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2016 NFL Draft profile: Florida's Jonathan Bullard is more than a "tweener" label

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The big man improved his stock as a senior. Is it enough to make the first round?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, yes, draft week. The week where all the mock drafts, the rumors, the opinion pieces, the rankings and the speculation come together in beautiful chaos to form the three-day event that is the NFL Draft.

For draft nerds like me, the progress of a player from true freshman to NFL rookie is a fun one to follow. There are little annoyances along the way, sure, but a the end of the collegiate journey it is something that should be celebrated. For a handful of Florida players, this weekend will be the culmination of their hard work, determination, and athletic ability: It will be the moment they make their dream a reality.

This week, we're publishing Florida fan-centric, in-depth scouting report of Gators that could have their names called at any point on draft weekend. We'll examine a little background of where they come from, link that into what they do well on the field and what role that translates to at the next level, and give an outlook of their draft stock and potential landing spots this weekend.

We continue this Tuesday with Jonathan Bullard, the rare senior riser.

Background

There is no underdog story from high school to college with Jonathan Bullard. As a five-star defensive end prospect — rated the No. 6 overall prospect by Rivals — Bullard has been all over football fans' radars since his senior season at Crest High where he recorded 82 tackles and 16 sacks.

When Bullard committed to Florida, he joined an already star-studded recruiting class for Will Muschamp which would later include Dante Fowler Jr., and already included D.J. Humphries and Brian Poole. But arguably more important than his classmates were his predecessors: Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd.

When Fowler emerged as the primary edge player in Will Muschamp's 3-4 defense, the need to get Bullard's talent on the field forced a position change. Learning from former Gators like Easley and Floyd made Bullard's transition to defensive tackle one that he could visualize almost immediately. Floyd and Easley gave Bullard the best of both worlds with pass rushing and run stopping game tape to study.

I shouldn't have to really say anything about him. His play speaks for itself. — Dominique Easley, on Jonathan Bullard

Bullard had the option to declare for the draft last year, but he felt like he had unfinished business to prove, not just in terms of his stock, but in himself and the legacy he would leave at UF, and chose to return instead. It paid off: He went on to earn All-American honors in 2015 and led UF with 17.5 tackles for loss — third-best in the SEC — while putting enough good tape together to significantly improve his stock.

So where does the kind of player Bullard is today fit in the NFL, and more pressing, in the draft? Does the defensive end turned defensive tackle path make him look versatile, or does it make him a tweener that some teams will shy away from? Let's look at the tape.

Where He Wins

In our previous scouting report, we took a look at Keanu Neal and figured out "where he wins", a phrase coined by Rotoworld's Josh Norris. We'll do the same thing here to diagnose Bullard's projection to the NFL.

When you read that word "tweener," what the analysis is saying is that the player either has a body type or a skill set that puts him in between two positions — these positions are usually linebacker-slash-defensive end, end-slash-tackle or corner-slash-safety, because only offensive players get the luxury of being truly specialized. Since I'm confident teams in the NFL won't be looking to play Bullard at safety — due only to a slower three-cone time and nothing else — let's examine the DE/DT label he receives.

What makes teams wary of tweener players is the lurking wonder of why a player would switch positions so often. Is it because they truly possess elite talent and can play all across their assigned layer of the defense? Or is it because they haven't been able to master one position or the other, but their coaches wanted to get them on the field so they just threw them out there wherever they could? The former trait is coveted, the other is often a recipe for being left in limbo during an NFL career.

The two primary positions where Bullard was asked to line up are 3-tech (DT) and 3-4 defensive end. By examining how he stacks up with what each role demands, we'll be able to see if his skill set pushes him one way or the other.

As a 3-Tech

In my opinion, the key for any interior disruption is snap count recognition/anticipation. What I look for first and foremost is how fast defensive tackles can get out of stances and create contact with a guard or center. This allows them to knock their offensive linemen off balance, and, done correctly and swiftly, produces what is more or less an automatic win for their assignment.

This is an area where Bullard truly shines. It's also an area of of his game I would attribute to sitting behind Easley for two years: Easley was one of the best defensive tackles I've ever seen at getting into his assignments before they even knew the ball was snapped, and Bullard seems to have developed that skill.

The play above is a great example of how disruption should be considered a success, even though it won't show up on the stat sheet. Bullard's tape is filled with moves like this from the 3-tech position.

Here's another example of timing the snap count and neutralizing a play. The GIF above is textbook work for how a quick, heady defensive tackle can counter a pulling guard. We've seen the NFL — specifically the Carolina Panthers this year — get more and more creative with offensive line movement. The way you counter that is by blowing the play up with interior pressure.

A player with Bullard's first step should not be overlooked. He has the "get off" to make perfect offense play calls pointless, simply by stopping them before they have a chance to develop.

The Vine above is an important one because, to me, it answers one of the most important questions regarding Bullard, and his draft stock: What happens when Bullard doesn't time the snap count perfectly? Here, he maintains contact, strings out his lineman and the play, and forces Leonard Fournette to cut back into his body, rather than an open hole.

