Illinois defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus has seen his stock rise since concluding a 16-sack season, but it’s not all about numbers when evaluating prospects, as physical tools are important too. Mercilus is a large athlete who tested very well at the Combine, running a 4.68 (although that foot speed doesn’t show up on tape when in pursuit), and he shows good flexibility in his knees to become compact in an effort to bend the arc when rushing the passer.
However, he’s also very raw, which isn’t surprising considering his inexperience, but it still raises some doubts for NFL personnel men in regards how they value him in the draft.
Mercilus checks in at 6’3 5/8″ and just over 261 pounds with 33 7/8″ long arms, which passes the eye test of scouts immediately. His height is quality and his weight of 261 pounds is a good size for both a starting end and an outside linebacker, which gives him more draft value. Some have questioned if his weight is good, but I believe it is because although he’s not a heavy player like Julius Peppers, he still has good strength, which was shown at the Combine with his 27 reps. That strenght enables him to hold up in a three- or four-point stance.
Mercilus has taken snaps from all over the defensive line, which also boosts his stock in the Draft. He’s done work at both end spots as a five technique, which means he’s aligned across the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. In working these two end spots, he’s been an open and closed end, which means there either isn’t a tight end or wing to his side (open), or there is one there (closed).
While he’s likely to be primarily a defensive end at the next level, he’s also shown that he can play inside at the three technique alignment, which is located on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard. This is something that he did frequently in his final season at Illinois, and he was effective because of his quality length and natural power.
Last but not least, he’s also stood up in a two-point stance and pressured from the exterior and interior. Although he hasn’t taken as many snaps in this role as the other ones, he’s still done it and shown some ability in space, which I’ll get to later.
Mercilus is a raw prospect that has a lot of natural talent. One of the areas in his game where his rawness appears is when he’s using his hands. There are times when he is able to get his hands inside of the blocker’s pads and sink his hips to execute a powerful bulrush move that drives the blocker back into the pocket, while he also quickly slaps the hands of the blocker away in pursuit of the quarterback.
However, while that does occur, he’s not consistent because he doesn’t always get his hands inside. Instead, he’ll lose the leverage battle and attempt to utilize his strength to overpower the blocker, which he’s done well multiple times. Because of his raw hand usage (and often high pad level), he does not have many pass rush moves and struggles to get off blocks. This is an alarming concern because he needs to do a better job of utilizing his hands.
The last prospect who had issues using his hands and getting off blocks was Larry English, who the Chargers took 16th overall in the 2009 NFL Draft. English has 7 career sacks.
Mercilus is quicker than explosive when getting off the line of scrimmage. He has shown a quality first step and can quickly cover the ground between himself and the blocker. He’s also displayed successful anticipation of the snap count on some occasions from what I’ve seen. Overall, his quickness is good enough for the next level.
Lateral agility in a defensive end is important to have because they must be able to make plays down the line while also breaking down when rushing the passer. Mercilus shows agility in short areas, displaying the ability to turn the corner and run after ball carriers.
Mercilus’ run defense is better than anticipated due to his raw ability. He plays with good strength in the upper and lower body, showing good knee bend that enables him to deal with blockers even when he doesn’t use proper hand placement, sometimes using his shoulder to hold up against the run.
He also shows an understanding of his responsibilities, whether it’s as a C gap defender or as a crash defender against the zone read in which the linebacker behind him is supposed to scrape around. This seems simple, yet there are many rushers that don’t understand it.
One aspect of Mercilus’ run defense he needs to improve on is his ability to deal with defenders at his feet, which is tied in with his hand use. He doesn’t utilize his hands when avoiding cut blockers, instead simply keeping his head up in an attempt to identify the ball carrier, and he’s often taken out of the play after getting cut down. He can’t let this continue to happen, and if it does, NFL linemen will take notice.
Based off of my tape watching, Mercilus hasn’t done a significant amount of work in space. When he has, he’s primarily been a pass rusher. There have been very few instances in which he’s dropped in coverage as a short zone dropper and he showed the ability to break down in space. He is able to change directions well enough and hustles to the ball in pursuit.
Perhaps one of the most underrated characteristics in evaluating defensive linemen, ball awareness is a vital to the success of a player at the next level. If he struggles to locate the ball, he will not be as effective. Mercilus does a good job of locating ball carriers by reading the flow of action before pursuing after them.
Where he sometimes runs into issues is against screen passes, where he’ll often be set up by a deeper drop executed by the blocker that draws Mercilus in, only to watch the ball carrier run right by him. This is an issue that many linemen have, but it’s still worth noting.
Mercilus is one of the fastest rising prospects in this year’s draft class. He has a lot of natural talent that he can offer to a team, but he’s a very raw prospect.
He needs to improve his hand usage, pass rush repertoire, and pad level to become a better pass rusher and get off blocks. He’s likely to be a top 25 pick, but there are reservations about his game.