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22 Mar 2011

Cover-2: The Outcasts

by Doug Farrar

The news of University of North Carolina's football program facing as many as 16 suspensions for the 2010 season opener against LSU stood out even in an NCAA landscape that seems beset by more and different rules violations every year. In the end, several players missed multiple games and had to repay illegal benefits received from agents. Two key players, defensive end Robert Quinn and defensive tackle Marvin Austin, missed the season entirely. Quinn was suspended for the season, and Austin was kicked off the team.

The legitimacy of such punishment for seemingly minimal financial infractions given the current revenue scale of the NCAA is a debate best left for another time, but Quinn and Austin were essentially stranded in a football sense at a time when they could have used those extra practices and games. Surfacing at the scouting combine, both players talked about what the suspensions meant, and how they were changed as people and players.

"Watching the whole season, especially when UNC played LSU and I went down to support them, seeing our guys run on to the field, in the middle of the game I was about in tears in the stands," Quinn said. "I made a selfish mistake and couldn't be out there. That's never my mindset. God gave me a talent, and second he can take it away from me ... If (other players) really care and want to play college ball, you've really got to grow up and stay away from what I've been through and a couple other players this year have been through. If you really love the game and don't want to sit out or miss any games, you really grow up and stay away from it."

"For a while I just let my body heal, let my body rest," Austin said. "I've been playing football since I was 13 or 14 years old, so I thought it would be important for me to just get back and let my body feel like a regular human again. And then I got back right into it. I was down in Tampa at the Saddlebrook Resort training for about three months. I was going to get it because I wanted to come in in the best shape I possibly could."

As much as this may be the best defensive line draft class ... well ... ever, I have reservations about a few of the top prospects and their respective abilities to take their bull rushes to the NFL without a complementary array of hand moves and off-the-snap quickness. I saw former Seahawks first-round pick Lawrence Jackson wash out as an NFL defensive end because, at 6-foot-4 and 271 pounds, he didn't have the kind of explosiveness required to match pure power against better tackles every week. Former Seahawks team president Tim Ruskell was looking for his own version of Justin Tuck in 2008, and though Jackson was actually more effective inside, Ruskell struck out with yet another first-round pick.

There are all kinds of bigger ends in this class, but Quinn stands apart.

North Carolina Defensive End Robert Quinn

In 25 games for the Tar Heels, Quinn recorded 13 sacks, 86 tackles (57 solo), 25.5 tackles for loss (23 solo), four passes defensed, eight forced fumbles and 15 quarterback hurries. And at the Combine, he finished with the fastest 40 time among defensive ends (4.62), the second-fastest 10-yard split (1.62), and decent numbers in the bench press, 3-cone drill, and short shuttle.

Quinn is a lead-pipe lock to be a first-rounder, and probably an early first-rounder. The reasons are simple and obvious -- when you watch him in action, you can clearly see his explosiveness. At 6-foot-5 and 268 pounds, he's a little leaner than most of the built-in five-technique prospects in this draft class, and the speed you'd expect with that shows up play after play. More importantly, he's a fully developed pass-rusher. Not content simply to bull inferior tackles out of the way, Quinn is just as likely to stun blockers with hand moves (especially the rip move) as he gets around them. Once he starts his dip around the tackle, he's very tough to beat.

That said, if he has to stand a tackle up or use his upper-body strength on a guard in a stunt, he has what it takes to disrupt in that way as well. When asked to diagnose the play from the line, he has a very good sense of motion and direction, and he's great at avoiding fakes with his speed. This is what really impresses me about Quinn, and why he could be a Top 10 pick: He's about a lot more than just rushing the passer. He'll split double teams and bring down the running back, and he'll take the time to make the form tackle no matter how fast he's going.

It's hard to come up with glaring issues when it comes to Quinn's game. There are some finishing issues that may have been smoothed out given another year in an elite defense. He tends to come at the quarterback in a straight line, but he made need to develop the ability to fake tackles inside and out with little foot moves at the line. It's an important asset -- take a quick look at the way Missouri's Aldon Smith does it, and you'll see how good feet can add something really special to base quickness. But he's as close to elite at his position as there is this year. You just have to wonder how great he'd be with that extra year.

North Carolina Defensive Tackle Marvin Austin

Austin had 106 tackles (59 solo), nine sacks (eight solo), 13.5 tackles for loss, 13 quarterback hurries, four passes defensed, and one forced fumble at UNC. And after a full season off from the game, Austin really amazed at the Combine. He tied with Auburn's Nick Fairley with the best 40 time among all defensive tackles (4.84), and the best 10-yard split (1.64), the measurement gaining traction as an actual indicator of on-field performance for linemen. Only Oregon State's Stephen Paea threw more 225-pound reps at the bench press than Austin's 38. He also posted the best time in the shuttle (4.40), and the third-best time in the 3-cone drill.

