With the 2010 NFL season in the books (and hopefully a new CBA soon in the works), it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. We've already done scouting reports of the top 40 players on our board, and you can read all the details on the first Shutdown 40 here. For the second Shutdown 40, players 41-80, we have the advantage of combine performances and that much more evaluation material.
Over the next few weeks, we'll also be adding Pro Day data when relevant. But we're always going mostly on game tape; the proper evaluation formula seems to be about 80 percent tape, 20 percent Senior Bowl/combine/Pro Day. If you see what you expect in drills, you go back to the tape to confirm. If what you see in drills surprises you in a positive or negative sense, you go back to the tape to catch where the anomalies may be.
We begin the second Shutdown 40 with player #41 on our board: Georgia OLB Justin Houston. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound Houston has excelled in three- and four-man fronts as the Bulldogs have changed their defensive schemes, amassing 20 sacks (16 solo), 115 tackles (65 solo), 38 tackles for loss (30 solo), 17 quarterback hurries, five passes defensed, and two forced fumbles. In 2010 alone, he had 67 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, and 10 sacks.
Especially for his size, Houston put on a real show at the scouting combine - his 1.62-second 10-yard split just .05 of a second slower than those of Von Miller and Dontay Moch - two outside speed linebackers that Houston outweighed by 25 pounds. His 36 ½-inch vertical jump, the highest at his position, speaks to explosiveness off the snap, and his 40-yard bash, 3-cone, and shuttle times were all exceptional for a bigger player. Of course, the question always stands - do these attributes show up on game tape?
Pros: Houston has great blast-and-turn speed when he sets up in a wider look past the outside shoulder of the tackle; his 10-yard split is represented in the fact that he seems to get up to full speed before his blocker can get his hands up and his first kick-step out of the way. Exhibits a natural low angle when he turns the corner. Closes in well when he has to catch up to a quarterback stepping up in the pocket. Against tackles shower to turn, he turns on the jets and exploits that lack of agility.
Gets a good hand-punch going to push the tackle off as he turns the corner. On running plays, he backs off the rush quickly and starts sifting through blockers inside as quickly as he can, and he's fast enough to occasionally get a tackle for loss in that way. Doesn't lose penetrative ability in different fronts; he appears to be as disruptive as a 3-4 endbacker as he is in a straight 4-3. Can play on either side, hand up or hand down - this is his primary asset.
Cons: Gets past sub-par blockers quickly, but will need to further develop his hand moves to get past NFL blockers. No consistent ability in coverage per se, but Houston has the agility to develop some zone blitz moves. When it comes to diagnosing misdirection, or plays that extend outside after an inside look, Houston will tend to plant himself in one place as opposed to flowing naturally to the ball. He developed in this area in 2010, but Tim Tebow(notes) made him look silly in the previous season with bootlegs and option reads when the Bulldogs played the Gators. Not a turnover machine, but a good form tackler who can close in for open-field stops. Houston was suspended in 2009 for reportedly violating his school's substance abuse policy.
Conclusion: Georgia's coaches did Houston a huge favor when they switched to a 3-4 defense in 2010; NFL teams can see how Houston does in just about every possible front, and teams playing a lot of hybrid fronts should find him especially appealing. He could excel as an end in a 4-3 scheme once he gets coached up to defend plays that aren't straight-ahead, but I like him best as a 3-4 edge rusher in the James Harrison(notes) mold, where his specific lack of versatility won't be a problem as he gains experience.
The wider Houston splits out, the more effective he seems to be, and with his speed all the way through the play, he could be especially devastating in a multi-front scheme.