Wednesday, April 15, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Defensive Tackles

I love the defensive tackle group because they're fun to watch and because they play such an important but unheralded role in football. Occasionally one or two guys get a mention, but for the most part they're not the highlight reel celebrities that the press like to focus on in the same way that they do with wide receivers, quarterbacks, cornerbacks and the like. Which is a shame because it's the hard work done in the trenches by the D-linemen that make a lot of the other highlight reel defensive plays possible. These are the men that drive the pocket backwards into the quarterbacks lap, giving him nowhere to run when the edge rushers close in from the sides. These are the guys that most frequently blow up running plays with their pressure up the middle, cutting a path through the offensive line to snap at the running backs heels.

Now this list will contain two broad groups of players; 3-4 nose tackles and 4-3 tackles of both the 1 and 3 technique variety. Nose tackles and 1 techniques play a broadly very similar game, though normally nose tackles are expected to two gap the center (play head to head on the center and cover running lanes on both sides of him) whereas 1 techniques normally get to single gap, taking just the one shoulder of the center and driving through that hole. 3 techniques are a somewhat different breed, lining up on the outside shoulder of a guard and rushing just the one gap, they very rarely have to cope with the same level of double teams that the other two techniques do. I'll endeavour with each player to lay out both where he played in college and where I think he'd fit in the NFL.

So what am I looking for in these tackles?

1) Run stuffing,
2) Pass rushing,
3) Alignment on the ball,
4) Versatility,

One is as it would appear, basically the ability to stop the run. In some cases this will involve penetrating through the line and getting into the backfield but for some, particularly the nose tackles, this often involves standing up the blocker in front of them and reading through to the running back before shedding the blocker sideways and making the tackle. Two should also be self explanatory, but again in some cases it will be a mark of the players ability to beat an O-lineman one on one and get penetration, while for some other players it will be a measure of whether they can go head to head with the lineman and drive him back into the backfield.

Alignment on the ball is a pet peeve of mine, which along with versatility (the ability to play at multiple spots along the line) I'll use as a tie-breaker between equally good D-tackles. Basically with alignment I'm looking at how close to the neutral zone does the tackle line up. I've noticed in recent years that many defenders now have a tendency to give the offensive linemen an unnecessary advantage by lining up too far off the line of scrimmage. A D-tackle that cheats up as close as he can often gains the kind of small advantage that makes a big difference at the pro level.

And as always this list is ordered the way it is because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered. You have to read the specific feedback to find out what I think of a particular player. Starting with:

Arik Armstead, Oregon
Other than the fact that he's 6'7", I'm not sure what Armstead is doing this high up. I can't seriously believe that any of the 32 teams actually rates him this much. Rather I suspect that the person who produced the original list I'm working from has taken leave of their senses. And to cap it all off, of course the first player on the list of defensive tackles would have to actually be a defensive end. Because... scouting (Armstead played as an end in a 3 man front).

So could he move inside and be a tackle? Maybe. Despite weighing 292 pounds, because of his height he actually looks quite skinny, like almost wide receiver skinny from some angles. There is easily room for more weight if required. To me though I think I'd want to keep him about where he is as he seems comfortable playing at that size. The problem is that because he doesn't carry much of that weight in his lower body you can clearly see that he struggles to drop his anchor and hold the point of attack in the running game. He also seems to lack the ability to get under the lineman's pads and really drive him back into the backfield. So nose man in a 3 man front, or a 1 technique in a 4 man front are both off the cards I suspect. As is, oddly enough, the position he played in college as an end in a 3 man front. I just don't think he's stout enough against the run to do any of those, or at least I wouldn't want to try him in any of those.

Where he might garner some interest is in a 4 man front, either as an end or a 3 technique. In both cases he'd be asked to only deal with the one gap and here he has potential. That unholy word which has gotten many a coach fired. The reason I think he has potential in either spot is because he's actually quite quick and has some decent pass rush moves. It should come as no surprise to anyone that a 6'7" player has a pretty well developed swim move. With them long arms of his he can also post an O-lineman back and at the very least occupy a gap in the running game.

