In an NFL landscape marred by the actions of household names like Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy, incoming 2015 rookies face the greatest level of off-field scrutiny ever. Teams just aren’t as willing to pay a high price for a 22-year old with red flags in his character profile. The result is a draft free fall for some of the most skilled players in this year’s draft class.
Eventually, one team takes the plunge when they decide the value outweighs the risk. For a trio of pass rushers, they find themselves in interesting situations after some of the best teams in the NFL decided they can be the ones to right the ship and extract that seductive talent. If these three can stay on the straight and narrow, they will go down as among the biggest draft bargains in the class of 2015. Let’s take a look and what the Cowboys, Broncos and Seahawks each signed themselves up for and whether the investment will pay dividends in the long run.
Now that Dante Fowler Jr. is on the shelf for all of 2015, I have no problem anointing Gregory as the most talented edge rusher in this year’s crop. The Nebraska product would’ve and should’ve been a top-10, maybe top-5 pick after 17.5 sacks and 25.5 TFL in his two years in Lincoln. But when you fail multiple drug tests, including at the combine AKA the most important drug test of your life, it’s not if you’ll fall in the draft, it’s how many millions you’ve cost yourself.
I guarantee you Jerry Jones fought tooth and nail to take Gregory at 27, still haunted by the ghost of Randy Moss. Just like last year’s tussle of Manziel v. Martin, Jerry ceded to popular opinion and made the wise choice of Byron Jones. Lo and behold, when Gregory’s name was still sitting there at 60, it was a sprint to the podium, no matter what it may have looked like on TV. Jerry got his man, convinced he’ll be able to turn him around and reap the benefits of another risk/reward play, as he did with Dez Bryant fives years prior.
And the Cowboys are giving Gregory the same treatment as they did #88, literally. It was a huge show of faith to adorn Gregory with the legendary #94 of Charles Haley and DeMarcus Ware. Dallas has a plan in place that they hope keeps Gregory and his reported mental health issues from turning into Demetrius Underwood 2.0 and closer to the path of the Hall of Famers that preceded him.
Should it work, Dallas will have completely overhauled it’s pass rush in one season. A trio of Gregory, Hardy and DeMarcus Lawrence (expecting a sneaky good year out of him) could give opposing QBs fits. What I love about Gregory is not only his quickness off the edge, but his ability to convert speed to power and keep O-linemen guessing as to what’s coming next. He has a plethora of moves and the raw athleticism to back them up.
Gregory’s upside in year one will be directly tied to the status of the aforementioned Hardy. Should his 10-game ban be upheld, Gregory will find himself with both greater opportunity and responsibility to shoulder the load on the perimeter. At this point, I’m expecting a reduction in Hardy’s suspension to around 6 games, cutting slightly into the potential. When both are on the field together, it could be a nightmare for rival signal callers. I’m not worried about Randy Gregory’s output once he gets on the field. It’s staying that will be his biggest challenge.
Although Ray’s drop during the draft wasn’t as precipitous as Gregory’s, it’s a bit more bothersome as it came on the backs of more than just a run-in with the law. A run-in that just happened to occur three days before the biggest night of his life. This was on top of the foot injury that had hampered Ray throughout the pre-draft process and had some teams wondering if he had already played his best football.
Missouri has quietly become DE U as Ray became the second consecutive Tiger pass rusher to claim SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors. He led the conference in both sacks (14.5) and TFL (22) and, like Gregory, has pushed himself into the top-10 conversation. The injury and the arrest might have scared some teams away, but not the Broncos. They actually traded up five spots to select Ray at 23, teaming him with arguably the most fearsome tandem of pass rushers in the league today. Both a gift and a curse.
Ray will see more one-on-ones than he ever dreamed at Mizzou thanks to Ware and Miller. Problem for Ray, at least in 2015, is that he probably won’t see a ton of time sharing the field with both of them. Still around 250 lbs., he lacks the size to be a consistent 3-4 DE. That means his ceiling is capped as a rotational player, spelling the dynamic duo as needed. This isn’t to say he won’t have his opportunities to make plays, but they will be fewer and far between.
Ray’s ultimate value is down the road as he grows into his body and pairs a developing strength game with his straight line speed and relentless motor. He won’t be winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, but he could easily end up a perennial pro bowler a couple years in.
Just three picks after Gregory came off the board, Seattle made one of the surprising selections of Day Two by spending a second round pick on Frank Clark. He didn’t have the collegiate production of the previous two prospects (just 11.0 sacks over his four years), but Clark did possess a power and leverage game few could rival and showed he could consistently get to opposing backfields.
His college career was book ended by legal trouble. He stole a laptop in 2012 that resulted in a one game suspension, but the far more egregious act came in 2014. Clark was dismissed from Michigan in November after being arrested on domestic violence charges. He plead down those charges this past April in just enough time to quell the concerns of at least one NFL team. Seattle couldn’t have been happy to hear just days after the draft about Clark’s alleged threats towards the hotel manager where the domestic violence incident took place.
Despite the legal troubles, Clark might need to thank Bruce Irvin for potentially opening the door to solid playing time. Clark, after not having his option picked up by the Seahawks, has already come out and said he intends to reunite with Dan Quinn and play for the Atlanta Falcons in 2016. That won’t endear him to his teammates this year as they make a run or a third straight Super Bowl appearance.
Still, Clark will probably suffer the same fate as Shane Ray in their first NFL season, relegated to rotational play at first. Playing time will increase with production, but all three of these gifted pass rushers have to show they can play the game the right way both on the field and off before those opportunities will come.
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