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Coach’s Corner: NFL Defensive Players

A look at the five best Mountain West defensive prospects

NCAA Football: Navy at Hawaii Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Mountain West Conference Linebackers

Jeff Allison, #9, Linebacker, Fresno State

  • Where he wins:

Jeff Allison is a “thumper” old-school middle linebacker that could adapt into an outside linebacker at the next level or play at his current position: Mike. Allison plays good zone coverage and reads underneath routes extremely well. He also can get into passing lanes by reading quarterback’s eyes and gets adequate depth in cover three and cover two zones. Being able to play against crossing routes at the next level is key for any linebacker and his tape shows that he can get in lanes and re-route receivers off their path well.

He’s a great hitter, bringing his “thumper” name to fruition. He makes great angles and hustles sideline-to-sideline to make every tackle he can get his arms and head on. He positions himself well on outside run plays and trusts his teammates to allow him to get a lane to fill in pursuit. In inside zone he brings a thud and brings his hips and hands with strength and balance. He also sheds blocks well by bringing the wood against bigger defenders and making sure he only takes on a side of a bigger inside lineman.

Making good reads in the running game is an underrated quality. Once Allison gets his read, he trusts it and flies to the hole, once in the hole, he makes a strong tackle with square shoulders and a strong core and lower body. Filling gaps and bringing a thud each and every time is an underrated characteristic of Allison’s game.

  • Where he needs to improve:

When Allison brings a thud against offensive linemen and lead blockers, he allows linemen to get their hands inside and sometimes latch onto him. He will need to be coached on how to get linemen’s hands off of him because he is not quick enough to get around linemen and make a tackle in the backfield. If he gets latched on, he’s still aggressive to the ball and can make good arm tackles, which is rare. I would love to see him as a blitzing linebacker on third down and move linemen out of the way for other blitzers behind him.

While Allison is strong and physical, he does not always run his feet while tackling squared-up. Bigger running backs in the NFL could either go around him or run through him if he does not run his feet. I did notice that as the season went on, he got better at keeping his feet moving, which means he’s coachable and works hard.

He can get a little too aggressive on “mesh” plays on short crossers and allows an open throwing lane behind him. Against Minnesota, he struggled to keep his eyes on deeper routes and the quarterback could make good throws over the middle with a big lane. However, when there is no short crosser, he gets adequate depth and reads the routes and coverages well.

While he might need be a great athlete, he’s good enough to stick around and have a productive career if he gets in the right scheme. I would love for him to lower his pad level and make his first step out of his stance instead of stand straight up after his step. He looks to be a bit of a peeker and sometimes does not trust his read all that well. But if he trusts it, he runs down hill and fills alleys like no one in else in the Conference.

  • Conclusion:

Jeff Allison is an old-school middle linebacker that wins with strength, tenacity, and a mean streak. He’s a decent athlete that is a bit undersized and might have to adjust playing Sam or Will linebacker at the next level. While being undersized (only 225 pounds at the Combine), he is strong and explosive in short jolts. It would not put it past me if Allison stuck around for awhile because he can be versatile in the passing game as a zone defender, pass rusher, or man coverage defender on running backs and tight ends. I think he would fit well within a 4-3 defense rather than a 3-4 merely based on his size and running game characteristics. He needs more defensive linemen to help take on blocks for him, and he would not get that luxury in the 3-4. I currently have a 6th round grade on Allison and I would love to see him get drafted, but linebackers are getting less and less recognition on the field in the NFL and that might hurt his chances in getting drafted by teams. If Allison would have gone back for his senior year, I think his draft stock would have risen because he would have gotten a better grasp for the game and would likely show off to scouts his ability to play football at a higher level.

Jahlani Tavai, #31, Linebacker, Hawaii

  • Where he wins:

Jahlani Tavai is a physical and strong linebacker that played a little out of position at Hawaii, in my opinion. I think he is going to make a great 3-down linebacker in the NFL. He is versatile enough to play an edge defender in an odd scheme and play off ball in an even scheme. He shows a great first step as a pass rusher and sets the edge well playing against the run. He shows decent speed on film in his ability to cover tight ends and running backs in man coverage frequently. He does a good job of playing zone when he is off-ball in the passing game. While rushing the passer, Tavai has a great inside move when he oversets an offensive tackle. He also shows a willingness to rush the passer as an interior defender when he oversets and dips inside.

In the running game, Tavai is a strong defender that strafes well over the top and fills the gap when the play is at him. He is a good tackler that wraps up well. He hits hard and drives ball carriers backwards. Tackles in space well, which is hard to do for a guy of his size (6’2” 250) and shows good agility against speedy backs.

