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Poll results: Analyzing the pass rushers in this year's draft class

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What did BTSC have to say about this year's crop of pass rushers? And what does it mean we should look for at the Combine?

Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

Last week we attempted BTSC's first-ever drag-&-drop ranking poll.

Here are the raw results:

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

Responses

APR*

Bud Dupree

121

38

18

7

6

3

0

3

1

1

0

0

198

11.13

Vic Beasley

44

46

27

20

13

7

9

6

10

3

2

5

192

9.27

Owamagbe Odighizuwa

12

21

34

22

24

15

20

18

8

3

8

5

190

7.80

Nate Orchard

6

26

24

22

24

22

11

10

15

11

10

1

182

7.54

Markus Golden

3

13

13

29

27

18

9

18

9

21

8

10

178

6.63

Trey Flowers

7

15

16

16

19

15

18

24

11

19

12

5

177

6.60

Hauoli Kikaha

1

12

14

24

15

11

30

20

15

8

11

14

175

6.27

Eli Harold

4

8

17

13

14

17

17

19

16

16

18

14

173

5.66

Lorenzo Mauldin

3

5

6

9

18

23

15

16

25

15

17

19

171

5.17

Benardrick McKinney

4

5

12

14

10

18

16

7

16

25

23

24

174

5.14

Danielle Hunter

1

6

11

9

4

11

18

16

22

21

26

22

167

4.75

Preston Smith

2

7

5

5

9

16

11

12

18

23

26

39

173

4.27

"Adjusted Points Rank" or "APR" was derived by assigning 12 points for each 1st-place vote on down to 1 point for each 12th-place vote, and then dividing by the total number of votes each candidate received. The average APR for all players was 6.69, putting the top four well above average and Golden just below.

The first group is easy: Bud Dupree and Vic Beasley won in a landslide with 61.11% and 22.92% of the 1st-place votes, respectively. Those who didn't put one of these players on top tended to vote them into 2nd or 3rd place, indicating a consistent preference for the same two prospects that would have been favored by the vast majority of draft media. So having them come in at 1 and 2 is no surprise.

It's more interesting that Dupree won by such a convincing margin, since I'd guess that most mock drafts and big boards rank Beasley as the more promising candidate. I attribute this to the much-discussed fear that Beasley (and later Eli Harold) is doomed by physics to be a pass rush specialist. Pittsburgh desperately needs to improve its pass rush, but the Steelers have traditionally (i.e., always) gone with OLB's who can set the edge in addition to rushing the passer. Thus even though Beasley has more getting-to-the-QB upside, the likelihood that Dupree could stay on the field for all three downs gave him the clear edge. I suspect that Neal Coolong's strong critique of Dupree's OLB prospects strikes directly at this distinction and ought to cause more than a little hand-wringing in Steelers Nation. If Ray, Fowler and Gregory will all be gone in the top 15 (almost certain), and Beasley is too small and Dupree is a pure 4-3 guy, does that mean there is no elite-looking pass rusher left who could fall to us at 22?

I hate to be the one to say it out loud, but the answer is probably "Yes." This is a very deep class for pass rushers but by most accounts there is a crust of maybe 5 special talents (Gregory, Ray, Fowler, Beasley and Dupree) followed by a noticeable gap and then a band of late 1st or early 2nd guys. The Steelers' first round pick will most likely be enough to get a really early choice among that second band, but the team would have to engineer a massive trade up if it wanted to snag one of the "specials." The only ones who could conceivably fall are the ones we'd want least: the too-small Beasley or the better-with-his-hand-in-the-ground Dupree.

It's a real conundrum; so much so that I'm now all but certain Colbert & Co. will cut the Gordian Knot by signing Jason Worilds or some other veteran to a long term contract. That might not fix the pass rush in 2015, but it would allow this year's pick(s) to play spot duty while they build their strength and technique to an acceptable NFL level and open up a world of other options.

