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10 DL, LB prospects who dominated Day 3 of the 2020 NFL Combine (and 1 who didn’t)

A look at the best and worst performances from defensive linemen and linebackers.

NFL: FEB 27 Scouting Combine Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Holy cow has the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine been going well for the players involved? It took us until Day 3 until we had a highly-touted, early-round prospect put on a performance that is being heavily scrutinized and the injuries have thankfully been few and far between (knock on all the wood).

Saturday’s defensive line and linebacker groups are two that the Detroit Lions are paying extremely close attention to, and this group almost universally didn’t disappoint. I won’t belabor the point, let’s jump right into 10 guys who killed Day 3 of the Combine, and one who didn’t.

Jason Strowbridge DL, North Carolina

Measuring in with the DL group—since the defensive lineman were broken up into DT and DL, apparently—Strowbridge is a guy I’ve been keeping a close eye on for some time. He has the prototypical size that Matt Patricia digs, and on tape, he exhibits much of the same type of workman mentality this staff values.

While Strowbridge measured out very well as a DT (a 9.4 RAS), it was as a DL that he really caught my eye from a metrics perspective. This newl- finalized sub group consists of DT under 325 and DE over 275, and among them Strowbridge measured in the 99.5th percentile with great marks everywhere. He’s shown he has the tools to succeed, but now it’s all a matter of value and draft slotting, and Strowbridge’s strong performance on field and in the events could launch him from early Day 3 to late Day 2.

Ross Blacklock, DT, Texas Christian

I spoke about Blacklock shortly after the Lions met with him at the Combine, and they had to have been impressed with his performance on Saturday. While he didn’t edge into elite range for RAS, the Lions have been less concerned about overall measurables with their second-round picks.

Still, he did very well, hitting a reported 1.73 in the 10-yard split and a blazing 4.90 in the 40-yard dash. Blacklock also hit decent marks in both explosion and agility drills, where there was concern his 2018 Achilles injury may have sapped some of his explosiveness. All in all, it was a great day and his attitude and enthusiasm were electric from start to finish.

Malcolm Roach, DT, Texas

Few defensive lineman did as much to help their draft stock as the Longhorns’ Malcolm Roach. Roach measured in very well, pulling in a 8.44 RAS with excellent explosion and speed numbers (a 1.68 10-yard split and 4.84 40-yard dash don’t hurt!), but more importantly for Roach, he was impressive throughout the on-field drills on Saturday. Movement skills in space should have been expected after how he measured, but he was able to display reaction speed and quick twitch that should endear him to teams looking for an internal rusher.

A.J. Epenesa, DL, Iowa

You’re going to see Epenesa listed as a ‘faller’ or a ‘loser’ over the coming weeks, but you folks have been following along on Pride of Detroit long enough to know better. You know that defensive lineman who play edge in a 3-4 aren’t cut from the same cloth as speedy edge rushers that usually get drafted high. You got to watch Robert Porcher play, and have seen Michael Bennett and Calais Campbell play for years. Perhaps you saw the NFC Championship game and saw Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner just wrecking shop.

So you know to look further when a huge end runs a slow 40 and a below-average RAS. You start looking if he has interior defensive lineman traits that can push him to win at an edge role in 3-man sets or internally in 4-man fronts. So you probably noticed that Epenesa’s metrics were better than DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead’s, even if he’s slightly smaller (those dudes are huge). You saw the similarities to Packers star Za’Darius Smith. You know enough to know a good thing when you see it. Especially when the drills matched his tape.

Will Epenesa go top of the first round? Probably not, but that’s only because this type of player isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But for those schemes he fits, he looks every bit the monster.

Derrek Tuszka, DE, North Dakota State

Your first reaction was probably “Who?” followed by “How do you even pronounce that?”, but since I’m a nut for math my first reaction was a bit different. (For the record, just pretend the “Z” isn’t there in his name and you’ll pronounce it just fine, and this is the Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year we’re talking about.)

More importantly for his draft stock, we’re talking about the only pure pass rusher to record a sub 7.00 in the 3-cone drill at the Combine, though a few linebackers would follow suit to their credit. Aside from shuttle for offensive lineman, a sub-7 cone is one of the best individual indicators of a player’s success in the NFL as a pass rusher and almost universally leads to a jump in draft stock for players who hit it. Tuszka is baller who deserves some more recognition, but now that he’s raised some eyebrows, he may be getting it.

