The Jacksonville Jaguars desperately need a defensive end to allow last-year's first-round pick Dante Fowler the ability to roam around the defense and play multiple positions. Putting the burden of edge rushing solely on Fowler is a short-sighted mistake and will only lead to inflated expectations and utter disappointment.
While they tried to get some veteran help in free agency, both Olivier Vernon and Robert Ayers said no -- Vernon because the Jaguars didn't offer enough money or bright enough lights and Ayers because, well, that one's a bit of a mystery.
So they must turn their attention to the NFL Draft to help upgrade their defensive line. There are two ways the Jaguars could bolster their defense on Draft Day.
- Pick Myles Jack in the first round and then get a second-tier defensive end with their second-round pick... someone like a Shilique Calhoun.
- Pick a defensive end with the No. 5 overall pick.
If the team goes the first route, that's fine and will help the defense in a different way. Myles Jack is the best linebacker in the draft, linebacker is a position of need for this team, and the crop of defensive linemen coming out in the draft is as deep as it's been in years.
But if Myles Jack is taken in the first four picks, or if for some reason they choose to bypass him, they'll likely look at whichever defensive ends are left. Joey Bosa represents the cream of the crop in this category, but he's more likely to be taken than Jack will. That leaves two prospects: Shaq Lawson and Noah Spence.
The choice is fairly cut and dry. Shaq Lawson is an every down defensive end. He is a balanced player who doesn't have to come off the field on obvious running downs. Noah Spence is a better edge rusher, but he struggles against the run and I don't see that changing any time soon. And his off-the-field issues don't help anything either.
A gifted edge rusher
Spence is a versatile player who primarily plays the edge (and does it very well) but can also slot inside. He plays standing up or in a stance and can go from right end to left end. He has a very quick burst off the line, which is what helped him garner 12.5 tackles for a loss and 8.0 sacks as a first-year starter at Ohio State in 2013.
That production only got better (admittedly against worse competition) after his 2014 suspension when he transferred to Eastern Kentucky, racking up 22.5 tackles for a loss, 15 hurries, 11.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles. His production was also spread out, as he sacked the quarterback in nine of 11 games last year and registered a tackle for a loss in every game except the finale against Eastern Illinois.
He relies mostly on his speed, which could get him into trouble with NFL teams if they try to double up on him. He'll have to get bigger and stronger at the next stage to keep producing the way he did at Ohio State and Eastern Kentucky. He also needs to improve his awareness if he's going to do well, since some teams might draft him and slot him into a 3-4 defense. He'll need to get better in space and not rely so heavily on his ability to out-run an offensive tackle around the edge.
Weakness against the run
Spence needs to get bigger and stronger. His inability to anchor is going to be his downfall in the NFL if he doesn't improve it now. If the Jaguars drafted him, he'd likely be a pass rush specialist until he showed some sort of ability to stop the run... and that's not what the Jaguars need out of their No. 5 overall pick. He's fast, he's agile, and he has good form in that he gets his pads low and uses leverage whenever possible. But a balanced defensive end who can also stop the run, Spence is not.
But that's not to say Spence is always bad against the run. He's an incredible athlete and can still make things happen in tight spaces.
If you pick a guy with the No. 5 overall pick, you want to hit a home run. There's not a single swing for the fences that's considered "safe" but you want as many conditions as possible to be in your favor. Granted, by all accounts, Noah Spence has gotten past his issues. He took responsibility for his actions and made the necessary changes in his life to minimize the danger he was to himself as well as get his football career back on track.
But the caution is there and, frankly, warranted. And with everything else we've talked about, if there's a player like Shaq Lawson available who is more of a balanced prospect, why would you hedge your bets on a one-dimensional player who also carries more risk?
In my mind, Spence is a first-round talent. But he's not a top-five talent. He'll get picked in latter half of the round by a team like the New York Jets with a defensive-minded coach in Todd Bowles or the Buffalo Bills and Rex Ryan.