Following the 2016 season, sophomore defensive end Porter Gustin seemed poised for a breakout junior year. He had amassed 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, a marked improvement over his freshman season, in which he had only seven tackles for loss. However, as a junior, a big toe injury limited him to only four games of action. As a senior, a broken ankle limited him to just six.
Gustin lined up as an outside linebacker freshman year, defensive end sophomore year, outside linebacker junior year, and as the predator position in Clancy Pendergast’s scheme his senior year. At each position, Gustin has provided above average production, with elite per game numbers coming this past season.
In the six games he played in 2018, Gustin had 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss, putting him on pace for sack numbers rivaling Montez Sweat, Jachai Polite, and Brian Burns, the top edge rushers of this draft. However, as injuries have limited his past two seasons, Gustin has been unable to show his potential, and many NFL scouts will doubt his durability in the pros.
Outside of health, however, Gustin can be a versatile piece in any defensive line rotation. At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, Gustin has the size and power to play defensive end in the league. After all, the predator position in Clancy Pendergast’s defense is essentially a defensive end in a two-point stance. Gustin’s struggles in coverage may necessitate this change; after running just a 4.80 40=yard dash, opposing offenses may salivate at the opportunity to get him matched up with an elite tight-end. His tackle for loss numbers in the pass-happy Pac-12 show great instincts and burst to get to ball-carriers against the run, and his per-game sack numbers speak for themselves. This past year, Gustin seemed to be the only competent pass-rusher on the Trojan roster. The amount of attention devoted to him in pass-protection only highlights the difficulty of achieving 7.5 sacks in six games.
Gustin’s skills are highly valued in the NFL, and his ability should transfer to the next level. He sports pro-level size, strength, and athleticism, with the only potential obstacle being refined technique. You can find his combine recap here. He doesn’t have a great bend around the edge, and wins often by his strength and bull-rush. His strongest finesse move is his spin move, and he may benefit by refining a swim move or hump move to become an impact defender on the next level. His strength allows him to hold the edge, containing the run as well as mobile quarterbacks. He has proven production against high caliber talent in college; against Washington State, Gustin performed admirably against Andre Dillard, the top pass-protecting tackle in this draft. He is the prototypical height to knock down passes.
Gustin is more of a developmental pass-rusher who may bloom near the end of his rookie deal. He has played three separate positions in four years of college play, and would fit best in a system in which he can learn one position before being moved around more often. Rushing from just a two-point stance in college, Gustin will have to learn to put his hand in the dirt before the snap. Gustin’s aggressive and relentless style makes him best suited for a one-gap system. In one-gap defensive schemes, Gustin can focus on being aggressive and getting into the backfield without having to make defensive reads. Gustin would also fit best in a rotation where he has the time and mentor-ship to develop. Teams like Cleveland come to mind, where Gustin may be used to spell Olivier Vernon and Myles Garrett.
In addition to his abilities as a player, Gustin is a strong leader in the locker room: he was a team captain at USC this past season. He is also notorious for his work ethic in the locker room, and the practice field. He has incredible workout and nutritional habits, reportedly consuming 10,000 calories a day, as well as 300 pushups and sit ups before bed each night. The worst case for Gustin in the NFL would be as a practice squad stalwart who keeps his stay through incredible work ethic and leadership. Even if his play doesn’t pan out on the field, NFL teams are constantly looking for hard working guys who are good for the locker room. There’s almost no chance Gustin flames out of the league: his floor as an NFL player is a 5-6 year practice squad member. This is much more than can be said for most players picked after day two.
Mocked as a 5th to 7th round player in most seven round mocks, Gustin will be a great value at a premium position in the pros. He likely fits best as a backup edge rusher who can spell starters when necessary. His floor is something like James Cowser, a practice squad stalwart and locker room guy. His ceiling is something like Ryan Kerrigan, utilizing his strengths of pure power and relentlessness.
Gustin and his fellow Trojans will look to find their new homes starting April 25, when the draft officially kicks off.