It was a triumphant return to form that had to impress even those who throw such measurables out the window as a matter of course. The simple fact that Austin had himself in that kind of shape without the regimentation of a football program spoke for his work ethic and intensity.

With Austin, the first thing that pops off the tape is that for all his talent, he really could have used that extra year. First, the positives -- for a one-gap nose tackle, he explodes off the snap and disrupts right away. I wouldn't call him a traditional run-plugger; he's more a bigger inside pass rusher in the Albert Haynesworth or Shaun Rogers mold. His gap discipline is affected by his slanting past blocks off the snap, though that could be a schematic fix. A very strong player, Austin will use a solid rip move and get violent with his hands to win the leverage battle. His short-area quickness really benefits him when he's asked to loop outside, and he has a neat little spin move that works well for a guy his size (6-foot-2, 309 pounds).

Now, the bad news. As fast as Austin is, he's about as far from being a consistent form tackler as he could be, given his talent and effectiveness. At times, it seems as if he's almost surprised by the quickness with which he gets to the ball carrier, and it takes an extra split second for his hands to catch up. He gets in an area, and he turns into a Baby Huey at times. He's just as apt to bump into one of his teammates as he is to disrupt a play. He gets a little up high in his stance at times, which leaves him with an inconsistent power base, and I'm not sure how NFL-ready he'd be to move to three-technique in certain spots. This could be a short-term problem for teams demanding more gap versatility from their tackles (which translates to most NFL teams at this point).

Austin's unfinished game will drop him in most mocks and on most real draft boards as well. The alleged perception that he's a "me-first" player could be a real issue, or it could be that old secret code used for most players who dare run afoul of the NCAA's byzantine regulations. He's probably a second-round pick with first-round potential. Given his Combine performance, I'd be inclined to take a hard look at how Austin could help my team.

I asked Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com about the ramifications of losing an entire season in this fashion.

"Off the top of my head, I can't think of other players who were suspended for an entire season to compare," he said. "Obviously, there have been players who missed a portion of a season due to suspension or injury and gone on to great success in the NFL. Dez Bryant, just last season, came in and played very well despite being suspended. Another former Oklahoma State Cowboys, Perrish Cox, played well for the Broncos despite the fact that he had been suspended. Prior to this agent fallout, yearlong suspensions were quite rare.

"The biggest additional challenge the players will face is, of course, getting used to the physicality of the game again. They'll also have to resume the technique work each has missed since being off the field. Preparing for workouts isn't the same as shedding blocks in practice and locating the football -- two skills both Quinn and Austin could improve in. Each player also has to deal with the burden of his notoriety due to the suspension. They could forever be known as players who were suspended for a year -- unless their play at the NFL level is so good it can cause push these negative memories aside.

"On the flip side, the year off has given their bodies plenty of time to heal from any lingering issues and likely only fueled their passion for the game."

Their passion for the game is unquestionable. What makes me pause in situations like this is the argument I keep wanting to have in different venues than this one -- I don't want to obstruct player profiles with a referendum on the inequities of the NCAA, but it's getting harder and harder to split the two apart.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 22 Mar 2011

19 comments, Last at 25 Apr 2011, 8:48am by Mark S

Comments

1
by bravehoptoad :: Tue, 03/22/2011 - 1:16pm

Nice read, as always, Doug. I'm wondering how Quinn would project to a 3-4? I see a lot of mocks that give him to 3-4 teams, without particularly talking about this transition.

I just found your articles over at the Shutdown Corner blog; they made a fun afternoon of reading on a rainy Sunday.

2
by Doug Farrar :: Tue, 03/22/2011 - 1:24pm

Thanks. Not sure if he has the explosion to make it as a James Harrison-style rush end in five-man fronts; of guys his size, I see Justin Houston has a much better 3-4 end. I see Quinn as the ideal 4-3 end who could stay in the game in any sub package.

6
by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 03/22/2011 - 2:44pm

I don't understand, if he runs a 4.62 40 with a 1.62 10 yard split how does he lack explosion? He sounds like Charles Haley to me. Tamba Hali couldn't match those numbers, they'd beat Harrison's partner in crime Woodley too.

14
by slipknottin :: Wed, 03/23/2011 - 1:07am

Tamba also dropped probably 20 pounds the past couple years to become much more explosive. Strong side ends generally don't have to be as explosive either. Being stout at the point of attack is a priority

11
by bravehoptoad :: Tue, 03/22/2011 - 8:35pm

So naturally I went over to your Yahoo blog to read your report on Justin Houston. He certainly sounds interesting, and up there in the high-2nd he's a lot better value. How cool to actually have tape on a potential 3-4 OLB playing...in a 3-4.

3
by Randy Hedberg (not verified) :: Tue, 03/22/2011 - 1:27pm

How about Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams (current Seattle WR) as examples of guys who were effectively suspended for a year before being drafted? Although Clarett evidently has some mental issues as well, the year off seemed to significantly hurt both those players.

