In case you missed it, I wrote about some offensive players who caught my eye at the combine. While there were some impressive performances, it was the defenders that I was most intrigued with pre-combine and they didn’t let me down.
It was hard to narrow down my list of impressive performers. But let’s take a look at a few defensive players who helped themselves the most – as well as a few that hurt themselves.
LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State
Vander Esch has been a favorite of mine for a while now, and he confirmed what I saw on tape at the combine. I have compared him to Brian Urlacher before, and while he has a long way to go to match the Hall of Famer, the athletic testing is remarkably similar.
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) March 4, 2018
Vander Esch was a top performer in every athletic testing drill, despite the fact that he is a couple inches taller and 10-20 pounds heavier than most other participants. His fluid movements and lateral agility, which was confirmed in the on-field drills, allows him to be a true sideline-to-sideline linebacker.
In a deep linebacker class, he should be the third linebacker drafted after Tremaine Edmunds and Roquan Smith.
A lot of mocks have had Edmunds to the Bears in the first. If that does not happen, Vander Esch in the second would be a great consolation prize. However, after his performance at the combine it would not shock me if he is a first-round pick. He needs to improve at the point of attack to take on blocks better, but his athleticism combined with his instincts and ability to cover would continue the history of great middle linebackers in Chicago.
CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville
In our pre-combine podcast, I mentioned one of the things that Ryan Pace should watch is who separates themselves from the pack at cornerback: Denzel Ward, Josh Jackson, or Isaiah Oliver. Well, it turned out to be Alexander from Louisville who ended up impressing the most.
If you watch Alexander’s 2016 tape his talent and ball skills are near the top of this class. However, he struggled in 2017 with inconsistency and injuries. He must have been playing hurt because he was not as explosive as in 2016. Which is why the combine was so important for him.
He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds and posted elite numbers in both the 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill. But most importantly he crushed the on-field portion of the day.
Alexander was clearly the smoothest athlete of the participants in the on-field drills. He showed fluid hips to turn and run with receivers, quick feet to mirror routes, and good hands. He is a complete corner with good enough length that should entice Vic Fangio.
Much like Vander Esch, Alexander might have performed his way into the first round. But he could be anywhere from number one to number five on any given teams cornerback board. If the Bears like him, and they choose not to match an offer on Kyle Fuller, it would not surprise or disappoint me if he is their pick in the first round.
DL Nathan Shepherd, Fort Hays State
Shepherd was impressive at the combine before even stepping on the field. He is extremely well built at nearly 6-foot-four and 315-pounds, but he looks like he only weighs 280 pounds. That 315 pounds is all muscle. He could easily add 10 to 15 pounds without sacrificing much athleticism.
And he has athleticism to spare. He wasn’t a top performer at many drills, but he was also competing against some guys who were 260-pounds. At his size, he put together some very impressive athletic scores.
As with most of the prospects on this list, he also looked good in the positional drills. For a small school prospect, he showed he can win with both power and speed. He can stack and shed in the run game and has enough pass rush potential to develop into a four to six sack a year player from the interior.
Pre-combine, I was hoping the Bears could snag the talented defensive lineman in the fourth round. Given his age (he’ll turn 25 in his rookie season) and the level of competition he played against, this is still a possibility. But if the Bears trade back and pick up a third-round pick I would feel comfortable taking him there. Shepherd would be a prototypical two-gapping 3-4 defensive end in Vic Fangio’s scheme.
LB Shaquem Griffin, UCF
No defensive combine winners’ article is complete without Griffin. His 4.38 40-yard dash is the fastest for a linebacker in the history of the combine. And 20 repetitions in the bench press is truly exceptional for a player born with one hand.
He is a little undersized at 6-foot and 227-pounds, but in today’s NFL that is plenty big enough to be a hybrid defender.
He looked good in the on-field drills as well. His athleticism was on full display and should have impressed even the most skeptical of scouts. From what I saw, he only dropped one ball, which is better than some wide receivers this year.
One hand, two hands, no hands I don’t care: Griffin is an NFL talent. As a hybrid linebacker/safety he can stop the run, blitz and cover slot receivers, tight ends and running backs. He will certainly drop, but in the fourth round, the Bears could get a steal.
S Derwin James, Florida State
James had one of the most impressive combines in recent memory, but because it was so expected, it seems to be getting overlooked by some. If there were any doubts about him being a top-10 player in this class they can be put to rest.
James’ versatility at 6-foot-two, 215-pounds is what intrigues me the most. He can play linebacker, slot corner, high safety, box safety, and blitz off the edge. There were even some reports that teams were looking at him to play outside receiver. While I am skeptical, he showed enough man coverage ability in the slot where I would be open to giving him a chance at the more premium position.
If you are a fan of Minkah Fitzpatrick for the Bears in the first round, you should also like James because they would fill similar roles. The gap between the two players isn’t as large as you might think. James might even be better than Fitzpatrick in some areas. But both will be studs in the NFL who would instantly upgrade the Bears’ secondary.
CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State
Ward performed well in the athletic testing but that was expected. What impressed me the most and the reason he is on this list is he measured at nearly 5-foot-eleven. I was thinking he was closer to 5-foot-nine. This makes me much more comfortable with the Bears taking him in the first.
Some other prospects that had great combines that I have written about before but still wanted to highlight are Edmunds, Harold Landry, and Ade Aruna. You can read about Edmunds here
Landry and Aruna here
DL DaRon Payne, Alabama; EDGE Lorenzo Carter, Georgia; EDGE Josh Sweat, Florida State; CB Quenton Meeks, Stanford; S Troy Apke, Penn State
DL Tim Settle, Virginia Tech
Settle was getting some hype pre-combine, but that’s almost certainly over now. For a guy who was touted as a freak athlete for his size, he had one of the worst combines for defensive linemen. He flashes on tape, but he also is on the ground a lot. I wouldn’t touch Settle if I am the Bears.
EDGE Hercules Mata’afa, Washington St.
Another darling of #drafttwitter, no one needed a better combine than Mata’afa. Unfortunately, he was only average athletically. At 252-pounds, he played as a one-gap penetrating defensive tackle at Washington St, but needed to show the athleticism to move to the edge at the next level. He may have the best name in the draft, but you have to view him as a project and practice squad player at this point.
EDGE Arden Key, LSU
Key was a top-10 lock before the season. But injuries, inconsistent play, and leaving LSU for “personal reasons” have made him too volatile for my liking. He bulked up to 260 for this season and struggled, then dropped down to 238 for the combine but didn’t run the 40-yard dash. It was a confusing weekend for Key to say the least. He’ll still likely go day two, but there are more red flags than good with him.
CB Josh Jackson, Iowa
It is hard for me to call Jackson a “loser” but he certainly didn’t help himself this weekend. He showed below average athleticism for the position and looked stiff in on-field drills. I do not believe he has the ability to flip his hips and run with receivers in man coverage. I still like him as a prospect but he is limited scheme wise. He will need to go to a team that plays a lot of off zone coverage. This will mask his athletic deficiencies and let him do what he does best: read quarterbacks eyes and react. This will allow his natural ball skills to flourish. Players that are this scheme dependent usually drop but it only takes one team to fall in love with him to remain a first-round pick.
I came away from the combine more impressed with the defensive players than offensive. This is a strong defensive class, especially at the top, so the Bears should be able to walk away with some talented players at positions of need.
We discussed some of the players and more in our most recent podcast if you want to learn more.