Now conceivably you could also coach him to use that length and play as a 3-4 end, but I'm generally of the opinion that given the number of quality players that will be kicking around in the first round then it's a tough ask to gamble that pick on what I think is an unproven commodity. For that reason I think I'd be reluctant to use anything more than a third rounder on Armstead. Not because he's a bad player, he's not, but just purely because that's the risk premium that I would require to compensate for the risky nature of what is basically a development project. His production in college was very limited and to me Armstead represents something of a crap shoot. He might, might, develop into quite an exceptional lineman with that size and the basic pass rushing techniques that he has, but that's quite an ask. I'd prefer something more proven in the early rounds.

Danny Shelton, Washington
Shelton provides a perfect example of what I'm talking about with the alignment issue. On many plays he lines up almost a yard away from the ball. Why? Why give the offensive line a yards worth of free space to work with and make your own life a lot harder? Anyway, Danny Shelton. Let's cut right to the chase; Shelton is pretty much a consensus top 10 pick among all those assessing the draft, but I wouldn't use a top ten on him. I wouldn't even use a first rounder on him.

Is that because he's a bad player? No, not at all. At times he's an absolute monster, chucking people left and right or pursuing the ball carrier laterally down the line. Despite his combine numbers not being outstanding he is most definitely a great athlete. I admire a dude who is 339 pounds at 6'2" yet can still chase down plays from behind and leap over fallen bodies. The trouble is that for a guy that is 339 pounds he certainly seems to get thrown around a lot. He seems to carry most of his weight in his upper body which makes him somewhat unstable. My worry is that while on same plays he'll man handle guards at the NFL level, there will also be times when guards will man handle him. He didn't perform consistently against the best opposition and that to me poses a serious question mark.

I think his best position in the NFL will be as a three technique in a 4 man front, working one on one in a one gap scheme, mostly against right guards. If you can get him to line up on the ball instead of one yard off it then I think this gives him the best chance to show off his athletic abilities and size. I just think that for me I'd want to apply a risk premium that moves him down to the second round. Again, that's not saying that he's a bad player, just that I have question marks on him that I think would make me uncomfortable using a first rounder on him, especially when you consider that he's likely to go in the top ten where there will be some great talents available.

Malcom Brown, Texas
Note to all mothers; spelling your sons name correctly can save people a lot of aggravation at a later date when they try looking for "Malcolm" Brown without thinking to double check the spelling. Anyway, Malcom Brown, D-tackle at Texas. Any good?

Yep. Displays tremendous power in the lower body and understands how to rotate his hips to transfer that power into a chuck move, throwing offensive linemen aside. When two gapping he's able to hold the point of attack against guards, centers and even tackles, keeping them at bay with his arms while looking through them to find the ball carrier, then makes his move. When one gapping he shows decent burst for a big man and is able to get penetration into the backfield on a consistent basis, delivering pressure to the quarterback and hunting down running backs.

If we look at the drawbacks for the moment these are predominantly two fold. One is a lack of elite level speed for his position when running in the open field and the other is that he appears to have become so reliant on his power and leverage that he has no developed pass rush technique, instead simply trying to bulldoze his way through on each play. He is versatile though and I could see him playing pretty much any spot on a 3-4 line (though he might need a few more pounds of bulk to play the nose) or either spot in the interior of a 4 man line. 

Overall I like Brown, despite the missing "L" in his name. He always seemed to be around the ball, always causing mischief along the line, and generally seemed like a difficult guy for the other team to block. That's the kind of disrupting talent that NFL teams are looking for in a D-lineman. Though he could of been a bit stouter against the run, Brown looks like a first round pick. I think he might be more of a middle first guy, there being better players ahead of him in this draft, but he's certainly a talent. His best fit is probably a 4-3 defense, with the three technique being his most likely home, but like I said earlier I think he could be versatile.

Eddie Goldman, Florida State
For me Goldman can really be summed up by the contrast that I saw in two games in particular. In one Goldman went up against linemen who are projected to be drafted either this year or next and he looked average. They controlled him for most of the game and he was barely relevant. Occasionally he popped up with a tackle, but by and large he was a non-factor. In the other game he went up against much weaker opposition. Here he was still barely a factor, but did make a few more plays. So for me I question where and why I would use a pick on Goldman?

