It’s NFL Draft Week! Last week, we looked at the most likely Tar Heel to be drafted on the offensive end, Charlie Heck. Today, we’re going to switch to the defensive end, with probably the Heel most likely to be drafted overall: Jason Strowbridge. Strowbridge broke out in his junior season, garnering 5 sacks from the interior defensive line position. He was starting to get NFL buzz, but elected to return for his final year of college ball, with a new head coach and defensive coordinator, and maintained his level of play to now be a legitimate NFL prospect. Here’s how he stacks up:
Strowbridge grew up in the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida area and was a 4-star recruit according to ESPN as a defensive line prospect. He committed to UNC amid interest from programs like Kentucky, Florida, NC State, and UCF. He became a full-time starter his redshirt sophomore year and didn’t look back, mostly playing defensive tackle his first two years as a starter despite being slightly undersized for the position thanks to a lack of depth on the interior defensive line. His senior year, the scheme changed from a base 4-2-5 to Jay Bateman’s ever-changing hybrid defense that approximates a base 3-3-5, allowing Strowbridge to play more on the edge than he had previously. He wasn’t an edge rusher, but he played more 3-, 4-, and 5-technique than he had previously in his college career, and though he didn’t repeat 2018’s lofty sack numbers, he improved considerably in run support and pressuring the quarterback. He was named 3rd Team All-ACC his senior year after being an honorable mention in 2018, and subsequently invited to the Senior Bowl and the Combine. He absolutely blew up Senior Bowl practices after slimming down to an edge-sized 268 pounds after playing the season at 285, leaving lots of evaluators thinking he’d be a draft process riser. The combine threw some more question marks in, however, as he showed up at 275 and made us all unsure what he was aiming to be seen as. The lack of post-Combine pre-draft process has made that even more difficult to suss out. Here’s his spider chart:
The conversation about Strowbridge has to start with his hands. They’re advanced, heavy, violent, and are overall his calling card as a defensive lineman. He is frequently able to swipe opposing linemen’s, especially guards’, punches out of his way and get through their blocks, or, if a lineman has hands on him, he effectively uses his hands to disengage and change direction playside. At his best, he can simply shove opposing linemen off balance with just his push and pull, as he showed at the Senior Bowl:
There isn’t enough of this on his tape, unfortunately, but it can’t be ignored that he has the ability to do this. That’s not to say he’s a workout warrior or a practice-only player, because he’s plenty good with his hands in-game:
Here, he swipes the guard’s punch out of his way as he moves laterally to clear a path for him to the quarterback, where he whiffs an easy sack but moves the quarterback off his spot and forces a hurried throw.
His hands also ensure that he finishes every move he starts with a rip. His go-to pass rushing move is an arm-over swim, but he isn’t satisfied with just getting past his man, he also wants to leave him helpless to recover. This sack from the Clemson game is a great example:
His arm-over beats the guard, but just to make sure he gets the guard’s hands off him completely, Strowbridge rips down and puts the offensive lineman on the ground before easily shoving Travis Etienne three yards back and finishing his pursuit of Trevor Lawrence for a sack.
Strowbridge also holds the point of attack really well in run support; he is strong enough to take on double teams and move the line of scrimmage laterally. He showed marked improvement this year in being able to finish the plays he blows up, with a career-high 4 tackles for loss that weren’t sacks, but generally, if a run play is going towards him, it doesn’t get too far whether it’s him or a teammate cleaning it up. He played this year with improved leverage in run support and showed his upper body strength in being able to disengage from blocks and begin changing direction immediately.
His competitiveness also helps him a great deal in run support, as he chases plays from the backside and will run to make plays up the field. This blown-up sweep against South Carolina is an example of his hustle, and it’s something that shows up frequently on his tape.
Take another look at that spider chart. It’s listed for defensive linemen - not 4-3 defensive ends or interior defensive linemen. It’s a fairly serious concern for Strowbridge that his chart is that middle-of-the-road, without any exceptional athletic or build attributes. He’s generally a very good athlete for his size, posting an elite RAS (relative athletic score) per Kent Lee Platte, so maybe he can overcome his build’s shortcomings with athleticism. So far, however, he hasn’t put that kind of athleticism on tape besides his upper-body strength and pursuit speed. His change of direction looks to be average at best, which tracks with his mediocre 3-cone drill time, so he doesn’t offer a ton of upside as a situational edge rusher. His NFL coaches are going to have to find space for him; his tweener status is more likely to be limiting than versatile at the next level. His lack of an outstanding trait like long arms or elite bend could make it difficult to find a role for him at the professional level.
If Strowbridge busts in the NFL, it will likely be because of his first step, which is inconsistent at best and outright slow at worst. Over the course of the season, the main reason he didn’t win reps was because he let offensive linemen get to him before he had fully gotten off the ball, allowing him to be washed off a play without a chance to use his hands and make a move on his man. His feet aren’t nearly as good as his hands are, which often leads to him being taken out of plays, like so:
Additionally, I so far haven’t seen much of a counter move repertoire from Strowbridge. If he is stonewalled after a swim, rip, or push-pull, he’s usually done until the play moves upfield, at which point he can disengage and pursue. That’s not a bust-potential weakness, but it is something he’s going to have to develop to be an NFL starter one day. And finally, he could stand to work on his balance a little, but that’s not a huge concern either.
Strowbridge should,at baseline, play at the next level, which is more than I was certain to say about Charlie Heck last week. He’s got more than NFL-ready hands and fight to him, strength in the run game, and thrived in a coaching change in his last year. His week of practice at the Senior Bowl was an eye-opener for a lot of people as to what he could do as a big edge rusher with some slimming down and an NFL training regimen, but he could also bulk up a little and show off similar stuff against guards. I think his best fit is as a wide 3-4 end, but he could play 4-3 end at about 270 with some work on bend and leverage and be pretty good there, too, with the ability to shift inside on obvious passing downs. Alternatively, he could start out as a NASCAR defensive tackle, playing specifically as an interior pass rusher on passing downs. He has specific roles to fill in the NFL even if he’s not ready to be an every-down player yet, and I think that’s worthy of a late 3rd-4th round pick.