When University of Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti considered Dion Jordan’s long, slender frame and his relentless style, a nickname was born.
The Praying Mantis.
“That’s an insect that’s tall and thin and pretty aggressive and will bite your head off,” Aliotti said last week during a phone interview. “That’s how Dion plays. He’s tall, thin and runs around and will get after you pretty hard.”
Jordan lived up to his moniker in college and is expected to become a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft, which runs Thursday through Saturday. He is among the most coveted outside linebacker/defensive end prospects in this year’s class, and many draft analysts believe he could be the first defender selected.
The 6-foot-6½, 248-pound Jordan is also a candidate to be chosen by the Browns sixth overall. As the team converts from a 4-3 system to defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4, multifront scheme, securing another edge rusher at outside linebacker is among its top priorities.
Even after the Browns signed outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves in March, they pursued former Dallas Cowboys rusher Victor Butler, but he ultimately signed with the New Orleans Saints. With uncertainty surrounding Jabaal Sheard’s ability to successfully transition from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker, drafting Jordan would be a logical move, provided he’s available.
“I’ll be shocked if [he] gets past maybe Arizona, [which] would be the worst case at No. 7,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said last week during a conference call. “But I think he could go as high as No. 2 to Jacksonville. With Dion Jordan, I truly believe he can be the best pass rusher in this class when it’s all said and done.”
Jordan’s status as an elite defensive prospect is especially impressive when one considers he arrived at Oregon in 2008 as a wide receiver — and that he’s lucky to be alive.
In Oct. 2007, Jordan and some friends used a vacuum clearer to siphon gas from one car to another in a suburban Phoenix garage. When Jordan unplugged the vacuum, a spark shot from the socket, flames engulfed him and he suffered third-degree burns on 40 percent of his body.
Jordan needed skin grafts on his legs and spent about a month recovering in the hospital. He eventually left with a new perspective.
“It’s important to take care of the things you can take care of,” Jordan told the Oregonian in 2011. “Seize the opportunities and blessings we get every day.”
Jordan, who had a pre-draft visit with the Browns, practiced what he preached and bounced back in time to participate in track and field for Chandler High School in the spring of 2008. After he joined Oregon’s football team, he redshirted and then moved from receiver to tight end and served as a backup in 2009 as a freshman. In the spring of 2010, he switched to defense and became one of Oregon’s hybrid drop ends, a combination of a defensive end and an outside linebacker.
“It was by default,” Aliotti said. “They didn’t want him at tight end, so we said we’d take him as a defensive end, outside ’backer type guy and the rest is history. The athleticism was always there. He just worked his way into being a great player.”
Jordan dreamed of running down the field and catching passes when he arrived at Oregon, but he still embraced his move to defense.
“I adjusted and I took the opportunity and ran with it,” Jordan said in February at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I would rather do the hitting than get hit. It’s a lot better.”
Once Jordan settled into his new role, it didn’t take long for opponents to recognize him as a force. He compiled 29 tackles for loss and 14½ sacks during the past three seasons. Last season, he had 44 tackles, including 10½ for loss and five sacks, in 12 games, missing one because of a shoulder injury he suffered Oct. 27 against Colorado. As a junior, he tallied 42 tackles, including 13 for loss and 7½ sacks.
The versatility Jordan possesses proved to be his greatest asset. Aliotti had the luxury of moving him around, even allowing him to cover slot receivers at times.
“He can play the line of scrimmage and stop the run, and he can play pass defense either man to man or in space,” Aliotti said. “So you’ve got a big athlete that can come off the edge and pass rush that is stout enough to play the run and is agile enough to play in space. And when he plays, he just plays 100 mph.”
Filling so many roles not only requires tremendous athletic ability, but intelligence as well. Aliotti said he would give Jordan “an A-plus” as a student of the game.
“Lining up all over the field on defense shows my athleticism, shows that I understand the game and that I did a lot for the university,” Jordan said. “But my whole thing is getting after the quarterback, so pass rush would be my No. 1 [strength].”
Brigham Young’s Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah and Louisiana State’s Barkevious Mingo have often been labeled the other top outside linebacker/defensive end prospects. Jordan, though, might be a notch above them.
“What makes him rare or separates him from a lot of guys is his ability to drop in coverage,” McShay said. “You just don’t see many guys, I haven’t, that are 6-6, 248 pounds that can swivel their hips and change directions and do the things that he can do and has the awareness in space that he has.
“Those long arms help him get to the quarterback when he’s close, and he closes as fast as any edge rusher in this class. So I would put him ahead of all those other guys — Ansah, Mingo and anybody else — in terms of his ability and potential as an edge rusher at the next level.”
One of the few criticisms of Jordan is he’s not strong enough to fight through blocks or withstand the physical grind of a 16-game NFL schedule. He suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder this past season and delayed surgery until Feb. 27 so he could perform at the combine. He tied for third in his position group in the 40-yard dash with a time of 4.6 seconds and tied for fourth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches. The injury prevented him from bench pressing.
“The thing I feel like I have to improve is my strength,” Jordan said. “Getting to the next level, it’s a big-boy game. Strength is key. I feel like it plays a lot into the longevity of playing in the National Football League.”
Last week, Browns CEO Joe Banner said the organization wouldn’t necessarily shy away from picking a player who had offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum. Another high-profile prospect, Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, also recently underwent surgery to treat the same type of injury.
“As long as the doctors tell us it’s going to be fine, it won’t be a factor,” Banner said.
Jordan said that his rehabilitation would take three to four months, and that he planned to be ready by training camp, which typically begins in late July.
Aliotti believes whichever team selects Jordan on Thursday will get someone who can make an immediate impact as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and, of course, someone worthy of being dubbed The Praying Mantis.
“He’s smart, he’s fast, he’s tough, he cares, he’s a great leader and a great person,” Aliotti said. “All those factors make me think he could play right away and make me think he can be a contributor. Dion is the total package, and he’s a winner. So I think whoever gets Dion is going to be very happy.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.