The 2016 NFL Draft is only a week away, and Vanderbilt doesn't stand to see many alumni called after losing just a few seniors from last year's 4-8 team. Instead, one junior looks like the safe bet to be the first Commodore off the board in Chicago.
Stephen Weatherly declared for the draft this winter after four years and three seasons in Nashville. However, despite anchoring a Vanderbilt defense that improved by leaps and bounds in its first year with Derek Mason as coordinator, he's still flying pretty far under the radar. You can only find the monstrous outside linebacker in the back pages of mock drafts that extend all the way to five rounds.
But that just means he has the chance to be one hell of a bargain for the NFL team who gambles on him.
At 6'5, 267 pounds and running a 4.61 second 40-yard dash, few prospects are scarier edge rusher than Weatherly
Weatherly is a freight train of an outside linebacker who accelerates toward the ball and finishes tackles with power. His straight line speed makes him a force on the edge and shooting gaps, and that led to several stops in opponents' backfields in his three years at Dudley Field.
The junior's stats won't overwhelm you -- just 11.5 sacks in three season at Vandy -- but they don't tell the full story of his impact in black and gold. He led the team in tackles for loss (12.5) in 2014 and in quarterback hurries (nine) last fall. In both cases, none of his teammates were even close to his totals. He has experience playing as both a 4-3 defensive end a 3-4 outside linebacker. His ability to learn on the fly and adjust to instruction made him one of his team's most valuable members the past two seasons.
Here's Weatherly using his speed to blast past a Florida guard and sack Treon Harris on third down back in 2014. That sack forced the Gators out of the red zone and into a field goal attempt.
Here he is making Maty Mauk's life miserable in a banner day against Missouri in 2014. He stays home and unleashes his sideline-to-sideline speed to chase down Mauk and force an intentional grounding call.
Here, the same thing happens as in the first GIF; a gap opens up, and by the time Weatherly identifies it, it's too late to do anything but walk back to the pocket and help your quarterback up from the ground.
The level of difficultly isn't nearly as high in this video, but here he is blocking a punt and then scoring after UMass completely neglects to block him.
All of these clips are great examples of the athleticism Weatherly will bring to the NFL. At 267 pounds, he's heavier than he was last season at Vanderbilt (250 lbs), but his strong showing at the Draft Combine suggests the extra bulk hasn't hindered his ability to move on the field.
While Weatherly's headline reads "pass rusher," he showed off the ability to make plays all over the field. He forced a pair of fumbles last season and didn't get lost in his coverage duties, recording six passes broken up or defensed. He still needs to work on chasing down tight ends and preventing separation on routes, but coverage will always be a secondary part of his game as long as he makes his bones as an edge rusher.
But Weatherly is still more potential than product
Despite a history of great individual plays, the Commodore pass rusher failed to put together a dominant season in the SEC. Weatherly failed to live up to the breakout season he produced as a sophomore and finished 2015 with 3.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. While that was good enough to rank second on the team in each category, it failed to fulfill the All-SEC expectations placed on his junior campaign.
As the clips above show, one of Weatherly's biggest strengths was his ability to take advantage of opponents' mistakes. He failed to have a similar impact when offensive gameplans accounted for his roadrunner pass rushing. He struggled to shed blockers and make a consistent impact as a quarterback harasser. That was especially damning since he played behind an underrated 3-4 defensive line that employed block-occupiers like Adam Butler and Caleb Azubike.
While Weatherly will bring prototypical size and strong athleticism to the DE/OLB positions as a pro, his lack of production at Vanderbilt will prevent him from sliding into the top half of the draft. However, a stable coaching staff could turn his eye-opening tackles into a consistent showcase in the NFL. Vanderbilt cycled through three different defensive coordinators in his three seasons on the field, and while Weatherly never complained it's fair to think the constant changes may have sapped his effectiveness.
That means Stephen Weatherly is still a bit of a project, but at 6'5 and 267 pounds, he'll be the kind of gamble NFL coaches like to make. With a little top-down consistency, the Vanderbilt linebacker could be a valuable -- and inexpensive -- addition to any pro roster.