What do you see when you look at VT defensive end James Gayle? Are you having trouble defining him and where he might end up at the next level? Can't quite decide if he's a down lineman or a possible conversion to outside linebacker? If you're undecided, it appears you aren't alone. NFL personnel men got to take better stock of him this past Monday at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, and after Gayle's solid showing, it stands to reason that the picture grew a little murkier.
Gayle is 6'4, 259 pounds of motor on the edge. Depending on the construction and scheme of an NFL defensive package, this might be a little undersized, but on the whole, it's right in the range of what a speed rusher should weigh. He certainly isn't at a disadvantage as many of the undersized Ends VT has employed have found as they enter the evaluation process.
In this rawest of assessments, the player's pedigree and production in actual college games is rarely afforded its due. So, the fact that Gayle was an All-ACC performer for three straight years, making second team in 2011 and the abysmal 2012, before sliding to the third team in his final season, isn't even a consideration for draft prognosticators. At present, CBS has him as the 14th best prospect at the defensive end position with him slated as a safe 5th round selection. For comparison's sake, moving into the top 10 at that position would likely involve a two round jump in the draft to the third round. So a good performance at the combine was paramount in order to solidify an already (seemingly) fair appraisal.
The NFL itself doesn't specify rounds, but rather grades each prospect on a 1-10 "futures" scale. They have Gayle rated at 5.31, which translates to NFL backup/Special Teamer. To give you an idea of how far off from being graded as a solid starter, Gayle would need to be upgraded to a 5.50, so for the right team he could already have the sufficient tools to start if he continues to progress as he should. The fact that he is the nephew of Shaun Gayle, formerly a Pro Bowl performer for the late-1980s Chicago Bears might help move the dial a tad in that direction. NFL personnel love legacies.
Let's first examine Gayle's pass-rush production at VT:
2011- 20 hurries, 7 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss
2012- 27 hurries, 5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss
2013- 34 hurries, 6 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss
This is very consistent output if a tad bit disappointing, considering that when he had dominated in the past (like the 2011 UVA game) he looked like the next GREAT pass rusher at VT. Sadly, teams picked up on Gayle's tendencies to try to win the speed battle wide on pass downs and often was granted outside passage only to be pushed wide, resulting in increased hurries, but little in the way of actual sacks or tackles for loss.
Despite his affinity for attempting to be the next Bruce Smith with the outside rush, Gayle was stout against the run in most games. He doesn't have the longest of arms or the greatest of strength at his position (as evidenced by his failure to post in the top 15 in Bench Press repetitions this year), so his ability to hold strong until the secondary tackler could make the play was of great benefit to the team. Neither Gayle nor J.R. Collins ever quite made the leap to elite pass rusher despite showing flashes at VT.
Doubtless, the negatives will be accentuated by NFL personnel as they always are when the Hokies are brought up in discussions. Examination of these proceedings both past and present have shined yet another unflattering spotlight on the lack of respect the NFL has for both our scheme and coaching, but before I conclude with that, let's take a look at the actual combine results for Gayle.
40 yard dash
Gayle ran a 4.7 flat in the 40. A very good number. He finished 7th, barely missing the top five. Of course, the buzz was about South Carolina junior JaDeveon Clowney and his 4.53, but that was actually a little low in my estimation. After all former NC State and NFL combine legend, DE Manny Lawson set the combine record with a 4.43 in 2006 (though 2006 might have been "wind-aided", as three other positional 40 yard marks were set that year as well).
Here were the top 5:
1) Clowney, USC-E, 4.53
2) Larry Webster, Bloomsburg, 4.58
3) Howard Jones, Sheperd, 4.60
4) Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas, 4.63
5) Aaron Donald, Pitt 4.68
As you can see, Gayle finished right outside of the top 5. But interestingly, what netted him a 7th place finish at the DL position would also see him finish 11th among all the LBs tested at the combine. So not much of a drop-off there if he were to try to play LB. A lot of scouts undoubtedly perked up at that news considering the success Jason Worilds is experiencing in Pittsburgh. With that said, multiple other VT ends have tried to go the same route and failed, including some of the most esteemed names to put a QB on his back: Corey Moore, Cornell Brown, Chris Ellis, Darryl Tapp. As with any transaction, buyer beware, I suppose.
Gayle finished third here, which was no great surprise. He was described going in as a freakish leaper. Funny thing, per his Hokie Sports bio, Gayle ran a 4.4 40 and had a 39.5 inch vertical in 2011. The 10-15 pounds of added weight probably reduced those numbers some.
1) Howard Jones, Sheperd, 40.5 inches
2) Clowney, USC-E, 37.5
3) Gayle, VT, 37.0
4) Chuck Smith, Arkansas, 37.0
5) Larry Webster, Bloomsburg, 36.5
I couldn't get any stats on batted balls, but I do recall that Gayle got his hands on plenty of balls over his time at VT. This will be a value-add if he stays at DE, but less of one at LB. Because Gayle is seen as a weak shadow defender at DE, it's unlikely the added responsibility of covering quicker receivers out of the backfield will come to him more comfortably. Again, though as in Logan's case, even if the measurable doesn't translate to any on-field application, finishing well in the event serves to pad the resume.
Gayle was described by the NFL as having weight-room strength, and far be it from me to qualify 26 reps at 225 lbs as debunking that assessment as myth. However, I will allow that this didn't qualify for the top 15 on the DL. Now, we must consider the fact that this is where the DTs shine. The first two stats reflect speed and agility as opposed to brute power, which for Gayle is debatable.
I'll never be entirely sure if Gayle's football strength was a net positive, net negative, or inconclusive. Mainly because the angle from which he chose to pursue the QB from was a product of speed and leverage. He didn't opt to rush inside the OT if at all possible.
