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Panthers Draft Preview: Defensive Ends

By Danny Guy (For the Mac Attack)
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[Ed note: With the rapid rise of former Mac Attack Intern turned NFL draft savant Josh "Casper" Norris, we're at it again. This time, former Mac Attack intern/draftnik Danny Guy will be covering the lead up to the NFL Draft for the show here on WFNZ.com, with a focus on the Panthers specific needs and breaking down the draft class by position. Have any questions, ask in the comments or interact with Danny on twitter: @danny_g13]

Grading the 2013 Draft: Defensive Ends

With Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy, Frank Alexander, and Thomas Keiser in the fold, no one would list DE anywhere near the top of the list for Panthers needs entering the draft. There is, however, a scenario where the best player available in the first round could be a defensive end. With re-signing Greg Hardy no guarantee, and the acknowledgement that all GMs state teams should always take the best player available, it may not be out of the question. There also could be some value later in the draft, and Danny Guy looks at some of the best fits for the Panthers.

Ezekiel Ansah – 6’5” – 271 lbs – Brigham Young – Projection: Top 12 selection - While there are other elite pass rushers I would give first round grades to, Ansah is the only one I will be talking about because of the lack of need at the position. In my opinion there is uncertainty about the Panthers ability to sign Greg Hardy long term next year, however, Defensive End is not a position that needs to be addressed until the later rounds (if at all). But Ansah is unique; he falls into a draft category I’m referring to as wildcards. These are the players who may not be significant needs, but who could easily be the best player available on the Panthers big board at 14. Much like the addition of Luke Kuechly last year, I’m a firm believer in adding talent, and filling holes in Free Agency. So without further ado, here’s my breakdown on one of the best pass rushers in the Draft, Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah.

Strengths
Rare Physical Traits: Looks the part of an elite pass rusher. Good height, long arms to knock down passes, and a frame that can stand to put on more muscle. Freakish athleticism and above average strength.
Quickness: Not as explosive off the snap as teams might like, but makes up for it with long strides that get him to the Quarterback in a hurry.
Change of Direction: Exceptional balance, and lateral movement that allows him to change directions well.
Block Shedding: Good (not great) job of slipping off blocks to make tackles.
Still Improving: Due to his lack of time with the game, Ansah is a player who looks to get better every game. His ceiling is through the roof. As 2012 progressed he started recognizing deception plays better, and reacting accordingly.
Pass Defense: Exceptional at recognizing and reacting to the pass. Locates passing lanes on a consistent basis, and times his jump well to bat balls down. Also shows the ability to make plays on batted balls.

Weaknesses
First Step: Does not have the explosive initial first step you want to see at the position.
Relies on Athleticism: Due to lack of experience, relies on his athleticism to win matchups.
Hands: Needs to learn to use his hands better to disengage from blockers.
Pad Level: Tends to play high resulting in a loss of leverage and at times being easily dealt with.
• Inexperience: Only played the game of football since 2010, so there are obvious holes in his technique. This creates a natural risk with selecting him, however the upside of the pick is off the charts.

It would be pretty surprising if Ansah is still on the board when the Panthers pick, it would present an interesting scenario. With Gettleman coming from a team that believes in building the defense around their pass rush, and the possibility of not being able to afford Greg Hardy, Ansah would be a very appealing pick for the Cats. That said, I expect him to be gone several picks before the Panthers are on the clock.

Potential Sleepers
Devin Taylor – 6’7” – 266 lbs – South Carolina – Projection: Early to mid-fourth round selection - If the Panthers intend to add another pass rusher in this Draft, it will likely be someone in the middle to late rounds. One of the first guys that could be worth a look in this range is a player many Panthers fans are already familiar with, South Carolina’s Devin Taylor.

Strengths
• Size: Prototype size for the position. Incredibly long wingspan that he can use to alter passes at the line.
• Versatility: Experience rushing in a three point stance, as well as a stand-up rusher. Shown ability to drop into and make plays in coverage.
• Run Support: Seals the edge well, forcing backs back inside at times.
• Play Recognition: Does a good job recognizing plays, and stays disciplined in his assignments most of the time.
• Experience: Four years starting in the SEC speaks for itself.
• Motor: Strong motor on most occasions, and plays well sideline to sideline. Has shown the ability to make tackles downfield when needed.

Weaknesses
• Explosion: Lacks the snap explosion you expect to see from an impact pass rusher.
• Fluidity: Stiff in the hips, has trouble with change of direction in pursuit.
• Power: Doesn’t have the natural power in his game that you would hope for.
• Production: Production declined each year at South Carolina. This raises concerns because his Junior and Senior year he had Jadeveon Clowney on the other side to leave him in one on one situations.

