The Shutdown 50 — #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois

Mike Tanier

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 Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus. Yes, the last name is awesome, and Mercilus is as tough as the name suggests. While spotting for a teammate during a 2011 weightlifting session, Mercilus lost the tip of his left index finger when it was crushed beneath 405 pounds of weights. Mercilus got stitches, peroxide baths for his hand that sound old Palmolive commercials as re-imagined by the people who make Saw movies, and a splint to make his glove fit properly. He also got new nicknames:"Nubs" and "Nine Piece," no doubt earning Ronnie Lott's rare respect. Mercilus did not let the digital divide stop him: He led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles, exploding onto the draft scene after two nearly invisible seasons at Illinois.

Mercilus still has a lot to learn about his craft, but he has tremendous upside, and he has proven that a little thing like a severe, terrifying injury will not stand in his way. The son of Haitian immigrants who worked three jobs at a time to put food on the table, Mercilus is motivated to succeed. Once his game develops, opposing quarterbacks will learn just how little mercy he possesses.

Pros: Like most high-end pass rushing prospects, Mercilus has an explosive first step that allows him to beat blockers into the backfield. Unlike many other young pass rushers, Mercilus counters with an impressive inside move. Mercilus has another move which he calls the "double spike" in which he uses both his arms to swat away his blocker's hands while lowering his shoulder to turn the corner to the quarterback. That's a pretty advanced repertoire of moves for a young player, and offensive linemen were a step behind him all year long in 2011.

Mercilus is effective when stunting or slanting. He is very strong, and he uses his quickness to get inside his blocker's shoulder when moving toward the middle of the field. He hustles and keeps working when he is blocked, and he recorded a handful of clean-up sacks last year. He gets high marks for both his motor and his off-field habits.

Cons: Mercilus disappears for long stretches of games. If a blocker defends himself from the "double spike," he can latch on to Mercilus and keep him occupied all day. Mercilus is sometimes content to try to beat blockers to the outside and must learn to perfect his moves, add new ones, and find better ways to set up his blockers.

Mercilus does not read running plays well and sometimes looks lost on the backside of the play. He allows blockers to dictate and steer him around when the ball is not coming right at him. Again, this is lack of experience at work, as Mercilus was strictly a situational player until last year. He must learn to play the run with better leverage and recognize when he is being pinned to the sideline to open a cutback lane.

Despite fine initial quickness, Mercilus does not have great open-field speed, and many quarterbacks will be able to run away from him.

Conclusion: Mercilus is a cut above the Andre Branch-style pass rush prospect because he has an inside dimension to his game and has learned to be an effective hand fighter. His upside is very high, and his effort and hustle are exemplary. He can step into a situational pass rush role as a rookie and will probably be a handful, at least until opposing linemen adjust to what he can and cannot do at this stage of his career.

It is hard to project Mercilus as a three-down defender who is as good against the run as the pass, and it is tricky to project him as a 3-4 outside linebacker because he would be incredibly raw in coverage. Still, anything is possible for a player who is so gifted and so raw. Double-digit sack totals, however, are all but inevitable.

NFL Comparison: Charles Johnson, DE, Carolina Panthers

More Shutdown 50:
#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