’s mostly due to his impressive pad level and hand placement.  He doesn’t have a wide array of pass rush moves just yet, but showed a semi-effective spin move on occasion.  One of the most impressive things about Barr is his discipline.  He maintains gaps well against mobile quarterbacks and always picks up the ball with his eyes.  An improvement in his get-off at the snap could make a huge difference.  He will stutter step on occasion, which doesn’t allow him to utilize his explosiveness and all the ramifications that can have on an offensive tackle.  As a whole, Barr’s work against the run is really a mixed bag.  At times he keeps blockers off his frame with impressive hand usage and uses that space to pursue the ball.  Other times he can be overwhelmed at the point of attack and lose the edge.  He has an impressive motor when in pursuit though and is a high impact tackler when he arrives at the ball.  He’s no stranger to chasing down sweeps and tosses the other way with his speed and effort level.  Even though he’s on the leaner side at a listed 235 lb., he can hit well above his weight.  If he can diversify his skillset as a rusher and get stronger before his senior season, the sky is the limit.  I would also like to see him become a more attack-minded rusher instead of waiting for things to come to him.

Morgan Breslin, USC

After transferring in from a junior college, Morgan Breslin was a disruptive force for the USC defense as a junior.  He put up an impressive stat-line of 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss.  There’s no doubting his impact on the college level.  His game may not project to the NFL quite so well, though.  At a listed 6’2” and 250 lb., he’s not a physical specimen with the ideal length for a rusher.  He’s also not explosive enough, what I would call a “one-speed rusher”.  Breslin has success getting around the corner for the Trojans and can bend a bit to elude blockers.  His pass rush effectiveness is highest when he jolts blockers with his hands first though.  It allows him to combine moves, where that’s converting power to speed or spinning back to the inside.  One thing he has going for him is that he’s able to maintain consistently low pad level.  He must utilize his strength more often and continue to develop his hand usage.  Against the run, Breslin is somewhat of a liability.  He struggles to stack and shed at the point of attack, often being handled by bigger tight ends.  What’s more concerning is a lack of football IQ.  Breslin seems to have no anticipation for what a blocker wants to do to him and is too easily pinned or kicked out as a result.  Opponents often keyed on him in the running game, knowing he lacked the discipline to maintain the edge or his gap.  When set loose, he flashed ability to shoot gaps and be disruptive in the backfield though.  It will be interesting to see how Breslin fares in the new USC defense, where he will bump out to a rush linebacker spot.  Going solely off his physical measurements, he looks like a 3-4 OLB type.  I don’t believe that highlights his strengths though.  In fact, I believe it will expose his weaknesses.

Dee Ford, Auburn

Dee Ford appeared to be a player in for a big junior season in 2012 before injuries and inconsistent play set in after a productive first few games.  He finished the season with seven sacks in eight starts.  Ford’s hallmark is an explosive first step and enough speed to make slow-footed tackles pay as a pass rusher.  He’s frequently the first rusher off the ball, with an impressive get-off.  When he bumps out to a wide 9 technique or even farther out, he’s far more comfortable and effective than when asked to engage a tackle early and win with technical skills.  If space presents itself, Ford is quickly through it and into the quarterback’s comfort zone.  He becomes predictable at times for blockers though because he struggles to vary his moves.  He’s really not a developed hands-user as a rusher either, going purely off athleticism.  Ford’s game is also plagued by too much unnecessary movement.  He wastes too much time with choppy steps that don’t get him anywhere.  He’s just not smooth and his movement skills seem too forced.  Against the run, the outlook is even more dire.  He’s undersized (only listed at 238 lb.) and doesn’t have the raw strength or technique to make up for it.  When needing to stack at the point of attack, he too often gets completely washed out.  He also makes too few plays in pursuit for an undersized defensive end.  Above all though, he’s limited by a lack of read and react ability.  His diagnoses of the intentions of blockers and of the style of plays are consistently slow.  Dee Ford’s professional prospects seem best suited for a 3-4 scheme, similar to former teammate Corey Lemonier.  Ford needs to take a big step as a senior to prove he’s not a one-dimensional defender though.  He needs to develop a repertoire of pass rush moves and continuously get stronger at the point of attack against the run.

