The spider web of each prospect's test results from the NFL Combine comes courtesy of MockDraftable. SPARQ composite scores are provided by Zach Whitman. All players’ ages are calculated as of September 2019.
This is the sixth installment of my NFL Draft deep-dive scouting series, following quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, guards, centers and tackles and interior DL. Next up: linebackers!
1. Josh Allen (Kentucky) | 6’5/262
SPARQ percentile: 78.0
Comp: What we wanted Anthony Barr to be
This year, 135 prospects declared early for the NFL Draft, 32 of whom had already graduated. So 102 prospects without degrees gave up scholarships to enter the process. Many will be vindicated when they hear their names called on the first two days. Many won’t. Some won’t be picked at all – in the 2018 NFL Draft, 35 percent of early declarations went undrafted (37 total).
Josh Allen was supposed to have been in that class. But he actually listened to the NFL advisory committee – many don’t, to their detriment – which had given him a mid-round grade and suggested he return. (Senior Bowl executive director and former NFL scout Jim Nagy believes Allen would have ended up in Round 3 had he declared).
Allen spent one tenacious offseason turning himself into the example coaches across the nation will point to when a talented-but-raw prospect is entertaining the jump. He turned down Round 3-4 money, deferred a dream, and made millions and millions of dollars in the process. He leaves college as arguably the best player in Kentucky history.
What a rise it’s been. Not going back one year, but 15. Allen spent elementary school removed from the majority of the student population. At his school, special ed was in the basement. Allen had a speech impediment, and a nasty case of ADHD that wasn’t diagnosed until he moved to Lexington.*
*(a prospect after thine own heart! I was removed from first-grade classes at Baxter Elementary for an hour twice a week because I couldn’t pronounce Rs… when asked my name, I would say “Thoe Nice-wom.”)
For high school, Allen moved to Alabama to live with his aunt and uncle. He took up football as a freshman. Allen was a tall, skinny receiver who shied away from contact. He hit a growth spurt, added some weight, and was a 6’4/200 all-conference receiver as a junior.
Athleticism runs in the family. Allen’s sister Myisha Hines-Allen plays in the WNBA, and his uncle Greg was a 1983 fifth-round pick of the Golden State Warriors. For his senior year, Allen moved back in with his family in New Jersey. Allen’s old friends from the Garden State barely recognized him. His giddy coaches turned him into a two-way player.
Allen dominated in his first try at defense, destroying overmatched New Jersey tackles. But nobody really noticed. "We put his hand on the ground and told him he was going to rush the passer, and three months later, he's got 22.5 sacks to lead the whole state," Allen’s HS HC John Fiore said. "But colleges had no idea he could pass rush because he'd been in Alabama playing receiver."
Recruiting services dropped a two-star flier on Allen. Fiore begged Rutgers to give him a look, but the lowly state school had zero interest. Which, if you go by recruiting rankings, made sense: Allen barely snuck into the top-50 overall recruits in talent-starved New Jersey that year.
Only FCS Monmouth was interested enough to offer a scholarship, and that’s where Allen was heading – until Kentucky swooped in with a late offer to flip him. Allen first flashed as a pass-rusher a sophomore.
After that season, in the spring of 2017, Allen and his girlfriend learned that they were pregnant. Allen called UK HC Mark Stoops. "He told me that day, 'It's on, coach. You don't have to worry about me. I'm a changed man,' " Stoops said. "Most fathers connect more when the baby is born. He didn't wait for that. He started preparing for it the minute he knew about the pregnancy."
Here’s Allen describing how his mindset changed when he learned of the existence of his unborn son: "If I was feeling heavy or getting tired, I just thought about him and pushed myself to work out harder. He was my motivation every day, and he wasn't even here yet. He wasn't even a baby bump yet." To this day, Allen’s Instagram bio reads: “Father to Wesley Devon Allen.”
