6’ 4” 247 lbs.
Strengths: Athleticism, Linebacker Potential, Tackling, Instincts, Speed/Quickness, Burst, Pass Coverage.
Weaknesses: Technique, Strength, Bulk/Weight, Run Defence, Shed, Stats, Knee Injury.
By Daryl Breault
Clemson’s star hybrid DE/OLB Ricky Sapp has played most of his college career with his hand on the ground and his ears pinned back but his time spent playing LB during his senior year unmasked a player more suited to standing up to take advantage of superior athleticism and great speed. Size and strength issues kept him from reaching his pass rushing potential but standing up at LB put his ability to cover backs and TEs in pass coverage on display and made his draft prospects jump despite a 5 sack season.
Sapp earned his first selection to All-ACC anything this year with a 2nd Team pick by the media. Sapp turned in career-bests with 52 tackles and 13 TFL. His 5 sacks were one off his career high (6 in 2007) and give him 17.5 in 46 games. This year Sapp was recovering from a torn ACL suffered against Virginia in the second last game of 2008, which caused him to miss Clemson’s final game against South Carolina and the Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska that year.
His final draft position will depend largely on how he works out during the combine and Pro Days, and he should make himself available for the Senior Bowl if he can. He needs to take every opportunity before the draft to show people his ability to play LB and prove that he can handle the transition at the next level. If he can do that and he really impresses, Sapp can quite possibly hear his name called very early. This is a guy who has every appearance of being a player who is far more effective at the pro level than as a college player and a position switch is the first step in that happening.
Sapp has shown all of the necessary speed, quickness, athleticism and ability to make plays in space to make the switch. A track champ in high school in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m, he could very well test out in the late 4.4 to early 4.5 range in the forty. He has flashed natural pass rush abilities throughout his career, and while the entire package has not come together for him he has shown that he can rush standing up or with his hand on the ground. His straight line speed is excellent, allowing him to shadow a receiver but he also shows the ability to break down and make tackles in space.
Sapp generally makes solid contact and brings the runner down but at times he resorts to dragging someone down or glances off. A full time switch to LB and a little time to develop should allow him to develop ball skills and a better understanding of pass coverage. He was reliable in this area during the season. He possesses a fantastic burst and is extremely explosive off the line of scrimmage.
He can dip and bend his way around the tackle and usually finds the shortest distance to the QB. When he lines up the passer, he will burst to the ball and wrap up.
His biggest problem is strength. Sapp is extremely under developed physically and that is a big factor in his lack of flashy stats. Once a lineman locks him up, he’s generally done. He just doesn’t have the strength to fight through the block on a consistent basis. Playing off the line at LB will mitigate this to a degree but the team that drafts him will need to get him dedicated in the weight room and adding strength without diminishing his speed. He will get run over by bigger backs with a head of steam and he allows strong runners to break tackles as he is not a heavy hitter, yet. Sapp is still a bit raw and a move to LB will require some adjustment time.
Experience in dropping back is just too limited to do anything more than project him to LB. He appears to have the skills and track background to make the switch but it’s a question of learning the intricacies of coverage responsibilities. His real test will come battling a bigger TE with the same speed down the middle of the field and if he can learn how to engage linemen without getting washed out.
Sapp’s skill set will be very intriguing for a 3-4 team early in the first round, especially for teams like the 49ers, who have multiple picks, or the Broncos, who luck into a high draft pick thanks to Seattle and can afford to develop him. Someone will see the potential in him. It’s just a matter of mining it out of him.