A lot of people ask why Whitney Mercilus (DE, Illinois) isn’t universally ranked higher than the late first round. He was the NCAA leader for sacks in 2011 with 16 in total and this isn’t a great year for pure pass rushers. So what gives? He’s not listed among Todd McShay’s top-32 for the draft or his latest mock draft. There’s always room for productive pass rushers, which is why I’ve consistently ranked him in the 16-32 range. Yet I’m still finding Mercilus one of the toughest players to work out. What defines him? What is going to make him a force at the next level, or what will hold him back? I keep coming back to these questions and I’m still searching for the answers.
On the one hand you see a player very capable of beating a blocker around the edge. I like his competitive spirit and you’re going to get a player who will keep thinking of ways to beat an opponent. In the video above you’ll see an instance towards the end of the UCLA game where he’s taken out of five consecutive plays by the left tackle, but on the sixth he beats him with a side-step counter. He’s worked the guy out, found a weakness and forced the error. He looks like an athlete, but you expect that from a pass rusher listed at around 6-3/6-4 and 265lbs. Mercilus was clearly the most productive pass rusher in the NCAA in 2011, registering three more sacks than his nearest rival.
At the same time, far too often in this tape he’s being beaten by tight ends. If you’re going to draft a pass rusher in round one, surely he should be dominating college tight ends? It was frustrating to see examples of speed and tenacity mixed in with mediocrity as he struggled to shed a tight end protecting the blind side against Illinois’ supposed best rusher. That’s when the concern kicks in – if he can’t beat a tight end in the PAC-12, how’s he going to get on against pro-left tackle’s? Illinois mixed him around into different positions, had him standing up and with his hand in the dirt. He never looked truly comfortable apart from when he was rushing an edge 1-on-1 and he might be a bit limited in that sense.
I’ve seen better pure pass rushers not just in this class, but in other drafts too – yet none of them came close to getting 16 sacks in a single season. So what gives? Am I missing something here? Does he just have an intangible knack of getting to the quarterback – and if so will it translate to the next level? Or has he just had one tremendous season, perhaps with a bit of fortune, and now he’s going to make some money off the back of it? I’m pretty suspicious of Mercilus as a round one pick and would avoid him in that 16-32 range. Yet part of me is also thoroughly intrigued if he lasts until Seattle’s pick in round two. You’d almost have to roll the dice and take him in that range.
I don’t expect Mercilus to be an option for the Seahawks in round one with Courtney Upshaw, Quinton Coples and Melvin Ingram all more realistic (and predictable) alternatives. I’ll still be watching him closely at the combine and hope to see further tape in the future. It may take until April to work out just how good (or bad) he really is. See below for the tape review – the video was once again provided by JMPasq:
0:01 – 0:34 - In the first three plays highlighted in this video, Mercilus is pretty easily dealt with by a single block. At 0:34 he has to deal with a double team and again is kept quiet. He doesn’t flash violent hands or a lot of upper body power, he doesn’t tend to bull rush and he can’t punch a blocker in the chest to buy an advantage. In the first three plays he also lined up in different positions – at both left and right end, while also standing in a central position attacking the A gap.
0:46- This should’ve been a flag. He’s clearly offside and is still well blocked by the right guard.
0:52 – Takes on a tight end around the edge and although he forces the blocker backwards, he really needs to dominate that guy and make a play. The full back was behind the TE also in protection, but ended up just getting in the way and backs into the quarterback.
0:57 – Beats the left tackle for speed around the edge with absolute ease to make the sack. Initial burst off the snap is key, but quickly leans round the corner and the tackle cannot match his athleticism to recover. Good hand use on show to bat away the blocker, but would prefer to see a jolt into the pads rather than a swipe of the arms.
1:24 – Lines up in front of the right guard, but gets zero push. Stoned at the LOS.
1:34 – Standing up in a three man front but stoned by the right tackle immediately. Ineffective.
1:49 – Excellent play against the run. Knife’s through the right tackle who take a poor angle on the block and is quickly turned square to the right. Recognises the ball carrier quickly and explodes to make the play for a big loss.
2:15 – 2:28 – Well blocked on the next two plays by each tackle.
2:29 – Another impressive play against the run. Reacts quickest to the snap. Shed’s the initial block from the tight end before taking on the right tackle. His ability to beat the tight end and eliminate the edge forces the runner to check and he’s surrounded by tacklers.
2:36 - Good pursuit on the quarterback after initial block from the tight end. Perhaps could’ve disengaged from the block quicker.
3:20- This isn’t good enough for a first round defensive end. The tight end seals the edge and blocks Mercilus out of the play. The left tackle joins in for kicks, but in reality he’s taken out by a tight end. He needs be dominating guys like that.
3:29 – Again, caught up too easily with the tight end.
3:35 – Double teamed by the tight end and left tackle this time, but where’s the edge speed to punish UCLA for putting a TE on Illinois’ best pass rusher?
3:42- A third big play against the run. Illinois shift the line to favor the left, with Mercilus playing right end but lined up in front of the guard. He dodges a pretty basic block from the tight end who puts his head down and just runs past Mercilus, but he again explodes to the ball carrier for a big loss. The left tackle jumps to the second level too soon allowing Mecilus a free shot at the ball carrier. Not great blocking, not a good assignment, but sometimes you can only make the plays on offer.
4:03 – 4:16 – Well blocked on two plays by the left tackle/guard.
4:17 – Would like to give him credit for forcing the bad throw, but this pick-six is all on the quarterback. Terrible.
4:29 – Ineffective working inside.
5:01 - The most impressive play on the tape in terms of a pass rush. Mercilus drives back the left tackle with ease, dominating him at the point of attack and taking the quarterback down with a free arm. The tackle’s technique is awful and he’s all over the place, failing to get any hands on Mercilus who virtually carries him to the quarterback. But it’s the first sign of any real power to drive back a lineman and make the play.
5:48-6:25 - Better job from the tackle getting hands to the pads and keeping Mercilus out of the next five plays.
6:26- Mercilus counters with a side-step inside and a great double move shimmy to dodge the block, but he’s picked up by the guard and driven to the turf. Good evidence of Mercilus trying something after five unsuccessful rushes, thinking about a way to draw the tackle into a mistake. Equally good block from the interior lineman to protect his QB.