Allen had another developmental leap as a junior. Following that season, the NFL Draft advisory committee told Allen he needed to gain weight and improve against the run. The NFL also wanted to see more polish and nuance to his game. They wanted him to become more than a one-trick pony speed/length rusher off the edge.
So Allen got it in his head that he was going to gain 20 pounds of muscle. He did it with a hyper-focused nutrition plan and a maniacal workout regimen. UK OLB coach Brad White also gave Allen three football-related things to work on in the offseason that he wrote out as quasi-insults: 1.) Too soft setting the edge against the run, 2.) Speed-to-power transition en route to quarterback needs to be smoother, 3.) Add a marquee inside move as a pass rusher.
After a tenacious offseason of work with his unborn son pushing him, Allen showed up as a senior a complete player, improved across the board. He added 10 sacks to his ledge and finished No. 2 in the country with 17. He easily led the nation with an obscene 94.3 PFF pass-rush grade in the SEC. Allen won the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy and was a First-Team All-American.
He was the primary driving force in a rebirth of Kentucky football that culminated in the Wildcats' upset of Penn State in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. Many NFL prospects skipped the bowls with minor injuries, phantom injuries or simply the old “begin preparations for the NFL Draft” line of explanation. Josh Allen was a top-five overall talent who refused to entertain the thought.
You have to understand: Josh Allen isn’t Josh Allen to Josh Allen. And what I mean by that is he wasn’t a top-five prospect making a brave decision for his teammates. To Josh Allen, he’s the special needs kid who was relentlessly mocked by classmates. He’s the father who is beholden to Wesley Devon Allen. He’s the two-star recruit who couldn’t get calls returned from Rutgers.
Anyone who thought he was ducking that game doesn’t know Josh Allen. An underdog his whole life, Allen turned himself into elite NFL prospect by teaching himself to give full effort every second of the day no matter what. When his opponents were drinking beers on the boat in the summer, Allen was lifting. When they were out at bars chasing girls, he was watching film. As they slept, he was running stairs. He’s a process guy, not a results guy – and those are the folks who always get the results.
Allen’s got the full-package as a pass-rusher. He’s a top-of-the-line rangy athlete who uses his length as a weapon, staying on the outside of blockers with those longs arms extended and those pistons for legs firing at all times. Allen isn’t just looking for kill-shots, he wants to flip the field and is constantly looking to bat balls out of hands. He forced 11 fumbles the past three years, including five last year.
Where Allen’s evaluation became so much more straightforward is in run defense. In 2017, he posted a 59.3 PFF run-defense grade, poor. In 2018, he improved astronomically, to 83.5. He’s now so good at run defense that he likely could have made the NFL as an edge-setting grinder even if he wasn’t so athletic. Against the run and pass both, Allen is rarely fully blocked. He doesn’t quit, and he has better tools than you do.
Allen has also showed well in coverage the past two seasons, running around and forcing contesting situations like a jumbo safety. Kentucky’s staff not only helped him to become more well-rounded, but they used him all over the place and gave him a wide-range of assignments.
In any given three-play sample, you might have seen Allen jamming a slot receiver in coverage on play, setting the edge on a sweep the next, and pinning his ears back to harass the quarterback into an ill-advised throw on third down. At the combine, when asked what position he should play in the NFL, Allen responded: “Defensive player.”
“Whoever gets ... I’ll play whatever they need me to play,” Allen told USA Today. “On or off the ball, it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll play safety or corner if they ask me to. … The game is changing right before our eyes. There’s a lot of big guys that can really move nowadays. You [can’t] just be a big guy that can just stop the run anymore, [you have to be able to] cover tight ends and be versatile.”
You want to talk about accountability and character? You want to talk about a guy who identifies goals and then will stop at nothing to achieve them? This a mid-round prospect who returned to Kentucky because he was crazy enough to think he could go 1.1 the next year.
