Ross Blacklock’s suddenness will be his NFL meal ticket

When the Texans traded DeAndre Hopkins for the 40th overall pick, the initial thought was that there was a wide receiver they liked. That proved not to be the case, as they traded for Brandin Cooks and spent the pick on TCU’s Ross Blacklock, a wiry, penetrating defensive interior player from the Houston area. Blacklock was the 274th-ranked prospect on ESPN300’s list of high school prospects, and had offers from LSU, Texas, Texas A&M, and Miami. His listed recruiting weight of 326 pounds belied the player he’d become at TCU as he dropped a lot of weight, and a lot of the high school scouting report on Blacklock rings hollow because it talks about his pass rush as if it is something to be developed rather than a calling card. Blacklock weighed in at merely 290 pounds at the combine.

Athletic Ability

Simply put, where you stand on the pick is likely a reflection of how much emphasis you put on athletic testing. Most of the players with Blacklock’s statistical profile — steady but not spectacular — do not grow into better NFL players without underlying help from unused athleticism. As you can see from the charts and numbers, Blacklock’s testing is pretty unimpressive and casts him as a somewhat limited athlete. The only one of his athletic comps that I’d want to take with a second-round pick is Sharrif Floyd, who did much better at the combine but has a statistical profile that mirrored Blacklock’s.

It should be noted that of his athletic comps, we really didn’t see a lot of upper-level NFL production. Floyd had 9.5 sacks before his knees ended his career. Dominique Easley has 6.5 sacks and hasn’t played since 2018. Da’Ron Payne has seven in two seasons, but is more of a pure nose. I think the player the Texans would like to see Blacklock become is Geno Atkins — Atkins destroyed the combine, though.

Statistical profile

It is worth pointing out that while TCU on the whole had a pretty good defensive performance last year, there were games where they got mauled. One thing that pops out to me — because it popped out to me while watching Blacklock’s games — is that TCU wasn’t a great team against power runs. Their rushing success rate against power per Bill Connelly’s college stats was 72.4%, 68th in the country. Gary Patterson’s defense in 2019 played the front very well and dared you to beat them deep — opponents often did that, as TCU’s explosiveness allowed was one of the worst in the NCAA. TCU’s offense did not help matters either, as freshman Max Duggan started most of the year and completed just 53.4% of his passes — this despite having a first-round receiver in Jalen Reagor who wound up catching just 48.9% of his passes. That often put the defense into bad starting field position.

Blacklock finished 2019 with just 2.5 sacks, but 8 tackles for loss and 14 run stuffs — both the TFL and run stuff numbers are second-best on the team behind junior linebacker Garret Wallow. Blacklock did not play at all in 2018 after tearing his Achilles. TCU actually had a better defense that year, but they also had L.J. Collier and Ben Banogu, who would both go in the top 50 picks of the NFL Draft. In fact, six of the TCU’s top seven tacklers in 2018 were seniors — only Wallow returned. When Blacklock, Banogu, and Collier were all on the same squad in 2017, Blacklock had 6.5 tackles for loss and 10 run stuffs getting big playing time as a freshman, and TCU finished 11-3 with a top-20 NCAA defense.

To believe in Blacklock’s college production as being above-average or good you have to look at the hurries. Pro Football Focus settled on 48 pass pressures in two years as a starter. It should be noted that nearly every scouting report on Blacklock that I read pointed to TCU’s stunts as a big part of the package that got him to 48 pass pressures. Another important point of context, something that Blacklock brought up during his draft conference, is that Blacklock will get to attack a little more often in Anthony Weaver’s defense because Patterson’s defense often asked linemen to read a lot:

Pair those two things together and you have the true centering of the projection in this pick. Blacklock’s pass rush stats have to be seen through that prism and how the Houston braintrust believes they translate to an NFL defense.

