Ellis figures in as #4 DE as rookie (Photo Source)
For the entirety of the four months between the end of the NFL's regular season and this past weekend's NFL Draft, the fine folks who visit this blog daily have been expressing their worry over the Buffalo Bills' pass rush. The Bills boasted one of the NFL's worst pass defenses last season, and that wasn't because the team's starting cornerbacks were awful (note: they weren't great). In the style of defense that the Bills run - whether or not it's run in the most traditional of manners - a disruptive pass rush is essential to defensive success, especially against the pass.
Enter Chris Ellis. Buffalo's third-round draft pick will be expected to contribute right out of the gate as a pass rush specialist. But like second-round pick James Hardy, Ellis enters the league with some questions about his character. No one really knows what to expect from him as a player, either. We're very happy to be joined this morning by Gary Cope, a "traditional" media veteran who covered Virginia Tech for a decade before retiring to his current Hokies blog, VTHokieFans.com. I asked Mr. Cope about some of the major concerns with Ellis. Here's what he had to say about our new speed rusher:
Ellis was suspended in 2006 after an arrest for obstructing justice and resisting arrest. What are your thoughts on Ellis' supposed character concerns?
- In this, the image-conscious age of the NFL, I can easily understand why Bills' fans may have some character concerns related to Chris Ellis. My short answer is "no," I don't think his character will be a detriment to the Bills.
My long answer is as follows: his arrest in 2006 was a huge disappointment for Virginia Tech fans, coaches and players. It was also the beginning of a three-week span that will remain, at least in my mind, one of the lowest points in the program's history in terms of sportsmanship and character and Ellis was at the forefront.
Ellis and a teammate were suspended for the Georgia Tech game. The No. 11 Hokies hosted the No. 24 Yellow Jackets and lost 27-38 on national TV (ABC). A week and a half later, the Hokies imploded and were blown out by Boston College, 3-22, again on national TV (ESPN). Toward the end of the game, Ellis struck Eagles' tight end Ryan Purvis in the back and pushed him to the ground earning his second personal foul of the game. Coach Beamer immediately pulled him from the game.
Following the back-to-back humiliating losses, the Tech players held a team meeting and what followed was a six-game winning streak in which they played disciplined football en route to blowout victories over No. 10 Clemson and No. 14 Wake Forest. Up until this point, Ellis' character and discipline were proving a liability on the field. Following the players-only meeting, Ellis became a changed man both on and off the field. He kept his nose clean and was among the leaders of the team that stepped up and took responsibility for their actions. From that point on, Ellis evolved into a team leader and his character was never again an issue for the Hokies.
We're not talking about a guy like Darren McFadden who has had multiple run-ins with the law. Ellis' was a one-time incident and he learned from it. He got his head screwed on straight following his arrest, his one-game suspension, and the two personal fouls against BC. I don't think Bills fans have anything to worry about.
Ellis is regarded as a solid pass rusher, having racked up 35.5 sacks in his Virginia Tech career. Was Ellis a game-changer as an end for the Hokies, or did he get most of his sacks on hustle plays?
- I don't know if "game changer" is an accurate description of Ellis. Certainly when he was in the game, the opposing offensive coordinator was keenly aware and game-planned accordingly, often double-teaming him. Ellis is a speed guy - lightning quick off the snap - and has a motor that never quits ... I mean never. And that's how he racked up many of his sacks; relentless pursuit from the backside. The guy never takes a play off.
After two major shoulder surgeries, durability is a big question mark for Ellis. Yet he played 52 career games at VT. Were injuries ever an in-season problem for Ellis?
- Ellis is as tough as they come. He has played through injuries and pain and rarely did those ailments get in the way of his playing time. His first shoulder surgery was during his redshirt freshman year, which repaired a torn labrum. He was healthy for the next two seasons, but aggravated his shoulder during the beginning of his junior year (2006). It slowed him in the UNC game and again at the end of the season, but he played through the pain and had surgery immediately following the bowl game. He show no ill effects during the 2007 season, by far his best year. I believe the questions about his durability are overstated.
Please talk briefly about Ellis' ability against the run. Is he a liability in this facet of the game?
- It is no secret that Ellis is a far better pass rusher than a run stopper. However, he has the speed and athletic ability, especially the lateral quickness, to pursue running plays to the sidelines. Because of his lack of size and overall strength, he struggled at times against traditional power running games and I imagine the NFL running game will prove even more difficult for him to contain. Because he regularly gave up 40-60 pounds to offensive lineman, he was easy to contain. Ellis is much more effective when he has some distance, leverage and speed to beat bigger, slower offensive tackles off the edge. I would imagine that the Bills will use him as a DE during pass rushes, or may try him at OLB in a 3-4 defense, but he hasn't played that position since high school. I wouldn't count on him contribute much in the way of run defense, at least not in the first couple of seasons.
What one aspect of Ellis' game would you say is his strong point? Where does he need to improve, in your opinion?
- Ellis is a hard worker and a relentless player. As I mentioned before, he never quits; he leaves everything he has on the field each and every game. He was one of the ACC's premier pass rushers in 2007 because of his speed, quickness and hustle, but, if he's going to succeed at the next level, he will need to add another 10-15 pounds before training camp opens.
Assuming he gains the weight, he'll have to learn how to use against the considerably bigger, stronger and faster offensive linemen in the NFL. His learning curve will be considerable, but he has the determination and work ethic to become a solid NFL pass rusher. I wouldn't consider him an immediate impact player, but if the Bills are patient, I think they can develop him into something special.
I could go on forever about how he could improve on his run-stopping game, but I would be surprised if the Bills would even put forth much effort to develop him in that role. He is a pure pass rusher and that's his niche. I'm sure the Bills recognize that and will develop him to his strengths.
I'd like to thank Gary Cope once again for his insight on Chris Ellis. Buffalo's top two draft picks have a lot of pressure on their shoulders to contribute immediately, and that goes the same for Ellis - Tom Brady needs to be hit, and it's going to be Ellis' job to do that on third downs. We've got a quick rusher that's a hard worker. That's a good start.