By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Drafting football players is a lot like buying stocks. General managers compile and analyze inordinate amounts of observable data from past performance, then compare it against similarly valued assets to find differentiating factors with the ultimate goal of projecting future success.
Therein lies the rub with evaluating new Bears defensive tackle Will Sutton.
Despite winning back-to-back Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year awards, the data sets between Sutton’s junior and senior season are incongruous.
As a junior at Arizona State, Sutton was among the most dominant interior defensive linemen in the country, registering 23.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. He played that season at an estimated 280 pounds, which is somewhat light for the street fights that take place in NFL trenches. Even so, that type of pass rush productivity is coveted, so he faced a legitimate dilemma: enter the draft early or stay for his senior season?
Sutton elected to return and put on nearly 35 pounds before his senior season. Perhaps his motive was to prove to scouts that he could still be just as disruptive at a more NFL-appropriate weight? Or perhaps he did it at the request of his coaches so he could play a different, more stout role along the defensive front? Whatever the reason, it wasn’t good weight, and it had an adverse affect on his performance. His output dropped — 13.5 tackles for loss, four sacks — as did his draft stock.
Thus, the question for NFL general managers was: Which of the two seasons do you believe projects a truer depiction of Sutton?
The Bears thought enough of Sutton’s body of work to make him their third-round selection (82nd overall), one round after selecting LSU defensive tackle Ego Ferguson.
Here’s the breakdown on Sutton in our rookie spotlight.
Arm length: 31 1/4″
40-yard dash: 5.36
Vertical jump: 28 1/2″
Sutton played in a hybrid defense in college. Arizona State used Sutton’s teammate Carl Bradford — drafted by Green Bay in the fourth round — as their “devil-backer,” a hybrid defensive end/stand-up outside linebacker. Sutton lined up all over the defensive line in both 30- and 40-fronts, but he was most successful as a three-technique in their 4-3 under front.
First-step quickness – Sutton has an excellent get-off, which is so important given the confined space in which defensive linemen operate. Offensive linemen always have two advantages over defensive linemen — they know when the ball will be snapped and where the play is going. That said, Sutton showed great anticipation of the snap count and repeatedly used a quick first step to get up the field to win engagements and control or penetrate his gap.
Full complement of pass rush moves – As it typically works, players with quick feet also play with violent hands, and Sutton is no exception. He won with just about every pass rush technique out there but was most successful with the wipe, arm over, arm under and has an excellent spin move when he gets linemen leaning too far in one direction. When his motor is going, Sutton is relentless with both his feet and hands to disengage from blockers, which led to several disruptions behind the line of scrimmage.
Low pad-level – Granted, Sutton has a more compact, lower-to-the-ground build, but he does a great job of keeping his back flat and pads low when firing out of his stance to play with his natural leverage. When he stays underneath the pads and eye level of his opponent, he’s able to turn their shoulders and get his hips past his blocker, which allows him to dictate the engagement and operate in the opponent’s backfield.
Areas for improvement
Anchoring against the run – Sutton can be overpowered in the run game and struggles to deal with double teams. It was common for Sutton to be neutralized on plays where he didn’t win with his first step. He was unable to re-anchor his base (legs), which got him off balance and turned out of the hole. He also has a tendency to overrun plays, which is a matter of being better at reading his post-snap keys — helmet of the offensive lineman in his gap — while getting his eyes into the backfield.
Conditioning – As alluded to earlier, Sutton’s weight and conditioning was an issue during his senior season, which negatively impacted his performance. However, there were also stretches during his junior season in which he disappeared in games. His motor tends to run hot and cold, which points back to conditioning. He was able to ratchet up the energy for a few plays, then would have nothing left in the tank afterward. He needs to fully dedicate himself to his diet and cardiovascular program. General manager Phil Emery said he felt Sutton is best suited to play at around 290-295 pounds.
Functional strength – Sutton needs to convert the speed and quickness he generates off the snap into power to jar offensive linemen. Quickness will always be his greatest asset, but there will be several moments when he will need to win with power. Part and parcel with his diet and cardio program, he will also need to dedicate himself in the weight room. He already has violent, active hands and quick feet, so adding more power to his punch will make him even more effective.
Prospects for 2014
Looking at the various pieces the Bears have accumulated along the defensive line this offseason, they will have flexibility to mix and match players for certain down-and-distance situations and personnel groupings. Sutton best fits the scheme as a one-gap three technique in their under front, so as to press the pocket from the inside.
Sutton must learn a new scheme, adjust to the speed and power of the NFL game and fine tune his body to handle the rigors of a 16-game schedule. Given all those factors, he projects as a rotational, situational pass rusher this fall. Beyond that, it comes down to Sutton’s commitment to honing his craft on the field and taking the proper measures to his physical development off the field, for the raw ability is there.
Follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin.