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 Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. Worthy entered the combine as a sure-fire first-round pick, but funny things can happen in Indy. Worthy had an unimpressive set of workouts: He slipped and fell during a balance drill and performed other drills as if he was too busy keeping the instructions straight to cut crisply or hit pads with authority. While Worthy (who admitted he was nervous) struggled, fellow linemen like Dontari Poe put up eye-popping numbers. Slipping behind one or two players at your position is a great way to slip out of the first round.
Can a couple of minutes in shorts really erase three seasons of game tape? Not quite: Worthy's ability to penetrate the interior defensive line makes him one of the most intriguing tackle prospects in the draft, even if he did look mixed up while running around Lucas Oil Stadium in compression wear. The bigger question is whether Worthy's hot-and-cold production will heat up in the pros, or if the combine was indicative of his limitations as a player.
Pros: The first thing that leaps off the tape about Worthy is his snap anticipation. It is not just first-step quickness — he is quick, but Fletcher Cox and others are quicker — it is his ability to start moving forward a fraction of a second before the snap. He leans, he twitches, and he sometimes appears to have his hand in the neutral zone, but he rarely gets flagged for jumping offside. Freeze a replay at the snap, and he is about two feet forward while everyone else on the field is still set. Older fans may remember Keith Millard of the Vikings, who always seemed to know the snap count. Worthy's anticipation reminds me of Millard.
Obviously, a defensive tackle who can beat the ball into the backfield is going to blow up some plays, and Worthy has tackled a few quarterbacks in the act of handing off. More often, he has his blocker turned sideways before the play develops, disrupting the entire interior line. Once he has the edge on his blocker, Worthy does a good job ripping away. Opponents used fullbacks as extra pass protectors in the interior against Michigan State, but Worthy easily tosses smaller blockers to the ground.
Worthy is a thick, low-center-of-gravity defender (translation: huge butt) who can get leverage on his blocker and shove him backward when he does not win the first-step battle.
Cons: Worthy draws a lot of double teams, and he often gets blown backward against two blockers. All of that extra attention takes its toll, and Worthy looks gassed at the ends of some games. It is hard to hold that against him — you try battling two Georgia offensive linemen through multiple overtimes — but Worthy will have to improve his conditioning in the pros.
Worthy's "jump the snap" routine does lead to some penalties. Watching where he lines up, it is shocking that he does not get called for neutral zone infractions constantly. NFL referees may not be so forgiving.
Worthy is strictly an in-the-box defender. He will not make many plays down the line of scrimmage, and something has gone very wrong if he is chasing a ball carrier down from behind. His low career sack total (12 in three seasons as a starter) reflects his inability to close on quarterbacks.
Conclusion: Worthy's lackluster workout results underline just how enigmatic he is as a prospect. His greatest attribute, besides brute strength, is something that cannot be easily showcased in a drill. It is also something that could get penalized away if NFL referees don't give him any benefit of the doubt.
The upside for Worthy is Millard, who had 58 sacks in eight seasons in the 1980s, but that is a very ambitious comparison. Worthy needs to gain stamina without losing his initial quickness, and he must show that he can stand up two linemen on a consistent basis. He will probably be a "wave" player at the start of his career, playing nose tackle on passing downs or three-tech tackle as part of a second platoon, and he can be effective in that kind of 25-snap role. Any team that drafts him in an early round will expect much more, but they will have to be patient.
NFL Comparison: Corey Peters, Atlanta Falcons
More Shutdown 50:
#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