This is the first in a series of posts profiling our likeliest NFL Draft prospects. We start with the guy most likely to be drafted in the first round on April 28th, Cameron Jordan. (For more on Jordan, check out our Remembering the Seniors post on him, along with this Sports Illustrated story on his path to the Draft.)
A year ago, Tyson Alualu was passing quietly under the radar of most NFL Draft nuts for the same reasons any name falls out of sight and mind of the people who build up mock boards. He didn't jump off the page talent-wise. He wasn't athletically imposing. He was a soft-spoken individual. He didn't play for a great defense or feature in any prominent big-time matchups. The only thing that really stood out to anyone who wasn't attuned to his gametape was his fantastic hair.
But he was always one of my favorites. Because he never stopped. Every play, every run, every pass, when he was on the playside (and occasionally on the backside) Alualu was involved. For the most part, you needed two guys to stop him, sometimes three. He changed the course of games (we could be talking about two straight losing seasons if it weren't for some of the plays #44 made). And the man took care of his business off the field; he grayshirted to be there to support his wife and newborn son, returned a year later.
Although I was surprised he got drafted tenth, I knew he deserved it for the work in after being one of our sturdiest Golden Bears. He was a man playing among boys in college because he had put in the hours to succeed in every facet of his life. He deserved a man's reward for busting those chops.
This year, we're experiencing the opposite phenomena. Jordan is an athletic marvel, with incredible arms he can whip around offensive linemen. He's prototypically perfect, the type of defensive linemen you could put on any front and he'd probably succeed. And the man provides a colorful personality ("plethora"? ) to go along with his talents, something that'll endear him to many a media member. With the additional success of Alualu from last season, he's elevated his way up many a draft board. The only thing holding him back are the issues that have sprung his counterpart forward--namely, how hard will he work in the league when he gets there. I think the issue is a non-factor, but it's understandable that people worry about those things, particularly over the high draft marks.
Let's compare the two styles of defensive line play these two Cal greats showcased in the past few seasons under the tutelage of defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi.
I'm not going to start a debate about who's better; they're two totally different players who deserve to be evaluated on their own merits. Because this is a Cal site, let's talk a little bit about each player.
Alualu had average arm size, but his thick legs provided him with the leverage to drive opponents back on their heels. His huge frame made it difficult to escape his grasp when he found you. And his feet are incredible for his size, giving him agility to make plays despite not possessing any dominant moves to shed blockers.
Perhaps Jordan's greatest assets are his arms, those million dollar arms. If he manages to make contact with you on your side when pass-rushing, he will utilize that deadly swim move, cycle that arm around, and get into the backfield and make a play. You have to defeat him and lock him up early. And when he finds you and tries to make a tackle? Might as well get your mind set for the next play, because you're not escaping.
Alualu plays low to the ground, whereas Jordan is generally high up. Alualu could be single-teamed by an able lineman, but he'd drag you all over the field if you did. For most teams, Jordan almost always demanded a double at the start, because otherwise he'd be in your backfield and you'd end up with a loss on the play. But lock him up, and he'd be easier to keep in front of you.
Alualu isn't as physically talented as Jordan and can't quite do the things that he does when he's battling one-on-one. But the engine never stops running with him. With Jordan, there are times he loses awareness or fatigues out, particularly if he faces a tackle that can match his athleticism. However, when given freedom, he can get to the quarterback real quick.
That isn't necessarily his fault though. Anyone who watched Jordan last year knows that he was a double-team machine--it was just that too many of his teammates were not able to make plays when offensive lines tilted their focus to stopping him. Given a situation with better talent and fewer asymmetries, Jordan should be able to thrive. You know, like in 2008, when he and Alualu formed up with Rulon Davis, Mika Kane and Derrick Hill to build one of the strongest run defenses in the country. More talent means less problems for everyone.
There have also been additional questions about Jordan being too aggressive and taking himself out of plays, but that's a consequence of scheme rather than technique--Clancy Pendergast demands his defensive linemen to attack and plug the gaps rather than open them up for the linebackers. Bob Gregory, by contrast, preferred the D-linemen to hold their gaps so that linebackers could come in and stuff the ball, something both Alualu and Jordan were fairly adept at handling (and something their second line of defenders weren't quite as good at taking advantage of).
There's nothing particularly wrong with the way either coordinator coaches the game, just that scheme should factor into any analysis of an NFL prospect. Playing in a 3-4 with a paper-thin linebacking corps didn't help either. Pendergast schemed around it by putting him as a three technique defensive tackle to overpower guards and centers, with great success against some teams and no progress at all against others. Jordan's versatility was only so helpful when others struggled to make plays (and don't even get me started on that offense, which Jordan outscored by himself in his final game as a Bear), but keep in mind the man can play on any defensive front you give him.
Because of Jordan's athleticism and struggles with working through arm contact, his fate is on the outside, likely as a 3-4 or 4-3 defensive end. The fact that he's worked on so many pass rush moves--the power swim, the rip, the spin--seems to suggest both Jordan and Lupoi know that's where his fate lies as well. There is a lot to like, and a lot of growing he can do out there.
The great thing about Jordan and Alualu is that we've seen them grow up. We've seen them evolve from unheralded three star talents from Hawaii and Arizona and emerge as two of the most dominant linemen in the Pac-10. It took time and effort and growing pains, but in their own ways and at their own pace, they built themselves into the type of blue-chip players that can suit up on Sundays.
Based on how far they've come during their careers at Cal, I have no doubt that Jordan will follow a similar path as his predecessor. How quickly he makes his mark will be up to him, but I know that just like with Alualu, he'll make the most with what he's got.
And he's got a lot.