There are some exceptional prospects in the NFL draft every year, but Southern Methodist University defensive end Margus Hunt is one of the craziest in recent memory. Not literally crazy, but he makes you wonder if he's from the same planet as everyone else.
Hunt's from the same planet (probably), but not the same country. He came to America from Estonia, originally to pursue a career in track and field.
He won gold medals as a junior Olympian in the discus and shot put, and he also plays the piano. He'll be 26 years old by the time the season starts—Hunt is truly a rarity among NFL prospects.
He also possesses an out-of-this-world combination of size and athleticism, measuring in at 6’8” and 277 pounds at the combine. Hunt ran the 40-yard dash in 4.60 seconds and had 38 reps on the bench press. To put that in perspective, Hunt ran the 40-yard dash as fast as the 248-pound linebacker Dion Jordan and had the same number of reps on the bench press as the 311-pound defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.
Foreign-born players are always interesting because they typically haven’t been playing the game for very long. In Hunt’s case, he’s been playing football for only the last four years. No one expects a guy who has been playing football for only a few years to have refined technique, but Hunt’s height makes any problems he has more glaring.
Hunt has been labeled as being “raw” from a technique perspective, which is certainly true when it comes to his ability to maintain proper pad level. For a player as tall as Hunt, he needs to keep his pad level down to be effective.
However, when Hunt does play with the proper pad level, he can take over a game. At one point against Fresno State, the Bulldogs assigned three blockers to try to slow Hunt down. If Hunt’s pad level rises, he can be neutralized and disappear in games.
How much a team values Hunt in the draft is going to depend on if it believes he can improve his pad level. For those teams that believe pad level is coachable, Hunt is a first-round talent. For those that think pad level is not coachable or that he’s too tall to ever be consistent with his pad level, he’s a third-round draft choice.
Despite his flaws, there may not be a player in this draft as physically gifted as Hunt. Not only does Hunt have a quick first step, but he has long arms and amazing strength. Hunt is so strong that he’s sometimes able to overcome his poor pad level (he won’t get away with that at the NFL level).
The other knock on Hunt is that he’s not a very good tackler. I’d go as far as to say Hunt shies away from contact when he is in position to make a big play. Hunt lunges at ball-carriers, and running backs often break his arm tackles or slip past him altogether.
From the way some people talk about Hunt’s pad level, you would think he plays standing straight up all the time. Hunt will go stretches where he’s not making an active impact, but he’s so strong that he doesn’t often get pushed entirely out of the play.
Hunt actually gets his pad level down well at times, and when he does, offensive linemen are often left in his dust. Here is a shot of Hunt getting his pads lower than just about every player on the line.
Since Hunt gets his pad level down, he is able to knife into the backfield and disrupt the play within seconds. Hunt is able to beat two blockers, which indicates that he may be a good fit as a 4-3 left defensive end.
Outside Pass Rush
One of the craziest things about Hunt is his ability to be a chess piece for a defensive coordinator. Hunt can be used in a variety of ways on a defense, including as a pass-rusher on the outside, inside or as a 3-4 outside linebacker. On this particular play, Hunt is lined up outside the right tackle as one of three down linemen.
Hunt uses his quickness and speed to get to the edge on the right tackle. If the right tackle had gotten another couple steps to the outside, Hunt would have needed to use a counter move to work back inside (more on that later).
For a man as big as Hunt, he has impressive bend around the edge. Hunt is a big guy for an edge-rusher, but he makes himself smaller by keeping his pad level down and bending around the corner.
Hunt uses one of his strong arms to rip under and disengage from the blocker, planting his inside foot in the ground just in front of the right tackle. This technique maximizes the power Hunt can generate from his legs and enables him to explode past the right tackle for the sack. It’s really no surprise that Hunt’s technique in this area is advanced considering his background with the shot put and discus.
Once a good pass-rusher has the offensive line overcompensating to the outside to stop the speed rush, they can throw in a counter move to the inside. When you hear of a pass-rusher being a “one-trick pony,” he usually doesn't have the ability to work back to the inside to get to the quarterback.
Hunt realized that the right tackle was jumping out to try to stop him from bending around the corner, so he went to an inside rip move and ended up getting a free run at the quarterback. Good pass-rushers have multiple ways to get to the quarterback and are able to recognize when to use them.
Hunt might still be raw in some areas, but he already has a good feel for how to get to the quarterback in game situations. Hunt will only continue to refine his pass-rush moves in the NFL. If Hunt can consistently play with good pad level, he has the other traits needed to be an impact player at the next level.
It’s worth noting that Hunt was able to do all of this against questionable competition, but the technique and understanding of the game he displayed on the outside rush was impressive.
Interior Pass Rush
Some teams might think Hunt fits best in a three-man front as a defensive end. One of the main reasons for this thought is that he will have more success using his length and speed to beat the bigger, slower guards in the NFL.
Hunt is so quick that he’s able to put the offensive line at a disadvantage. When he keeps his pad level down, he’s able to rip underneath and use his length to get after the quarterback.
The one problem with installing Hunt as a 3-4 defensive end is his ability to play the run effectively. Defensive ends in a 3-4 need to be able to stack blockers, shed them, find the ball-carrier and make the tackle.
Jekyll and Hyde vs. the Run
There’s one big concern with Hunt other than his pad level. Hunt is a poor tackler and even shies away from contact at times. It’s a shame he isn’t more physical, because he does other things that indicate he could be a solid run defender.
This outside run is a good microcosm of Hunt’s struggles. It’s 2nd-and-1 and the run comes right at Hunt. Having stood up and driven back his blocker, Hunt is in an excellent spot to make the play. Hunt uses his arms to give him the ability to lock out and toss aside his blocker.
The problem for Hunt is that he lunges and grabs the running back instead of exploding through the tackle and taking him down. The end result is that the running back breaks Hunt’s tackle and falls forward for a first down.
Here’s an example of Hunt flowing down the line of scrimmage toward the ball-carrier. If Hunt reads this as a hand-off to the running back, his only job is to bring him down.
Hunt reads the play correctly, flows down the line and then lets off the gas and seems content letting his teammate get the tackle. The running back runs through the tackle and is able to fight for several more yards before finally going down. Hunt was never involved in the play.
NFL teams are going to want to see Hunt hustle on all these plays—the fact that he didn't display a high motor in college is a bit of a red flag.
There are positives and negatives to drafting an older prospect. The coaches don’t get to work with the player during their physical peak and watch them blossom, but the team does control the prospect during his best football year for a cheap price.
You would also expect an older prospect to be more mature than your average college kid. Older prospects like Hunt also don’t have a lot of miles on their tires, which is always a good thing in the NFL.
Even if Hunt turns into a great player, he’ll be 30 before he hits free agency. The expectation is to draft a player who can start for 10 years in the first round and not a guy who you are going to let walk in five years.
Hunt also proved to be a great kick-blocker during his college career, recording 17 blocked kicks or punts at SMU. For teams always looking for added value in players, Hunt has one of the most unique skill sets.