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. Before and after the 2012 scouting combine, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still, who has two cousins familiar to you old-school NFL fans. Art Still was a four-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs who recorded 14.5 sacks in 1984. Levon Kirkland was a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers who was so big that he could have been a lineman.
With impressive NFL bloodlines come big ambitions. "I think hands down I'm the best defensive tackle in this draft," Still said at the combine. "I was able to take over a lot of games this season. Just the production that I had, I was able to disrupt plays even if I wasn't making tackles or sacks."
Ah, but there's the rub. If you look at just the production, Still was tremendous. But if you look at the times Still was easily blocked or shoved to the ground, you see another talented, somewhat enigmatic interior defender in a draft class full of them.
Pros: Still has the quick first step teams look for in a three-tech tackle. He can use that initial quickness to penetrate or to move laterally. Some of Still's most impressive plays come after he executes a quick sidestep to flash across his blocker's face. He then "makes himself skinny" to knife through the line of scrimmage. Still is a sure tackler who blows up a lot of running plays in the backfield.
Still often displays sound fundamentals when releasing from the line of scrimmage. He keeps his pad level low and gets his hands inside his blocker's hands and under the pads. When his technique is sharp, Still is hard to dislodge or wash out, and he can stand up to a double team. He can be very effective in short yardage situations, where he tunnels under blockers and makes a big pile to swallow up ball carriers in the middle of the field.
Cons: Every interior lineman runs hot and cold to a degree, but Still is remarkably inconsistent. There are long stretches where he does not look like the same player. Blockers throw him to the turf. Double teams drive him backward. Sometimes, this is clearly a stamina problem: With Alabama winning by two touchdowns in the second half, it is understandable that a lineman has gotten worn out from fighting through blocks and chasing Trent Richardson. Other times, it appears to be more of a focus or a technique issue.
The best that can be said about these dry spells is that they often end suddenly. One minute, Still is on the ground, recovering from what appeared to be a routine block. The next, he is crashing through the backfield again.
Still gets most of his sacks by winning the first step battle. He is not a multiple-move guy and is not creative about disengaging from blockers.
Conclusion: There are many fine tackles in this draft class, and Still has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Michigan State's Jerel Worthy and Clemson's Brandon Thompson. Worthy is more sudden off the line of scrimmage, but not as polished and more likely to be pushed around. Thompson is more experienced and more of a thumper, but he too has cold spells and low sack totals. All three are a notch below Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox (who is more refined, active and versatile), LSU's Michael Brockers (a super-strong anchor) and Memphis' Dontari Poe (who would be classified as a dwarf planet if he traveled to the Kuiper Belt).
Like the others mentioned above, Still can help a team as a penetrating three-tech. He will also need development time to become anything other than a "wave" defender with a 20-snap role. It is hard to predict which of the Still-Worthy-Thompson group has the most upside — a lot depends on coaching, and how they respond to it — but all of them should become starters. If Still can expand upon his good plays and minimize his ordinary and bad ones, he could become much more.
NFL Comparsion: Darnell Dockett, Arizona Cardinals
More Shutdown 50:
#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