First round? No way. Second round? Na. Third round? Naw. Fourth round? Nope. Fifth round? Maybe. See the problem is my general philosophy on the draft is that this is your (almost) free opportunity to get better each year. Providing you don't trade away your picks then you get seven shots to make your team better, to add players who can potentially be great and help you reach a Superbowl. I don't see Goldman in that light. He showed very little potential in terms of pass rush and looks nothing more than a rotational run defender, either as a 1 technique in a 4 man line or as a nose in a 3 man line, really just filling in to give other guys a rest.

Now that has a certain value. Just for me that value is probably not worth a draft pick. In the early rounds there will be many better players, and in the middle to late rounds there will be players with much more potential upside. I'd have to pass on Goldman I think.

On a side note, while watching him play against Louisville two guys caught my eye. One was quarterback Will Gardner, now a Junior for 2015. I saw a bit of him when watching DeVante Parker but I was mainly focused on Parker as opposed to where else the ball was going. Louisville runs very much a pro-style system under Bobby Petrino, someone with plenty of NFL experience including as a quarterbacks coach, and it really shows in Gardner. He wasn't perfect and some of his receivers let him down, but Gardner looks like an NFL quarterback already and he still has at least one, possibly two more years left to develop. Keep an eye out for this guy in the 2016 or 2017 draft.

The other guy I paid more attention to was Louisville running back Michael Dyer, who was a senior in 2014 but wasn't on my list of running backs so I wasn't really on the lookout for him. His playing time was sketchy and he didn't have that many carries, but Dyer looked good to me. He's 5'8", has a nice burst, has good balance and body control as he works his way through the line and I think as an undrafted or maybe just about a late round back then he has some value. Might not have the longest NFL career because he's not the biggest dude, but definitely caught my eye.

Jordan Phillips, Oklahoma
In keeping with this theme that's developed, I'd like to start by actually talking about two offensive players who I stumbled across, both from Clemson. One is running back Wayne Gallman who is entering his junior year this year. He looks like an absolute one to watch for the future, 2017-18 draft time. The other was quarterback Cole Stoudt, who is actually out of college football this year having played his senior season in 2014. He played vary sparingly for Clemson over the years because of Tajh Boyd, but he has that little nugget of potential. He made some really nice reads, some nice throws, and worked the pocket very well in his limited time. He's not someone you would use a draft pick on because he's not even being talked about, but absolutely having seen him I would offer this guy a spot for the off season with a view to putting him on the practice squad for the future. Physically he has the tools and mentally he looks pretty good as well. He'll probably disappear into obscurity judging by the lack of any interest in him, but I hope someone gives him a shot. I would.

Anyway, back to Jordan Phillips. I absolutely love this kid. 6'5", 329 pounds. Loved the robot sack dance. Love the way he lines up in a four point stance, but with his chest up like he's about to take a dump right there on the line of scrimmage. And I love what he brings to the table as a defensive tackle. When talking earlier about Eddie Goldman, I mentioned the desire to find players who are difference makers. Phillips is a difference maker. He's a guy that can play either in a 3 man or 4 man front and will materially improve pretty much any roster in the NFL.

In a 3 man front you can easily see Phillips slotting into any role along that line. He could be the nose tackle or an end, though he's probably better suited to the nose tackle with his size. In a 4 man front I can easily see him either as a 3 technique or a 1. He certainly has the combination of size and athletic ability to pull off any of these spots. Physically he dominates most centers and even coped well with being double teamed by guards, able to hold the point of attack and in many cases still fight through into the backfield. He was constantly in the oppositions backfield, either driving offensive linemen back into it or simply sweeping them aside or swimming over them. He even chases plays down from behind when possible and showed a remarkable turn of speed chasing runners down the field. He also clearly gives maximum effort on each play.

Probably the biggest compliment you can give Phillips is that he makes everyone else around him better. He is a force in his own right but the real benefit of having Phillips on your line is that he draws double teams away from other people (and still beats them), plugs holes on the line, forces running backs to make massive cuts to the outside and flushes quarterbacks off the spot. He creates multiple opportunities for other players to make plays, but crucially still makes plays for himself. For that reason I think Phillips is first round quality. Top ten? I don't know about that, because I think there will be better players still on the board for a while, but if you're picking from the middle of the first round onwards Phillips is very likely to be one of the best players still available.

