Nate Irving LB NC State
On Saturday, Irving proved to any remaining doubters that he’s fully recovered from the car accident that took away his ‘09 season. The explosive linebacker delivered an epic performance, notching 16 tackles, 4.5 TFL, and two sacks. Irving made an impact even when he wasn’t polishing his stat line, quickly moving downhill to disrupt Georgia Tech’s option attack.
On a few plays, Irving did overpursue and take poor angles, but those plays could soon disappear. At his point, Irving looks like a guy getting used to driving a faster car; once he gets used to going full speed, he should he able to play under control and be the consistent impact player he was back in ‘08.
Cameron Jordan DE Cal
Last year, Jordan had a very productive season (8 sacks, 9.5 TFL), but teammate Tyson Alualu received most of the glory, as well as an unexpectedly big paycheck. Now, it’s Jordan’s time to surge up draft boards, which he’s begun to do with a series of remarkable performances. At 6’4”, 282 lbs., Jordan is a strong run defender who already has experience at his ideal NFL position, 3-4 defensive end.Jordan also can get after the quarterback from multiple spots; in fact, one could argue that Jordan is a better pass rusher than the much-heralded Cameron Heyward.
Against Arizona, Jordan showed off that pass rush ability, forcing Nick Foles to throw with his left hand (twice) and later stripping the ball for a turnover. He didn’t loaf as the game wore on, repeatedly getting in the way of run plays and messing with Foles’ timing. As a result, Jordan’s well on his to becoming a big-time draft riser, perhaps earning an Alulalu-like rise to the top half of the first round.
Akeem Ayers LB UCLA
Ayers is a gifted size/speed athlete, and those abilities were on display in the Bruins’ surprise blowout victory over the Longhorns. The UCLA linebacker displayed his potential as a pass rusher, using his speed off the edge to sack Garrett Gilbert once and knock him down a couple more times. Ayers too often relies on his speed rush, but his length and burst should appeal to teams looking for a high upside 3-4 outside linebacker.
But perhaps Ayers’ best play came while in coverage when he baited Gilbert into throwing a pick, jumping into the throwing lane only after the ball had left the Texas QB’s hand. It’s that type of awareness that scouts want to see out of Ayers. And based on how he played on Saturday, it’s easy to see the UCLA LB reaching their high expectations, becoming the type of all-around linebacker that appeals to both 3-4 and 4-3 teams.
Mike Blanc DT Auburn
Many would expect Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley to make this list: the junior d-tackle was a constant presence in the Gamecocks’s backfield, shutting down their running game and forcing both of SC’s QBs into unwise decisions. However, Mel Blanc’s positive performance deserves some recognition as well.
The senior DT doesn’t receive much fanfare, but he’s a reliable run defender with an ever-churning motor. On his highlight play of the night, Blanc had the presence of mind to chase a play to the other side of the field, the dive onto the ball when one of his teammates stripped it loose. Similarly, one could spot Blanc rumbling downfield in pursuit of running backs and scrambling QBs.
And while not an impressive pass rusher, Blanc found ways to contribute on passing downs. On one play, he effectively pushed the pocket, then got his hands up and deflected a pass. Also, the stocky DT exhibited his underrated athleticism by dropping into coverage. He’ll never be as dominant or disruptive in the trenches as Fairley, but Blanc should be valuable to NFL teams as a rotational player or a quality reserve.
Anthony Castonzo OT Boston College
In a weak tackle class, Castonzo appears to be the best of the bunch. The BC OT possesses ideal length for the position and has added some much-needed bulk. In addition, the Biochemistry major earns high marks for his intelligence and work ethic.
While he possesses some of the qualities desired in a franchise left tackle, Castonzo didn’t look at all like one in his matchup against Virginia Tech defensive end Steven Friday. The VTech speed rusher gave him plenty of trouble, beating him around the edge for a sack and a few more pressures. The performance reinforced a trend that can be seen in Castonzo’s play: he tends to look very good against decent speed rushers, but he can be beaten by guys who possess excellent explosiveness off the edge. One could forgive him for struggling against Robert Quinn last year, but not being able to handle Friday was a bit more alarming.
Castonzo looks a bit stronger this year, but he’s not a guy who’s going to be elite in any aspect of his game: in pass protection, he’s generally reliable but will struggle against better competition; he’s good at blocking on the move but won’t dominate at the point of attack. An offensive tackle has been taken in the top fifteen in each of the last twenty-eight drafts, and Castonzo appears to be the most likely candidate to be picked that high. However, he doesn’t exhibit the elite qualities that one expects in a top ten OT. However, a tackle-desperate team could bite the bullet and take Castonzo higher than his talent level warrants.