After the win over Penn State, Allen told reporters: “You all record this. If I don’t go number one, I don’t know who is.” At the NFL Combine, he doubled down. Allen may fall just short of that goal, but that’s more about semantics and personal taste than an indictment of his skill (I rank Allen No. 2 overall, behind Quinnen Williams – and boy was that one a close call).
The tools are elite, and we have proof of concept that Allen is a dogged, relentless worker. Because of that latter bent, Allen is no longer just an edge rusher. He wins in a variety of different ways, and he can be deployed just about anywhere. He’ll get even better as he adds more moves and counter-moves and is taught how to turn his hands into weapons like his legs.
He’s become an upper-echelon run defender and coverage linebacker in addition to being a Freddie Krueger presence in the nightmares of quarterbacks. He is everything we wanted Anthony Barr to be coming out of UCLA.
Barr turned out to be a pretty good off-ball linebacker in the NFL. Allen’s got that skillset with similar athletic gifts, and he adds a terrifying edge-rushing package he just used to set nation’s best conference on fire.
2. Nick Bosa (Ohio State) | 6’4/266
SPARQ percentile: 74.8
Comp: Joey Bosa 2.0
Nick Bosa loves Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan (“the Goats”), hates Colin Kaepernick (“clown”), and has argued that Beyonce’s music is “complete trash” and the movie BLACK PANTHER is the “worst Marvel movie of all time.”
Once an irreverent feed sprinkled with anti-immigrant and quasi-race baiting hot takes written with Eddie-Haskell-as-fratboy aplomb (“Lol always gotta be a race thing jeez,” Bosa tweeted last May), Bosa’s Twitter timeline was scrubbed of controversial tweets and anesthetized in general in the months leading up to the NFL Combine.
Asked why by a reporter, Bosa responded: “I had to. There is a chance I might end up in San Francisco.” The 6-foot-4, 263-pounder may not be your idea of an ideal dinner guest, but he’s as diversified on the field as he’s depicted himself to be narrow off it, as bothersome to opponents as he frequently was to common sense on social media.
We only got 29 games of Bosa at Ohio State. But we saw plenty in that sample to cleanly earmark him as a top-five overall prospect, including an average of 1.0 TFL per game played over the entirety of his career.
Bosa was a top-five overall recruit who made the Freshman All-American team his first year on campus. Bosa’s PFF pass-rush win rate as a true freshman was higher than Brian Burns and Clelin Ferrell posted last season.
As a sophomore, he went off for eight sacks and 16 TFL while being named a “Champion” by Ohio State coaches in all 12 wins, an effort designation no other Buckeye received that year. Bosa was an All-American who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and won the Big Ten’s defensive lineman of the year award.
A top-five lock and a dark horse Heisman candidate heading into last season, Bosa and the Buckeyes had national title hopes before Bosa stumbled awkwardly on a pass rush against TCU in mid-September and suffered a ludicrously painful core muscle injury. That turned out to be his last play as an amateur.
Bosa underwent surgery. It hurt to laugh. To cough. To turn over in bed. To take a leak. "That first week, I was all alone in my apartment and I just started calling people I care about, just to talk. I called my high school coach, I called my dad, my mom, my brother [Pro Bowler Joey Bosa]. It was pretty rough,” Bosa said.
He withdraw from school. He was called a quitter. Fans turned on him. And I think it’s exactly what Eddie Haskell needed. To be humbled and proven human. To be forgotten, and disliked. "He's got a big heart,” OSU DL Larry Johnson. "He loves people. I know the day that he left to walk out of this building, there wasn't a dry eye in my office. We cried together. One thing he said was, 'Coach, I'm sorry I let you down.' I said, 'No, you didn't let me down.'”
Bosa’s sense of humor isn’t my cup of tea, but he’s no dummy. He was an Academic All-Big Ten Conference honoree and a two-time OSU Scholar-Athlete. And for the record, Bosa’s football character is top-notch. His teammates and coaches swear by him.
