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 Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw. Nick Saban once called Upshaw the "meanest player [he] ever coached." Uh-oh. Let's hope that there is no such thing as the Shutdown 50 Meanness Curse. A week ago, I wrote at length about Alfonzo Dennard's mean streak, and he made the extra effort to validate my scouting report by allegedly assaulting a police officer. Upshaw may want to stay out of public places for the next few days; it's only until Thursday, after all, and hopefully he can get through his suit-fitting, and other pre-draft formalities, without getting into a fracas.
Upshaw already has a fracas on his record, though it dates back to August of 2009 and appears to have been a minor campus scuffle. Saban did not suspend Upshaw, instead offering this bit of classic doublespeak: "I think he was put in a little bit of an uncompromising position and didn't handle it very well." No one handles being caught in an uncompromising position very well. More recently, Upshaw has devoted himself to charitable pursuits, including "the 41 Fund" for Alabama tornado victims. That's not very mean at all!
All of this "meanness" talk is appropriate because Upshaw draws comparisons to the Steelers' James Harrison, who is, well, mean. Upshaw has a lot of other Harrison qualities as well. He has the skills to be a terror as a pass rusher. The nasty streak is just a bonus. So please, Courtney, don't do anything rash.
Pros: Upshaw has prototypical size and speed for a pass rusher at 6-foot-1, 272 pounds, with forty times in the 4.7 range. He can play end in the 4-3 or linebacker in the 3-4, and he lined up in a variety of fronts and on both ends of the line in Saban's defense.
Upshaw has several effective pass rush moves. In addition to going around the edge, he can coax his blocker to flair out, then knife back inside with a well-developed inside move. Upshaw can also get under a blocker's pads and shove him backward when bull rushing. Once he reaches the quarterback, Upshaw has the explosive final step that allows him to deliver a blow before the ball is released. He is a jarring hitter.
Upshaw dropped into coverage at times for Alabama. He did not have complicated responsibilities, but when he slipped out to the flat zone he knew what he was doing. He has enough quickness and awareness to drop into zones regularly as a linebacker.
Cons: There are not many "cons" to speak of here. He is inexperienced as a linebacker, though most scouts project him there. He is not a top run defender at the point of attack, but most pass rushers of his type are not.
Conclusion: Upshaw is big, strong, quick, intense, productive, and yes, mean. Put him at right end and he will grow quickly into a double-digit sack producer. Put him at 3-4 and he will also provide plenty of sacks and disruption, and it will not be long before he also provides adequate pass coverage, so long as he is not asked to cover Ray Rice one-on-one.
Upshaw will probably be long gone by the time the Steelers pick, but he is the kind of player the Steelers have had incredible success with over the years. With the Steelers, he would start his career as a situational pass rusher, then take over a starting job in his second or third season once he mastered the nuances of the playbook and his technique. He would become Harrison, or LaMarr Woodley. He should become just as good a player in many other systems.
In most years, Upshaw would be a Top-10 pick. He probably won't be this year, but only because so many of the teams at the top of the draft board have other, more pressing needs.
NFL Comparison: James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers. Who else?
More Shutdown 50:
#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