James Gayle, Virginia Tech

James Gayle appeared to be on the verge of a breakout junior season after recording seven sacks and 20 hurries as a sophomore.  His production took a step back with only five sacks, but it wasn’t all bad.  Gayle proved to be a more disciplined defender and refined his pass rushing technique as a junior.  The most impressive part of his game is the hand usage.  College rushers who use their hands the way Gayle uses his are uncommon.  Gayle’s hands are always active, and he’s able to fire them into first contact with offensive tackles as well.  He also flashes an ability to vary his moves in a way that keeps tackles guessing over the course of a game.  This is important for Gayle because of some of his limitations.  The biggest thing holding him back is a slow get-off.  He struggles to time up the snap and likes to chop his feet first.  This allows tackles to set up their feet well before first contact.  If unable to improve this part of his game, he needs to become a stronger rusher who can jolt blockers backwards on first contact and use power to set up his rushes.  He drastically improved that area of his game as a junior, which is promising.  He still needs to build on his frame and become a stronger defender though.  Against the run, he’s really a mixed bag.  He’s very aggressive and can be seen making a number of plays in the backfield by shooting gaps or pursuing from the backside.  When asked to stack at the point of attack, things go downhill.  He has a tendency to let his pads get too high and loses his base as a result.  He has the ability to shed blocks with his hands but often gets himself behind the eight ball in the leverage battle.  He’s certainly more comfortable playing from a wide technique where he can keep a shoulder free and set the edge.  Gayle still has steps to take in his game, because I would give it an incomplete grade right now.  He’s just not as explosive or athletic as he should be when you look at his measurables.  He’s shown development in the technical part of the game though, which is promising.

Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas

After committing to the Longhorns as a highly decorated high school prospect, Jackson Jeffcoat has seemingly lived up to his hype.  He’s highly experienced, entering his senior season with 20 career starts.  His junior season was cut short due to a ruptured pectoral muscle, but he had recorded 12 sacks in the previous 13 games.  Nothing truly stands out about Jeffcoat as an NFL prospect though.  As a pass rusher, he lacks the athletic explosiveness to be an effective speed rusher around the corner or to even get blockers to overextend to the outside.  He’s productive almost solely on a high motor and an ability to create space for himself to chase the ball.  His hands are very active, and he keeps the hands of blockers off his frame effectively.  He has an instinctive ability to get his hands into the chest of blockers with regularity.  He rarely threatens pass blockers with quick, powerful moves on first contact though.  His rushes seem to be too time-consuming and reliant on coverage.  As a run defender, Jeffcoat lacks the size and strength to be a true force.  He does make up for that to a degree with a high football IQ and understanding of assignments.  He can set the edge and maintain gap discipline effectively.  There are too many occasions where he gets washed out of plays and cannot squeeze holes down though.  When playing in space, he has a tendency to get too high and struggles to redirect as a result.  He’s just not explosive enough as a mover to warrant a position that involves dropping into coverage on a consistent basis.  As far as his senior outlook, I’m looking for Jeffcoat to continue to build on his frame and embrace what he does well.  He’s listed at 245 lb. now, but I’d like him up above 265 lb. at the start of the season.   Jeffcoat has the tools in place to become a skillful power rusher, but doesn’t have the frame to do it yet.  I don’t think he has the athletic ability to be dynamic sack artist at the next level.

