In the pool that was posted on WCG a couple of weeks back for the Bears top offseason needs, inside linebacker (ILB) won handily with more than 2000 of the 4500 overall votes. Defensive end (DE) came in 2nd place, but I've already covered a couple of worthy 5-tech candidates in DeForest Buckner and Kenny Clark . Outside linebacker (OLB) came in 4th overall (trailing center which ranked 3rd) but you are going to be hearing a lot about a guy at the Senior Bowl this week and there is a good reason for that. He's a beast.
Noah Spence, EDGE, Eastern Kentucky University
Noah Spence didn't start his journey towards football stardom at tiny Eastern Kentucky University. He started right at the very top in one of college football's most storied programs; Ohio State. After multiple failed drug tests at OSU, he was booted off the team indefinitely and headed south to the FCS program at EKU. This allowed him to play right away without losing a year of eligibility. But even his attempted image rehabilitation at the smaller school took a quick hit, as he was arrested less than six months into his tenure there for public intoxication. EKU stood by him, helped him arrange treatment to confront his issues and drug-tested him rigorously to make sure he stayed on course to recovery.
Spence rewarded EKU's faith in him with a very good season on the field. He notched 63 tackles, with a stunning 22.5 for a loss, 11.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. He possesses that rare quality all NFL teams crave off the edge, no matter what style of defense they play; burst. At just a hair under 6'3" and 254 pounds Noah has good size to go along with his vaunted acceleration. This week's action at the Senior Bowl facing the top talent in the nation will be a tremendous opportunity for the hundreds of NFL types in attendance to see up close and personal why Spence is so special. My guess is after this week in Mobile his draft stock (which was already firmly in the 1st round) will be on the rise.
Game film shows Spence dominating lesser competition as you would expect. The Valparaiso game was almost comical. I took to counting the number of times the OT's (Spence rushes from both the left and right sides) did not even get their hands on him. Then I gave up because it turned out to be the majority of snaps. Needless to say he was a wrecking ball that Valpo had no answers for. Moving up in competition against NC State Noah was less effective but still had impact and played a well-rounded game. His Colonels were outmanned by the Wolfpack and not having a lot of help meant that NC State could focus on limiting him with double teams.
Spence's game against Kentucky was perhaps the most complete illustration of his talents last year. It was against SEC competition and he was a force. He ended up with a couple of sacks, multiple hurries and some very good run stops. EKU lost in overtime but they would not have even been in the game if it wasn't for Noah. His constant pressure meant Kentucky's game plan was limited to 3-step drop passes only, and even then they could not always get them off cleanly. The Wildcats designated a running back to essentially spy on Spence as a rusher and double team him on almost every pass play. Despite the extra attention Noah still caused enough havoc to get some sacks and force errant throws that his teammates picked off.
One important thing Spence showcased in that game was second rush move. With his natural speed he relies on an outside rush most of the time. However like a baseball pitcher using a changeup to set up a fastball, Noah displayed a nice inside swim move across the face of the OT's several times in that game. That kind of versatility is imperative in the pros where one-trick ponies have limited success when opposing coaches see game film and adjust.
Some things that set Spence apart from other edge rushers with his size and burst are his ability to read plays quickly and accurately, his strength in setting the edge on run plays and his ability to finish plays with strong, solo form tackles. While Noah's burst is not quite as good as a player like Vic Beasley's (Vic has an all-world first twitch), Spence's all-around game is so much stronger in those areas that I would label him a more complete prospect at this point in his career.
Those abilities and his uncanny movement skills (acceleration, balance, bend, stop & start and change of direction) make him an ideal candidate for an OLB spot in a defense like Chicago's. He is also tenacious and rarely quits on plays, which will be greatly appreciated by coaches like John Fox and Vic Fangio. As of this writing he is already making waves through 2 practices at the Senior Bowl and beating the offensive tackles there with regularity. I've seen multiple reports noting he is by far the best rush threat in attendance and is having no problem adjusting to the higher level of competition.
With the late season production of both Lamarr Houston and Willie Young in the Bears defense OLB might not seem like a huge need in Chicago. Regardless the fact remains that talents like Spence do not grow on trees. He has rare abilities and is a much more complete player at this stage of his career than many of his peers. If teams are satisfied that Noah has overcome the drug issues that forced him out Ohio State as a young player, they will have to consider choosing him. Pressuring the passer is necessary function of a modern football defense and Noah Spence can do that all day long.