The NFL Draft is three weeks away and while we don't have too much more info about who the Chargers will pick with the 18th overall selection as we did a month or two ago, we do need to start looking at potential picks. A lot of people focus on the Chargers needing some new bodies helping with the pass rush. So, we'll start by looking at a bunch of the potential 1st round targets at the 3-4 OLB positions. First up is Illinois Junior DE Whitney Mercilus.
Back on New Year's Eve I wrote this about the Fighting Illini defensive standout in a preview of their bowl game:
Leads the nation in sacks with 14.5, but also has 8 forced fumbles. Much like Ryan Kerrigan last year he's described as not being the greatest athlete, but uses elite effort to produce. Needs to learn some gap control since he sometimes loses that in an effort to get to the QB. Questions about ability to play 3-4 OLB because of lack of athleticism. He's a junior, but he's expected to declare.
He did indeed end up declaring for the draft or we wouldn't be discussing him as a prospect right now. More recently, John Gennaro looked at some of Mercilus' work and posted these conclusions on twitter.
Watching Whitney Mercilus video after reading that he's comparable to Larry English. I disagree.— Bolts From The Blue (@BFTB_Chargers) April 4, 2012
I actually would give the edge to English. Always played with excellent leverage. Mercilus stands tall, relies on pure power.— Bolts From The Blue (@BFTB_Chargers) April 4, 2012
He also runs like a MLB, which is odd to see.— Bolts From The Blue (@BFTB_Chargers) April 4, 2012
Mercilus comes off looking like a project. English was a finished product, just couldn't keep his feet from breaking.— Bolts From The Blue (@BFTB_Chargers) April 4, 2012
For the most part, I think NFL talent evaluators would agree with John that English was a better prospect back in 2009 than Mercilus is this year. Not surprisingly, English got excellent grades for his pass rushing skills and very poor grades for his durability (he had two major injuries in college that caused him to miss significant playing time). Whitney Mercilus doesn't have those durability issues, having played in all of his final 26 games, but lacks English's abilities rushing the passer.
There are other differences as well, some of them in the 2012 prospect's favor. Mercilus has longer arms, which he can use to keep blockers at bay as well as the ability to reach up and knock down passes. He also has an extremely high motor and will be the last guy to give up on a play. He's good at finishing a play, which is important when the result could be a sack or a completed pass. He's also developed a knack for forcing fumbles.
There are also negatives on Mercilus besides being a less talented pass rusher than current Charger Larry English. He struggles against the run. Some of his instincts that keep him around the ball and pursuing the QB in the passing game don't show up when a RB has the ball in his hands. He also gets swallowed up bigger, more powerful OTs. Those types of blockers will be more present in the NFL than they were in the Big Ten. Scouts also say that his hips are still and a transition to 3-4 OLB doesn't make a lot of sense for him.
What this seems to project to is that the likely scenario is that if Mercilus is drafted by San Diego, whether it be in the 1st or 2nd round, he'll end up a situational pass rusher. His motor and knack for finding the QB will keep him productive, while his deficiencies either expose him on the field or keep him off. However, with that same motor, his work ethic, some natural abilities, future health and some luck he could develop into a player that doesn't get exposed as much against the run as he did in college and perhaps becomes competent in coverage. Sacks are a big deal in the NFL, so it might be worth the gamble.