Bosa is a load on the field. He’s a muscle-up, high-effort, speed-to-power player who is a high-end technician, in part because he was able to apprentice under older brother Joey, who declared for the draft after three years at Ohio State, from 2013-2015. Nick signed on in 2016 to give the Buckeyes six straight years of Bosa fury off the edge.
If you were to parse his game against Joey’s, Nick draws a bit more on power and oomph while Joey is a bit smoother and longer. But they’re extremely similar, with the same moves, the same active hands and relentless leg churning, and the same explosive ferocity off the edge.
They also had nearly identical stat lines at Ohio State. Joey had 34.5 TFL, Nick had 29.0. Joey had 21 sacks, Nick had 17.5. And keep in mind: Nick played a tick over 600 fewer snaps than Joey in college because of his junior year injury. The pair had essentially identical PFF pass-rushing grades in college. Father of the Brothers Bosa, John Bosa, was a first-round pick of the Dolphins in the 1980s.
Nick is also a plus-plus run defender. You can’t handle him with one blocker, and he can also drop the anchor and hang in against two guys to create multi-car pileups in the direction the ball is flowing.
As ESPN's Matt Bowen noted, Bosa's go-to move on the attack is a club/swipe combination that jars the offensive linemen enough for him to swim across their face with a direct path to the quarterback. His game is quick hands, relentless leg drive and blood smears on jerseys.
ESPN asked an NFL executive if his team would hold Bosa's decision to leave Ohio State in the middle of the season against him? "Nope. When you're as good as he is, it doesn't matter." Same goes for the Twitter persona, though Bosa hopefully shed some of the Eddie Haskell stuff during his rehab.
Bosa is a top-three talent. You can nitpick the profile a bit – he’s coming off a season-ending injury, he’s a bit immature, and he’s not as long nor as athletic as many other top-five edge rushers we’ve seen the past decade – but let’s be honest. This kid is a beast.
3. Montez Sweat (Mississippi State) | 6’6/260
SPARQ percentile: 97.1
A three-star, 220-pound tight end recruit in the 2014 class who signed with Michigan State, “Tez” Sweat was quickly moved to defense as a freshman. The next season, only two games into the campaign, Sweat was suspended indefinitely for an undisclosed violation of team rules.*
*(His MSU teammate, Craig Evans, later revealed that marijuana use was the reason. For whatever it’s worth, Evans is emphatic that pot was the only reason Sweat got the boot. Sweat was also accused of stealing a bike while in East Lansing, though he said that was a misunderstanding).
Sweat spent a year rehabbing his stock in the JUCO ranks and then signed with Mississippi State. He excelled immediately, posting back-to-back double-digit sack seasons while getting tabbed to the First-Team All-SEC team both times. His 22 sacks over that time were second-most in the nation behind Josh Allen.
Last fall, he had 12 sacks, with a 19.1% pressure percentage that ranked top-10 among edge defenders in this class. For that, he was also named an All-American. He and Jeffery Simmons were brutally difficult to deal with as a tandem.
Sweat’s game is built on length and speed. In those two metrics, he’s elite. The 6-foot-6, 260-pounder ran a ludicrous 4.41 forty (faster than Julio Jones, Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown) and has extension-cord arms (35 ⅜ inches). "That’s how you want to draw up a defensive end," NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.
Sweat is a classic speed rusher who tries to beat tackles wide, ripping through their outside arm and then flipping on the jets as he turns the corner looking for dinner. He wins with speed, but even tackles who know that have all kinds of problems dealing with him.
Sweat gets on top of you very quickly, and he’s a very hard moving target to get your timing down on because, like a giraffe, he’s a high-cut long-strider who chews up ground very quickly (and moves faster than he appears to be moving).
He’s also developed a few inside moves to burn tackles who cheat to account for his speed, as well as a slick hand game that is both fast and furious, with more watts in those fists than you’d assume.