If you're looking for a more radical solution, Coach Butler might break from his mentor by dividing some of the OLB duties among a pass rush specialist (Beasley in the 1st, followed later by guys like Eli Harold and Max Valles) and a so-called "elephant" OLB like Odighizuwa, Trey Flowers, Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith, or maybe even Mario Edwards. This is pretty much what the Ravens did last year with Dumervil (the specialist) and Pernell McPhee (the run stuffer) and we saw how effective it can be. A free agency signing would help with this too, of course - with a veteran on board the team wouldn't have to spend two of its top-3 picks to accomplish that - but at least the field of potential rookie options would open up a bit.

We also need to remember that Pittsburgh has several promising longshots tucked away who might mature into either a pass rush specialist (Howard Jones and Shawn Lemon) and/or a balanced run-stuffer (Roosevelt Nix). The team undoubtedly views those guys as pre-made draft choices, and if one of those has actually looked promising in practice he could easily be either the answer we need (in place of a 1st round pick) or the equivalent of the Round 2-4 support option. That would make depth would be more of a concern than immediate or certain returns, opening up this year's crop of mid- and late-round options, many of whom are real boom-or-bust types. Guys like Max Valles, Geneo Grissom, Lynden Trail and Jermauria Rasco ought to be available in the 3-4 range, and Shaquille Riddick, Obum Gwachum, Anthony Chickillo, and Zach Hodges in the 5th round on.

Getting back to the poll, Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Nate Orchard came in 3rd and 4th in our voting and with very little to distinguish them. Here are two line charts to illustrate this, the first based on number of votes:

and the second on APR:

It is an easy outcome to read: the population of BTSC values both players as somewhere between "almost worthy of the pick at 1:22" and "a fantastic bargain for the pick at 2:24." The Combine tests should help us to catch up with what the professional scouts are already know, and to decide which one, if either, we'd be happy with at 1:22. Double-O will have a great 40 time and Orchard's shouldn't be too far behind, but what will their 10-yard splits look like and how will they do in the agility drills? What will the medical reports say on OO's hip? (We won't have direct access to those, of course, but there might be some interviews or comments dropped to give some hints). One good thing is that both young men, if they can play OLB at all, project as full-scale, 4-down players rather than "mere" pass rush specialists or elephant types.

Markus Golden, Trey Flowers and Hauoli Kikaha make up the next band. Here are the charts on those guys, first by votes:

and then by APR:

Trey Flowers was a known quantity. He is the classic "elephant" of the class - Beasley in the 1st and Flowers in the 3rd is many a fan's dream combination - and the only real question is whether he can survive as a stand-up OLB at all. Kikaha is well-known too. The most interesting part of his results came with that distinctive double-spike around the #5 choice and the #8 choice - which actually makes sense if you consider the risks he brings with (a) his twice-injured ACL, (b) the unusual amount of skill that might be hiding an underlying lack of pure athleticism, and (c) the many free opportunities to build stats that he gained from being surrounded by the likes of Danny Shelton and Shaq Thompson. Flowers present some risks too, and have a bit of a double-bump, but not as severe as those associated with Kikaha.

Markus Golden, however, was somewhat of a surprise to me. What caused that big spike of 4th and 5th-place votes for someone who's well behind on all the measurables I could find? A bit more research yielded the answer.

There's a podcast based out of SB Nation's "Mocking the Draft" website, and one of the hosts of that podcast is Matthew Fairburn. Fairburn was a beat writer covering the Missouri Tigers until this year and thus has a personal connection with and insight into Mizzou's current graduating class: a class that coincidentally includes two top-flight pass rushers in Shane Ray and Markus Golden. Here is what he had to say in Episode 40 of that podcast, in the discussion starting at about 17:00-27:00:

On Shane Ray: I've cooled on Shane Ray a bit since last year.... He's kind of struggled to put on weight, which is a bit concerning. ... Once he's stopped he has a tough time fighting through contact. Really good off the edge. I love his hands. Plenty athletic enough to drop back. ... I just don't know that he's going to be the best fit [in a 4-3]. I kind of like him as a linebacker. I know from covering him that he's a really hard working kid, that's not going to be an issue for him, but his body - he just hasn't put on the necessary weight to hold up as a four-down lineman. [Fairburn nevertheless mocks Ray to the Saints at #13, long before the Steelers would even have a realistic trading shot].

