When he was at Penn State, LB Sean Lee tore his right ACL during a noncontact drill in the spring and missed the 2008 season to rehab. The injury and missed year raised concerns when it came to his NFL draft stock heading into the 2009 season. One of the most instinctive linebackers I have ever seen on tape, Lee eased those concerns with a strong showing his senior year, and the Cowboys thought enough of his tape to take him in the second round in 2010. Though he’s coming off a season-ending toe injury, Lee has started 21 games over the past two seasons, and he has been a difference-maker when he’s been on the field.
Every season, there are draft-eligible prospects who miss all or most of the previous year and cloud their NFL futures. And it’s not always because of an injury. NCAA transfer rules and suspensions come into play as well. While injuries raise concerns about durability, suspensions raise character concerns and transfers raise their own set of questions, though not always serious ones. There’s also the matter of there being less tape for evaluators to watch.
I’ve focused on the AAC, ACC and Big 10 this offseason. During this process, three players who missed all or most of last year have jumped out. Each of their paths to this point has been different, but each has the potential to overcome missing a season and climb up draft boards in 2013.
South Florida DE Aaron Lynch
A freshman All-American at Notre Dame in 2011, Lynch played his high school ball in Florida. He never adjusted to life in South Bend, so Lynch transferred to South Florida last year. After the NCAA denied his request for immediate eligibility, he sat out the 2012 season in accordance to transfer rules.
During his time away, he’s lost a considerable amount of weight. He’s now listed at 244 pounds, and he would do well to gain another 10-to-15 pounds. At 6-foot-6, he has plenty of room on his frame, and at Notre Dame, he played at a high level when he carried around 270 pounds. I think he can be an effective interior pass rusher when he plays at 270 and I think he can be an effective edge rusher in South Florida's scheme regardless of his weight.
There are no questions about his accountability and maturity. He is young -- he turned 20 in the spring -- and there have been no off-field transgressions of note. He is a redshirt sophomore, so he has two years of eligibility left. The reason he’s on NFL scouts’ radars this early in his career is that he showed first-round talent during his brief time with the Fighting Irish.
Lynch showed a unique blend of strength, quickness and athletic ability for his size during his freshman season. He can hold his ground when teams run at him and chase backs down from behind when they run away from him. He has the initial burst, ability to bend and closing speed to wreak havoc as a pass-rusher off the edge. His quick and violent hands make it tough to sustain blocks on him regardless of the play call.
He’s also position versatile. He can line up as a defensive end in a base four-man front, and he’s agile enough to play 3-4 outside linebacker. At Notre Dame, he showed that he can be an effective interior pass-rusher. If he bulks back up to the 270-pound range, South Florida’s scheme could give him more chances to show what he can do coming off the edge as a pass-rusher.
Louisville RB Michael Dyer
Dyer broke legend Bo Jackson’s freshman rushing record at Auburn in 2010, and he won the BCS Championship MVP award that year. He played an even bigger role when QB Cam Newton departed for the NFL, and he handled the increased workload well, rushing for 1,242 yards and doubling his rushing touchdowns from five to 10.
Unfortunately he couldn’t handle his business off the field, and problems started to surface at the end of the 2011 season.
Auburn suspended Dyer for the Chick-fil-A Bowl for violating unspecified team rules. In January 2012, he transferred to Arkansas State where former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn had taken the head coaching job.
That spring the problems escalated. He testified that a former teammate had used his gun in an armed robbery at that teammate’s trial. Dyer also testified he had used synthetic marijuana. In March 2012, Dyer was pulled over for speeding, and police found a substance believed to be marijuana and a gun in the vehicle. It must be noted that the trooper that pulled him over was fired and that Dyer legally owned the gun. The problem for Dyer is it’s another incident involving drugs and guns, two hot button issues in the NFL. Malzahn dismissed him from the team in July of 2012, and he transferred to Arkansas Baptist, where he didn't play football.
The biggest key for Dyer is staying out of trouble. At Louisville, he's under a "zero tolerance" policy.
Louisville is giving Dyer an opportunity to shine on the field and make the most of his touches. With QB Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinals’ vertical threats stretching the field, teams will have a difficult time loading up against the run. Dyer is a tough-between-the-tackles runner who makes the most of his blocks, which makes it difficult to slow him with seven-man fronts. He’s not just a power back, either. His ability to accelerate around the corner complements his power, and it set him apart at Auburn. He made defenses pay for underestimating that burst and taking poor pursuit angles.
Dyer had just three career catches at Auburn so showing that he can play a bigger role in the passing game will help him. Louisville runs a far more balanced offense than Auburn did with Dyer, and Bridgewater isn’t afraid to check down. In theory, Dyer should get more of a chance to show what he can do on third down, too.
Boston College DT/DE Kaleb Ramsey
Ramsey isn’t as well-known as the other two players on this list, and it’s not just because he’s played for a Boston College program that has won a total of six games over the past two seasons. He hasn’t been on the field much during that span. Plantar fasciitis in his left foot prevented him from appearing in all but two games in 2011. His attempt to return to the lineup last year was unsuccessful as he again played in just two games. He even had problems staying healthy before the 2011 season, so it’s critical that he stay healthy this year. The sixth-year senior will be 24 years old.
Ramsey is listed at 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds on the school’s preseason depth chart. He’s also listed at defensive end in the Eagles’ base four-man front, where he can be an effective left end. He could even play defensive end in a base three-man front. However, his real value is at three-technique in a base four-man front.
While he doesn’t have great size for a defensive tackle prospect -- he may not be as heavy as that listed weight at this point -- his above-average first step quickness and upper body strength make him a disruptive run defender when he plays inside. He’s also strong for his size, stays low and is tough to move off the ball one-on-one when teams run at him. In terms of the pass rush, he has above-average closing and foot speed for a defensive tackle. He’s just average in those areas for a defensive end prospect.
However, there are reasons to question Ramsey’s ability to make it. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy. His ability to pass team physicals will be a concern even if he avoids a serious injury this year, and he doesn’t have a great frame.
Still, he's shown enough over the course of his career not to rule him out as there are similarities between Ramsey’s story and former Nevada TE Zach Sudfeld's.
Sudfeld was a sixth-year senior who had problems staying healthy and missed all but one game in 2011. He went on to have a strong season last year and then flashed the week of the East-West Shrine game. While he went undrafted and hasn’t made a team yet, Suffold signed with New England and has had a strong training camp. In fact, ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss and Field Yates both projected Sudfeld to make the 53-man roster in their predictions last week.