With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to start this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players listed were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
44. Margus Hunt, DE, SMU
We continue this year's series with SMU defensive end Margus Hunt, who has a very intriguing backstory. Born in Estonia, Hunt has minimal football experience -- he picked up the game in 2009 after an estimable track-and-field career. He won gold medals in the shot-put and discus at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing, and enrolled at SMU to train with renowned track coach Dave Wollman. But it's with football that Hunt will make his name in America. In 2009, he blocked an NCAA-record seven kicks (a benefit of standing 6-foot-8 and weighing 277 pounds), and started to put his future together as a defensive lineman. That initiative was really forwarded in Hunt's 2012 season, when he amassed 8.0 sacks and got invited to the Senior Bowl.
However, Hunt's inexperience was evident during the week in Mobile, going as he did against most of the best offensive tackles in this draft class. Frequently blocked out of plays due to leverage issues (there's the downside of his height), Hunt looked very much like the football neophyte he is. However, it was expected that he'd amaze at the scouting combine, and that's exactly what he did. He ran an official 4.62 40-yard dash in Indianapolis, matching the efforts of ends and outside linebackers weighing 30 pounds less. As you'd expect of a track athlete with his history, Hunt also nailed the agility drills.
So, he looks great in workouts, and iffy on the field. Where does that put him on an NFL scale? After the combine, Hunt talked about his pure football development.
"I wanted to show teams that I know football, and I know what's going on out there," he told the NFL Network on March 1. "They definitely have that concern about whether I can play football, and I know what's going on. When I did interviews, I wanted to make sure I got enough board time and film time in to show that I know our defense. I'm a fast learner, and that was my main goal besides the actual workouts."
No doubt, teams are coveting Hunt's athletic potential. And once in a while, you'll see that he can be an amazing football player -- for a team that doesn't expect too much, too soon.
Pros: On field goal blocks, he's a devastating weapon -- will knife through blocks sideways and use his tremendous short-area speed and ridiculous wingspan to deflect kick attempts. Has an effective -- if embryonic -- array of rip and swim moves to get past tackles on the edge. Possesses the speed and agility to drop into coverage; could be a J.J. Watt-level pass deflector with his height. Uses his long arms to make tackles even when he's blocked.
Flashes elite speed off the snap at several positions -- 4-3 rush end, 5-tech tackle, and even further inside at 3-tech. Track speed does show up on tape. Ridiculous speed to and through the pocket when unblocked or when he beats a block. Showed improved ability to get low and "dip-and-rip" against Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl and was nearly unblockable at times as a result. Has played in multiple fronts; Hunt is potentially scheme-transcendent if he puts it together.
Cons: Some project Hunt as a 3-4 defensive end at the NFL level, but he'll need to add weight to his frame and develop a better sense of leverage to do that -- in the 5-tech position now, he gets blocked out of the play far too frequently. I saw the same problem from him when he played as a 4-3 end in Senior Bowl practices and on tape against better offensive tackles (especially against Texas A&M) -- he's a big guy who doesn't always play that way because he comes off the snap too high and loses a lot of leverage in the process.
Doesn't use his feet to propel blockers back -- tends to wrestle too much with his upper body. Looks like an observer far too often, especially against line stunts and slide protection. Needs better play awareness. Gets redirected in run plays and doesn't adjust as quickly as you'd like for someone this athletic. Doesn't always wrap up when tackling -- will slip off more determined running backs.
Conclusion: While I stop short of saying that Margus Hunt is a Mike Mamula-style workout wonder who doesn't have what it takes to succeed in the NFL, there's a lot of work to be done here. As athletic as he is, and as much as that athleticism shows up on tape in fits and starts, there are far too many plays in which Hunt is a non-factor when he shouldn't be. I like to say that dominant players get selected in the first round, while "interesting" players get taken in the second, and to me, Hunt is an "interesting" player. He has tons of pure physical upside, but he'll need expert and patient coaching in order to be an NFL difference-maker. The reason he's in the Shutdown 50 is that he's shown enough improvement, and there are enough splash plays, to make me think that he's on the right track.
Georgia Tech's Michael Johnson was a 6-foot-7, 270-pound end who needed experience, football awareness, and better functional strength to make it in the NFL. That's why he was a third-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. But Johnson eventually developed all those things, and the Cincinnati Bengals recently gave him their franchise tag after an 11.5-sack season in 2012. In the right system, Margus Hunt could be the same level of player -- just don't expect it to happen overnight.
NFL Comparison: Michael Johnson, DE, Georgia Tech (2008)
More Shutdown 50:
#50: Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State | #49: John Jenkins, DL, Georgia | #48: Cornellius "Tank" Carradine, DE, Florida State | #47: Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State | #46: Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse | #45: E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State
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