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 South Carolina outside linebacker/defensive end Melvin Ingram, who may have you wishing he was attached to a GPS when you're watching his game tape. The 6-foot-2, 264-pound Ingram plays all over the place, and at such a high level, you may wonder if there isn't more than one guy on the field wearing number 6 for the Gamecocks. In addition to his consistent excellence as a pure pass-rusher (18 solo sacks and 24 solo tackles for loss In his collegiate career), Ingram is a great run defender, grades highly as a space defender, and even played on the "hands" team. He dropped 15 pounds in time for the scouting combine to better show his ability to play various linebacker roles, which could have him coming even faster to the quarterback at the next level.
You'll hear various things about Ingram that may have you thinking that he's more of a rotational defender, thus presenting lower overall draft value. But more than any player in this draft class, the common complaints can be eradicated by even a cursory look at the game tape. Short arms? Check the tape, and see how he compensates. One-year starter? Watch the tape, and see him explode off of either end and inside in multiple formations in more than one season. Some teams may not see him as an ideal fit, based on their own physical requirements or schematic constraints. Watch the tape and see elements that would help any defense, no matter the playbook.
Watch the tape. It's as simple as that. And when you're done, you may see Ingram as the cornerstone of an NFL defense. The evidence is easy to spot.
Pros: Ingram's primary attribute -- and the thing that shows on tape, over and over, to a ridiculous degree -- is his functional versatility. You'll see other defensive players move all over a front and get washed out in different places, but Ingram makes plays in places you wouldn't expect of a man his size. He's obviously freakishly dynamic as an outside linebacker or pass-rushing end, but he has the physical presence, upper-body strength, and array of moves to impact an offense as a 3-tech defensive tackle and occasionally inside at nose. I have seen him split center/guard double-teams, which was kind of nuts for a 270-pound man to do.
Outside, he commands a double team of some sort on nearly every play, and he quickly knifes through most of them. Has an amazing sense of the field -- even when blocked out by a big man, will understand when to turn and run to catch up to a ball-carrier. Approaches the open field as a running back would; he's quick to the target, and he will display impressive lateral moves to keep up with shifty backs. Uses angles very well to close in on a target from any direction. Hard to get past him on the sideline because he closes so well. Always looking to affect a play -- you simply don't see Ingram stop as long as somebody's running with the ball. Had two interceptions in 2011.
Ingram's hands are his secret weapons -- he has a football version of the "one-inch punch" Bruce Lee used to use to send unfortunate colleagues flying through the air. When he makes initial contact, he can rock a blocker back and use his speed to shoot around. Has a dominant spin move that few offensive lineman can counter. As a stand-up 'backer at the line or in a SAM position, he shows good instincts in intermediate pass coverage and run reads. Fires off the ball with his hand down -- he doesn't flash more one way or the other. Has the directional quickness to be an asset in short and intermediate pass coverage.
Cons: Ingram's most-discussed ding, the dreaded "short-arm syndrome," does show up on tape. It's good that he uses his hands as well as he does, because it's tough for him to get the first punch in with his arms extended. And if the blocker gets the first move on him and extends his arms, Ingram can't always push back and win leverage wars. His closing speed and correctness is another excellent adaptive trait, and it makes up for that that Ingram will miss running backs out of his perimeter that longer defenders will be able to take down.
Rip moves are sometimes a problem for him, and he doesn't often do what a lot of longer defenders can do, which is to reach beyond a block and still make a play. He's a shorter-area player, but as mentioned, he's learned to compensate in many ways. Excellent form tackler, but ballcarriers will wrestle away from him at times.
Conclusion: Ingram can be found in different mock drafts -- and probably most actual draft boards -- from the end of the top 10 to the end of the teens, and it just depends how you feel about a player with one obvious physical deficit that seems like a bigger issue than it actually is. Teams that are building their defenses with size as the main priority will shy away from Ingram, and they may very well regret it when he's beating the crap out of their quarterbacks for the next decade. For teams in need of versatile players who do many things very well, Ingram will be of more interest. I would think that any defensive coordinator with a preference for multiple fronts would love to have him in the palette.
Make no mistake; Ingram is not just a situational guy. He is a primary color in a defense. He's red or blue-- the color you use as the main focus and mix with other personnel aspects to fill out the canvas.
Right now, he could start or rotate for any team as an edge-rusher -- the speed off the edge is Freeney-esque, and he faced and beat enough double teams to ease any worry about how he'll fare against better, stronger blockers in the NFL. Ingram won't drop to Pittsburgh or San Francisco (two teams with defensive schemes tailor-made for his attributes), but Seattle at 12 seems a natural fit. The Seahawks love to use the LEO end; that pass rusher who loops inside as often as not to break up inline blocking, find gaps, and create havoc. Just as Clay Matthews and Aldon Smith do, Ingram may get more sacks stunting inside than he does shooting around a tackle.
From there, it's about how much you want to use him, and where. Want to flip him inside on an end-tackle stunt or formation? Done and done. Want to play him at SAM 'backer in a straight 4-3 and take advantage of his angle awareness in space? No problem. There are elements of Ingram's game that bring many of today's great defenders to mind, but the two that really seem to fit are Justin Tuck (ability to play well across the formation) and LaMarr Woodley (again, extreme versatility). There are great cornerbacks that get more play at the top of mock boards, but I believe that Melvin Ingram is the best overall defensive player in the 2012 draft class. As an every-down, every-gap, every-direction force, he stands alone.
Pro Comparison: LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers