And In That Corner … A Thor-ough look at Notre Dame’s defensive draft hopefuls

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Notre Dame has a number of draft prospects expecting to hear their names this weekend, so many it makes sense to break the discussion into defense and offense. While this space always has some thoughts about these players individually, draft analysis requires a different angle, one trying to project how these players will fit in at the next level rather than looking back on their college careers.

For that, and for a better understanding of the broader draft picture, let’s turn to Rotoworld’s lead college football writer and NFL draft analyst, Thor Nystrom. And let’s begin with former Irish defenders, as a couple hold genuine first-round hopes.

DF: Thor, if there is anything you like more than college football, it is the puzzle of the NFL draft. As you and I have discussed throughout the last few months, my insights into someone’s past and proven abilities, like Jerry Tillery’s as an example, provide only so much value this time of year. Thanks for helping fill in those gaps.

Let’s start with Tillery, as I believe the defensive tackle almost certainly will be the first Notre Dame player called this weekend, right? It took him a long time to grow into someone the Irish could rely upon, but by the end he was a defensive force that played a key role in propelling them to the Playoff.

About where do you see him going and why? What sets Tillery apart?

TN: Tillery will be the first of these names off the board, absolutely, followed by Julian Love (with the dark horse being Miles Boykin).

Where Tillery is going to go is up in the air. I have not seen him going in the first round in many mock drafts, but I have a gut feeling he will wind up in the first on Thursday.

Perhaps I am saying that because I love Tillery. I rank him as the No. 11 overall prospect in the class. But I also think he is the kind of the guy front offices are hush-hush about when talking with the media. He was very under the radar coming into this year because he played out of position in a role he was miscast for and had a petulant reputation that preceded him, the 2016 USC incident being the most public.

Then this fall Brian Kelly finally unshackled the kid and moved him to the position Tillery was put on this earth to play, three-technique, and he went thermonuclear.

The counting stats —  eight sacks and 10.5 TFL — don’t tell the story. This is a Notre Dame crowd, so I’m probably preaching to the choir, but I have three crazy Tillery stats from Pro Football Focus and a crazy Tillery contextual M. Night Shyamalan-twist to offer.

PFF Fact No. 1: Tillery tied Alabama’s Quinnen Williams (whom I consider the best player in this draft class) for the highest pass-rushing grade of interior defenders in college football last season.

PFF Fact No. 2:  Tillery created 48 total pressures (No. 3 among all interior defenders), with an additional 32 pass-rushing wins that didn’t result in a pressure. In other words, he whipped his man 32 times from the interior on passing downs and didn’t get credited with a pressure. He led college football in wins that didn’t result in a pressure — that’s just rotten luck. (DF Note: And probably a testament to some of the defensive ends Notre Dame returns in 2019.) Nonetheless, Tillery still finished in the top-three of interior in pressures.

PFF Fact No. 3: Tillery won nearly twenty percent of his pass-rushing snaps last year.

Shyamalan Twist: Tillery played the final eight games with a torn right labrum that was injured in late September. It’s not just that he played through it without a complaint — nobody even knew he had a torn labrum until he was home on vacation before the Playoff and his mother, a nurse, sent him in to get it looked at.

Thor’s complete DT rankings

And then Tillery went out and played Clemson, and then he went out and did full athletic testing. He didn’t duck the bowl or the combine with a phantom injury, like many of his contemporaries. He was willing to play compromised. And in 2018, he DOMINATED while not at 100 percent.

Tillery is a freak athlete with a perfect frame.  Interior penetration in the NFL is gold — like his old helmet — and that is Tillery’s calling card. I think he’s just getting started.

DF: Next up should be Julian Love. He has never tested all that well — how excited can an NFL front office get about him improving to a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at Notre Dame’s Pro Day after struggling to a 4.54 at the NFL combine? I am not sure any of his numbers set him apart, which is why many mock drafts have dropped him a round or two this spring.

Not all mock drafts, though. You, Josh Norris and Chris Simms did a mock draft last week in which Josh took Love at No. 29, to the Kansas City Chiefs. You did not speak against the pick (I am pretty sure you were too busy failing to find someone to pick at No. 30), while Chris went so far as to compare Love to his former teammate and five-time Pro Bowler Ronde Barber. That kind of thought process is more in line with what Irish fans expect after watching Love for three seasons.

Which end of the spectrum do you lean toward?

TN: That mock draft was a trip! NFL teams have 10 minutes to pick. We did it on the spot, and I had to contend throughout with the distraction of Simms’ banter, a challenge no NFL front office will face this weekend.

And yeah, I’m with him on Love.

