No other event produces risers and fallers in the draft like the NFL Combine -- you take the players away from their supporting casts, out of the trappings of their power conference or small school uniforms, and pit them head to head in a contest of pure skills. Those that excel get a whole horde of scouts poring over game film, looking for plays that corroborate the skills on display.
One such player is Temple DE/DT Muhammad Wilkerson, whose draft stock has been soaring as that of injury-plagued players like Iowa's Adrian Clayborn has been plummeting. Barely mentioned in early conversations, Wilkerson has been appearing in a lot of first-round mocks, and has already had workouts with teams like the Patriots, Ravens, and Giants who will be picking in the late teens to mid-twenties.
But in one recent mock draft by DraftAce.com's Ryan McCrystal, he shoots the gap straight to pick #14, by the Rams, supplanting the more popular choice of Illinois DT Corey Liuget.
@RamsHerd just a hunch, but Rams seem to like bigger, stronger DTs. Liuget is a little smaller and has less potential as a run stuffer.
Like Tyson Alualu last year, who was a shocking (but pretty decent) pick by the Jaguars at #10 overall, Wilkerson's under-the-radar rise to prominence could surprise many casual observers. However, in such a rich draft full of defensive line talents, is this a good value pick?
We asked Doug Farrar, of Football Outsiders and Yahoo's Shutdown Corner, whether he would give Wilkerson a first-round grade:
In this particular DL draft class, a mid-second. In other classes, maybe a low first, but you really have to stand out to get a 1st-grade on this one. Wilkerson is close.
CBS Sports draft analyst Rob Rang is one who does, consistently ranking him among his top 32 talents.
With his position and scheme versatility, Wilkerson might be considered a top-20 lock if only he had played in the Big Ten and not the MAC.
There are also a lot of positives in Farrar's detailed scouting report, but enough knocks on his play -- and the quality of opposition he faced -- that the agile DT only ranks #42 overall in his assessment.
To my mind, after watching just a bit of tape and reading these reports, Wilkerson seems very reminiscent of one of the players said to be in consideration for the Rams' top pick last year: Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy. Both McCoy and Wilkerson are agile, lean-body DTs who use their speed and hands to get upfield in a hurry. Both can be lined up in seemingly any slot (except directly over center) and twist to the inside or out to get penetration. But neither is a pure pass-rush beast in the mold of Ndamukong Suh. (Of course, few are.)
Muhammad Wilkerson, vs Central Michigan:
Gerald McCoy, 2009 highlights:
If drafted, the Rams could rotate Wilkerson between the two DT spots, getting primary work on the right side, but capable of filling in for Fred Robbins on the left as well. Ultimately, though, at least with the skillset he shows on tape, I imagine his best fit would be as Robbins' long-term replacement.