The knocks on Sweat are straightforward: His play strength needs to improve, and he wins north-to-south but not east-to-west. His strength should improve as he keeps adding weight to a frame that can absolutely support it – Sweat should get to 270 pounds in short order, and 280 isn’t out of the question.
And while Brian Burns won’t give you much in run defense, Sweat excelled in that aspect of the game in StarkVegas. Burns is a bullet with one target in mind. Sweat diagnoses quickly and plays with admirable discipline, staying home in the face of misdirection and rarely running himself out of containment responsibilities.
He’s also a really nifty backside threat, crashing down hard to clip runners heading up the gut or chasing them down the line with ferocity. Sweat was No. 1 in this class in run-stop percentage, per PFF, and his overall run grade was sterling.
Sweat’s evaluation is complicated by a heart condition that was flagged during a medical evaluation at the NFL Scouting Combine. The condition is not considered as serious as that of Oakland Raiders DT Maurice Hurst, who was sent home from the combine last year following the diagnosis of his own heart condition.
By contrast, Sweat was cleared for workouts. An NFL source told The Athletic’s Dane Brugler that Sweat’s condition is considered low-risk because he “hasn’t had any past episodes or episodes in his family.”
Hurst plummeted to the fifth-round last year. At least as of this writing, Sweat’s stock has not been similarly affected. Then again, we didn’t have any idea that Hurst was in for a free-fall until the days leading up to the draft. “It is something to monitor, but it wouldn’t stop us from drafting Sweat,” another NFL source told Brugler. “Hurst was off our board. Sweat will probably need regular checkups.”
Sweat has drawn ubiquitous comps to Danielle Hunter, and I think that’s about right (with the caveat that Sweat was more productive in college and comes into the league a little further advanced in his development). Sweat fits any scheme. He’ll contribute quickly either as a 4-3 DE or a 3-4 OLB.
4. Brian Burns (Florida State) | 6’5/249
SPARQ percentile: 95.4
Created by a higher power to sack the quarterback, the 6-foot-5, 249-pound Burns has 4.53 jets and easy, stick-of-dynamite-trail-to-the-QB explosion. He clowned collegiate tackles with speed. On some plays, an offensive tackle would only get one feeble shove on Burns before he was in the quarterback’s danger zone.
A five-star recruit who averaged more than a sack his last two years of high school, Burns burst onto the ACC scene with 8.5 sacks, earning Freshman All-American honors. Back then, Burns was a bundle of speed and twitch who didn’t really know what he was doing.
He had only one more TFL on top of his sack total, and got blasted off the line when Jimbo Fisher made a miscalculation and the opponent ran the ball. Burns went to work and turned himself into an exceedingly clever rusher.
If his speed rush is a 100 mph heater, Burns’ vaunted inside spin move is a Bugs Bunny curve. The combination was unfair to immobile ACC tackles. He’d lick them with speed on a few reps one drive.
The next, as the tackle was leaning left off the snap, no doubt having resolved to this time catch the bat as it flew by and fling it out the window by running Burns in a rainbow route around the quarterback, Burns would show a few steps of speed, see that heavy left step from the tackle — who was opening himself up to make his lateral shuffle with Burns more palatable — and then spin inside the second the tackle committed to engagement.
It was almost unfair. Especially when he started to incorporate a changeup, modulating his approach to screw with tackles’ timing even more. When he wins outside, Burns bends that edge like Beckham, squares his shoulders, and descends downhill with authority.
He's improved his hand use and has gotten better and better at leveraging his length. Last year, Burns led the Power 5 with 69 QB pressures. He watches a ton of tape and heads into a game with a mental profile of the opponent’s tackles.
“I always have a predetermined move,” Burns told Pro Football Focus. “I always have a plan in my head before every rush. You don’t want to just go into a rush not knowing what to do… If I get a good enough get-off and I can beat the guy with speed around the edge, I’ll just do an inside chop and dip around the corner.”