Joe Kruger – 6’6” – 269 lbs – Utah – Projection: early fifth round selection - One other sleeper I like is Joe Kruger, the long and athletic Defensive End out of Utah. Likely available a round later then Taylor, Kruger has a lot of traits that I feel transition well to the next level. At this time, Kruger appears to come off the board somewhere in the late fourth to sixth round range. However, he is a prospect that I could see rise as we get closer to draft time.

Strengths
• Strength: Natural upper body strength to fight through blocks.
• Block Shedding: Uses arms, and hands well to shed blockers.
• Closer: Extremely viscous in closing on ball carriers. Has exceptional speed in close quarters pursuit.
• Feet: Possesses athletic, and quick feet, as well as good change of direction ability.
• Versatility: Can line up with his hand in the ground at end in a 4-3, or stand up and rush in a 3-4. After putting on weight his play in run support would also make him a good fit as an End in a 3-4 scheme.
• Pedigree: The youngest brother of Ravens standout Paul Kruger, and his brother Dave played beside him at Utah. He certainly appears to have the football bloodlines.
• Motor: Always looks to be giving great effort, and has a great intensity level on the field.

Weaknesses
• Pad Level: Regularly gets too upright, resulting in lost leverage.
• Technique: Technique is very raw still, and he tends to rely on his natural skills.
• Counter: If initially blocked, hasn’t shown a consistent ability to counter.
• Weight: Needs to hit the weight room and bulk up in order to handle blockers easier.

Potential Busts
Sam Montgomery – 6’3” – 262 lbs – LSU – Projection: Once thought to be a first round selection, likely a mid-second round to early third round selection - In this year’s Defensive End class there are two players I’m particularly concerned about underperforming in the NFL. Sam Montgomery is the first, and while he looks the part, I have noticed serious deficiencies in his game.

Strengths
• Size: Great size for the position, long frame with room for extra weight.
Speed: Good speed once he’s able to build up to it. Shows the ability to track down ball carriers from behind.
Run Support: Plays the run well, gains leverage off the snap and shows the ability to move opponents into the backfield.

Weaknesses
• Reaction Time: Doesn’t react well to the ball making him sluggish off the snap.
• Change of Direction: Lacks fluidity, and is stiff in the hips. Struggles with changing directions.
• Counter: If  initial rush is blocked, he hasn’t shown the ability to counter and beat the opposition with consistency. Tends to get washed out of plays when initially contained.
• Hands: Hand use is inconsistent, resulting in problems disengaging.
• Motivation: This may be the most serious red flag for me, as Montgomery recently admitted to not giving full effort every game.

Margus Hunt – 6’8” – 277 lbs – SMU – Projection:  late first to middle of second round - Hunt has astounding physical traits, and his name has generated a lot of buzz since the 25 year old from Estonia ran a 4.60 40 at the Combine a few weeks ago. However there are some significant flaws in his game that concern me, even with all of his potential. Not 100% sold that Hunt will be a bust, and he could end up being a productive player if he gets more comfortable with the game of football. My biggest concern with Hunt is that he will be drafted in a position where you’re supposed to be getting impact players, and I see him as a long term project in a best case scenario.

Strengths
• Speed: Freakish speed for his size, allowing him to close quickly on ball carriers, and Quarterbacks.
• Versatility: Ability to play effectively at both the 3 technique, and the 5 technique.
• Strength: Natural power, has the ability to bull rush opponent into the pocket on a consistent basis.
• Upside: Tremendous upside as he is still new to the game of football. Regarded as a better athlete then football player at this point.

Weaknesses
• Inconsistent: Extremely inconsistent. Can look absolutely dominant on one play and then disappear for extended periods of time.
• Pad Level: Does not play low, gets vertical right out of his stance too often resulting in a loss of leverage and being stoned at the line of scrimmage.
• Stiff: Stiff upper body, and struggles with change of direction against elusive ball carriers.
• Tackling: Not a sound tackler at this point. Has a tendency to lunge at ball carriers instead of wrapping up and making a sure tackle.
• Pass Recognition: Struggles to recognize the pass and put his arms up in passing lanes. He should be very good at this with his length, but he doesn’t react quickly enough.
• Pass Rush: Trouble getting around the edge cleanly due to his size.
• Inexperience: Does not recognize plays on a consistent enough basis due to inexperience with the game.

While there are some exceptional pass rushers at the top of the draft, in my opinion this is one of the weaker positions in the entire Draft class. Players like Ansah, Dion Jordan, Datone Jones, and “Tank” Carradine all have the potential to be stars at the next level, but the class as a whole just isn’t as deep as positions like Defensive Tackle, Cornerback and Wide Receiver. For this reason, the End class is receiving one of my lower grades, a B-.

Previously from Danny Guy:
NFL Combine Standouts: Panthers Edition
Panthers Draft Preview: Defensive Tackles

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