I would love to see him drop into coverage more as an off-ball linebacker, but Hawaii wanted him to rush the passer, which is a safe bet giving his great skillset and speed off the edge. He’s also extremely bendable at the hips and uses his hands, feet, and shoulders well. NFL teams will love his ability to play off-ball on first and second downs and pass rush on third downs.

  • Where he needs to improve:

While being an aggressive linebacker is a good thing, Tavai seems to want to hit someone so hard that he loses focus on the ball and sometimes gets lost. I would love to see him use his pass rush technique in the run game and be strong with his hips and hands. This is extremely problematic when setting an edge. While he takes a good angle in setting the edge, he gets carried away and allows ball carriers to sometimes get outside or he gets too far upfield. When you get too far upfield it allows ball carriers a bigger hole to get to the second level. Sometimes he gets off balance when doing this and loses a step, if he can play under more control while setting the edge or taking on a blocker, he might have been the best player in the Conference in terms of draft prospects. Taking on linemen is hard, but he does a good job of keeping his body balanced against tight ends and fullbacks, which he will see a lot of at the next level.

  • Conclusion:

I really like Jahlani Tavai, however, I picture him as a Sam linebacker that needs to run downhill and set edges from a distance. And when a team goes to third down, he can be used as a blitzer, edge rusher, or interior rusher. His versatility will infatuate teams and will likely make him a highly-touted prospect. However, his off-field assault case precedes him and missing a few games and the Combine could shy teams away, his product on the field shows that he can be a Day 2 selection to a team desperate for versatility on defense. I have a 3rd round grade on him and would not be shocked if he went higher (based on purely film) or lower (based on his injury and off-field); regardless, he should be drafted at least by round 5. He’s got a big body at 6’2” 250 and looks quick on film and since we do not have any speed or agility numbers on him, you have to assume his game speed.

Mountain West Defensive Backs

Mike Bell, #4, Safety, Fresno State

  • Where he wins:

Mike Bell is an instinctual, sound centerfield safety that can also play in the box if you need him to. He makes great reads in coverage in coverages 1, 2, 3, and 4. Once he sees the ball in the air he strikes, going up and getting the ball and making plays; he’s Fresno State’s ballhawk. He also makes good run fits from the free safety position and can stick his nose in and make a tackle. He is easily influenced by quarterback eyes, but that shows how much he wants the ball. Changes directions well, from backpedal to sprint motion, on film and takes good angles to the ball. However, sometimes he misreads balls and can angle himself out of making tackles in open field. Slow plays the ball well on roll coverages and flies to the sidelines in thirds.

Not only can he play free safety, but he can make a strong, physical tackle. He brings a thump and a 6’3 210, he has the size to add bulk if teams want to covert him to a box safety. He fits run reads well, and sometimes can be overzealous, but he shows a discipline to stay in coverage. He’s a good tackler but he has a tendency to lower his head and miss tackles, when he wraps up and finishes, his tackling skill is shown. He can get a little deep and conservative in coverages 1 and 3, but he is doing a good job of keeping things in front of him; he’s a smart situational football player.

  • Where he needs to improve:

His 4.84 at the Combine was the slowest of all the defensive backs. His top-end speed, unless he wants to gain weight and play in the box, needs to be better and could shy teams away from picking him. With that speed, I worry about his translation to man coverage as a safety guarding tight ends, slots, or running backs. He does have fluid hips and transitions out of breaks well, but I worry that his top end speed, even though his game speed appears to be faster than his times, will get him stuck.

He gambles on coverage a lot and is baited by QB eyes. There are times when he shows up too early and misses the ball or tackle then there are times where he makes a perfectly timed effort and then does not turn his head around to make a play on the ball. He could get called for a lot of pass interference penalties with that mindset.

  • Conclusion:

I had a lot higher grade on Bell pre-Combine, but he seems to have lost a lot of steam for his way-below-average speed. Teams will look at his ability in the passing game as a centerfielder and his ability as a run fitter from a high safety position. They will also look at his height and weight, and will likely look to see how much weight he can add before he loses his transitional speed. I think he has to be a free safety unless he adds weight; but at the Combine, his speed does not bode well for his future. Currently, I have a 7th round grade on him, which is surprising because I thought earlier in the year, and before the draft process, that he would be a day two pick; instead, his times precede him. However, I think a team will grab him sooner than that based on his instincts, which is what coaches love in a day three pick.

Andrew Wingard, #28, Safety, Wyoming

  • Where he wins:

Andrew Wingard is an athletic safety that can translate to both safety spots. He shows a good back pedal as a free or boundary safety and a good downhill ability as a box safety. He is a good finisher and tackler that fills the correct gap and plays with a good amount of anger. On top of playing safety, he can roll into the box and play a nickel linebacker role for teams in third down situations. He is a decent open-field tackler, however, I don’t like his technique, he is a bit of an ankle biter and does not wrap up well, leads with shoulder and neck a lot, would love to see him square up more guys.

Wingard times blitzes well from a deeper safety role. Wyoming used him a lot as a blitzing linebacker and safety. As a blitzer, he seems to just bull rush linemen but he does a good job at avoiding blocks from smaller blockers. He picks a side and plays to his scheme well. They also used him as a deep cover safety. Wingard is extremely versatile and might end up playing a box safety role/nickel linebacker role at the next level.

  • Where he needs to improve:

While Wingard is good in his back pedal, he is slow to get closer to the line of scrimmage when he’s playing as a boundary safety. His run reads are a little slow from the deep safety role, but he does a good job of staying in his back pedal and making sure he’s the safety valve on trick plays. Once he reads run, he finishes tackles well and fits gaps well.

As mentioned before, his tackling technique is something to be left desired. He seems to just launch his body into knees and ankles. I think he would do a better job as a tackler, even though he’s above-average at it, if he would form up and drive his feet.

  • Conclusion:

Andrew Wingard is relatively small safety, which might scare some teams. But he ran a really good time at 4.56 at the Combine and also recorded a 36.5” vertical. His speed shows up on film because he comes out of nowhere to get to the ball and flies, aggressively to the ball. Really solid 40 at 4.56, shows on film, he comes out of nowhere to find the ball sometimes. As mentioned before, he’s a little small at 210 pounds to play a box safety/nickel linebacker role; but the guy is everywhere on film and is a high-volume tackler. I think he is slightly better than Mike Bell from Fresno State on film and based on his athletic ability, he could translate into a developmental safety prospect.

I have a fifth round grade on Wingard, but I have a feeling teams will hate his size and lateral quickness. He has the speed and intangibles to play at the next level, no doubt.

Mountain West Defensive Line

Carl Granderson, #91, Edge, Wyoming

  • Where he wins:

Carl Granderson is the only edge player in the Mountain West Conference worthy of a draft pick. He plays with his hands and has good technique while rushing the passer. Granderson uses an arsenal of moves to get to opposing quarterbacks. He can use a spin move where he goes to the inside after he sets up tackle with an overset. He has a really good dip and rip, he gets low to the ground with hips and shoulders get skinny to make him virtually unblockable without holding. Has a good swim move but usually does in running game/stunts. He also gets his hands on cut blocks.

Granderson appears to have fluid and flexible hips that allow him to bend and not lose speed. In pass heavy schemes, he gets his hands up fast and knocks down passes if he can’t get to the quarterback. He has an excellent frame and body to be a solid draft selection.

He also looks relatively comfortable as a zone defender, shows a good eye for where the ball is going to go. He had a great pick six against Hawaii, in which they tried to cut him, he dropped into coverage instead, and caught a high ball and took it to the house. Great athleticism.

  • Where he needs to improve:

First step quickness is not the best you would want, but it’s fine, he does a good job of using technique to win over pure athleticism. He gets up to speed quickly though, even though his first step is not exactly elite.

He has a tendency to get washed down by tight ends and tackles if out leveraged to begin with. Would love to see him be as strong in the passing game as in the running game. He also has a tendency to get washed down the line doing stunts and twists in the running game. It appears sometimes he is just so eager to get to the passer that he forgets about the run. He gets influenced a lot by opposing teams, like when the offensive tackle is in pass protection stance on a screen or on a draw.

If he is out-leveraged, he also has a tendency to get reached, that might be part of Wyoming’s scheme, to flush everything outside, but you see him get hooked and reached by tight ends and tackles a lot. His recognition of passing situations is a plus, but he needs to adjust to the whole field, rather than just one blocker, which is hard to do when you think you have a free shot at the quarterback.

  • Conclusion:

If Carl Granderson could play as well against the run as he does against the pass, there is no question he would be a top-100 selection. However, he has struggled in recognizing run and getting reached/hooked by opponents and could slide because of it. Granderson is a ferocious pass rusher that is a great technician who shows an arsenal of moves to get to the quarterback. While his sack totals were not what you thought they would be, he was a productive player that appears to be a good teammate on the field.

I would draft Granderson in the 6th round. He has a good body and a good set of pass rushing moves. He just lacks the initial burst off the line of scrimmage that some of the class’s edge players do. He very well could be the highest defensive player drafted from the Mountain West Conference, but my money is on Jahlani Tavai.

Ranking the Mountain West Defensive Players:

  1. Jahlani Tavai
  2. Carl Granderson
  3. Andrew Wingard
  4. Mike Bell
  5. Jeff Allison

Tomorrow look for the top 5 offensive players in the MWC.