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Big Ten gets elite defenders with Huskers' move

by | NFLDraftScout.com

Prince Amukamara's departure likely means fewer passes coming toward Alfonzo Dennard (15). (Getty Images)  
Prince Amukamara's departure likely means fewer passes coming toward Alfonzo Dennard (15). (Getty Images)  

The existing members of the Big Ten were excited about the addition of Nebraska. That might not include offensive coordinators who must game plan against two of country's top senior prospects -- Huskers defensive lineman Jared Crick and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.

Crick and Dennard have been overshadowed by elite prospects in previous years. Ndamukong Suh played next to Crick on the defensive line two years ago, dominating his way into rarified air for a defender -- Heisman Trophy finalist and No. 2 overall selection in the 2010 NFL draft.

It was expected Crick's production would decrease with Suh in the NFL. While Crick's total tackles (73 to 70) and quarterback hurries (16 to 10) did fall from 2009 to '10, he was credited with more tackles for loss (15 to 17) and recorded the same number of sacks (9½).

The Nebraska native uses more hustle and strength than elite first-step quickness to pressure the quarterback and make plays against the run, but do not assume he is a poor athlete. Crick has underrated flexibility and agility that he uses to corral NFL-caliber ball-carriers in the backfield and open field.

Crick should be picked in the mid-first round, just like similar players J.J. Watt (11th overall by Houston last year) and former Husker Adam Carriker (13th overall in 2007 by St. Louis), to play defensive end in a 3-4 line or defensive tackle in the 4-3.

Dennard played across from All-American Prince Amukamara, the New York Giants' first-round pick (19th overall) in this year's draft. But Dennard was a second-team All-Big 12 honoree last season after intercepting four passes and breaking up six others.

He might give up several inches of height to a few NFL receivers, but he will give no quarter to any opponent. His willingness and reliability jamming wideouts in press coverage prevents easy separation. Dennard's vertical, hands and overall ball skills indicate he will create turnovers at the next level.

Of course, the best 5-foot-9 cornerback in the NFL is still 5-9.

Dennard is listed at 5-10, but the combine tape measure usually humbles players. His average straight-line speed and recovery speed may also hurt his stock a bit, as it did Amukamara last April.

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But working with new Nebraska secondary coach Corey Raymond, a former NFL defensive back, should only help Dennard's footwork and other coverage techniques. An excellent season against NFL-caliber quarterback-receiver combinations at Wisconsin and at home against Michigan State should cement his status as one of the top three cornerback prospects in the class.

Top 10 Big Ten prospects for 2012 NFL Draft

1. Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska, 6-4/285
To be a top-15 pick, Crick must continue to impress scouts with his on-field play. But a surprisingly strong combine, like those put forth by the aforementioned Carriker and Watt, is also necessary to prove to scouts he has the strength and agility to be an NFL playmaker.

2. Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska, 5-10/205
Opposing coaches directed quarterbacks to throw toward Amukamara more often than you would expect due to Dennard's coverage prowess. Now that he's the top dog in the secondary, quarterbacks may try to avoid his side of the field, reducing his interception and pass deflection totals.

3. *Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa, 6-6/300
With a strong junior season, Reiff could challenge the two Nebraska players for the top spot on this list. He looks like a pro left tackle, has been contributing since his freshman year and moves like a large tight end in the open field. Continuing to add strength and play with a wider base to prevent getting bull-rushed are crucial improvements for Reiff, who really has a similar skill set to more-hyped Southern California left tackle Matt Kalil.

4. *Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State, 6-3/305
Defensive tackles often take big leaps in their consistency from their sophomore to junior seasons. If Worthy follows that trend, he could be the top-10 pick teams are looking for at the position next April. He's as explosive off the snap as any tackle in the country, and flashes with strong and quick hands necessary to pressure the pocket. Improving his ability to find the ball and shed blocks when playing the run would make him a three-down terror for NFL interior offensive linemen.

5. Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State, 6-6/310
Sure, he will miss the first five games of 2011 due to suspension in the "Tattoo Five" scandal. But league coaches and pro scouts noticed improvement as a pass protector during his junior year, using his length, natural athleticism and quick hands to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors. Maturity and consistency have been issues with Adams since his arrival in Columbus, so NFL general managers will need assurance of improvement in those areas along with excellent play when he returns to the field for the bulk of the conference schedule before considering him a top 50 selection.

6. Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State, 6-3/205
Cousins fought off Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol for the starting job before the 2009 season and he hasn't looked back since. While leading the Spartans to 11 wins and a Big Ten title share in 2010, Cousins showed scouts he has just enough mobility, accuracy, arm strength and toughness to have a shot to start at the next level. His feet tend to look stuck in cement in the pocket, and he makes some bad throwing decisions under pressure, but a team needing young help at quarterback will likely pick him in the second round just like Detroit did former Spartans QB Drew Stanton (No. 43 overall, 2007).

7. Devon Still, DT, Penn State, 6-4/305
Few defensive tackles in the country can match Still's combination of size and athleticism. Unfortunately, Still has been unable to capitalize on his physical attributes on the field due to health concerns and inconsistency. He had 3½ tackles for loss against Florida in the Outback Bowl, which gives scouts an idea of what is possible during his senior season. But until he gets off the snap more quickly, shows the willingness to play with violent hands and closes on ball-carriers regularly, Still might be considered just another body inside.

8. Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska, 6-1/224
Crick and Dennard top this list, but David led Nebraska is tackles with 152 last season. The All-American might be too small for the liking of teams that prefer thumpers on the outside, but others with lesser size requirements (Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay) may consider him a potential starter despite his safety-like build. He manages to stay free from lineman blocks playing between the tackles, has great striking ability in the run game and is agile enough to stay with slot receivers in coverage.

9. Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin, 6-2/215
The son of Wisconsin and NFL alum Al Toon was probably one of the happiest Badgers when quarterback Russell Wilson transferred to Madison from North Carolina State this summer. Toon and Wilson should be able to stretch the field vertically with defenses loading the box against the Badgers' run game. Though his long speed is ordinary, Toon can separate at the line with strength and a quick move and has the footwork to run strong routes at the next level. His major bugaboo has been downfield drops, which need to subside if he is to crack the top 40 overall selections.

10. Mike Brewster, C, Ohio State, 6-4/305
A tall, athletic player in the pivot, Brewster has proven himself a very effective pass protector and positional run blocker. Scouts have concerns about his relatively high pad level and tendency to stop his feet after initial contact, making it difficult to recover once shed. But as a four-year starter from a program like Ohio State, it would be difficult to imagine Brewster falling out of the top 75 -- especially considering the lack of elite center talent in this year's draft.

Five others to watch:

1. DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State, 6-1/205
The Buckeyes' best deep threat joins Adams on the bench for the season's first five games. He doesn't have great speed or elite size, but Posey should make enough plays at the Senior Bowl, if not for Ohio State in the second half of the season, to work his way into the second or early third round.

2. Kevin Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin, 6-4/320
Zeitler is a similar player to former teammate and Seattle third-round pick John Moffitt -- tough, technically-sound guards likely to start for years to come. Scouts might consider him slightly more athletic, though he's best in the power running game and reaching linebackers between the tackles.

3. Shaun Prater, CB, Iowa, 5-10/182
Scouts appreciate this 2010 first-team all-conference pick's adeptness in both staying with receivers in man coverage and reading the quarterback to make plays in zone. His very slight build (reminiscent of former Atlanta third-round pick Christopher Owens) belies his strength and aggressive nature, though NFL receivers will have the advantage on the line and fight for balls downfield.

4. Dan Herron, RB, Ohio State, 5-10/212
"Bam" is another Buckeye facing early-season suspension due to selling memorabilia, but scouts have seen enough of him to know his game. He is not elite in any one aspect, but is patient, reliable and has enough foot quickness and straight-line speed to break off big runs once in the open field. His nose for the goal line and first-down marker is also worth noting.

5. Tyler Nielsen, OLB, Iowa, 6-3/235
Nielsen might not have a lot of gaudy tackle for loss or sack numbers, but he could be higher on this list if not for a neck injury that cost him the final month of his junior year. He provides strength against the run playing in the nine-technique position, as well as the speed to stay with tight ends and receivers in coverage. A healthy senior year and positive medical reports at the combine could win him a top-100 draft slot.

Chad Reuter is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter at @ChadReuter.


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