Michael Bennett, Ohio State
Exclusively a 3 technique guy in a 4 man front I think. It's where he played in college and it's the best fit for his skills. And what skills this young man has! It's odd watching him because he's not a standout, grab you by the throat and make you take notice type guy that takes over games, and yet he just keeps finding a way to make plays, game after game, down after down. Another player who helps those around him by creating disruption and pressure up the middle, forcing quarterbacks and running backs to play around him. Against the run he shuts down his gap consistently and cuts off outside runs, forcing the play back inside. Against the pass he manhandles guards and collapses the pocket from the front, snagging the unwary quarterback who tries to step up and doesn't respect his closing speed (he ran a sub 5 second 40 time at his pro day).

An every down player (almost literally at times) I think Bennett has real potential. I see a lot of negative comments saying he's a rotation type player which is crazy talk for me. He's not the largest defensive tackle and yes he's restricted I think to being that one gap, three technique player in a 4-3 defense, but he looks like an absolutely sound first round pick. Again I think like Phillips there will be better players on the board up until about the middle portion of the first round, but after that Bennett will join Phillips as one of the top players on the board I suspect. Needs the right team to pick him and I don't think they'll regret doing so.

Carl Davis, Iowa
Big old hoss at 6'5", 320. Lines up right on the ball, getting every last inch that he legally can out of his alignment. And surprise, surprise that means he often beats the center right off the snap with an explosive getaway. Who'd have ever thought that lining up as close to the offensive line as you possibly can would allow you to close with them quickly and jump into the gap? Madness I tells ya! It'll never catch on...

Generally I really like Davis. He played in a 4 man front at Iowa playing a bit of three technique but mainly as a one. If drafted into a 3 man front he could play defensive end with ease and I suspect could probably cut it as a two gapping nose tackle as well, so top marks for versatility. He gets great penetration into the backfield when one gapping and has the size and strength to handle double teams as well if necessary. When the offensive line makes a mistake he has sufficient athletic ability to make them pay, but lacks that truly elite level of speed for a defensive tackle. When plays go away from him he also has a tendency to switch off and start loafing, something which will go down like a sack of bricks with NFL defensive line coaches.

Overall I'd be tempted to say that Davis is worth a first rounder. Most people seem to think he'll fall into the second and at that price he should prove to be a bargain. Some really good D-line talent to be had this year by the looks of it, providing you know where to shop. Makes you wish you could play a 5 man D-line!

Grady Jarrett, Clemson
This is a good year for D-linemen!

Let's get the knocks out of the way first for Jarrettt, aside from the fact that I've been repeatedly typing his name as "Garrett" and then having to constantly go back and correct it because I'm basically an idiot. Jarrett is 6'1" and 304 pounds, which means that from a physical standpoint his frame is basically maxed out. There's not much more muscle (or fat) that's going on that body. Luckily he's pretty strong already, having taken his bench press reps (220 pounds; basically a running back) from 30 at the combine to 33 at his pro day. He's also pretty quick. He flies out of his stance and gets some great penetration in the backfield. He uses his hands really well to shake people off or swim past them and constantly seems to be harassing quarterbacks and ball carriers.

In terms of where you can play him, he's a bit on the small side to be a nose tackle in a 3-4 but I reckon he could play as an end in that scheme. I think his best spot would be as a 3 technique in a 4-3 defense. His speed and hands seem to fit this better and I just think he's another one of these players who you don't want to have to over think things. You want to just give him a gap, give him his job, and then let him go and feast. And I think he will feast in the NFL. A lot of people are putting a downer on him because of his size but this is a quick, powerful dude who can cause disruption up the middle. Graded by most as a second rounder I think that's a fair price.

Bobby Richardson, Indiana
Played as an end in a 3 man line but that doesn't really seem to suite him much. He's a little light for that at 283. Gil Brandt has suggested that Richardson could be tried out as an offensive line due to his height (6'3") and long arms (over 34 inches). Just watching him though I'm not so sure about that because I don't think that even if he put more weight on he would be strong enough. I'd be more interested to see someone put him through his paces as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. He's pretty quick for a tackle, without being blindingly fast, but has some good technique with his hands. Either that or he's a 3 technique.

