When Jordan Willis stepped onto the scale Tuesday at the Mobile Convention Center, it appears he literally took the first step toward boosting his NFL draft stock.
At the National Football Scouting Weigh-In — the kickoff to Senior Bowl week — the Kansas State defensive end and Rockhurst High School graduate checked in at a rock-solid 6 feet 3 3/4 inches and 255 pounds. Muscular and defined, with a tapered waist, he looked the part of a starting NFL defensive end — which certainly isn’t a bad thing, considering the room was filled with hundreds of NFL scouts and personnel men.
It was the beginning to a strong two-day showing in Mobile for the Kansas City native, one that some think has Willis on track to improve his mid-round draft stock.
“I thought he had one of the most physically impressive builds of any of the players here,” CBS draft analyst Rob Rang said. “Just his dedication and time in the weight room speaks to his work ethic.”
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Willis said a few teams that have spoken to him have mentioned that to him, too, though more have apparently been impressed with the way he’s looked in practice this week, particularly during pass-rush drills. Willis has continued the form he showed as a senior, when he racked up 52 tackles (17 1/2 for loss) and 11 1/2 sacks in 2016.
“He uses his hands well, he’s a big strong guy … that’s exactly what the scouts are looking to see here,” Rang said. “Pass rushers are worth their weight in gold.”
NFL scouts seem to agree that Willis, who has received an invite to the combine, a source confirmed to The Star, has some tools.
“Good quickness, good hands,” one NFC scout said of Willis. “Really, really competitive.”
Another scout, this one from the AFC, agreed.
“He was productive in college,” the scout said. “But he has to show if he’s a 4-3 end or 3-4 outside guy.”
As is, Rang sees Willis as a third-round pick right now, but added that if Willis works out well, he certainly has a chance to go earlier. Draft analyst Eric Galko of OptimumScouting.com said scouts recently told him that Willis could be creeping into second-round territory.
“He’ll be a guy who is mostly at the line of scrimmage, hand in the dirt,” Galko said. “He’s not overly laterally quick or fluid; his best asset as a player is pinning his ears back, getting upfield, penetrating as an edge rusher and be a third-down speed guy. That’s a real role in the NFL.”
Galko added that being a third-down speed rusher is a 10-year career in today’s NFL. Rang said the fact Willis still found a way to rush the passer despite playing in the quick-pass-heavy Big 12 is impressive.
“To see guys who can effect the quarterback quickly — because the whole offense in the Big 12 is designed to get the ball out quickly — that’s what you’re looking for,” Rang said. “That’s what NFL teams are into now.”
When asked if he wanted to prove he could play in space — and thus, be a 3-4 end — Willis essentially said he was more concerned with letting teams get a look at what he does best, which is rush the passer and stop the run, and let the chips fall where they may.
“Some teams know about me,” Willis said. “And then, when I talk to some of them, they’re like ‘We just found out about you.’ They were excited to be able to learn about me going forward.”
Willis said he has experience covering most of the routes a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme needs to, like an angle route out of the backfield or a flat route or a flare route, though he knows that won’t be his primary responsibility.
“Like I say to people all the time, those guys that do play those (3-4 outside) positions rush probably 90 percent of the time,” Willis said. “And then, even some of the teams that I’ve spoken to have said they sometimes keep those guys away from dropping and have them rush most of the time.”
But what he really takes pride in is his ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage by being fundamentally sound, technique sound and super-prepared.
“You’ve got to be prepared to take chances and study that team so you can know their tendencies,” he said.
Willis is certainly not afraid to put in the work. He’s said he’s studied tape for upwards of five hours a day during his college career, and has studied several starting defensive ends in the NFL. His favorite edge rusher is Miami’s Cameron Wake, but he’s also watched Houston’s J.J. Watt, Oakland’s Khalil Mack, Denver’s Von Miller, Seattle’s Michael Bennett, Denver’s DeMarcus Ware and others.
“Just learning about their takeoffs, how they get off the football, how they set up moves and work moves,” Willis said. “The reason why I always watch those guys is because they’re always around the football, they’ve got good takeoffs, they set up their moves and they’re explosive.”
As a pass rusher in college, Willis primarily rushed against the right tackle. But he believes he has versatility there, too, and thinks he can also play in a wide-9 scheme that is typically more suitable for smaller, quicker edge rushers, despite his power-packed build.
“Because I’m a longer guy and I take such long steps, a lot of people think that I’m not capable of running around people,” Willis said. “But if they watch my film, they’ll see sometimes I’m able to run around people and I’m able to beat them working a move. So these guys with shorter legs, they look like they’ve got a little more spark in them. But really, we’re going at the same pace.”
But Willis isn’t just a pass rusher. According to Pro Football Focus, Willis posted a strong run defense grade of 89.5 in 2016, which was identical to his pass-rush grade, and it’s an area he takes pride in.
“It’s not so much about size; it’s about technique and fundamentals — getting off the footballl, taking the proper steps, ” Willis said. “Punching the guy, having a strong inside arm and just anchoring and being ready to shed and make the play.”
And while Willis may be turning in a strong effort during practice this week, he says he hasn’t even shown everything yet. He’s really looking forward to Saturday’s game, where he can chain moves together and really put his entire array of skills on display.
“I feel like there’s not enough plays in practice or 1-on-1s to be able to show everything I’ve got,” Willis said. “I do have a lot of different moves I can work, so I’m excited to get to the game because you can do a lot more.”