NFL Prospect Focus: Missouri Defense

Missouri is one of the surprise teams in college football this season, sitting on top of the SEC East with a 9-1 record. Defensive coordinator, Dave Steckel, uses a pressure defense very effectively. While the defense isn’t that big, most of the players are very athletic and complement each other very well. There are three senior NFL prospects on the defense. While none look like premium type draft picks, all three should be drafted next spring.

E.J. Gaines – Cornerback

Gaines is a fourth year senior and a three year starter for the Tigers. He lines up on the left side. Missouri is predominantly a zone coverage defense, and Gaines is very good in zone. He has good size for the position at about 5’11 – 195 with long arms. He is a good athlete with quick feet, loose hips, and good overall body control. He has good, not great, play speed, and I estimate that he runs in the 4.5 range. He shows a good pedal and turn and has a nice burst coming out of his turn. His footwork is good, and he can move well in transition.

In zone, Gaines does a very good job keeping receivers in front of him. He is aware and will look to help out when free. He tries to be physical and does a good job re-routing receivers. He reacts well to the ball in the air and has good hands to make an interception. To date, he has four interceptions this year.

What I don’t see with Gaines, is press man coverage. Missouri will play off man, but in the tapes viewed, I never saw him in press, so it’s impossible to grade his jam and his ability to react in man. He supports the run very well. He reacts quickly to the run, can take on and shed blocks, and is a sure tackler who hits and wraps.

It’s difficult to give Gaines a fair grade because we don’t see him in press man. He can definitely play in zone schemes, but until scouts and coaches see him in press, he is a bit of a wildcard. If Gaines is invited to play in an all-star game, we should be able to see him play some man. His workouts for NFL coaches in the spring will answer many questions as well.

Andrew Wilson – Linebacker

Wilson lines up as the Mike linebacker in the Tigers defense. He is a fifth year senior and a three year starter. Wilson has prototypical Mike linebacker size at 6’3 – 240. He is athletic, and on tape, looks more quick then fast. He has quick feet, with good lateral agility and does a good job moving through trash. I don't see really good speed. He looks to be a 4.75-4.80 type. While he lacks good top end speed, he makes up for it with top instincts and quickness. He is a good pursuit player and always takes good angles to the ball.

As I said above, Wilson is a very instinctive player. He is quick to react and is consistently around the ball. He shows strength at the point and can shed quickly. He also has the quickness to slip or elude blocks. He is a consistent, aggressive tackler. In short, Wilson is a playmaker in the run game. In pass coverage, I don’t ever see him in man coverage, but he has a good drop and is able to get depth and keep receivers in front of him. He shows awareness and good ball reactions. His plant and drive is adequate.

Overall, I see Wilson as a 3-4 inside linebacker in the NFL. His instincts will help make up for his lack of top speed. Many 4-3 teams will downgrade him some because of his speed. In a 3-4 he has a chance to be an eventual starter, but the worst case scenario is, he becomes a top backup and special teams' player. Looks to be a late mid-to-late round pick, but if he runs well, he will get drafted higher. His tape is good.

Michael Sam – Defensive Line

Sam is another fifth year senior. He started nine games in 2012 and is a starter this year. He plays in a rotation but still plays about 60% of the defensive snaps.

Sam was not on a lot of clubs scouting lists early in the season, but you can’t help but notice him on tape. He is an undersized defensive end (6’2 – 255), but he is athletic, quick, and has play speed. On top of that, he is very competitive and plays hard every snap.

Sam plays both from a three-point and two-point stance. He is very quick off the ball, and he uses that quickness to be disruptive. While he lacks the size and power to consistently hold the point versus big tackles, he uses his quickness to shoot gaps. His change of direction and lateral movement are good, and that keeps him active at the line of scrimmage. He is quick to find the ball and makes plays. He is a good pass rusher at the college level and can stay low to get under his opponents. He has quick hands and shows the ability to put counter moves together. He is an average bull rusher. He is a top pursuit player because of his motor, play speed, and always taking good angles to the ball.

Sam’s best chance to play in the NFL is as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He has very good outside linebacker size to go along with the required play speed and athleticism. He is going to have to prove that he can drop into coverage and transition. If he does that well, then I see him as a late-round pick.

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