Broadly though there's just something missing from Richardson. He did ok against the pass but against the run he never seemed to be a factor. I'm not sure he's strong enough to stay on the field for first and second downs if he moves inside, and may not be quick enough to justify being used on third down vs a true defensive end. Like I said earlier, I think his best bet might be to shed a few pounds, like twenty, and play as a defensive end in a 4-3. I'd be willing to use a low priority camp spot to find out whether that could work, but I wouldn't want to use a draft pick on him. Just too much uncertainty for me.

Gabe Wright, Auburn
He's from Auburn and played in the SEC. 6'3", 300 pounds.

That's all the positive things out of the way then. No seriously, that was it. Wright did almost nothing that I saw. He was blocked out of the play on almost every occasion, doesn't strike me as especially athletic and generally contributes nothing. Maybe if you want an extra camp body then go ahead, knock yourself out. It can't hurt to bring in a guy with that size and see what you can make of him. But a draft pick? On a dude that played a very limited number of downs from what I could see and did nothing to really help his team? No.

Mario Edwards Jr, Florida State
Lit it up at the combine. Stunk it up on the field. I read one review that effused about how he could move up and down the line to play many positions in a 4-3 or even play end in a 3-4. That's hilarious, because he played end in a 4-3 scheme and got brutally manhandled at times. At one point I saw a tight end drive him off the line and five yards back. Does that suggest NFL quality defensive lineman to you? If it does, I'm worried. Other than playing for Florida State and having a dad who played corner in the NFL I fail to see what is even notable about him. Oh, unless you count the combine warrior workout. I'd pass personally.

Xavier Cooper, Washington State
6'3", 293 pounds, Cooper is a cool little find for someone I think. Projected it would seem as a third or fourth round guy I think that's good value. Cooper might even be second round material. Fault wise he's not always the strongest player against the run and can struggle with double teams. He played a bit of end in a 3 man line which produced his weaker moments. When WS brought on an extra lineman though and let Cooper one gap he really started to show his potential. He has a great burst off the snap and got great penetration, even against some of the top teams in college football (including players who will be drafted ahead of him this year).

For that reason I think Cooper has potential. He's a one gapping, three technique type of guy, possibly could even play end for a 4-3 team considering he's pretty quick (ran a 4.86 second dash at the combine) for a guy that weighs 293 pounds. I can see him being a guy that starts as a relief tackle or end on passing downs but who gradually proves himself to his coaches as he learns to play the run and develops into a starter down the line. He might even be able to come in and start right away on some teams depending on how they rate his run stuffing skills. It's not like he's a liability in the run game, it's just not the strongest part of his game. In a pass first league I can see why someone might be prepared to live with that in order to tap into Cooper's pass rushing potential.

So yeah, maybe a second rounder depending on what else is out there, but certainly from the third onward he's good value.

Derrick Lott, Tennessee-Chattanooga
I bet that's a pain in the butt to paint onto an endzone.

Derrick Lott then, what to say? A transfer from Georgia he absolutely dominated weaker opposition. At 6'4", with 33 inch arms and weighing 314 pounds he was able to bully most of his regular opposition simply using size and weight. His pass rush style often just involved getting his hands on the guard and then chucking him aside. The real game of interest then was when Lott came up against better opposition, something approaching more the standard he'd expect to face in the NFL, which would be the Tennessee game. Here he was significantly less dominant, though part of that was because he was the only guy that drew double teams. But that said, he still showed some good looking flashes.

There will always be question marks over Lott going into this draft. Why couldn't he force his way into the Georgia line up? Can he produce at the next level considering his routine level of opposition in college? Those question marks immediately demand a risk premium to hedge against failure and for me that pushes Lott right down into fifth or sixth round territory. There was a glimmer of potential there, but even then against weaker opponents he relied heavily on his strength and still seemed a little sluggish in the feet. For that reason I think I'm actually leaning more towards the sixth/seventh round region for Lott. Possibly undrafted, depending on what else is out there at the time. In the NFL he's not likely to be the main target that people want to pick up with double teams so he might find a bit more luck. He also has a degree of versatility in that he could probably play either tackle spot in a 4-3, play as an end in a 3-4, and maybe if he put on a bit more bulk (he's a lean looking 314) he could even play as a two gap nose man.

