Merrell is kind of a "tweener" at 6-foot-4 and 210-pounds, he plays defensive end in high school and tight end, but he could very easily play weakside linebacker in college due to his athleticism. We only had a chance to see him at the New Level Athletics Skills Pass Camp prior to the latest version of the Scout.com rankings. Not a great environment for a pass rush specialist to standout. We just got Merrell's film and needless to say, he will move up when the rankings are updated in June.
I had a chance recently to break down some highlights of Merrell in action and here is what I saw as we break him down. Here is a link to Merrell's highlight reel.
Positives: It sounds odd to say, but I would say that Merrell's size is a strength and a weakness. Why I say that is simply because as a 210-pound defensive end he is a little light. As a linebacker being 6-foot-4 is a definite advantage. The first thing that stood out to me about Merrell was his explosion off the snap. Football is a simple game, a team game with a bunch of individual match-ups. Merrell usually always win his match-ups, because he is so much quicker than most offensive tackles. Seldom does he get beat off the snap. I really like the aggression that he plays with, but it is a controlled aggression. Nothing will irritate a coach more than his defensive end breaking containment or getting caught in the wash. Merrell doesn't do that. When he is turned loose he gets after it. When he is the anchor end he stays at home .
I see a lot of high school defensive linemen over penetrate. Most coaches teach heel to heel or no more than one to two yards penetration. Merrell rarely over penetrates. He gets his depth and scrapes. Another facet of the game that I see in high school pass rushers is the guy who makes enough contact to get a guy down and there is the other guy who finishes every hit. The guy who looks like he is trying to inflict damage and that is Merrell. When he hits a quarterback he finishes the hit. Merrell was also blessed with an outstanding wing span that he definitely uses to his advantage. If he is with in three feet of an offensive player with the ball, he makes the tackle.
As a former defensive lineman and a defensive line coach one cardinal rule we always teach guys is to "smell a rat" or "expect the unexpected". Depending upon the scheme it could mean a trap, a screen, a draw or any other type of play where you use the defensive linemen's momentum and aggression against him. You can coach a kid on that point until you are blue in the face, but it rarely sticks. Merrell has great instincts. He will see a screen develop and peel back to break it up. That to me separates him from a lot of other guys.
Negatives: As I already mentioned Merrell's size to me could be a negative. He is right around 210-pounds right now, but can his frame carry enough weight to help him fend off the big offensive tackles he'd face in college? As with most outside speed rushers, Merrell relies a great deal on his speed and quickness, but if a lineman can get his hands on him he will struggle at times.
When I evaluate a defensive lineman I always watch how they use their hands. How they shed blockers. I break it into a few categories. Sometimes a kid just doesn't use his hands and he is strong enough that at his level he just manhandles people with a straight bull rush. You have the "reactionary" hand movements. That to me is when a player instinctively uses basic hand movements to shed blockers. Usually you can tell if he is going against a technically sound offensive lineman and the basic"reactionary" movements do not work. Then there are the "mechanical" movements I like to call them. These are the fundamental movements that most coaches teach their defensive linemen. When the basics don't cut it the good ones will dip into their bag of tricks. The coached up hand movements will then lead to your rip, swim or club pass rush techniques. I don't see a lot of that with Merrell right now, so his looks more reactionary and instinctive. It's not a big deal, because in college he will drill it so much it will become second nature to him.
Prognosis: I see Merrell as a solid four-star prospect. There are so many things he can do. In a four-man front he could play defensive end or weakside backer. In a 3-4 he could play outside and give you a pass rush presence. Athletic pass rushers are not easy to come by and Merrell definitely fits the bill.