In the last two scouting reports I wrote I covered Derek Barnett and Jonathan Allen. Both are likely to be first round picks and despite their relatively underwhelming athletic ability, I am a fan of both players' chances to be successful contributors at the NFL. I am not necessarily projecting them to be stars like some are, but they absolutely will be long time players in the league due to their motors, technique and overall physicality. After covering two average athletes on the defensive line, it seemed fair to change it up by hitting on one of the better athletes among the defensive linemen this draft.
The comment section is always in disagreement about the value of a player's tested athletic ability. For me, it is a major factor in the evaluation, but with players like Derek Barnett, it is easy to see how they could succeed without top level tested athleticism. When a player tests very well, it is incredibly important to take notice, however, because those players who test well along the defensive line are successful more often than not. When you have a player like Jordan Willis who is not only incredibly athletic, but also highly productive, it is time to get excited.
Jordan Willis spent four years in Manhattan, Kansas and for the last two years was a mainstay on the Wildcats defense, accumulating 21 sacks and 32.5 tackles for a loss in that time. This season, Jordan Willis finished the season with 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for a loss, earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and Willis received high praise from long-time coach, Bill Snyder who called him "the epitome of Kansas State Football." So, in Willis, you have a top notch athlete with production on his resume and high praise from a guy who has been a head coach at a program since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Not bad, but can he play football?
In short, yes. It is hard to be a productive player at any level of football without some sort of polish in a guy's game. Willis' tested athleticism shows up more often than not on tape and this is a perfect example of what Willis brings at his best. Willis is not always using savvy pass rush moves (we'll get to that in a bit), but here his ability to maintain his speed and balance through a spin move to finish a sack is an example of the athletic ability that makes him a good prospect.
His 4.53 40 yard dash (which is absurd) is evident when he blows off the line and around the offensive tackle.
Both of these plays exemplify how quickly Willis gets up field and also shows high level awareness to stick his hands out and force a fumble. While these plays are good displays of athletic ability and obviously are productive for the defense, they also signal a slight problem that Willis has. Willis has a label from a lot of big outlets of being stiff in the hips. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com said Willis is a "Straight-liner mover [...] one-speed rusher lacking dynamic qualities to turn corner for tight loops."
This makes sense when you watch this play because Willis, while he gets up field and does get the sack, is not really bending the edge. So it is initially fair to question his agility, but then one wonders how he can test so well in agility drills if it is not showing up on tape. There is an old saying that guys do not test well by accident. If they can do well in testing, it means their body is capable, so why is Willis not consistently showing these traits on tape?
Once again, Willis is able to get upfield on a tackle no problem, but he has issues finishing the play because he does not turn the corner. This is curious given his ability, but the issue was best summed up by Kyle Posey (Fan Rag, Bolts From the Blue):
"For as much as Willis does win relative to how often a defensive lineman normally does, there are too many rushes where he’s just attacking the offensive tackle head on without a plan. His initial rush gets stalled. Then Willis will stay engaged too long or not have a counter."
The issue with Willis is not his ability, it is his technique. Willis relies too much on his athletic ability more often than not and just wants to power through a play. While his sheer strength and speed are enough to yield production or create pressure, his numbers could have been so much better if he was just willing to consistently use pass rushing moves. In the first play shown, it is easy to see why Willis can be so damn good if he was able to use those moves consistently.
I love this play because Willis (from the right of the play) comes in on the stunt and the guard almost leaves his feet entirely upon contact. Willis, at 250 pounds, walks the guard back like he's pushing a cart through a grocery store. His athletic ability is really something and throw in some pass rush savvy and you got one hell of a football player.
Despite lack of pass rush moves, Willis is not a mentally raw player at all. He is actually quite cerebral. Even on those plays where he got pushed past the quarterback, his awareness of the the ball allowed him to get strip sacks in both situations. That same awareness also means he does a good job sticking his hands in the passing lane when he cannot finish a pass rush.
Despite there being a completion on this play, Willis' propensity to get his hands up when the quarterback is near release is a good habit to have. Here it pays off for him.
This awareness also pays off for Willis when he is playing the run because he is always cognizant of where the ball is and his discipline can create positive defensive plays.
At a smidgen over 250 pounds, Willis plays above his size against the run. He has an incredibly high motor and his athletic ability means he has no trouble anchoring. Similar to pass rushing, he needs to get better at disengaging blocks rather than just powering through blockers because sometimes his habit to play like that can create running lanes for ball carriers instead of blowing them up. Once he is able to figure out how to use his hands better, he will be a serious problem.
NFL Comparison: Jordan Willis has a lot in common with Connor Barwin throughout his career. Both are highly athletic players with great motors, but inconsistently use rush moves, meaning they are usually creating more pressure than actual production. While that is not a bad thing, especially for a prospect with years to grow, it is something worth noting.
Willis should go a lot higher than he is currently being projected. A popular pick for being a mid day two pick, Willis has the athletic ability that should warrant top 30 consideration. As a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme or a standup rush linebacker, Willis has a chance to thrive because of how physically gifted he is and possessing a high motor definitely increases his chance of success too. For the Eagles, a defensive linemen may be less likely in the first round now with Chris Long in the fold as well as Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham, but Willis would be an excellent addition to a strong defensive line. Under the tutelage of Jim Schwartz, and with guys like Graham and Long on the roster as mentors, Willis could be a star in Philadelphia.