It's that potential that is very intriguing. He has NFL type size and looks like his best football is yet to come. But I just can't shake that ringing alarm in my mind that keeps reminding me that he played mostly against weaker opponents and didn't stand out against the tougher ones. That's why I'd want to sit and wait to see what was about later on. If nothing else caught my eye by that sixth/seventh round region and he was still on the board I'd consider taking the shot. Otherwise it'd be undrafted, give him a call type of thing, though projections seem to be that he'll be gone by that point.

Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Southern Mississippi
It wasn't hard to spot Rakeem during the game against Alabama (yes, the Alabama). When the ball was snapped the entire Southern Miss D-line went backwards while Rakeem was the only guy that managed to go forward. And by forward I mean right into the Alabama backfield. They simply could not block him one on one. Even the double teams could only nudge him back a yard or two. Southern Miss lost that game - unsurprisingly - but I came away from watching it with the impression that at times Rakeem was almost single handedly keeping the score down. 

For that reason I'm quite interested in this kid. His draft projection is for rounds 6 or 7, but I think he's worth more than that. Yes, he has his limitations. He was mainly a one gap guy in a 4 man line and probably isn't big enough to consistently two gap in the NFL (6'2", 307 pounds). He relied a lot on leverage, getting underneath the offensive linemen and driving through the hole with strength and balance, so he doesn't have much in the way of developed pass rush moves. But let me reiterate the point from earlier; Alabama could not block him one on one. Offensive linemen from what is basically an NFL production line could not cope with this kid without help. He seemed to spend more time in their backfield than he did on his own side of the ball. That for me says a lot about a player.

I'd be tempted to say a fifth round grade, just to get in ahead of everyone else. If it wasn't for his low draft projections you might even go higher than that and say fourth round, which I think is basically a fair trade off in terms of his proven ability to perform at a high level against NFL representative talent being offset by his lack of size and limited pass rush moves. A team would have more information on what sort of buzz around the league surrounded him and so would be able to make a slightly more accurate assessment of his projection than what I have to work with here, but I think a fifth would probably be enough to snag him. Regardless, that's where I see his value in that 4-5 region. One to watch closely I think.

Kaleb Eulls, Mississippi State
Wasn't that bad, but didn't do anything special either. Seemed a little slow off the snap and ran a slow 40 time at his pro day for a guy of his weight (295 pounds). Probably could be useful as a training camp body and might work his way into a team, but I didn't see anything that would convince me to part ways with a draft pick. Low priority free agent.

DeShawn Williams, Clemson
Under sized guy who already looks like his body is maxed out and who struggled to make an impact I felt. He was muscled around in the run game and didn't really have an effect in the passing game. Seemed like he was working hard and had plenty of energy so again you might consider Williams as a low priority free agent, but I wouldn't expect him to make it. Maybe if someone can find a niche for him then he can carve out a career as a special teams guy who also provides cheap depth on the D-line.

Xavier Williams, Northern Iowa
Didn't really do a lot that I could see. Got bullied around some and pancaked a few times, and even that wasn't exactly playing against the best opposition. Pass.

Darius Kilgo, Maryland
I've been having great fun watching the Maryland D in the run up to this draft, but sadly I think Kilgo is the weakest player on it. He is basically just a space eater, a guy they lined up opposite center for the most part to consume blocks in the middle and create opportunities for other guys. The problem is he didn't really chew that space up all that well. He had his moments, for example when he could get his shoulder under a guy and work just the one gap he was able to get some penetration, but I feel like he'd need a little more weight on his frame (6'3", 319 pounds) to be a truly consistent block eater in the NFL. Might have a career as an undrafted project for the end spot in a 3-4, or maybe a three technique in a 4-3 (for which you'd actually want him to cut a bit of weight - he's already moderately quick). Low priority undrafted free agent for me.

Chucky Hunter, TCU
Under sized and looked completely ineffective. Presumably TCU just had nobody else they could send out so they rolled with Hunter. Pass.


And on that drab note we end the defensive tackles. Next up is outside linebackers, then inside linebackers, corners, and safeties to finish. Time is tight though and I've been quite busy (which is why this one took a week) so it's looking possible that I might have to finish these off post draft, which isn't much fun. If it looks like I might have time to do three groups but not the fourth then I will probably skip corners as this is my least favourite group.

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