Every year there seems to be at least one player you struggle to work out. Increasingly I’ve found that player to be a pass rusher. In 2010, I occasionally mocked Jason Pierre-Paul to Seattle at #14. At the same time, it seemed impossible to judge what kind of player he would become. He had the elite measurables and a ceiling higher than virtually any other player in the draft. Yet the tape was inconsistent, he was an inexperienced JUCO transfer and the question marks were almost as substantial as the potential. He turned out pretty well in the end.
Last year, Robert Quinn was another athletic defensive end who flashed an effective speed rush, consistently troubling college offensive lineman. Many ranked him as a top-ten talent, yet he missed his final year at UNC through suspension and looked like a bit of a one-trick pony. He had five sacks as a rookie and grew into a role at St. Louis, but can he develop into a productive pass rusher? The jury’s still out.
This year’s unknown quantity comes in the form of Whitney Mercilus, who came from nowhere in 2011 to lead the NCAA with 16 sacks. You put on the tape, sit down and try to work out how good this guy is going to be. But you can’t. At least I can’t. This is the third time since he declared for the draft that I’ve sat down and considered what kind of pro he’ll become. Is he a one-year wonder? Or is his emphatic junior year a sign of things to come?
Perhaps the bigger question is whether teams will have the same view. Can they work him out any better?
“Mercilus is reaping the rewards of a good showing at the combine. He showed better athleticism than expected (4.68 in the 40, 4.53 short shuttle, 7.17 three-cone drill), and confirmed the quick first step that allows him to get upfield and pressure the quarterback. Mercilus also forced an FBS-best nine fumbles in 2011, so he has shown a knack for making splash plays.
“However, on tape Mercilus lacks elite power and strength as a pass-rusher, and I also have questions about his ability to anchor against the run when caught in a phone booth with blockers. And while he shows a good motor, Mercilus doesn’t play with much urgency or aggressiveness. His stats and upfield quickness won’t mean much if he is viewed as a one-trick pony who does only one thing well. Mercilus was in the first-round mix at one point, but after taking a longer look I wouldn’t draft him until somewhere in the middle of the second round.”
I’m a little more intrigued by Mercilus, but also understand the concerns. In my last mock draft I had him going #7 overall to Jacksonville as a wildcard pick. The Jags need another pass rusher, but GM Gene Smith likes to avoid drama. Mercilus has a flawless character and charming personality, with the kind of polar-opposite work ethic to previous Jacksonville pick/bust Derrick Harvey. Smith also thinks outside of the box (see: Tyson Alualu) and could be looking to emulate the success of last year’s #7 selection – Aldon Smith. Let’s not forget, most people were very surprised when the 49ers took Smith that early. We recently looked into the possibility of Mercilus emulating Smith as a pass-rush specialist.
Of course, that line of thinking is redundant if the new owner in Jacksonville, Shahid Khan, is trying his best to sell tickets. In that case the Jaguars may go for the flashy pick, possibly on offense, to bring in the crowds. Rumours circulate about the future of the team’s GM despite his recent new contract and the simple fact is, nobody knows exactly who’s making the calls in Jacksonville right now. It’s worth noting, however, that under Smith the team has traditionally taken players they’ve shown a lot of pre-draft interest in. Mercilu had a private workout with the Jaguars and several staff members attended the Illinois pro-day.
Here’s what I like about the guy – as a pass rusher he has some talent. Although not a physical freak of nature, he’s a plus athlete with good first-step quickness. There are times (see the tape below) where he engages, uses good hand placement and pad level, before disengaging to beat his man. Although he can improve his upper body power without negating his speed, he also showed a surprising punch. He has long arms – an en vogue trait for pass rushers these days – and his production last year is unmatched. Mercilus has the high motor to match the athleticism and his nine forced fumbles last year show he has a knack for forcing turnovers not just sacks. He’s the kind of guy that will excite some coaches due to the athletic potential and the production, and you’ll find ways to make him effective in certain calls. Even in limited snaps, he could be the one pass rusher from this class that goes beyond expectations as a rookie.
He’s a thinker on the field, often using three or four plays against a lineman to set up a sack. He’ll test out a tackle deliberately making the same move three times to the outside and then on the fourth play, fake it and dip inside with an effective swim. As a pass rusher it’s important to be more than just a pure speed guy, so it works in his favour in a big way that he can play with his head as well as his feet/hands.
Here’s what I don’t like – run defense. It’s far from great and severely limits his stock as a three-down player and any team that drafts him will need to be prepared for this. Against an effective run team like Wisconsin he was ineffective, struggling to hold position or set an edge. Wisconsin used the run to set up the pass via play action and bootlegs, and it limited what Mercilus could do. Admittedly, he probably didn’t face another team quite like that in terms of run offense in college. At the same time, he may well come up against that kind of physical run game every week in the NFL. He looked better against Ohio State, doing a better job reading plays including one particular QB draw. But he doesn’t quite have the same nose for the ball on rushing downs.
In the game against UCLA I was concerned that while he abused one particular tackle on a few occasions he was also blocked out by a tight end. He struggled a bit against a guy he should dominate. How many of the sacks Mercilus recorded last season are based on physical domination, and how many are down to his own smarts and effective scheming? Will these two aspects have the same impact for the player in the NFL? Although he lined up in different roles for Illinois – including inside for some snaps – he’ll have a more limited role at the next level. He’s best suited as a 4-3 guy for me and doesn’t look adept to switch to the OLB role in a 3-4, at least permanently.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Mercilus did end up going as high as #7 to Jacksonville. It equally wouldn’t surprise me if he lasted into the top half of round two. In the NFL, he could be the next big impact pass rusher, or he could be the next Everette Brown. I’ve come to the conclusion that Whitney Mercilus will be this year’s ‘tough to fathom’ prospect.