As a pass-rusher, Burns’ evaluation is as clean as it gets. The question becomes: What else he can he contribute? Burns actually improved by leaps and bounds as a run defender in Tallahassee. He showed a willingness to set the edge, and labored to funnel runners inside, generally effective, as you’re not beating Burns to the corner.
But Burns can get mauled by power, and he’s as unsure of himself in these types of engagements as he’s sure of himself on the prowl as a pass-rusher. He loses control of his hands and goes along for the ride once he’s given up his chest. It’s difficult to project improvement in this area at the next level. Burns is what he is.
While at the NFL Combine, Burns was told by NFL teams that, in addition to working on his run defense, he needed to add weight to his lower half, continue to work on hand placement, and a develop a bull rush. I think he’ll get there with the hands, but his twig legs aren’t open to expansion, and he’s never going to be a speed-to-power rusher.
It barely warrants mentioning, because dropping Burns into coverage would be like playing Ed Oliver at 0-technique in a 3-4 defense that doesn’t blitz (I kid, Major!), but Burns’ athleticism and length didn’t really translate to coverage in limited exposure.
Still only 20, Burns is just a baby. A baby who was born to do one of the most valuable things in the modern NFL: Sack the quarterback. He’s absolutely going to do that in the NFL. But if can never threaten with power, he must develop more counter-moves to compliment his spin, and he must become more fluid in giving up Plan A and transitioning into Plan B.
5. Clelin Ferrell (Clemson) | 6’4/264
SPARQ percentile: N/A
Comp: Derrick Morgan (Charlie Campbell)
In high school, Ferrell overcame the death of his father as a freshman and a torn ACL as a senior to earn top-150 recruit billing. He signed with Clemson, which knew he’d have to be redshirted as a frosh.
Ferrell went on to dominate, with 27 sacks and 50.5 TFL over the last three years (and 21/36.5 over the past two). He has the look of a classic defensive end — textbook frame and muscular build with long arms — and worked quite hard to develop a well-rounded game.
What makes that game such a joy to watch is Ferrell’s ability to subvert expectations. He’s not elite in any one area, but is strong across the board and must be accounted for and dealt with on each and every play. Ferrell wants to be physical, wants to mix it up, has the body to mix it up. But he’s not a one-trick pony.
Ferrell compliments his physicality with an explosive first step and technical slickness. One of his tricks is Shrinking Clelin, wherein he squeezes through gaps when bigger linemen who’ve felt the voltage in his hands sink the hips expecting him to mug them with clubs and get his face mask into their chest again.
Ferrell uses those long arms to create distance, and he has a few moves to shed and dip when he’s acquired enough information to ascertain where the ball is going, which he does quite quickly. He rarely gets fooled, and he’s often one step ahead.
That’s when he’s at his best, when all of his above-average tools are working in concert and he gets you guessing. Ferrell is generally sharper than his opponent, so he’s generally got the guesses sniffed out in advance too.
Ferrell is at his worst when he’s forced to lean on one tool and go strength-and-strength with his opponent. For instance, despite his pop, Clelin ranked just No. 161 on PFF in this class when bringing bullrush pressure. As a rusher, he uses power more as a mirage to set up other options to out-quick you into a win. And despite his athleticism, Ferrell isn’t overly bendy or agile, which steals options from him on the attack.
Despite his prep billing, despite his collegiate production, and despite winning two national titles, Ferrell has always been quasi-overlooked. At Clemson, he was one of four ballyhooed starters on the defensive line, with Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence drawing some of the spotlight. In this draft class, that remains the case, as Ferrell finds himself outside a stacked Tier 1 in this transcendent edge class.
He may lack sex appeal, but the floor is sky-high. Players with prototype measurables and no obvious weaknesses who play smart and compete their butts off don’t fail. I just don’t think he’s going to be a superstar.