Kareem Martin, North Carolina

Kareem Martin appears to be the next in line of great defensive line prospects to come from North Carolina.  At 6’6” and 265 lb. he has the type of frame teams look for in a high potential defensive end.  The most notable aspect of his measurable is the length.  His length and strong hands allow him to control blockers at the point of attack and make first contact as a pass rusher.  Martin is still in the development stage as an edge rusher.  He struggles to time up the snap and is occasionally a half-step slow off the ball.  He’s not an explosive edge bender and can be a bit stiff trying to flatten out around the corner.  He does have immense potential as a power rusher and could terrorize offensive tackles if able to refine his technique and learn to string together moves.  He will let his pads get too high on occasion and lose leverage, diminishing his bullrush. He flashes a quick and effective rip move around the corner though, and has the heavy hands to create space for himself.  As a run stopper, he’s a game-changer.  He has a natural feel for stacking blocks at the point of attack while playing off blockers with his hands.  Martin is able to set the edge with ease by overpowering blockers and keeping his outside shoulder free.  Above all, he’s a handful for a single blocker.  He flashes the ability to hold two gaps or penetrate and disrupt backfields when asked to do either.  For all the praise, his game comes with some concerns.  He doesn’t make many plays in pursuit.  His motor warrants questioning, which is concerning when you consider his relatively low snap count compared with other top prospects.  For Martin, it’s all about learning the intricacies of the position and learning how to best make use of his size and strength.  His frame and natural ability alone are enough to catch the eye, but he must take the next step.

Trent Murphy, Stanford

Trent Murphy enters his third year as a starter in Stanford’s vaunted defense and will now become the primary pass rusher with the departure of Chase Thomas.  While he has been mildly productive in that aspect already, he’ll have more pressure on him to get pressure as a senior.  Murphy’s calling card is his physicality.  He has the ability to jolt blockers back with a strong initial punch.  When he finds a crease as a rusher, he has the upper body strength to play off the contact of blockers and get to the quarterback.  While he’s not an explosive athlete, he has a bit of burst to him when trying to run the circle.  Murphy is at his best when getting his hands into the chest of tackles and pressing the pocket with his eyes up.  He can become somewhat predictable as a rusher, so developing a wider repertoire of moves will be important.  Murphy is an instinctive defender who can get his hands to the ball, whether that’s at the line or dropping into coverage.  Against the run, Murphy shows his acumen for scheme by understanding gap control on the edge and diagnosing plays.  He’s certainly reliable, but not a game-changer in any way.  Though he sheds blocks at a decent rate, he’s relatively unproductive in pursuit.  His lack of athleticism limits his ability to chase down the ball and make plays.  Despite the strengths in his game, he too often will disappear for stretches of games.  I perceive a lack of upside with him as well.  He will likely be a fit for multiple schemes though, which is a big plus for a player who appears to be a rotational/depth defender in the NFL.

Prince Shembo, Notre Dame

An often overlooked cog in the talented front of the Notre Dame defense, Prince Shembo should continue his quiet production as a senior.  With 21 career starts to his name, a total of 14 career sacks and 19 tackles for loss is not too shabby.  Shembo is a 3-4 rush linebacker with a short and compact frame (listed at 6’2” 250 lb.).   He makes the most of his small frame by consistently keeping his pad level down and getting underneath the pads of blockers.  He flashed an effective spin move on occasion by getting into the frame of opponents first and spinning back into space.  His size can be a detriment though.  Shembo gets swallowed up by big tackles with length often.  His lack of exceptional athleticism to speed rush limits the things he can do to beat blockers when he’s outmatched on size.  Stunts and blitzes from space effectively freed up Shembo and allowed him to be disruptive more often.  As a run defender, he thrives.  He has very developed hand usage to keep from getting locked up by blockers.  His ability to set the edge and force ball carriers back to the inside is on another level.  He has instincts that allow him to play off blocks and pursue the ball at a high rate.  How often a front seven defender gets to the ball is a big sign of effectiveness against the run.  Shembo has a nose for the ball and makes a high number of tackles.  As a whole, I question how high his ceiling is considering a lack of size, length, and raw athleticism.  There’s no question that Shembo does all the little things well though.  He looks right at home as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but may also project to a more traditional linebacker role at the next level.