And what puts my worries to rest on how that "tweener" tag will impact Bullard is knowing where he came from as a player at Florida. To start his career, he was used primarily as a run-stopping defensive lineman. During those two years he worked on keeping his shoulders square and driving through his assignments, if nothing else, and more on disrupting a gap than disrupting a play. In those two years, he had just 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.

In 2014 and 2015, he had 26 tackles for loss and nine sacks.

When people watched Bullard's tape from this year, many came away with him being great off the snap and disruptive at times, but an unpolished pass rusher. What I've tried to tell people is that this season was the first season Bullard was given to truly pin his ears back and go after quarterbacks.

In previous years, Easley was the pass rusher, then it was Fowler, and the defensive gameplans were built around plugging gaps and getting those guys one-on-one pass rushing opportunities. I think that, even though he's a senior, and theoretically a "finished" product, you can't look at Bullard thinking his senior year pass-rushing is all you'll get from him in the NFL. He's more raw than people think, especially as a pass-rusher — and to me, that's actually encouraging, because if what I'm watching is entirely or mostly raw talent, it's very impressive.

I think a good portion of the knocks on Bullard come from looking for aspects of pass rushing that were never going to be in his tape (and that's not a bad thing). Bullard does have shorter arms, so you aren't going to find separation via length or an array of pass rushing moves. What you are going to find is a bullish player whose drive and snap anticipation are top of this class.

Are the aforementioned critiques of his build what prevent him from being a top-10 selection? Yes. But does "where he wins" justify him being a first rounder? Absolutely, especially as a 3-tech.

As a 3-4 Defensive End

Though Bullard was primarily a 3-tech player in 2015, he spent a lot of time as a 3-4 defensive end in Muschamp's system during previous seasons. As you can see, he's pretty comfortable working there. A good portion of his tackles for loss came from the times he could split a gap.

But his time as a 3-4 player also show us where he can improve.

The main concern for Bullard isn't in length or drive, or my worry in his ability to do this next task, it's just in the consistency of it. In the Vine above, you see a good example of Bullard being inconsistent with his pad level and failing to control his matchup because he loses leverage while turning a bull rush at his assignment's stomach into an upward push into his pads.

When Bullard doesn't win off the snap, he can, at times, try to drive his opponents at their shoulders. This doesn't allow him to get his assignment off balance, or even move them from their spot at all.

Here's another example. Even though he didn't time the snap exactly right, Bullard still could've theoretically moved his assignment off his position if he would've gotten lower into his drive. Once he stands up like that, he's at the mercy of the already-established offensive lineman, and is probably going where the lineman wants to move him. Even if it's simply moving him a foot to the left, he's won that matchup.

It's a critique that is definitely worth noting when evaluating Bullard, but I also think it's one not to get carried away with. Bullard has shown he knows how to drive his opponents off balance. The skill is there; it's just a matter of consistency, which is coachable — and even at its current state, it isn't a reason to drop him out of the first round in my book.

Draft Night Prediction

Bullard was a hot name coming out of the NFL Scouting Combine thanks to a 1.65 10-yard split and 9'6" broad jump which put him in the 98th percentile on explosiveness for defensive tackles. This proved that his ability to shoot gaps off the snap wasn't just from great snap count anticipation, but due to confirmed athletic ability. If you read mock drafts in February, you'd see Bullard's name in the mid-20s.

But since then I've gradually seen his name leave more and more first-round mock drafts, a trend I don't agree with.

Teams like the Titans, Jaguars, Patriots and Lions all gave Bullard special attention at Florida's Pro Day, but the Raiders and Seahawks are the two teams that have spent the most personal time with him. The Seahawks idea is an interesting one, since many compare Bullard's style and scheme fit to that of Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett — and, of course, former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was partly responsible for recruiting and coaching Bullard at Florida, and similarly responsible for Bennett.

So what are the big media guys saying about Bullard's draft outlook? Here are a few:

"He lacks the girth to consistently hold up vs. angle blocks and double teams. As a pass rusher, he uses his quick feet and hands to work through edges of blockers. He lacks knock-back power as a bull rusher. Overall, Bullard doesn’t fit every defense but he can be a disruptive presence on the inside."

Daniel Jeremiah, NFL.com

"He lacks elite physical tools, but he grows on you the more tape you watch. He’s a high-motor player."

Todd McShay, ESPN

"He’ll go second or third round just because of limitations on flexibility."

regional scout, to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

If we had to take an average of Bullard's draft stock, it really is in that late first- to early second-round range, with most leaning towards him being a Day 2 pick.

If you ask me personally, Bullard's a first-round player. I think Seattle and Arizona are perfect fits for him at the end of first round. His tape impresses me more and more with repeated viewings, and he's the kind of guy you want as a player to coach and teammate to have.

No, he's not Aaron Donald. He's not Gerald McCoy.

But if Jonathan Bullard can be Michael Bennett, I'll take that in the latter stages of Day 1 every time.