The lead up to the NFL Draft can be filled with ups and downs—especially for first-round prospects. In 2019, there hasn’t been a player who has had more of a roller-coaster ride than Mississippi State edge-rusher, a 6’6″, 260-pound edge-rusher who tallied 53 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks and a forced fumble for the Bulldogs in 2018.
First, as Bucky Brooks reported for NFL.com, Sweat followed up a great week of practices at the Senior Bowl with a jaw-dropping showing at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
“No one has crushed the pre-draft process better than Sweat,” he said. “The former Mississippi State star opened eyes in January at the Reese’s Senior Bowl with a dominant week of practice and he’s kept the buzz going with a spectacular performance at the combine. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound pass rusher clocked a 4.41-second 40-yard dash — a modern combine record for a defensive lineman — while also displaying impressive movement skills in drills. He moves like a wide receiver through the bags, exhibiting outstanding lateral quickness and change-of-direction ability. With Sweat also showing disruptive pass-rush skills on tape, he might have put himself in the discussion to be picked in the top five in some meeting rooms.”
However, as we learned recently, it wasn’t all sunshine and puppies for Sweat in Indianapolis. Per Dane Brugler of the Athletic, Sweat’s medicals at the combine revealed a pre-existing heart condition. Last year, a somewhat similar diagnosis caused a draft-day plummet for Michigan’s Maurice Hurst—Hurst went from first-round prospect to Day 3 pick. But per at least one source, Sweat’s not expected to experience a similar free-fall—partly because whereas Hurst was sent home last year, Sweat was allowed to work out (and blow up).
“It is something to monitor, but it wouldn’t stop us from drafting Sweat,” an NFL team source told Brugler “Hurst was off our board. Sweat will probably need regular checkups.”
Frankly, an even bigger concern for Sweat’s prospects might be the fact that quite a few draftniks believe that his tape doesn’t match those wonky workout numbers. This isn’t to say that Kyle Crabbs of the Draft Network doesn’t see Sweat as a first-round pick. But he believes that Sweat has his limitations.
“Sweat projects favorably as a base 4-3 defensive end at the NFL level,” Crabbs said. “Sweat illustrates textbook extension in his attack of blocks and his separation skills enable to him win at the line of scrimmage with consistency. Sweat’s lack of mobility through the hips will restrict him as a space defender, he needs to play with his hand in the dirt at all times to make the most of his linear explosiveness and skills stacking blockers.”
Colleague Jon Ledyard agrees. “A true 4-3 defensive end who operates best with his hand in the dirt, Sweat is a very tough competitor who has a good first step and the long strides to run the arc, but his athletic limitations could put a ceiling on his NFL impact. 22 sacks over the past two years is nothing to dismiss lightly, but a lot of Sweat’s production either came on coverage sacks or with the quarterback far too deep in the pocket.”
“Sweat’s path to success as an NFL edge rusher is going to be with snap timing, hand technique and pass rush variety,” Ledyard continued. “He’s improved in all of those ways over his career at Mississippi State, but he still isn’t quite where you’d like him to be heading into the NFL. I think he’s a good, solid player with starting ability, but I don’t know that annual double-digit sacks is in his NFL future like it was in college.”
However, NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein argued that Sweat’s upside may be higher than some think. “Some will see Sweat as a leggy edge prospect with average play strength and a lack of refinement in his pass rush,” he wrote. “I see a talent, similar to Danielle Hunter out of LSU, with above-average length and a prospect who should continue to grow into his frame, allowing him to unleash his rush flashes into a consistent attack. His transition as an NFL rusher will take some time, but like Hunter, he should come out on the other side as a good, impact starter as an every-down edge defender.”
There may be some debate about Sweat’s ceiling in the NFL, but there’s little question that he won’t have to wait too long on April 25 to hear his name called. USA Today’s Doug Farrar slotted Sweat to the Lions at No. 8 in his most recent mock draft.
“Detroit signed former Patriots lineman Trey Flowers to a five-year, $90 million deal with $40 million guaranteed, but that doesn’t end the team’s need for pass rushers, and Sweat is more than a combine superstar,” he said. “An outstanding run defender with 48 total pass pressures in 2018, Sweat, like Flowers, has the ability to lead from the edge and jump inside, giving Matt Patricia’s defensive line a ridiculous degree of flexibility.”
That also happens to be where Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller predicted Sweat would land—albeit before the team signed Flowers to that mega-deal. “The Detroit Lions are expected to move on from Ezekiel Ansah and face the prospect of a depth chart lacking at edge-rusher,” Miller said. “With the class’s hottest name on the board available to fill the Lions’ biggest need, general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia would likely jump at the chance to make him a building block on the outside of the defense.”
In the eyes of many IDP enthusiasts, Detroit represents something of a worst-case scenario—a landing spot where Sweat would potentially be in jeopardy of losing positional eligibility as a defensive lineman, But that didn’t happen with Ansah last year, so even were Sweat to land in Motown (and I don’t necessarily believe he will) positional eligibility shouldn’t be a problem with him.
As those draftniks stated, he’s a kid who plays with his hand in the dirt. It’s what he does—and he does it very well.
Sweat was a productive edge-rusher in college football’s toughest conference who has managed to do something that’s fairly rare—make me question (at least a little) my undying mantra that “tape don’t lie.” He’s made me wonder whether the extra gear (plus) he showed in Mobile and Indy was simply a young man trying to make the most of the interview of a lifetime, or if there’s a whole other level just waiting for an NFL team to unlock it—like with Danielle Hunter.
As I’m prone to say at this point in these articles, where Sweat lands is going to have a substantial impact on his IDP value over the first four-plus years of his career. Such is the nature of the beast.
But I’ll also say—with no reservation—that I won’t be a bit surprised if he winds up the second-ranked rookie on the defensive line behind Nick Bosa.
Or if he winds up being an even better value relative to his (later) draft slot.