9
by anon (not verified) :: Tue, 03/22/2011 - 7:10pm

Mike Williams wasn't suspended, he tried to enter the draft without the mandatory 3 years removed from high school because of the Clarett incident; but since Clarett's appeal to the court was overruled and Williams had already contacted an agent and declared himself for the draft, he lost his NCAA elegibility and had to sit down a year.

12
by almost Anonymous (not verified) :: Wed, 03/23/2011 - 12:36am

that's why he said effectively

15
by JonC :: Wed, 03/23/2011 - 10:16am

I always read Clarett's "mental issues" to be an precocious understanding of the mercenary nature of pro sports? No one likes being told their shiny suit is a figment of their imagination.

4
by Strick11 (not verified) :: Tue, 03/22/2011 - 2:03pm

What about Quinn as an OLB in the 3-4? The Skins have a need for an OLB opposite Orakpo, and I've seen some mocks that have Quinn going to the Skins at 10 b/c V. Miller will likely be off the board by then.

5
by dmb :: Tue, 03/22/2011 - 2:06pm

Doug,

I know it's already been said frequently, but you've really upped the ante with your scouting this year. FO has long been a leader in quantitative analysis, but this year's Cover-2 (and Cover-1, and Cover-3) column has been as informative as any qualitative work I've been able to find.

(And I have been enjoying the Shutdown Corner articles, too, though there's certainly some overlap at times...)

7
by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 03/22/2011 - 2:51pm

Great article again.

Doug's take on Austin, that at this stage he lacks the technique and discipline to play two-gap 3 technique, would make him a natural fit for the teams still playing the Tampa 2. With the Bucs having invested in two DTs last year that leaves the Bears and Colts. Strangely both of these teams have similar needs, they're both awful on their offensive lines and their interior defensive lines.

Quinn is one of the three players I'd love to see the niners take with the 7th pick, the other two are Peterson and Miller, and Quinn is the most likely to be there. (I wouldn't want any qb in the draft in the top half of the first round and then I'd take Ponder above the rest)

8
by drobviousso :: Tue, 03/22/2011 - 7:06pm

Are the Broncos going to be going with a Tampa 2 now?

10
by bravehoptoad :: Tue, 03/22/2011 - 8:29pm

I think pretty much the same way. I love all the mocks that have Peterson dropping to #7, but I can't believe that'll happen, but in any case it looks like the 49ers should get one of Miller or Quinn. I've read that Miller can't set the edge in the run game, but I guess anyone drafted to be a 3-4 OLB has to be a projection with problems.

Ponder is my big draft crush (if a guy who barely knows anything except what he reads on-line is allowed to have a draft crush).

16
by jimbohead :: Wed, 03/23/2011 - 10:27am

oh, I hope we're allowed to have crushes. I'm just personally convinced that Ponder won't be there in the second, and Peterson/Miller/Quinn won't be there in the first. Mocks that have them there tend to rely on Newton and Gabbert going top 5. If there's any way the niners can trade back in the first, to like pick #20, and grab Ponder there, I'd be ok with it.

17
by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 03/23/2011 - 3:27pm

This is remarkably close to what I've been thinking. I'm hoping that Bowers can put on a good show whenever he finally gets around to having a workout or Quinn is much more likely to be gone. It could be that the only guy I'd take there would be Amukamara, who looks like a better pick now that he's answered the questions on his speed. Other than him, trade down, get Ponder. (The other idea, based on pure fantasy, would be to just trade the 1st and 2nd rounders away and collect picks for next year for a concerted effort to land Luck, but that is a rather silly idea)

13
by slipknottin :: Wed, 03/23/2011 - 1:05am

Lawrence Jackson was moved out of Seattle because he didn't fit what Carrol was running. Went to the lions and had 6 sacks despite not starting a game. Hardly seems like he has some physical deficiency that prohibits him from being a successful end

18
by Podge (not verified) :: Fri, 03/25/2011 - 4:52am

I'm hoping one of the top tier prospects (particularly Green/Jones, Quinn or Amukamara somehow inexplicably drops down to #14 for the Rams. Or one of the QBs does so we've got a decent shot at a trade down if teams are looking to get ahead of Jacksonville or Miami.

19
by Mark S (not verified) :: Mon, 04/25/2011 - 8:48am

Nice article and interesting. I do wonder why many other scouting reports question his ability to defend the run. IMO this is his biggest weakness thus far. Although I do realize that he can get a little better and may just be that pass rushing terror a teams needs. Not bad.

Also, I wonder why you do not mention the majority of his stats came against the worst teams (no sacks vs ranked teams).

The fact that he owned up to his mistake is good but he still missed a year of football and may end up missing another if the CBA mess is not settled prior to training camp. If that happens he probably just gets on the field on passing downs.

I believe he is getting hyped based on "potential" because the production is not enough and did not come vs top competition.