Scout’s notebook: defensive review

Observations and analysis from the 11th week of the college football season, including thoughts about some of the nation’s top defensive prospects.

Where’s the love?

One guy who simply doesn’t get enough credit on the Pittsburgh defensive line is DE Jabaal Sheard. Saturday against Notre Dame, Sheard finished with four tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, one pass breakup and four quarterback hurries, and simply overwhelmed right tackle Sam Young off the edge with his speed. Sheard is a 6-4, 260-pound lineman who exhibits an explosive first step and does a great job keeping his pad level down and making himself small when turning the corner. He possesses impressive body control and does a great job maintaining his balance along the edge and accelerating toward the quarterback. Sheard is only a junior and doesn’t get as much attention as he should playing opposite DE Greg Romeus. But the guy is a gifted pass rusher in his own right, and his combination of burst, balance and closing speed will find him a spot on an NFL roster.

Where to play him?

While watching Baylor’s ILB Joe Pawelek last weekend vs. Texas, it’s obvious the guy has impressive instincts, body control and ball skills when asked to play in zone coverage. However, Pawelek isn’t a real rangy athlete, and although he remains balanced out of his breaks, he struggles to quickly close on the football. Worse yet, he isn’t physical at the line of scrimmage and is consistently washed out at the point of attack and fails to take on blocks. There aren’t too many homes in the NFL for linebackers who lack closing speed and aren’t real physical vs. the run, and although Pawelek makes some plays that make you say “wow,” I don't see a place on the field where he could start at for an NFL team.

Has the Kool-Aid gone stale?

One of the most debated prospects in the 2010 NFL Draft is USC safety Taylor Mays. Physically, Mays is a monster at 6-3, 235 pounds and runs likes a gazelle when tracking the football. The more I watch him, however, the less impressed I am by his instincts and overall feel for the game. Sure, the guy dishes out his share of big hits against exposed receivers in the secondary. But last weekend, he was unable to consistently bring down Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, who not only displayed the ability to slip tackles in space but also leaped over Mays once when surging into the second level. Plus, Mays always seems to be a step slow making his reads in the pass game and is consistently forced to rely on his natural athleticism to stay in the play. Am I saying that Mays isn’t ever going to be a starter at the next level? No. What I'm saying is that I think he's overrated because of his pure physical attributes, and that if I were to take a safety in the first round, he would have to be someone special. And Mays isn’t that guy.

Mr. Shutdown

Coming into the year, I considered North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney one of the top junior defensive backs in the nation and thought with a strong season he could make a move up draft boards. But I didn’t give him the type love he deserved early in the year because opposing offenses simply weren’t throwing the ball in his direction. However, that all changed this past weekend vs. Miami when Burney finished the game with three interceptions, running one back 77 yards for a touchdown. Burney showcases impressive footwork and body control out of his breaks and does a good job maintaining his balance and getting back up to speed quickly. He possesses the deep speed to run with receivers down the field and displays the kind of feel in the pass game to fall off his receiver and go get the football. In what looks like a very athletic, but unpolished, junior cornerback class, Burney is one guy I could really see making a run at the top cornerback spot if he declares.

Makes it look so easy

One of the toughest position rankings for me to put together right now is the senior 4-3 outside linebacker class. With more and more teams looking for 3-4 type hybrid athletes, the weak-side and strong-side linebacker spots have kind of fallen by the wayside. However, one junior outside linebacker prospect I'm ready to move to the top of class if he declares is Penn State’s Navorro Bowman. Bowman combines an impressive blend of speed, coordination and instincts and does a great job maintaining his balance in coverage and closing on the football. Against Indiana, he totaled 12 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and one interception, which he returned 73 yards for a touchdown. And although he lacks ideal size and power for the position, Bowman has a nose for the ball and is a solid wrap-up guy. I wouldn’t have any reservation about instantly moving him ahead of Missouri’s Sean Weatherspoon as the nation's top 4-3 outside linebacker.

MAC corner on the rise

Ohio cornerback Thad Turner is a tall, long-armed athlete who looks natural pressing receivers off the line and making it difficult for them to cleanly get into their routes. He did a really nice job this past week vs. Buffalo disrupting the timing of the Bulls’ pass game and jumping routes underneath. Turner finished the game with five tackles, one pass breakup and one pick, and although he desperately needs to add a little more bulk to his frame, he showcases a real grittiness to his play. He’s still raw with his footwork, especially in off-coverage – like any MAC corner – however, he possesses enough size, speed and balance to at least warrant some consideration as an intriguing developmental type prospect at the next level.

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