With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Stanford guard David DeCastro, the second-best prospect in a Cardinal draft class that could see four players go in the first round. He's not quite as positionally interesting as that Andrew Luck guy, but DeCastro is the best guard prospect in a number of years -- at least the best since Florida's Maurkice Pouncey and quite possibly the best since Michigan's Steve Hutchinson. It's rare that you see an offensive line prospect this pro-ready right out of the chute -- DeCastro said at the scouting combine that when he watches former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh dial up plays for the San Francisco 49ers, he can call the plays before they happen.
A technical marvel -- he almost never loses ground because he's so textbook in his approach -- DeCastro also has the kind of attitude all coaches love in offensive linemen. "He arrives angry and focused and expects everybody else to be the same," current Stanford head coach David Shaw recently said. "If he thinks something needs to be said, he says it and when he speaks the players listen."
"He is so serious he sometimes thinks a high five after a touchdown is too frivolous because it might break concentration," Luck recalled. "But the person he is hardest on is himself." That may be true, but DeCastro was also known to be the one teammate able and willing to bust Luck's chops in the huddle if things weren't going well.
He gave up one sack in his entire college career, and it was easy to get the recall when he was asked about it at the combine. "Brian Price of UCLA," he remembered. "I set outside and he came back and countered inside. He sacked Andrew."
It won't happen often, no matter who DeCastro is protecting; he allowed just 14 tackles of any kind in 2011. As a redshirt freshman in 2009, DeCastro started all 13 games and finished the season as an honorable mention on the All Pac-10 team. It's been all uphill from there, proving that DeCastro doesn't just arrive angry -- he also arrives ready to dominate. There's no reason to think that it won't be the same in the NFL, right from Day One.
Pros: DeCastro is the most fundamentally sound collegiate guard I have ever watched extensively on tape. He does everything required of him at an extremely high or elite level. He uses his hands with force and authority, his footwork is superlative, he pulls and traps well enough to play in the NFL right now, he hits the second level quickly, and he blows up his targets when he gets there. Perhaps the most impressive -- and at times astounding -- aspect of his play is his pulling ability. Your average guard is lauded for pulling with consistency to the next gap on either side, but DeCastro will regularly pull from the right guard position and actually seal the edge on run plays outside of left tackle. The speed, agility, technique, and power required to do that puts DeCastro in rarefied air.
In zone blocking, DeCastro gets in his stance quickly and always looks to chip or pop the man at the closest gap if he doesn't have a man right on him. Once he gets momentum on a zone slide, he's not only hard to beat, he can make ends and linebackers look just silly at times by blasting them out to one side. Does a tremendous job of checking off to second targets when facing stunts, loops, and advanced blitz concepts. Elite two-defender blocker -- he's great on chips inside (reminds me of the underrated Chris Kuper here) and will peel off with great speed to help tackles maintain position on edge rushers. Will push off his initial blocker to the tackle and zap a linebacker in space pretty frequently. Keeps his head on a swivel and operates with minimal wasted movement. Blocks as well on an island as any guard you'll see on any level -- rarely do you see him need help to a gap on either side. Uses technique and agility to deal with rip, swim, and spin moves -- redirects after first contact and a quick move very well. Primary zone blocker who could learn to mash every play in a man-on-man system -- has what it takes to be truly scheme-transcendent.
Cons: DeCastro and Luck are the two players in this draft class that present the fewest obvious dings when you watch them on tape. But if there's one thing that I would like to see DeCastro do more often (and this comes up in a comparative sense, because people are already comparing him to Steve Hutchinson and Steve Wisniewski), it's to play with extreme power when he's handling bigger linemen.
He gets by at times more on fundamentals than pure power, but again, we're splitting hairs here -- I'm lining him up next to Hutchinson, who was the most functionally powerful guard I've ever seen when he was in his prime. DeCastro will get walked back in the pocket by bigger men, but he almost never loses contact and you never see him get fast-out beaten by pure speed or power.
Conclusion: You'll hear some say that DeCastro would provide more value to a team as a center, a position he's also able to play. I also believe that he would be an excellent right tackle in certain systems. But this is a guard at heart -- a nasty, football-obsessed, grinder with the mentality required to make 10 straight Pro Bowls. Just as it is with Trent Richardson this year, certain players force you to throw away the idea of positional value in a strict sense and simply deal with the explosions on tape.
DeCastro is a safe player in every positive sense, but don't let that fool you into thinking that his game tape is a good way to cure insomnia. Connoisseurs of great offensive line play are already clued in, and the opponents of the offense DeCastro plays for at the NFL level will soon get the message. Sitton is the best offensive lineman on his team at the right guard position, which seems to personify a trend that has a lot of teams going more right-handed with their offensive line talent. I don't automatically see a switch to left guard for DeCastro as a result, but in a way, it doesn't really matter where he plays. He's already set the bar ridiculously high, and he's only going to get better.
Pro Comparison: Josh Sitton, Green Bay Packers
More Shutdown 50:
#11: Stephon Gilmore, OG, Stanford | #12: Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor | #13: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama | #14: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina| #15: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A & M| #16: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College | #17: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame | #18: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama | #19: Mark Barron, S, Alabama | #20: Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia | #21: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa | #22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford| #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State | #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama| #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC| #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska| #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford| #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech| #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy