As some of you know, I've recently been given an opportunity to put together a scouting book on linebacking and defensive line prospects for a few NFL coaching staffs for this upcoming draft. Considering that I'll be working day and night on this for the next month so I can get it bound and shipped to various league war rooms as they put together their big boards, I won't have that much time to put out my usual "Film Room" and "Rookie Review" posts. As a substitute that I'm sure
all some of you will like, this is the start of a new series where I will be posting those very same scouting reports on here as I go. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy staying up until 4:00 in the morning writing them.
- Good stab move that goes well with his equally deadly club rip.
- Has great strength and long arms that help him play two-gap run defense on the outside.
- Good balance against cut blocks.
- Superb burst when coming out of a four-point stance.
- Playing a year at defensive tackle helped him develop good timing and solid technique with his hands.
- Sometimes plays a little high as long drives start to wear him down.
- Doesn't have great open field speed or great backside pursuit speed.
- Instincts against the run need to improve; tends to overshoot the play or mis-time when he should shed his blocker.
- Inconsistent first step from two-point stance.
- Sometimes stands up too high when coming out of a three-point stance before accelerating forward.
- Needs to diversify pass rushing skill set.
Okafor is about the closest thing to Terrell Suggs you’ll find in this year’s class. His ceiling is absolutely off the charts, and he has the basic tools already in his repertoire to be truly special, but there is a lot of room for refinement.
As a DE/OLB tweener prospect, Okafor is well suited to play the "elephant" position in modern hybrid defenses like those in Baltimore and Seattle. The University of Texas lined him up in every possible stance, from the three to seven techniques on any given weekend, and he excelled in all of them. Rarely if ever did he draw anyone besides the tackle in blocking assignments, and it wasn't uncommon to see him chipped or downright double-teamed for the majority of the game. At 6’5" 265 lbs., he has the build of a 4-3 defensive end, but he is very capable of playing a rush linebacker role in a 3-4. At Texas, he always lined up on the right side of the offensive formation in order to match him up with right tackles that were generally inferior pass blockers, so I wonder a bit about what he can do against left tackles like Duane Brown and Joe Thomas. If anyone has the physical tools to make it work, however, it’s Alex Okafor.
One thing I like about Okafor is how incredibly deadly his stab and club/rip moves have become when strung together. He has mastered the timing of this sequence, and when it works it’s truly impressive. Off the snap he opens his shoulders and uses his great arm length to jam tackles before they can land their punch and then subsequently clubs their free hands as they try to recover (A good example of how he uses his stab off the snap is at 4:45 of the Oregon State video.) From there, he sinks low and rips as hard as he can while driving around the corner to the quarterback (another great example is at 8:38 in the Oregon State video). A 6’5", he’s hard enough to contain on the edge, let alone when he doesn't even let the tackle get a hand on him. When he's at full momentumm he can deliver this move with such great proficiency that slide-stepping simply isn't fast enough to keep up, and he is strong enough to resist tackles trying to push him out of the back of the pocket. Even though it is a rather predictable move that he uses more than any other (by a wide margin), he is so good at it that it almost doesn't matter if the tackle sees it coming.
What’s even more impressive is when Okafor lines up in a four-point stance. From the five or seven techniques on obvious passing downs, it wasn't uncommon to see Okafor with both hands in the dirt, and the difference this stance makes in his burst off the snap is huge (3:20 and 7:29 are good examples in the West Virginia/Oklahoma State video). To say he looks like he is being shot out of a cannon is a gross understatement. His get-off from this stance turns his already powerful bull rush into a force to be reckoned with, and it was very common to see tackles being driven back all the way to the quarterback whenever Okafor was at full speed. In addition, he always looked to build off that bull rush throughout the game as tackles started to sit down a little early when they saw him line up in a 4-point stance, and he often made them pay immediately with a well-executed bull-jerk. I personally think that he could jerk blockers a little further down before disengaging, as tackles were able to recover far too quickly at times because he didn't quite finish the move all the way through, but his great upper body strength should lend itself well to putting offensive linemen flat on their faces for years to come in the NFL. At the very least, he can immediately contribute as a rotational pass rusher on passing downs by lining him up at the seven technique in a four-point stance and just having him go hunt with pure speed and power.
Now, as good as Okafor can become, I don’t think he can truly reach his potential without some heavy duty refinement. For starters, while he has the physical build and strength to hold his ground against the run on the edge, his play recognition and instincts after he stacks his blockers leaves much to be desired (I should mention however that he is very, very good at stacking blockers and not getting moved off the line of scrimmage, even if the actual shedding and tackling part of his game is weak). Whenever he played two-gap over the right tackle, he was very indecisive about what direction to shed to take on a passing ball carrier, and he seemed to really struggle with diagnosing the play. I’m not entirely sure what caused this, as it could be anything from not being familiar enough with the assignments of the rest of his defensive teammates to just plain hesitation on his part. I’m sure with some coaching he can get this issue worked out, and he certainly has all the physical tools to be a dominant run defender on the edges. As of this moment, I would not trust him to make a solo tackle on an outside run.
Another area he can stand to improve on is his first step from a two-point stance. If he does play at the elephant position at the next level, he has to able to gain ground quickly when standing up on the edge if he wants any chance of beating the premier left tackles in this league. I noticed with some frequency that Okafor took a little half step back with his lead foot on the snap in order to get a little better power on his initial push-off, which of course cost him valuable time. Coaches will tweak his stance and mechanics during camp, and this seems easily fixable to me before he ever takes a snap in a real game, but it certainly has to be addressed if he wants to ever play up to his full potential as a dominant defensive player. Many of his biggest plays in the Alamo Bowl versus Oregon State (where he registered 4.5 sacks), came when he was settled lower in his stance and could generate more power from his lead foot just by leaning forward and pre-loading his first step before the snap.
Speaking of stance and first step mechanics, Okafor also needs to refine his get-off from a three point stance, as he was prone to playing a little high at times (especially on the tail end of long drives). He would often stand all the way up before his second step even landed, and this severely hindered his bull rush both in terms of pad level and in ability to deliver the move with adequate power. He had to compensate and rely on his great upper and lower body strength rather than using his physical gifts in tandem with his own momentum. Offseason conditioning and going through an NFL training camp should improve his stamina.
Additionally, like most defensive ends, NFL teams shouldn't expect too much in terms of coverage ability out of Okafor. UT did not drop him very often, and when he was dropped it wasn't very encouraging. While he has good hips, quick feet, and good short area burst as a pass rusher, he completely loses all of those qualities when dropping into a zone. He gets turned around very easily, can’t keep up with savvy route runners, and doesn't have the open field speed necessary to stay hip to hip with a tight end or running back down field. I think the most he’ll be able to do as a rookie is play the peel technique on a running back going to the flat as a hot receiver, but even that is questionable to me, as there just isn't very much tape of Okafor in coverage. I'm not ruling out Okafor eventually becoming a player that can handle dropping into a zone or two without being a liability, but it likely won't be until after he takes his rookie year to settle into the defense and become comfortable in his role.
I feel like as soon as he harnesses the subtleties of how to have a consistently explosive first step in both the two and three point stance, he can really unlock his potential and use his imposing frame, physicality, and great sense of timing with his hands to become one of the best pass rushers in the league. Against the ground game, he clearly has the physical makings of a good player both as a one-gap and two-gap run defender, but he will likely need a full season as a rotational player to grasp the team’s defense and improve on his play recognition abilities before being trusted as a three-down player. I will be interested to see how he performs at the Combine, as his preparation for the forty yard dash might also have the added effect of helping him get comfortable with his push-off foot when pass rushing.
In terms of how I see Alex Okafor in three years, I think that he could become a premier defensive force in the NFL if paired with a stud under tackle (or 3-4 defensive end, depending on the scheme) beside him. He needs a partner to work with on the interior that can capitalize on the shift in blocking attention to the edge. As an end that is physically strong enough to play two-gap on the outside, he can free up interior linemen beside him to play one-gap and make splash plays in the back field, similar to how J.J. Watt and Geno Atkins played off of Brooks Reed and Michael Johnson in 2012. Conversely, if partnered with a good under tackle next to him that can draw running backs to the middle of the pocket in protection schemes, it will help isolate Okafor on the edge and give him one on one opportunities that I believe he can win with regularity. He is well worth a first round draft pick to me simply because he can immediately contribute his rookie year as a very, very good rotational pass rusher on long yardage situations, and eventually I believe he can develop his overall game to the point where his presence will help everyone else on the defensive line make plays. There is no telling how good Okafor can be if he fixes his minor flaws, but I can't help but feel he is going to be special player.