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Project Pass Rush

Jan 24, 2013 12:17 AM EST

By Jeff Risdon

One of my goals during Senior Bowl week was to get a better grasp on the skills of two of the more beguiling players in this draft. Both Margus Hunt and Ezekiel Ansah came to Mobile with a lot of intrigue, foreigners with great athletic attributes that are relatively new to playing football. Both had shown glimpses of potential greatness during their collegiate careers as defensive ends at SMU and BYU, respectively. Both were poised to shoot up draft boards by putting on impressive exhibitions in front of all the NFL’s coaching and scouting cognoscenti.

A funny thing happened on the way to cementing first round draft statuses for Hunt and Ansah. The plain and evident truth is that right now neither is a very good football player. They quite obviously got by in college simply on being superior athletes with superior bodies, playing inferior competition in the lower levels of FBS football.

Hunt is a little further along as a football player. During his senior year at SMU, the Estonian track and field star showed better hand usage to get off defenders, and he appeared to understand how to better use his incredible length as an asset. He played more assertively with his arms and located the ball more quickly. Against Houston, he was able to overpower blockers and quickly close on the ball, notching two tackles for loss (one on a screen pass) and forcing another by holding the edge and forcing a cutback into traffic while also haranguing quarterback Crawford Jones all day. In their bowl game against Fresno State he put on one of the most impressive displays of the year, bagging two sacks and three tackles for loss and repeatedly beating all sorts of chips, double teams, and protection slides. He also forced two fumbles in that game and set an NCAA record for most career blocked kicks.

As that was the last any saw of Hunt, expectations were sky high. Unfortunately that probably weighs against him. Hunt looked slender and undefined at weigh-ins and has shown very little functional strength during practice sessions. Going against better competition has highlighted his issues with pad level and poor leverage. He is 6’8” with an exceptionally long torso, which gives him a higher center of gravity and a bigger target for blockers. Hunt has shown a propensity for popping straight up once contact is engaged and he cannot immediately push away. His initial burst and lateral quickness are average here. There have been reps where Hunt has flashed the promise that led many to believe he could crash the first round. He used a nice grab-and-pull move to leverage himself around the edge on a rep, and he smartly pushed back and got his hands in the passing lane.

Yet, Hunt has looked very raw and uncomfortable for the most part. He has not been bad, but Hunt has not been impressive either. To his credit, he has shown a willingness to learn and acknowledged that he has a long way to go. His fellow players definitely like and respect him, and you cannot teach his length or natural athleticism. The problem that has been exposed here is that he sorely lacks a definable position. He doesn’t have enough strength or leverage to play as a 5-technique in a 30 front. He’s not quick enough or able to flatten well enough to play effectively as a 4-3 end, and the further out he lines up the more you take away from his best asset, his length. I talked to a NFL personnel exec about Hunt and he shared the same concern. When I asked about his thoughts on where to draft Hunt, he told me his impression right now is fourth round and that he believes Hunt’s ceiling is not as high as he thought.

Ansah is even greener as a football player. The Ghana native is a very impressive physical specimen at 6’5”, 274 pounds, and an 82” wingspan, and he is very fast. The comparisons to Giants star Jason Pierre Paul came easily. But as he showed on film, Ansah is quite literally clueless on the field. His hands are all over the place. I’ve not seen any actual viable pass rush moves all week, save for one freakishly quick rip move where he torched the tackle to the inside and closed on the QB before he had a chance to react. It’s precisely those sorts of dynamic impact plays that tantalize with Ansah. He might only be good for one or two of those every game, spending the rest of his time as a barely functional player that gets by on pure athletic ability.

How does that get valued? The person I asked about Hunt told me he very strongly believes Ansah is going in the first 25 picks because nobody wants to be seen as passing on him. He sees a quick learner with an eager attitude. A defensive coach from a different team told me essentially the same thing, and that he would love the chance to work with him. He has the quickness and speed to play as a 3-4 OLB, albeit a pretty heavy one. I think everyone in Mobile would agree that Ansah has an incredibly high talent ceiling and has just enough acumen to make an impact as a rookie. I don’t think Ansah breaks into the top 15, but I highly doubt he falls out of the top 30 even though he’s very much an athletic project that might not peak until the middle of his second contract.