Washington’s Mason Foster may have had to recover from the stigma of playing for a program that went winless one season, but fellow outside linebacker Mark Herzlich has the story about overcoming obstacles that will outstrip any other in this draft class.
Diagnosed with bone cancer (Ewing's sarcoma) in his left leg shortly after the 2008 season when he won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award, Herzlich recovered to star in his senior season after missing all of the 2009 campaign. Herzlich improved throughout the season and there’s no doubt that everyone will be rooting for him to make a great Senior Bowl showing.
Mark Herzlich, Boston College
Mason Foster, Washington
Pros: Herzlich is a fundamentally sound player who rarely finds himself out of position. Is asked to play close to deep intermediate coverage and excels at dropping into zones. Fluent in advanced (for linebackers) coverage techniques such as passing off one potential receiver in zone coverage for a later-breaking receiver. Very good from the snap at keeping his body moving while diagnosing what’s in front of him; avoids being taken out by misdirection. Can defend receivers from the tight end to the wide slot, allowing the defense that has him to execute unusual formations. Always has his eye on the ball and is always looking to make a play. Amazing recovery from bone cancer and return to the game shows his determination and love of football.
Pros:In the open field, Foster sifts through blocks very well and takes accurate angles to the ball. Good at bouncing and slipping off blockers in short areas, making up for the fact that he isn’t very physical when fending off blocks. Very good at analyzing the action in front of him, and even if he’s late to the area he wants to occupy, his recovery speed puts him in the place to succeed. Foster is an excellent form tackler; he wraps up quickly and decisively when he gets his man. Impressive when directed to blitz because he’s faster in forward gear than in reverse; he times the blitz well and can get through obstacles to disrupt. Will also excel on special teams when given the chance; his entry into full-time starter role in the NFL could come on that path.
Cons: Not a pure pass rusher; would probably find it difficult to move to an “endbacker” position as the edge of a 3-4 defense because he often gets blocked out in straight pass rush. Doesn’t have superior closing speed. Can be boxed out in space by faster players and finds it hard to catch up once he’s beaten. Much better at dealing with what’s in front of him. Herzlich doesn’t have a dynamic move to bounce off blocks at the line; fullbacks and tight ends can take him out and he will need to develop strength in the pit. Seems to play more on his heels the closer he gets to the line.
Cons: Led the Pac-10 in tackles in his senior season, but the common perception is that Foster made so many plays because there was a lack of talent around him. Lack of pure physicality will limit his options as a middle linebacker, though he has a lot of the skills required for the position. Though his tackling form is great, he doesn't always make immediate stops on bigger running backs with more leg drive; will tend to drag those types of players before help arrives. Limited in pass coverage, Foster isn’t quick in his drops, though he makes up with acceleration over the length of a route.
Conclusion: Herzlich’s intangibles are unquestionable; he’s already faced more in his life than most young players. The Senior Bowl will give prospective NFL employers their first shot at the extensive medical tests that Herzlich has no doubt steeled himself for. Assuming that all systems are go there, the next question is how he fits in a defense. Teams that use different coverage schemes (frequent nickel, for example) behind four-man fronts or 3-3-5 defenses, in which linebackers are required to be versatile, will find Herzlich appealing.
Conclusion:Like his teammate Jake Locker, Foster is a bit of an unknown commodity for two reasons: First, nobody wanted to watch the Huskies in the Tyrone Willingham era (0-12 in 2008). Second, despite the program’s recent turnaround, most Pac-10 attention goes to the California and Oregon schools. Foster has always flown under the radar, but now that he has a chance to shine in front of a national audience, he could accomplish what fellow Washington linebacker Donald Butler(notes) in the 2010 draft by moving his way into the third round. Foster could go higher if he proves that he can play more physically in a consistent fashion.