My interpretation of what Blacklock put on tape: He’s a whirling dervish, but he’s also got a few flaws

Blacklock’s college production was mostly a combination of two factors: He has a ridiculous first step, and he’s good at reducing himself to avoid strong contact. This shows up against both the run and the pass. At times he can outright tunnel his way past double teams with the combination of the two things:

He did go for this fairly often when he senses the double coming in the games I watched, and does have some reps where he winds up on the ground because of it. I think he might draw some NFL holding calls on these sorts of gap-shooting plays though, he really is very quick off the ball:

As a run defender, I think he’s very reliant on these two things. He’s good at holding an outside gap, which is something I saw a lot of in the games I watched. He’s also a good hustle defender, who recovers downfield and sniffs out screens fairly well:

But last year he absolutely had some rough reps against power. He stalemates doubles at his best when he can’t split them, and oftentimes winds up giving ground on combo blocks and square-ups. I would be a little concerned about him as a run-down player right away as a 3-4 end. He’s going to deliver some big plays, but he’s also going to give ground when an NFL lineman gets an arm in his chest:

As a pass rusher, I found the criticism that TCU worked with stunts kind of overblown in a specific sense. I didn’t see a whole lot of benefit for him on the stunts in the games that I watched. More often than not, Blacklock was the one throwing a shoulder into somebody to free up a rush lane.

Blacklock’s main pass-rush move is the arm-over, which you see on a lot of his hurries. His lateral agility at the snap is the main impediment he forces on blockers. When Blacklock is on, his blockers look like they’re chasing ghosts for the first 30 frames of a play.

But what bore out in his stats and what I think mostly held up on reviewing the games that I did is that Blacklock isn’t some sort of dominant force against man-to-man blocking. He has a looping quality to some of his penetration that makes it hard for him to convert pressures to sacks. He doesn’t quite have the speed to bend an edge all by himself, and I can count on one hand how many pressures I saw as a result of spins or pure power moves. He wins right now with his first step, hands, lateral agility, and ability to reduce himself.

Did I take note of the fact that Anthony Weaver noted that he wanted some versatility in his players and go find the one snap I saw of Blacklock dropping in coverage? You bet I did:

Where does Blacklock fit on this team if he doesn’t develop more?

I think he and Charles Omenihu are probably best forecast as interior players on passing downs right now. Blacklock’s role sort of depends on what Weaver’s plan with J.J. Watt is — and if Watt’s body can cooperate with that plan — because if Watt is rushing inside on passing downs that changes a lot about how many snaps could be available here.

Blacklock’s anchor needs to improve to hang with NFL run-down players right now in my opinion. I don’t say that as a death sentence — I think a system where he gets to read less is probably going to help a lot. Just noting that I don’t know that he’s a plus-player on run downs right away and there is a small chance he won’t ever be.

I tend to agree with Bill O’Brien that rookies are going to have it rough this year as far as instant development goes. I think the rookies that are going to play well right away already have the traits and skills they need to do that. I would probably ballpark about 400-500 snaps for Blacklock in a 16-game season right now. To put that into context, D.J. Reader led the Texans defensive line with 621 last year.

Is it the pick I would have made?

Probably not. But I am more of a believer in the athletic data and college production, and I think I would have preferred Justin Madubuike or Jordan Elliott to Blacklock on those terms at the same position. If I were looking at a different position on the board at 40, and doing so with the knowledge that I’d be releasing Tashaun Gipson, I probably would have pulled the trigger on Antoine Winfield Jr. personally.

But at the same time, Blacklock is in the league of those other defensive linemen, and I don’t see the pick as a reach. I can see how you could believe he would develop further, and I can see looking at the Torn Achilles as something where he might have been held back a little in 2019. It’s a sensible pick if not the pick I would have made.

If I were to guesstimate Blacklock’s ceiling, I’d probably say he’s a secondary pass-rusher on a good defense, someone who finds 6-8 sacks a season from the inside while not giving much back on the run because of splash plays. I think to get there he’ll need to develop his pass-rush repertoire a little more and get a little more violent with his hands while finding enough anchor to hold up to NFL power.

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