By the time the 2017 NFL Combine was over in early March, former Kansas State defensive end Jordan Willis felt a wave of calm rush over him.
Now, Willis, a worker-bee sort who was once described by Wildcats coach Bill Snyder as “the epitome” of K-State football, isn’t one to toot his own horn. But he knew he’d killed it.
“I just had that feeling — it’s unexplainable — that I knew that I did what I needed to do, what I set out to do,” said Willis, a graduate of Rockhurst High School. “It is what it is.”
Not only did Willis check all the measurable boxes NFL teams desire in an defensive end, measuring in at 6 feet 4 and 255 pounds with 33 1/2 -inch arms, he also tested off the charts, running a blazing 4.53 40-yard dash, vertical-jumping 39 inches and running a 6.85 three-cone drill and a 4.28 20-yard shuttle — all numbers among the top five of defensive linemen.
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It was a heck of a performance, one that — when combined with a killer performance at the Senior Bowl in January and his effort during the 2016 season, in which he racked up 52 tackles (17 1/2 for loss) and 11 1/2 sacks and was chosen the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year — vaulted him from a likely second-round pick into one that is earning first-round consideration from multiple teams.
“He’s one of those five to eight players that I think has a chance of getting into the first round,” said former NFL general manager Phil Savage, who is now the executive director of the Senior Bowl. “If he doesn’t go in the bottom third of the first round, I think he’ll be off the board within the first 40 picks of this draft.
“He’s got a motor, he plays hard, his test numbers actually were better than what you saw on tape from him in terms of quick twitch, burst and acceleration. But it indicates it is in his body. He’s got great character, and for a team that’s in a 4-3 defense — I don’t personally think he’s a 3-4 outside backer, I think he’s a 4-3 defensive end — I could see him going as high as 22 to the Dolphins, and then again somewhere in that 35-40 range of the second round.”
None of this comes as a surprise to Willis, who has generated plenty of predraft interest from teams. Willis said he has visited four teams during the predraft process; the San Francisco 49ers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Carolina Panthers and a mystery team he wouldn’t reveal “because they get sensitive about that,” he said.
“But they were all very impressed with me,” said Willis, who also had 10 other workouts in Manhattan.
Willis also went to the Chiefs’ local pro day on April 7, where he met the coaches and did linebacker drills.
“I felt like I showed the kind of person I am — that I’ll keep my head down and go to work,” Willis said. “I showed what can happen when you do that …you don’t have to be a big spotlight guy to get attention in the draft.”
It’s funny, really. Willis is one of the draft’s biggest risers, though he now admits that prior to the draft process, he was concerned that teams might overlook him because he doesn’t have an outgoing personality.
“It was easy for me to think I’m going to get missed,” Willis said. “But every step of the way, I returned to what I know, which is to do what you can do, put the work in and when it’s time to perform, perform and let the chips fall where they please.”
So right after K-State’s season came to an end, Willis went to work with former K-Stater Mark Simoneau at Simoneau Sports Performance and former Chiefs great Will Shields at 68 Inside Sports.
The results? Outstanding.
“Those are two guys who know what they’re doing,” said Willis, who worked out with Simoneau at least six days a week.
But more than anything, Willis cares about making sure the hard work he’s putting in translates to the field. So not only has he been lifting weights, he’s also done yoga to help with his flexibility, and a little bit of boxing to help with his hand quickness.
“I just try to be well-rounded in what I do because you can’t just do football all the time,” Willis said. “You should try to do stuff that ties in with football that can help you with what you’re doing.”
That’s part of the reason Willis bristles whenever anyone suggests he’s a “workout warrior,” a suggestion he’s seen pop up here and there since his NFL Combine performance.
“With me having a good day at the combine, some people say the combine is not that important,” Willis said. “But if some of these guys ranked ahead of me would have done the things I did at the combine, it would be a big deal, it would be important.”
His response to the subject is an intense indicator of the passion that burns within him, and the chip on the shoulder he’s always had, one he’s used to turn himself into a terrific football player … and now, a possible first-round pick.
But rest assured, even if he isn’t, Willis will go back to what he knows, which is working his tail off to get better.
“Of course, I’ve done things that guys who have been drafted in the first round do,” Willis said. “You couldn’t have a better senior season than I had. You couldn’t have a better Senior Bowl than I had. You couldn’t have a better combine than I had.
“So I really think my body of work has shown I deserve the first round. But whether or not teams think that or whatever happens in the long run, it is what it is.”
JORDAN WILLIS’ DRAFT PROFILE
Measurables: 6-4, 255, 21 years old
2016 stats: 52 tackles (17 1/2 for loss), 11 1/2 sacks, four quarterback hurries, three passes broken up, three passes defended, three forced fumbles
Pro Day numbers: 4.53 40-yard dash, 24 bench press reps, 39-inch vertical jump, 125-inch broad jump, 4.28 20-yard shuttle, 6.85 three-cone drill
2017 NFL Draft
Round 1: 7 p.m. Thursday, April 27
Rounds 2-3: 6 p.m. Friday, April 28
Rounds 4-7: 11 a.m. Saturday, April 29
2017 NFL DRAFT PREVIEW: EDGE RUSHERS
What the analysts say: “The pass-rusher class is deep at the top and middle round,” NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks said. “I think you can find guys that can be perennial 10-sack-plus artists. Guys in the second- and third-tier that have outstanding skill (and) may not have the athleticism or size that you like, but they have the ability to get to the quarterback.”
Chiefs’ need at this position: Medium-to-high. Yes, Justin Houston is still a stud, and he isn’t going anywhere. And yes, Dee Ford is coming off a 10-sack season. And yes, Tamba Hali wants to play four more years. But the reality is, the Chiefs — who could be cash-strapped again in 2018 — can create $7 million in cap space by releasing Hali after this season. That would leave only Houston — who has had knee issues the last few years — and Ford — who will be a free agent next March if the Chiefs don’t pick up his fifth-year option — as premium talents at the position. And while some remain high on 2016 sixth-rounder Dadi Nicolas, he’s coming off a torn patellar tendon. So if the Chiefs wanted to stay ahead of the curve at one of the game’s most important positions, they’ll take a swing at an edge rusher, possibly as early as the first round.
OL: Pro day performance caps fun two days for Missouri Western’s Travis Anderson | rankings to come
EDGE: K-State’s Jordan Willis has worked his way into first-round discussion | rankings to come
ILB: K-State linebacker Elijah Lee is betting on himself in NFL Draft | rankings to come
CB: Confident, deep crop of rookie corners should be enticing for Chiefs | rankings to come
S: Pitt State’s Deron Washington carries on NFL dream for family | rankings to come
Terez A. Paylor, email@example.com