If a team is in need of a pass rusher, this is a great draft to get one.
From outside linebackers to high-impact defensive ends, a number of prospects in this year’s draft class terrorized quarterbacks in college football last season.
But there are two problems for the Panthers, who could look to replace Greg Hardy with the 25th pick in Thursday night’s draft. First, the top rushers could be gone by pick No. 25, and two, there aren’t many high-production defensive ends who can play in a 4-3 defense.
Still, a few players fit the model of productive 4-3 defensive end at the NFL level. UCLA’s Owa Odighizuwa, Arkansas’ Trey Flowers and Mississippi State’s Preston Smith are all players who at least look the part.
The Observer reviewed the NFL’s top 25 defensive ends in 4-3 defenses from last season, as calculated by the football analytics site Pro Football Focus. The measurables for those players, on average:
▪ 267 pounds;
▪ 331/3 inch arm length;
▪ 34 inch vertical;
▪ 4.74 40 at the NFL scouting combine, and;
▪ 25 bench press repetitions of 225 pounds.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, who took defensive end Kony Ealy in the second round last year, didn’t rule out the possibility of taking another defensive end high in this year’s draft.
“There were plenty of people when we took Kony (who) looked at me like I had brain damage,” Gettleman said in January. “If there’s a quality defensive end or defensive lineman there, it’s hard for me to pass him up.”
With those six measurables, no 4-3 defensive end in this year’s class fits better than Odighizuwa. He’s 6-foot-3 and 267 pounds, and he put up 25 bench reps at the combine. He also has longer arms (333/4 inches), a better vertical (39 inches) and ran the 40 in 4.62 seconds.
He has the size and strength to play right defensive end, where the Panthers don’t have a clear Week 1 starter after Carolina did not bring back Greg Hardy.
And Odighizuwa said he has watched Hardy closely in recent years.
“I love him,” Odighizuwa said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “He’s a great, phenomenal player. I watched him a lot. He’s a relentless dude.”
Odighizuwa has a history of hip injuries and had surgery on both his left and right hip in college. His biggest knock before the combine was his speed, but he quelled any doubts about that by turning in the second-fastest 40-yard dash among all defensive linemen at the combine.
Both Flowers and Smith are considered second-round prospects, and Odighizuwa is a fringe first-rounder who will likely go in the second.
Smith stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 271 pounds, and he has an identical vertical and 40-yard dash time to the average of the top 4-3 defensive ends. He had nine sacks last season for the Bulldogs on his way to being named to the All-SEC first team.
Flowers, 6-2 and 266 pounds, is stronger (28 reps) with longer arms (341/4 inches) but is a step slower with a 4.93 40 time. He’s strong against the run but still needs to work on his pass rush.
“Quite frankly, I want them to talk about my run defense,” Flowers said at the combine. “Just being in the league I was in, the SEC – it’s a run league. So if you’re stopping the run in one of the top running leagues in the nation, then you must be a pretty good player. I take pride in doing that, and that takes a lot of toughness and heart. You’ve got to want to stop the run. I can rush the passer, and I’ve shown that. But I can stop the run, and I think that’s one of my strong points.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9