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 NFL draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 prospects who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Nebraska DE/DT Jared Crick, who has a very interesting collegiate story. One of the most interesting aspects of Ndamukong Suh's reign of terror through the NCAA and NFL is that the focus Suh commands from every opposing offense created disproportionate opportunities for his linemates. It was that way for Crick at Nebraska through the 2009 season, just as it has been for guys like Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson in Detroit. After Suh left Nebraska for the NFL, the 6-foot-6, 280-pound Crick had to prove that he wasn't just a guy benefitting from mandatory single-block schemes arrayed against him.
Crick answered those questions about as well as anyone possibly could, amassing eight solo sacks and three assists in 2009 with Suh, and the very same 8/3 number in 2010. He went into 2011 as an elite defensive line prospect, but injuries got in the way. He tore a pectoral muscle in October of 2011, leading to the end of his final collegiate season and his inability to participate in the Senior Bowl. Crick rebounded nicely at the scouting combine with good results in the 40-yard dash (4.95), vertical leap (31.0"), broad jump (8'8), short shuttle (4.40) and 3-cone drill (7.47). Most importantly, Crick's 26 reps at the 225-pound bench press eased any concerns about that pectoral injury.
Crick is known as a total effort player; a lunch-pail guy. That's all well and good, but how do his on-field attributes prorate to the NFL level? As with everything else about Crick's career, his pro potential is a story with a few different levels. He was a first-round prospect before that injury -- where is he now?
Pros: Crick occasionally flashes as a relentless and merciless run defender who excels at the three-tech shade position, or lined up straight over guard. He will take offensive linemen straight on and bull them back with effort and efficiency ... at times. He's great at peeling off blocks in short spaces and making key tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Uses rip and swim moves to get past blockers in a hurry; there are few more fundamentally sound players at any position in this draft class. Understands the concept of using leverage when facing zone-blocking; Crick will roll with the zone slide and then blast or create the gap on the move. Going low on Crick is generally a fool's errand -- he's athletic enough to jump over or zip around cut blocks.
As an end in a four-man hybrid front, Crick forces the action to his side, and blocking backs will be looking up his number quite often. Very good at establishing inside position against tackles; could be a great asset to any team looking to have their ends loop inside as the 49ers did with Aldon Smith last year. Reads the action very well against pass-blocking; Crick is intelligent and aware when it comes to assessing spaces created by blockers when they're backpedaling, and this is one area in which the strength advantage becomes his. Crick doesn't have elite speed off the edge, but he's good enough with his hands and feet in space to make plays and create quarterback pressure. Displays a decent spin more that needs development.
Cons: Crick doesn't really have the upper-body strength to beat double teams, especially inside -- he's more prone to bounce off those doubles and look for an open lane. When he guesses wrong on that lane, he will occasionally block himself out of plays.
Over-pursues too often looking for the play. Occasionally relies too much on that simple "peel-off" move -- in the NFL, bigger and better center-guard combos will obliterate him, and power centers can bull him back. As a tackle, he doesn't always display optimal lateral agility at the line to stunt or loop around blocking constructs.
Conclusion: The more I watch Crick, the more I'm convinced that his best NFL role would be as a run-stopping four-front hybrid end who could also move inside on obvious passing downs. I don't project him as a starting 3-4 end -- while he does have the prototypical size to fill that role, he doesn't yet have the ability to deal with double teams that the inside end position requires. What he does have is the positional versatility in high demand as the NFL moves to a point in which the line between straight 3-4 and 4-3 defenses has basically dissolved. While his sack numbers without Suh in the picture were impressive, I think he'll struggle a bit at first against better blocking. Two things will serve Crick very well in the NFL -- more pure upper-body strength, and a developed palette of advanced pass-rush moves. There is absolutely no question about Crick's work ethic, and it's very possible that my scouting report of Crick would have far fewer negatives if he had enjoyed a full 2011 season. He's probably reached his ceiling from a speed perspective, which leaves technique as the tie-breaker.
Right now, Crick is a very intriguing prospect with the ability to fit in a lot of places reasonably well. If he can bridge the gap between potential and production, he will shine as one of the NFL's most versatile defensive linemen.
Pro Comparison: Jarret Johnson, Baltimore Ravens/San Diego Chargers
More Shutdown 50:
#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