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 Memphis defensive lineman Dontari Poe. While he really found himself on the national map after a performance at the 2012 scouting combine in which he ran an official 4.98 40-yard dash and amassed 44 reps in the 225-pound bench press, he had shown up with impressive times in drills before. He's been timed as low as 4.86 in the 40 at school, and there's no question that Poe measures up in all the drills that -- to a greater or lesser degree -- indicate the potential for football performance.
Actual game tape tells a different story. Poe's combine put him in the projected first round of the draft for an NFL that sometimes values size/speed combos to its own detriment, but the play-by-play view is inconclusive. Against decent (but not always spectacular) opposition, and single-teamed far more often than you'd expect of a man standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 346 pounds, Poe put up just one sack and five quarterback hurries in 2011. Of course, sack and hurry totals aren't always the ultimate indicator of success for interior linemen, especially those who are asked to soak up blockers so that other defenders can make plays. Poe has the potential to do just about everything you could ask of a defensive lineman, but rarely at a definitive or elite level to date.
That's the ultimate question NFL teams must ask when watching Dontari Poe -- how much can he do at the next level, and how long will it take him to get there?
Pros: Excellent motor and second effort, especially for his size -- Poe is generally looking to make a play or help wrap up even after he's chipped or otherwise blocked out. Startlingly quick at getting up off the ground and heading to the ballcarrier. Poe has a nice lateral slide - he is very good at moving with slide protection and using his agility to break off when required. Played all over the line at Memphis -- everything one one-tech nose shade to three-tech to 3-4 and 4-3 end. Didn't look significantly worse at one position than others; the same cannot be said of some higher-ranked linemen (i.e., Quinton Coples).
At 346 pounds, Poe has a body that can carry that weight -- he's not a fatty and his general short-area speed and agility would seem to indicate that as he develops in an NFL conditioning program, his physical attributes could be even more impressive. He shows outstanding power when he comes off the ball low, gets under pads, and drives the blocker back, but those moments need to happen with greater frequency.
Cons: Raw speed aside, I would like to see Poe get off the snap a little quicker -- he seems to take an extra nanosecond to get all those big body parts rolling, and as a result, offensive linemen have extra time to set for him. I think that's why he gets washed out at times. His lack of functional strength at the line is a real concern if you're projecting him as an NFL defensive tackle; blocking backs from mid-level programs should not be able to deal with him one-on-one as often as they do.
Comes high off the ball in an end role, which allows blockers to get under him and win the strength battle. Doesn't show a lot of hand movement to break double teams; he'll tend to bull into power blocks and disappear. Gets blocked out of lanes and gaps and has trouble re-directing.
Conclusion: On the surface, Poe would seem to be the ultimate personification of Bill Parcells' "Planet Theory" -- that there are just a few men on the planet big enough to play at a dominant level in the NFL, and that's why size matters. However, there are also several men on the planet adept enough at blocking in the NFL to negate the rudimentary efforts of the Big Meanies. That's where technique comes in, because no matter how big Poe is, he's going to have to up his game from a technical perspective before his mountainous build means a lot in an every-down sense.
The Bryant comparison is more about where I think Poe might best fit in the NFL than a reflection of his specific abilities. There just aren't too many guys this size, and I am NOT going to compare Poe to Haloti Ngata, because that makes no sense at all. Ngata plays on an entirely different planet. Bryant also had legitimate "old-man strength" at Texas A&M; he was drafted by Seattle as a defensive tackle in a different Seahawks regime, and he just had to find the right role as a dominant run-stopping end in Pete Carroll's defensive concepts.
The challenges for the NFL team drafting Poe will be two: First, to get him up to speed on the strength and technique required to stand up to the rigors of the NFL. Second, to find the right place for him. That could be anything from defensive tackle to end in different base or hybrid fronts; the appeal of Poe is that he's an interesting vessel into which several different projections could be poured. It's just always important to note that a great combine performance doesn't make a player any more ready for the NFL.
Pro Comparison: Red Bryant, Seattle Seahawks
More Shutdown 50:
#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