Alex Highsmith, DE, Charlotte

We’ve talked about Alex Highsmith as a sleeper on this site before and seeing a great speed score wasn’t all that shocking, nor was hitting an elite RAS. Highsmith hit 84th percentile or higher on four of his testing metrics and looked smooth as could be moving around the field. I heard Highsmith crushed interviews as well, so his Combine went about as well as it possibly could have in every way.

Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson

Once Isaiah Simmons measured in at 238 pounds, he didn’t really have to do much else to solidify his standing as a top pick. We talk about not counting it twice when an elite athlete hits elite measurables or a poor one hits poor ones, but there are going to be exceptions made for Simmons. Measuring in not only as an elite RAS athlete, but possibly the best athlete ever at multiple positions (LB, SS, FS, CB), Simmons didn’t even bother running his second 40-yard dash. That ended up being prudent, as two of the top linebackers in this class would come up lame on their second run (more on that in a bit), but I was a bit disappointed he didn’t also do agility drills. Not that it would bring his score down, I’d expect him to crush those as well, I just want a full card for anybody measuring 10.00 out of 10.00.

Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma

Thought of as the second linebacker in this class, I’m cheating a little bit by putting him on this list since there was one big drawback to his Combine performance that I’ll get to. But prior to that, Kenneth Murray was putting on a show. Measuring in at a strong 6-foot-2.5 and 241 pounds, Murray looked every bit the part of a starting linebacker in today’s NFL. He posted elite numbers in both explosion drills (93rd and 98th percentile) before running a 4.52 in his first 40-yard dash. It looked like he had slowed a bit at one point, too, so that time could have been better.

That’s what he went for on his second run, but he unfortunately pulled up lame and was in enough pain that he went to the turf to lie down. When the trainers helped him up, he grabbed his hamstring. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller spoke to him and it could just be a strain, so hopefully dodged a bullet. He cemented his status as a top option at linebacker, though, and it’s possible he’s there when the Lions are on the clock in the second round.

Malik Harrison, LB, Ohio State

Another player we’ve talked about at Pride of Detroit before, Malik Harrison is the guy we compared to Jarrad Davis some time ago. Harrison came in a little bigger, as expected, and at 246 pounds is probably the top option for someone like Matt Patricia. He also measured extremely well, posting a fantastic 9.56 RAS at the Combine. More important for evaluators is that 6.83 3-Cone time.

Harrison looked stiff at times on tape, and that level of agility shows that it’s probably some sort of technical issue—meaning it’s coachable. Harrison had been sliding from his early first-round projection, but he’s probably edging closer to that now, and if Kenneth Murray’s injury lingers, Harrison could be the beneficiary and find himself the second linebacker taken.

Kenny Willekes, DE, Michigan State

One of the true “try hard” guys of this draft class, the biggest question mark for Kenny Willekes was if he could come into the Combine and run a sub 4.90 40-yard dash. The answer to that was a resounding “barely,” but after putting up a solid 32 reps in the bench and posting far better than expected explosion numbers, Willekes could see himself rising up draft boards. We’re still likely talking about a Day 3 guy, but at 264 pounds this is certainly someone that Matt Patricia could be looking at to fill that Jack role long term if he’s unable to land K’Lavon Chaisson or Bradlee Anae.

And one who didn’t

While Derrick Brown has been a popular name in mock drafts for the Lions, a subtle shift was happening even before the Combine. Concerns about his pass rushing ability were getting louder and you started to hear less and less of the “Ndamukong Suh 2.0” stuff that we heard early on. We here at Pride of Detroit were pretty early on that particular train, with some of us even rating Javon Kinlaw higher simply because he has more value getting after the quarterback.

Brown would go into the Combine putting up the 15th best RAS among DTs—not exactly awe inspiring. The 3-Cone drill is considered a good indicator of interior DL agility inside and that’s big for pass rushers. Brown’s 3-Cone time was the fourth worst time in Combine history.

I won’t bore you with all the ways that single measurement is poor, and there are a lot, but when I started looking at athletic comparisons one thing stood out like a sore thumb. We’ve been worried that Derrick Brown might just be a nose tackle and you know what he measured like? A high-end nose tackle. Brown still has very strong tape, but would you take someone like Damon Harrison Sr. third overall? Linval Joseph? Brown is the first player I suspect will have a sizable hit to his draft stock based on non-injury reasons at the Combine, but I suspect we won’t see any more mocks with him going third, fifth, or seventh to the Detroit Lions anymore.

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