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NFL Draft notebook: Despite numbers Illini's Mercilus not first-rounder

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com

Whitney Mercilus led the NCAA in sacks (16) and forced fumbles (nine). (US Presswire)  
Whitney Mercilus led the NCAA in sacks (16) and forced fumbles (nine). (US Presswire)  

Illinois junior Whitney Mercilus has entered the 2012 NFL Draft, and numbers are sure to keep his name circulating in the pre-draft hype machine. But stats can lie, and won't -- shouldn't -- get him a first-round grade.

He led the NCAA in sacks (16) and forced fumbles (nine). Listed at 6-foot-4, 265 pounds, he has the size scouts covet in a pass rusher.

Unfortunately, for Mercilus, his statistics are far better than his game. While he is NFLDraftScout.com's third-ranked defensive end, the position group leaves much to be desired in 2012.

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Mercilus is not sudden off the snap. He does accelerate well for a big man and can slip past the tackle with an effective dip and rip. He flashes very good use of hands, striking down hard to knock away the tackle's reach and good upper-body strength to shove the tackle aside if Mercilus catches him leaning. This power is also seen with an effective bull rush.

Mercilus is too often caught and struggles to disengage from his initial block.

He plays hard through the whistle and even when effectively contained for several seconds, he persevered to make impact plays in 2011. An aggressive defensive scheme helped bloat Mercilus' stat line.

Illinois blitzed often, creating favorable matchups for edge pass rushers, and Mercilus often looped inside to attack slower interior linemen.

Scheme and hustle, not sheer athleticism, led to virtually every big play Mercilus made in regular-season games against Arizona State (Sept. 17), Northwestern (Oct. 1) and Penn State (Oct. 29) and UCLA last Saturday in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Illinois recorded 103 tackles for loss this season, the fourth-highest current total in the country. Coordinator Vic Koenning led a highly aggressive defense with four players registering at least 10.5 tackles for loss in 2011.

Mercilus led the way with 22.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, but sophomore sensation Jonathan Brown, a weak-side linebacker, was right behind him with 19.5, including six sacks. Playing at "Bandit" linebacker, a hybrid DE/OLB combination, Michael Buchanan registered 13.5 TFLs and senior inside linebacker Ian Thomas posted 10.5.

Whenever a prospect posts the statistics Mercilus produced this season, he's going to get plenty of media attention. Some NFL teams may believe Mercilus' heavy hands and high motor as reason enough to spend a first-round pick on the pass rusher.

I'd argue those numbers just don't add up.

Burfict doesn't stack up vs. Kuechly

Arizona State junior inside linebacker Vontaze Burfict has been billed as an impact player, but he's a fine example of a prospect whose statistics bear out his minimal impact in the game.

Consider how he'd stack up against NFLDraftScout.com's top-ranked inside linebacker, Boston College's Luke Kuechly. Kuechly's staggering 191-tackle season can be used to put Burfict's 69 total tackles in '11 a little perspective.

But Kuechly's unbelievable. You can't compare him to Burfict, you might be thinking. True enough, there's no comparison. Burfict had 69 stops in 13 games (5.3 per game), which didn't rank highly enough to register among the nation's top 100 tacklers.

For the record, Burfict didn't rank in the top 100 in solo tackles ... or tackles for loss, sacks, forced fumbles or any other statistic that typically defines an "impact" linebacker.

I'm not sure what the actual number of personal fouls Burfict accumulated over the 2011 season, but I'd be stunned if it didn't put him amongst the top 100 in that category, at least.

Burfict has potential, and we've seen it. In only nine games his freshman season, Burfict posted an identical number -- 69 tackles -- as he did in 2011. He recorded big plays (seven tackles for loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries) and explosive hits to grab the 2009 Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year award. A year later he led the Sun Devils with a career-high 90 tackles and earned second-team all-conference honors from coaches.

But Burfict didn't even earn honorable mention in 2011. His former head coach, Dennis Erickson, who scouts told me in the past touted Burfict to them, publicly graded his star linebacker's junior season as just "average."

Burfict creates big collisions to stand out on highlight shows but scouts don't necessarily consider him a tough player. They tell me that whatever intensity Burfict portrays on the field it isn't being matched in the weight room. At 6-3, 250 pounds, Burfict is an instinctive and powerful inside linebacker who has proven at the collegiate level to be a physically intimidating presence. He doesn't possess the sideline to sideline speed most 4-3 teams want at middle linebacker in today's NFL. And despite having good strength and long arms, he isn't yet as effective as he'll need to be to play inside in the 3-4. Some teams may look at him as a pass rusher -- where he's shown some natural talent, registering a career-high five sacks in 2011 -- but he remains largely a work in progress.

The point isn't that Burfict lacks the talent to be successful in the NFL. He has some rare traits that with hard work could transform him from a raw stick of dynamite into a Pro Bowler.

If considering Burfict with anything higher than a third-round pick, a team will have to be convinced through interviews that he's going to demonstrate better discipline, commitment -- and quite frankly, production -- than he did at any point in his junior season.

Bowl games help big-name receivers

Strong performances from some of the most celebrated wide receivers in the country -- Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, Baylor's Kendall Wright and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery -- won't help second-tier receivers get the attention they deserve after excellent showings in the postseason. California's Marvin Jones, Texas' Marquise Goodwin and Oregon's Lavasier Tuinei were bright stars in the spotlight of bowl season, delivering the type of impact performances that cause scouts to retrace their steps and take a closer look at their evaluations of these players.

On New Year's Eve, the 6-2, 202-pound Jones caught eight passes for 88 yards against a very athletic Longhorns secondary. Jones has quietly been a very solid receiver for Cal throughout his career, but surprised one scout on hand for the game with his ability to get separation in this game.

"Honestly, I thought they'd shut him down," a scout said, requesting anonymity. "The quarterback was inconsistent, but Jones showed that he could get open. I made have undersold him a little bit."

Despite his build, Jones sinks his hips well and shows good burst laterally to cut away from the defender. As such, he was consistently open on underneath routes such as dig, curl and simple outs.

The scout refused to comment on Texas' Goodwin because the 5-9, 177-pound speedster is a redshirt junior. He didn't have to. The speed and elusiveness Goodwin showed running for 37 yards and catching a 47-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter were enough of a statement.

After winning the long jump with a personal best 27 feet, 4 inches at the U.S. Track and Field Nationals in June, Goodwin had planned to take the football season off and focus on training for the 2012 Olympics.

It might have reasoned that he had Olympic speed, not leaping ability, given the way Goodwin flew through and away from the California secondary in the Holiday Bowl. Goodwin only 30 catches for 372 yards and a touchdown entering the night, but on a national stage he showcased NFL-caliber speed, balance and acceleration, traits scouts won't soon forget.

Another Pac-12 receiver stood out. Lavasier Tuinei caught eight passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns in Oregon's dramatic Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin and was as silky smooth as the Courvoisier with which his first name rhymes.

The 6-5, 216-pound Tuinei surprised Badgers' defensive backs with his long stride, getting behind the defense on multiple occasions. Tuinei snatched passes out of the air and made the adjustment to a ball thrown over his left shoulder (when he expected it over his right) with a fluidity rarely seen in receivers of his size.

The concern with Tuinei, as with any receiver his size, is speed. Tuinei isn't explosive off the line of scrimmage. He does, however, have the bloodlines to suggest he deserves a shot at the next level. His father, Van Tuinei, played four years on the defensive line for the San Diego Chargers, Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears.


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