Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
22 Mar 2011
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.
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.
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.
19 comments, Last at 25 Apr 2011, 8:48am by Mark S