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 begin this year's series with a player who stands a bit under the radar -- Troy defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi. The native of Monrovia Liberia, West Africa, started for two seasons at Troy after playing one season at Butler Community College in Kansas. After redshirting in 2009, Massaquoi broke out with an impressive first season in the Sun Belt with 13.5 sacks (11 solo) and 17 solo tackles for loss. In 2011, he built on that early success by increasing his quarterback hurry total (from four to eight) as his sack total went down to six (five solo). The cousin of Cleveland Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and Minnesota Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, Massaquoi now looks to expand the Troy tradition of NFL pass-rushers, with DeMarcus Ware as the obvious gold standard.
Pros: Ridiculous burst and very fast first step off the ball; Massaquoi will be a nightmare at any level for offensive tackles who don't get into their stances quickly. Displays impressive short-area agility and upper body strength to get past first blocks at the line of scrimmage; will flash past tackles unless they re-set quickly. Can slant inside out of a "wide-nine" formation and pursue. Lateral agility applies to his ability to peel off blocks in the pocket and pursue running backs. Agile enough to roll into intermediate coverage; he'd be a long-term asset to any heavy zone-blitz team. Has a decent bull-rush for his size, especially considering his tendency to come off the snap high. Will go sideline-to-sideline with great effort to stop the play and has tremendous open-field speed. Teams that leave Massaquoi unblocked at the line do so at their own peril.
Cons: Doesn't always win the leverage battle, and he'll need some adjustment in that regard when going up against NFL blockers. Needs to get lower at first contact in a general sense. Can be negated by blocking backs as the outside guy in a five-man line. Gets blocked out fairly easily by tackles with good low base and quick setup. Still getting the hang of twists and stunts; seems especially prone to missing the gap when stunting inside on running plays. Occasionally gets stopped up when trying to read the action at the line; play diagnosis seems to be a work in progress. While his drops into coverage are athletically impressive, he runs all over the place at times and will need work locking on to zones and assignments. A bit of a one-trick pony from a gap perspective -- he needs to be outside the tackle to make a real impact at a time when many teams want their defensive ends to rotate inside in different schemes. Got most of his sacks against less than ideal competition for NFL analysis.
Conclusion: Massaquoi is an interesting "tweener" for his size and position. He'll most likely be asked to switch to outside linebacker at the NFL level, but he plays well with his hand down and seems to have a good grasp of the fundamentals. He doesn't play with the core strength of a James Harrison or LaMarr Woodley, but I wouldn't be quick to make the obvious DeMarcus Ware comparison either, because Massaquoi is the better player (at least in a raw sense) dropping into coverage and Ware again plays with more core strength. He's quick, but not quite as explosive as Von Miller.
Basically, Massaquoi does everything decent-to-well you'd want a man playing his position to do. If his skills were more refined, he'd be a first-round lock. As it is, the team willing to put in the finishing work (starting with the weight room) could have a Pro Bowler and quarterback sack leader on their hands sooner than later.
NFL Comparison: Koa Misi, Utah Utes/Miami Dolphins