He’s bigger than former Washington cornerback Byron Murphy, more athletic than Byron Murphy — and he had a career almost as good as Byron Murphy. (Murphy had PFF grades of 86.6 in 2017 and 92.0 in 2018; Love had grades of 81.8 in 2017 and 90.4 in 2018.)

Love is a natural cover corner. He’s agile, technically-elite and super smart. Oh, and he’s got loosey-goosey hips that help him swivel like a chair and flow with the receiver. He shares Murphy’s deep speed concerns, but that is the biggest knock.

Thor’s complete CB rankings

I don’t think Love is quite at Murphy’s level as a player, but he’s not far off. There are a lot of similarities in coverage (Murphy is better against the run). Love has the brains, the body and athleticism. I’m bullish. (DF Note: Thor compares Love to Murphy because the two are competing to be the second cornerback drafted behind former LSU cornerback Greedy Williams.)

DF: I am not sure who to go with next. How about Notre Dame’s leading tackler each of the last two seasons, Te’von Coney? Another player who does not test as well by the clock or the weight as many others, no matter how solidly he plays. Since Clark Lea began coaching the Irish linebackers in 2017, Coney progressed by leaps and bounds. He went from recognizing a play about as quickly as I do to instinctively filling a hole before the hole even opened. That is how you rack up 239 tackles the last two seasons, including 33 between two bowl games against LSU and Clemson.

How much can Coney’s production make up for his lack of elite athleticism?

TN: I fear Coney Island is going to suffer in translation to the next level. He measured  in at only 6-foot and 234 pounds at the NFL Combine, and then he tested in the fifth-percentile of SPARQ, a database correlating a player’s athleticism tests to historic marks at his position.

His RAS score — a metric out of 10 rating your size-adjusted athletic test scores which weights the tests by importance — was 2.56. Ten would be the most athletic linebacker to ever test while zero equates to an inanimate trash can set up behind the nose tackle. Scoring a 2.56 further confirms Coney enters the NFL out-gunned athletically.

The kid is a warrior, though. Loved him in college. A reliable, tone-setting All-American. Very smart player, great instincts. I just think he’s going to be a negative in coverage at the next level.

He’s always going to be on the wrong end of size/athleticism encounters, and want-to and heart only go so far when you’re on a playing field with 21 NFL-caliber athletes. In the modern NFL, you have to cover well. That’s why unathletic linebackers are going the way of the immobile seven-foot center in the NBA.

I rank Coney as LB14. I know I’m lower on him than others, but I do think he’s a high-floor prospect who can help against the run. I just don’t think he’ll ever be more than a replaceable starter in the NFL because of the coverage concerns. Good depth piece, if nothing else. I grade him in the late-round 5/early-round 6 neighborhood.

DF: And that brings us to Drue Tranquill. Talk about a college career. From maligned safety to injured safety to rover and finally to inside linebacker, one could argue it took five years for Tranquill to land at his best position. Before getting into his current draft stock, I have to ask — Do you think he would have been drafted last year?

TN: Last year, yeah, I do, I think he made a big enough leap in 2017 to justify a flier. But he really struggled in 2016, and your point about his journey to this point is well taken.

DF: And what about nowadays? There are Irish fans who laugh at the thought of Tranquill being drafted at all. If it was in the realm of possibility a year ago, his work at Buck in 2018 should make it a certainty in my mind. He’ll never be a top-flight NFL player, maybe not even more than a situational player, but in those situations he could provide the hybrid second-tier skill set the NFL is skewing toward as it becomes more and more like college football. That, combined with his physicality, is what allowed him to excel under Lea these last two seasons.

How does the NFL view a Drue Tranquill, a 23-year-old with absolutely no character issues, but two torn ACLs in his past? An athlete who struggled in coverage while at safety but excelled in it at linebacker?

TN: To me, Tranquill is the opposite case of Coney.

Hear me out, Irish fans — Coney was the better college player, better player by far.

My appreciation for Tranquill stems from loving linebackers who can cover. And that’s what he is: A 6-foot-2 former safety with an 88th percentile SPARQ score and a 9.87 (!) RAS. Tranquill is an ace in coverage, and I think he’s only going to get better as he learns his new position.

Thor’s complete LB rankings

As we talked about in the Coney section, coverage ability is so valuable in the modern NFL. If you want to break what’s important in a linebacker evaluation into a simple pie chart with pass defense and run defense, pass defense value swallows the run game piece.

In a nutshell, that’s why I am high on Tranquill and low on Coney. The red flag with Tranquill is his medical history. My love is contingent on my doctors giving the thumbs up. Assuming they do, I think he’s a top-100 prospect based on the value of his best skill and the ceiling it gives him. I rank him LB7, the No. 87 player in the class.