When examining this stat from the concession that Gayle will be playing LB in the NFL, the numbers brighten considerably. Gayle would have tied for second at OLB, behind BC's Kevin Pierre Louis (28) and tied with Utah's Trevor Reilly (26). On the DL side, the best finishers were BC's Kaleb Ramsey (36) and Pitt's Aaron Donald (35)
Gayle is more than strong enough to play OLB. The question is: Will he better suited for the run downs, or can he play competently enough against pass for defenses to be able to disguise coverages with him on the field? If the answer to the second part of that question is no, then any time he runs on the field they'll know he is going to be coming for the QB, and that his spot will be a vacant sieve to throw at. There is probably othing more frustrating to a defensive coordinator than blitzing the LB and having the opposing QB see it coming from a mile away.
This was very closely bunched, with Gayle finishing 7th with a jump of 10'2". UNC's Kareem Martin came in tops at 10'9". So there were seven guys bunched in there in just 7". At LB, it would have qualified for top 5. So in those game-time instances where play has stopped and he has time to line up stationary and swing his arms to get his form straight, James Gayle should be in excellent shape. After all, Lombardi trophies and pro bowl nominations rely heavily on such feats.
3 Cone Drill
Finished tied for 6th at 7.19 seconds, showing that his backup speed isn't nearly as finely-tuned as his go forward mechanism. And this would be a problem for grading his ability to cover fleet receivers out of the backfield. The top score was 6.83 from Kony Ealy of Mizzou. At LB, his number would have placed him 15th. Not shabby, but maybe not worthy of drafting him above the 5th round which is where he slotted as a DE. So, even though the strength numbers were in line, the agility end of things may hamstring him a little during a potential transition.
So Still Just 14th Best Defensive End?!
Yeah, I know right? He just showed that he was superior to several of the names on the CBS list. Let's take a look:
Kony Ealy, Missouri- Projected 1st rounder, only drill he outperformed Gayle in is the cone drill.
Scott Chrichton, Oregon St- Projected 2nd rounder, underperformed Gayle in all tests. He's a little thicker and only a rs-JR
Trent Murphy, Stanford- Projected 2nd rounder, taller and thinner than James, had a nice cone drill.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Boise St- Projected 3rd-4th round, also a rs-JR
Michael Sam, Missouri- Also was originally projected as a high 4th rounder even before his announcement, and before he proved to be the weakest DL at the combine in terms of bench press reps.
I have to rate Gayle as potentially the number 5 or 6 best DE prospect out there. My list would be as follows:
2) Jackson Jeffcoat (you cannot deny the bloodlines here, Jim Jeffcoat was a beast)
3) Aaron Donald
4) Dee Ford
Now why couldn't Gayle be the 6th best here? He played for a better school than most others left on the list, and he outperformed them in Indianapolis. I can't understand why he wouldn't be valued more.
Now Dee Ford of Auburn opted not to participate and rest on his projected first round laurels, while hurling barbs at JaDeveon Clowney like he were Buc Nasty acting out at the Playa Hater's Ball.
So in the spirit of that playa hate: I have to use this opportunity to question why it is that VT once again has a prospect with well above-average physical bonafides and a well-documented track record of moderate success at a supposedly first-rate football institution getting short shrift from NFL personnel.
Gayle is described right off the bat as having questionable football intelligence. How? As a three-year starter in a system that had two top 10 nationally ranked defenses? Earning double teams whenever Collins went down with injuries? Playing sideline to sideline along the line better than anyone in the ACC (in terms of tracking down ballcarriers who ran to the opposing sideline)? No, the lack of football intelligence is a dangerously broad tag that is being used to describe so many athletes that come out of our program.
Do me a favor and think hard on it. When is the last time we had anyone who wasn't a white offensive lineman be credited for being anything more than average in terms of football IQ? Tyrod Taylor, who is as smart as they come, was penalized greatly in the draft for this institutional bias. Just because our head coach is stubborn and employs ill-equipped coaches underneath him that run awful schemes, it does not mean our players are lacking in that area. We have realized enough success at the pro level at a multitude of positions for them to back off that safe, cozy tag they are accustomed to using when a player is a tweener or still to be defined at the next level.
While I don't enjoy playing the "Thass Raycess!!!" card, something in those blanket analyses doesn't ring true, and I've seen it a few too many times when referencing the players that come out of VT. While it is true the program doesn't win ANY of their big games, punishing the son for the sins of the father has to stop, especially when it can cost our players very real up-front bonus money.
I am hoping here that James Gayle fights the good fight and increases his stock on the basis of his combine performance, as so many athletes from lesser programs and track records have done. The pragmatist in me says 5th round is safe though, due to the uncertainty of his ability to adapt to a new position, or stay healthy while playing with his hand in the dirt as a down lineman. The VT track record of DE to LB conversions is spotty at best, but with Worilds doing damage in Pittsburgh, perhaps there will be that one team willing to reach out a round or two ahead of schedule and pluck a heckuva player.
Here is an interview with James Gayle at this year's Senior Bowl:
2014 Senior Bowl Media Night -- James Gayle, DE -- Virginia Tech (via Sanjay Kirpalani)
Sorry for the delay between reviews folks, it's been a busy week. I had intended to do just one piece for Gayle, Kyle Fuller, and Antone Exum, but that wouldn't have done this justice. I'll be back shortly with Fuller's and wrap up with Exum's over the weekend. Thanks for reading, I aim to be comprehensive and add some stuff other sites won't bring, so if the penalty for that is being a few days late, you'll have to forgive me!
Please let us know how we're doing in the comments below, on Twitter @gobblercountry, or Facebook. Have a great Friday!