On Markus Golden: I would not be shocked if Markus Golden ends up being the better NFL player.... That's not a slight on Ray, I just really like Golden as a player.... I caution anyone [who would] bet against Markus Golden. The guy was the heart and soul of Mizzou's defense, especially this year and even as a Junior in 2013 was really one of the leaders even as a reserve guy coming in behind Sam an Ealy. I know all this intangibles stuff isn't going to necessarily make him an NFL player but I'm just going to not bet against him. I think he's got enough physical ability. I love the way he fights off blocks and just has the awareness to make plays. And look at the one game that Markus Golden was out this year for Mizzou. The Indiana game. Tevin Coleman ripped them to shreds and they lost; they lost to Indiana. If you think they would have lost with Markus Golden on the field I'd say you're crazy, because he wouldn't have let it happen.... Some of that stuff doesn't always resonate with people, and the draft/Twitter folks. [For them] ‘it's all about the film,' and ‘the film doesn't lie,' and all that; and maybe he doesn't have the ideal measurements you look for, but me I'm just a big fan of the football player. I think that guy can just play. You find a spot for him and he's going to make your defense better. Shane Ray, he could be a big time talent... but I feel like there's also the potential for Shane Ray to wash out. I feel you get a much higher floor from a player like Markus Golden.

***

He [Golden] is a really powerful guy, and I just don't think that guy is going to lose. You don't want to line up across from him. And ... anybody who sits down and talks to that kid for more than a minute is gonna bet on him. You learn about where he came from, and what he's gone through to get here, and... Like I said, I know that's not going to make him a Pro Bowl player but ... over time I've learned there is some kind of value in the kind of guy someone is. That's not to say you want a choir boy. I want a guy who's just a mean football player; a guy that's really competitive; that loves the game; and I just know for 100% fact that's what you're getting with Golden.

Well done BTSC. Golden sounds like a much better prospect than the measurables tend to show, and I think you've just about pegged him at the proper spot. He won't rise into consideration for the pick at 1:22 but deserves, with both Flowers and Kikaha, to be considered a top prospect for the pick at 2:24.

The remaining prospects - Eli Harold, Lorenzo Mauldin, Bernardrick McKinney, and Preston Smith - cluster at the bottom. Here are the results, by vote:

and by APR:

I've puzzled over these results and at this point I think the lack of consistency indicates a lack of information more than anything else. Eli Harold is a tremendous prospect as a pass rushing specialist, but if Vic Beasley creates palpitations in Steeler Nation then Vic Beasley Lite will do much the same. The fairly level group of responses indicates (to me) that people don't quite know what to think. The Combine weigh-in will obviously matter a lot, as will the BTSC scouting report when it arrives.

Lorenzo Mauldin... I suspect these results mirror the experience I had with this prospect. I was very high on Mauldin at the beginning of the process (hence that peak around #6), but then I watched a few games of tape and came away severely underwhelmed because of the obvious technical flaws (hence the peak around #9). The bottom line seems to be that Lorenzo Mauldin is another player about whom we don't know enough to form a full opinion.

Bernardrick McKinney is such a total projection that it's no wonder the voters had opinions scattered all over the board. Does he really fit as an OLB? And is it really worth asking the question at all since he's likely to go in the teens to a team hungry for a big, downfield middle linebacker? The poll raised both questions but the responses answered neither.

Preston Smith is another elephant sized OLB prospect, but far enough behind Trey Flowers that he basically didn't register on the poll at all (at least so far).

And as for Danielle Hunter... This was probably the biggest surprise of the batch for me. I would love to hear other people's feedback because I just don't get it. Hunter matches every measurable you could ask for in a Steelers OLB with the single exception of weight, and there's no doubt he has a frame that will naturally and easily bulk up into the 260's after a year or two of professional training and natural growth. He's tall enough, fast enough, strong enough, athletic enough, and has no character concerns that I'm aware of.

So what is the issue? Yes, he is very raw, but that's not even strange for someone with that much talent who's projected to go in the late 1st or 2nd. So I will conclude this analysis with a question for people to answer in the comments. What made Dan Hunter fall in your personal rankings?

Many thanks are extended to poster NC Steeler, who helped to crunch this vast amount of data down to bite sized pieces. You're the best!