Chaz Sutton, South Carolina

Chaz Sutton enters the 2013 season as one of the most inexperienced of the top pass rushing prospects.  Though he logged solid minutes as a junior, he only has two starts to his name.  Any way you slice it, Sutton has much to prove as a senior.  The biggest question mark to his game isn’t the lack of experience but a lack of polish or football savvy.  He plays with a kind of undisciplined chaos that can wreak havoc at times and leave his opponents vulnerable at the same time.  Sutton has the height, weight, speed combination to catch the eye of scouts, without question.  He has an impressive burst to close and showed well splitting gaps and generating pressure from the interior.  Unfortunately, he’s far too reliant on athletic ability.  His hand usage is quite poor, lacking a strong initial punch or refined moves, all despite having significant upper body strength.  Sutton also has a recurring tendency to overrun plays, failing to break down in space.  Against the run he’s a blank slate.  He was exposed at the point of attack with poor pad level and hand usage on the interior.  He doesn’t have a great feel for gap assignments and is unreliable setting the edge.  The one thing he does well is pursuit.  He closes quickly from the backside and can chase down plays all over the field.  Sutton looked natural dropping into coverage, with quick feet and a smoothness going backward.  When he steps into a starter’s role in 2013, he needs to show development in the intricacies of the position.  Maybe having a more defined role in the defense will simplify the game for him and allow him to make the most of his natural athleticism.

Kyle Van Noy, BYU

Few college football players closed out their 2012-13 season the way Kyle Van Noy did as a junior.  There were rumblings about whether or not he should declare for the draft early, but he made the decision to come back and it’s the right decision for me.  Let’s start with what makes Van Noy a productive player for the BYU defense.  The first thing that stuck out to me is an explosive burst to close.  BYU likes to move Van Noy all around the defense, almost as a chess piece, which allows him to use that acceleration as a blitzer from a variety of positions.  He’s also a very instinctive defender.  His ability to diagnose what he sees and quickly react is top notch.  He has a knack for finding pass rushing lanes when none appear to exist.  He also gets to the ball at a high rate with an impactful motor.  As a rusher, he’s most effective when he’s pressing the corner to get tackles to overextend before shooting back to the inside.  He does his best work as a rusher on foot quickness, where he gets the best of blockers in space.  He likes to pair a significant sidestep with a swim move to leave tackles in his wake.  The problem is that he’s not a complete package pass rusher.  He lacks the size and strength to make an impact on initial contact with a strong punch.  He’s also not a technician with his hands, lacking a true repertoire of moves.  For these reasons, he needs space to work with and just isn’t a traditional edge rusher at this stage.  Against the run, some of these issues show up again.  He struggles to anchor at the point of attack, too often getting washed out of plays.  Even so, he’s very disciplined when it comes to holding the edge and uses his hands well to disengage.  He gets to the ball at a significant rate, doing impressive work in pursuit.  He uses his long speed to chase down ball carriers frequently and is a technical, wrapping tackler when he arrives at the ball.  Van Noy also shows well in coverage on occasion.  BYU likes to use him both in man coverage and zone coverage.  He uses his fluidity and long speed to run with tight ends in man coverage and footwork to drop into useful areas in zone coverage.  He struggles to find and play the ball in man coverage, but that’s to be expected.  The bottom line is that the foundation is certainly there for him in pass coverage when he moves to the NFL.  As a whole, Van Noy has to be on the radar for any and all 3-4 teams interested in a movable piece.  He made the right decision to return for his senior season though, because he needs to build on his lean frame and become a stronger, more complete pass rusher.

Others to watch:

Darryl Cato-Bishop, North Carolina State

Will Clarke, West Virginia

Ryne Giddins, South Florida

Khalil Mack, Buffalo

Cassius Marsh, UCLA

Chris Smith, Arkansas

Larry Webster, Bloomsburg

Originally published at DetroitLionsDraft: 2014 NFL Draft Preview – Senior Edge Rushers