Upshaw a potential upgrade over Spencer?

Published Apr. 5, 2012 11:21 a.m. ET

The following is the 6th in a series of draft profiles for potential 1st and 2nd round picks for the Dallas Cowboys. These profiles are put together with the specific needs of the Cowboys in mind, and is an attempt to examine their resumes and game tape to get an idea of who might fit in best with Dallas come draft day.

Courtney Upshaw Alabama DE/OLB 6-foot-2, 279 lbs.
40 time: 4.77, Bench Press: 22
December 13, 1989 (23)

Courtney Upshaw is one of those players who wasn't really helped by his spring season. He didn't pop off the screen at the Senior Bowl, nor did his "measureables" knock anyone off their feet at either the combine or his pro day. But, when you have played in as many big games as he did and made as many big plays in those big games, sometimes there is nowhere to go but down when they start slicing you up against the field when an actual game isn't being played.

Upshaw is the type of player that seems like an obvious pick if you simply watch college football. Alabama was always on television and there was #41 flying around the football and dominating the best conference in college football. Some of his biggest games were against LSU, Florida, and Auburn (and LSU again). His 17 sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss in his last two seasons shows that he averages right around two explosives per game which is again, about the maximum you will see for any major college player.

There are questions with Upshaw that must be considered. He appears to have a hard time controlling his weight, as he stated publicly that his goal was to be 265 at his pro day and yet was sitting at 279. When you say something like that before the biggest job interview of your life, some teams will show great concern about your ability to set and accomplish a relatively attainable goal.

Which brings you to his most important question -- what position does he play? And that is where the weight issue becomes something that we might revisit in 2015. If he is 280 at 23, will that be his ceiling? Because at 280, he would be a very large outside LB in a 3-4. Both Cowboys outside LBs are believed to be at 260 or so. The weight issue affects your ability to keep hips that are fluid, and if the 3-4 requires the strong side LB to drop into coverage, he better be able to turn his hips.

Let's say he goes up 5 or 10 pounds. Now he is a 4-3 defensive end. And at that spot, he is far less appealing for any team (especially one that doesn't play a 4-3), because he will no longer have that advantage of being a perimeter player with exceptional strength. Inside, his strength will be more average and his quickness might be more neutralized in the trenches, plus his height becomes an issue at barely 6-2 -- like Melvin Ingram -- where you just don't see many short defensive ends have success in the NFL.

If you could promise me that he is at his weight ceiling, and that the Cowboys conditioning department would slim him under 270, then I am out of questions. Because when it comes to setting the edge against the run, he is already better than most. He either closes the door completely or strings the runner out so wide that the play is doomed. He sheds blockers with ease and seems to have a great ability to hold up on the strong side. His backside pursuit is not as impressive, as there his straight line speed is less than ideal. That might be the biggest concern is that at times, he does look somewhat plodding for a position where you always want quickness and agility. And that is why everyone is keeping an eye on his size.

In the pass rush, he is an interesting study. Some experts say he isn't refined enough to have success (double digit sack totals) at the NFL level. But his college tape has a few things I like, including the ability to find quickness the closer he gets to the ball. He has that closing speed that doesn't always seem present, but when he smells a chance to make a play, he has this extra gear that is exciting. He uses power and quickness and also has the makings of a dip move with his right shoulder to go around right tackles that would sure be nice to see opposite DeMarcus Ware.

And his infectious personality seems to make him a natural leader of men on that Alabama defense. The flip side to this observation is that he plays on the Alabama defense which is so loaded with talent that you try to imagine how much that benefits his ability to make a play. He makes plenty. Would he make as many if he played for a team that did not have five defenders in this draft? These are the questions that must be asked.

Here are some YouTube cut-ups for your own personal eye-ball test:

Vs Auburn

He really jumps off the screen in just about every situation. Especially watch his acceleration when he gets near the ball.


I really liked his closing speed on the pass rush around the corner. His motor never stops and no matter what part of the game you see him in, he looks to be going the same speed.

Vs Florida

In the Florida game, you really see his domination when they decide to try to block him with a TE. He destroys him and then destroys the play. Also, his work against the runs at him are impressive, to say the least.

And then this clip which showcases his interview after Alabama's win in the BCS Title Game. He sure fires you up with his excitement.

The Case For Taking Courtney Upshaw at #14: When you consider an outside linebacker in Dallas, you are clearly hoping to upgrade from Anthony Spencer. Spencer has not signed his tender as a franchise player, and therefore the Cowboys are not in a binding situation. If they took Upshaw, they could immediately rescind the franchise label, making Spencer a free agent, and freeing up nearly $9M in cap room. Or, you could keep Spencer and seek to trade him (which likely would not be difficult). Upshaw has the potential to be an upgrade over Spencer. Not substantial, I wouldn't think, but because of finances and ability, we should likely not totally rule it out. Unlike Melvin Ingram, I would rate Upshaw quite capable of doing all of Spencer's fine work against the run, while perhaps having superior skills to get to the QB. Then, if his leadership skills translate, in a few years, you might have a potential captain on your hands that players respond to.

The Case Against Taking Courtney Upshaw at 14: Again, I will go back to this question: On a team with many places that need upgrading worse than OLB, is it a waste of resources to try to replace a reasonable OLB opposite DeMarcus Ware? Spencer is not what you hoped, but he still darn solid in many respects. Meanwhile, the defensive line has at least two vacancies where you could really make a difference replacing Kenyon Coleman or Marcus Spears with a guy like Fletcher Cox. If I use my only first-round pick on a linebacker, do I have the ability to really improve my defense this year? Perhaps, that would depend on my ability to trade Spencer for a pick that I could then re-invest in the defense. But, what could the Cowboys get in a trade for Spencer? Only they know that. The arguments against Upshaw will be based on his ability to stay at or below his weight and the Anthony Spencer situation. Otherwise, Upshaw should be a real consideration at #14.