The Falcons recently worked out Kansas State edge rusher Jordan Willis. Willis had a productive senior season with 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. He had a strong week at the Senior Bowl in January, but his interest in the media exploded after he posted a freakish combine.
The Falcons favor prospects that have strong results in the broad jump and three cone, or players that have elite forty yard dash times for their positions. It's safe to say Willis fits their athletic criteria.
Willis is a bit of a tough case to crack. A quick glance over his film doesn't show an elite athlete at defensive end. You have to comb through Willis' tape a little to see the combine show up on the field.
Willis has a lot of pass rushing reps where he ends up running past the depth of the quarterback in the pocket. Here's an example from his game against Texas Tech. His tape is littered with these plays.
There are two root causes that show up on Jordan Willis' tape that help explain his inconsistencies with turning the corner: he's late off the snap and he needs to clear his chest before he can cut on a dime. Willis' athleticism isn't as emphatic as Vic Beasley coming out of Clemson, but it is there.
Here's a play against West Virginia where it all comes together.
Strong burst off the line, swipes the tackle's hands to get his chest clean, and then you can see that freakish athleticism that allows him to sink his hips and turn the corner on a dime. This is what the three cone drill measures, where Willis ranked in the 95th percentile with a blistering time of 6.85 seconds.
Part of what held Willis' back is the scheme and system that Kansas State employed on defense. Like Danielle Hunter at LSU, Willis was primarily forced to read the tackles instead of getting penetration off the snap and playing up the field.
Watch the defensive ends on this play against Texas. They're reading what the tackles are doing first and playing close to the line of scrimmage instead of being aggressive up the field like the Falcons play.
Slow playing the tackle and controlling gaps is a fine way to play defense, but it does tend to hide athleticism on the defensive line. It's hard to convert to a pass rush on early downs with this defensive philosophy. When Willis was able to kick inside and be a violent force up the field it's apparent he's on another level athletically than his competition.
A lot of Willis' reps that translate to the Falcons' scheme come in certain in game situations. Two minute drill and when Kansas State was up late in the fourth quarter is when Willis was able to fire off the ball and try to get deep into the backfield for big plays.
Kansas State is up 24-14 halfway through the fourth quarter, it's an obvious passing situation. The restrictions of reading the tackle first and slow playing the C-gap are gone. He's able to explode off the snap and disrupt the upcoming passing play. Once he reaches quarterback depth and gets to the edge of the tackle he's able to turn the corner with ease and wreak havoc on the quarterback.
Part of the projection with Willis moving forward is the type of scheme that he's going to land in. NFL defenses are generally more aggressive up front than college teams, including the Falcons. Jack Crawford and Dontari Poe have both effused about Dan Quinn's aggressive philosophy on the defensive line. Willis and his athletic ability would be a perfect scheme to talent match.
Willis also makes sense from a roster construction standpoint for the Falcons. They're covered at defensive tackle for 2017 with Grady Jarrett, Dontari Poe, and Ra'Shede Hageman under contract. They have a host of "hybrid" players that will play defensive tackle and defensive end in Derrick Shelby, Adrian Clayborn, Jack Crawford, and Courtney Upshaw. What they're really missing is another true edge defender body. Right now they only have Vic Beasley and Brooks Reed as options that fit that description.
Atlanta needs to add another young pass rusher to pair with Beasley for the future, so Willis makes a ton of sense in this regard, and fits the athletic requirements and character standards that Atlanta has looked for in their first round picks under Dan Quinn, Scott Pioli, and Thomas Dimitroff.
Eight days out from the draft it seems like the Falcons' targets in the first round are Forrest Lamp, Derek Rivers, and Jordan Willis. I would rank them in that order in terms of what I want, but would be happy with any of the three being the first round pick.
The finish line is in sight, folks.