Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence has a very good chance of being the best edge rusher in a class full of potential All-Pro outside linebackers and defensive ends. Spence’s upside as a pass rusher is the highest I have seen in quite some time. In my opinion, Spence’s upside purely as a pass rusher is higher than Oakland Raiders defensive end/linebacker Khalil Mack. He’ll never be the all-around force that Mack is, particularly in the run game, but Spence has the potential to be the better pass rusher. Having the potential to be better at bringing down quarterbacks than the first player to ever be elected to two different positions as an All-Pro in the same year is quite a feather in the cap. It’s also why I’ve pounded the table, and will continue to do so, for Spence to be the pick at 25 overall.
There’s also a snowballs chance in hell that it’s going to happen.
THE VACUUM EFFECT
In an ideal world, every individual player would be taken as such – an individual. Their issues, on and off the field, would be taken into a vacuum. This is unfortunately not the case. For this reason, Spence can expect to tumble down draft boards because of his perceived off field issues.
Spence has had his issues with addiction off the field which eventually led to his dismissal from Ohio State’s program. This dismissal is immediately going to cause concern for talent evaluators. The red flags this has raised in the past for countless prospects coming into the professional level has almost made it not worth the risk to willingly subject a franchise to a player with perceived issues.
This is also the issue.
The Pittsburgh Steelers organization is already reeling after the loss of budding superstar receiver Martavis Bryant to a season long suspension. The organization is already known for passing on prospects with red flags, particularly in the high rounds. There’s a few issues with this, but it ties nicely into the bigger issue at hand here in taking individual prospects in a vacuum and evaluating them without allowing outside biases to seep in.
A perfect example of this would be Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu, only a few months before the draft, may have been considered undraftable by many teams in the league. His off field issues and seemingly poor attitude had pushed him down, if not all the way off, of draft boards for almost every team in the league. Mathieu was able to somewhat rebuild his reputation in the weeks heading into the draft and was taken 69th overall in the third round by the Cardinals. He is now one of the defensive backs in football.
Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston was seen as a talented yet troubled player with issues pertaining to marijuana. Houston, like Mathieu, fell into the third round and was taken 70th overall by the Chiefs. Houston has now put himself into the conversation as one of the best, if not the best, pure 3-4 outside linebackers in football.
The list of prospects who have seemingly overcome consistent poor choices and off field issues is small and the list of All-Pro candidates of an already small group is tiny. It is, however, possible.
This is the vacuum effect. Mathieu and Houston, coming out of college, had first round talent. One could have made a case that Mathieu was one of the most talented defensive backs in football in his draft year. Houston was a productive pass rusher with a high ceiling and was considered a first round talent (and mock drafted as such even after his issues had come out) right up to the draft. These players, had this vacuum effect not been applied, would have been first round picks.
Spence can be lumped into this group. As a prospect, anyway. Spence has been an incredibly productive edge player with the highest ceiling as a pure pass rusher that I can remember. His off field issues, such as they are, have likely put him outside of the top-15 picks in the draft. Spence is being lumped into a group of players that have had issues in the past and have failed. The Steelers may choose to pass on him strictly because of Bryant and how recently his issues have come back to bite them. There may not be a prospect more susceptible to tumbling down draft boards as a result of Bryant’s issues than Spence. How many teams are willing to invest a high round pick into a prospect who was kicked off of the National Champions?
This is precisely why the Steelers need to take Spence if he’s available.
ON THE FIELD, IT’S GRAVY
If Spence came with a clean sheet off the field, I have no doubt he would be considered in play in the top 5 picks in the draft. Spence is an exceptional pass rusher that I will continue to dive into prior to the draft. His ability off of the edge was highlighted at the Senior Bowl and all through his tape at Eastern Kentucky. His explosive first step and impressive burst off of the line is evident every time he is on the field and it resulted in production.
Spence isn’t the perfect prospect, particularly when looking at his tape against the run, but I’ve said throughout the entirety of the regular season and now in the off season that the biggest issue on this team is not in the secondary but on the edges. The Steelers’ outside linebacker rotation is a facade of depth and talent. When looking at each individual component of the Jarvis Jones, James Harrison, Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats rotation, there isn’t much to like, particularly on the right side. Harrison had the most defensive snaps of the four in 2015 at over 600 and is primed to do so once again in 2016. Jones has been a disappointment thus far in his career and there are concerns over Dupree’s lack of pass rush arsenal (particularly an inside and outside counter move) development to this point.
The 48 sacks registered by the defense are a touch misleading, as defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt were the only members of the defense able to consistently generate pressure. While Heyward and Tuitt are foundational defensive pieces, edge pressure is essential to a successful defense. Ask the Carolina Panthers how dealing with the pressure of linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller worked out.
Simply put, this game has always and will always be won in the trenches. Spence would bring an element to this defense that is not currently present and has not been since Harrison’s prime of yesteryear. Spence, alongside Heyward, Tuitt and a developing Dupree, would provide one of the league’s best pass rushes. A good pass rush can negate a bad secondary.