As time goes forward it seems like the NFL is becoming more and more of a passing league. It means we’re seeing more three and four receiver sets, and an increasingly large number of sub-package defenses that see at least five defensives backs on the field. That’s great news for wide receivers wanting to pick up more receiving yardage or cornerbacks wanting to see more playing time. Unfortunately, this transition has seen the value of the true nose tackle plummet.
The one-time cornerstone of a 3-4 defense, the “zero-technique” was traditionally a player that could eat up blocks and free his linebacker up to make plays. The Pittsburgh Steelers had the prototypical NT in the sizeable form of Casey Hampton who was renowned as one of the most dominant defensive players in all of football. However, in the modern NFL, the worth of a player like Hampton just isn’t what it was as life on the nose involves spending an increasing amount of time watching from the sidelines.
Let’s take a look at what this could mean for a stacked nose tackle class about to hit free agency.
The curious case of Aubrayo Franklin
When the 2011 free agency finally opened, it was widely acknowledged that Aubrayo Franklin was one of the top free agents out there. I myself had him ranked seventh of all available FA’s after a stellar 2010 season where he finished second in our run defense rankings for all DTs with a +24.3 grade. The 146th overall pick from the 2003 draft, Franklin was the standout NT available after four years in San Francisco. He wasn’t just the type of defender that ate up blocks, but had an eye for the ball carrier as the table below shows:
|Year||Run Snaps||Defensive Stops||Stop %||DT Rank|
As you can see, Franklin consistently ranked as one of the top DTs when it came to causing offensive failures (defensive stops). So with teams like the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs having a serious need on the nose, why is that serious interest failed to materialize in a player who starred at this spot?
Well, something I overlooked, when slotting Franklin as my No. 7 free agent wasn’t what he could do, but rather what he couldn’t. He couldn’t rush the passer and therefore couldn’t play every down. In a rather startling oversight, I failed to realize the significance of Franklin playing only 12 snaps all year in a nickel defense, and when you look at his pass rushing numbers it’s not hard to see why.
|Year||Pass Rushes||Sacks||Hits||Hurries||PRP||DT Rank|
That kind of lack of productivity means there’s next to no chance of teams keeping Franklin on the field in any nickel or dime defense. That, in turn, limits how much he plays and, therefore, how many plays he can make. How can a franchise justify spending big on a nose tackle when they are in on 53% of plays like Franklin was for the 49ers in 2010? That 53% is a slightly misleading number when you consider that 261 of those plays (including plays that were nullified by penalty or when he dropped into coverage) were in passing situations. Meaning the 49ers essentially received 297 worthwhile snaps out of the former Raven in his last year with them.
So, in hindsight, it’s clear to see why the market for a NT like Aubrayo Franklin never developed and why he ended up taking just a one-year deal from the Saints. The question now becomes: will things be different this time around for top nose tackles prospects like the aforementioned trio of Pouha, Soliai and Garay?
How Do They Compare
Before we get started in breaking down each player in depth, let’s take a look at how all three compare with the top-ranked free agent nose tackle from 2010. In terms of playing time, the data below shows three years worth of snap count data, indicating the percentage of defensive snaps they played for their teams.
From the looks of the table, all three face similar problems to Franklin in struggling to get on the field enough to make a sufficient impact to justify such a big deal. None of them are going to be confused with a nose tackle like Jay Ratliff who featured in 70.9% of plays this year, and 70.2% the year before. It’s a position that for the most part is seen as something where you can find a guy to contribute on the cheap somewhat. The Texans realized that this year by getting some serviceable displays from both Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell. Sure, we’ve seen the 49ers and Dolphins use the expensive franchise tag on Franklin and Soliai, respectively, but NFL teams seem to be moving away from giving big deals to guys whose impact can be negated by using certain offensive groupings and going pass heavy.
Yet, just because the trio of Pouha, Soliai and Garay are playing somewhat comparable levels to Franklin doesn’t mean they can expect to find quite as tough a market as he did in 2011 and could do this year. So, let’s look at each individual case and see what stands out for them.
The Cream of the Crop – Sione Pouha
A 33-year-old nose tackle with four sacks in the last four years doesn’t jump out at you as someone who should be among the top free agents. That’s just the position Sione Pouha finds himself in right now. A young 33 (he hadn’t seen more than 250 snaps on defense in a year until 2008), the former Utah Ute has been one of the stars of the NFL since gaining more playing time after the injuries Kris Jenkins suffered. Playing in the Jets’ hybrid scheme, Pouha has flourished playing all along the defensive line. We’ve seen him line up over the nose at the zero-technique while also handling being pushed out as far wide as a five-technique end. This versatility comes about by his capacity to not just eat up double teams, but to also stack and shed blocks once he reads the direction of plays. This talent has led to him constantly making more plays in run defense than other DTs, and earning extremely high grades from us as the table below shows.
|Year||Run Stop %||Rank||Run Grade||Rank|
Posting even more impressive numbers than Aubrayo Franklin, ‘Bo’ has firmly established himself as one of the most dominant run defenders in the NFL. Where he also has the upper hand on Franklin is how the Jets use him. While the 49ers limited their NT to just 12 snaps in nickel formations, making it easy for teams to take him out of the game, the Jets exotic defense ensures that teams going to three receiver sets are still likely to face Pouha. This led to the Jets third round pick out of the 2005 draft playing 225 of his snaps while the Jets were in a form of sub-package defense. Part of this comes down to him being a better pass rusher (finishing 35th in our PRP ratings for 2011 out of 73 qualifying candidates), but more than anything this comes down to how the defense is built with a need for a player like Pouha. Therein lies the difference in his value compared to Franklin’s.
Take the 49ers defense. They could quite easily switch to nickel and still get plays up the middle, because players like Justin Smith and Ray McDonald could play the run and pass in nickel situations. It didn’t hurt to have Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes behind them, players who can shed blocks to make plays. The Jets have a different defense which involves a heavier rotation and players like David Harris who flow to the ball far better than they engage blockers. Sure they have Bart Scott, but he’s a player who could both be on the outs (increasing the need to re-sign Pouha) and is more adept at putting others in a position to make plays. The Jets’ run D is built on funneling runners and it needs players like Pouha to make this possible. He is almost essential to how they play, and that’s why the Jets are making a far bigger effort to re-sign him than the 49ers did when faced with possibly losing their own zero-technique.
History says that a 33-year-old NT who plays 60% of snaps won’t get a big deal, but the Jets can’t afford to lose a versatile and talented player like Pouha so he’ll find at least one team prepared to do right by him. Looking at situations throughout the league there’s no reason to believe teams like the Colts (rumored to be using a hybrid defense) wouldn’t make a serious run at the soon to be free agent, being the kind of two-gap DT who could make all around him better. There may be similarities with the plight of Aubrayo Franklin, but the added versatility and production, mean we could see two different scenarios play out.
The Enigma – Paul Soliai
Riding high after an excellent 2010 season, things seemed to go downhill for Paul Soliai once the Miami Dolphins designated him with the club’s franchise tag. We can only speculate as to why, but a move that may have been made to force the NT into signing a long-term deal seemed to push Miami away from a player who was something of a wrecking ball in 2010. Was this Miami moving on from a player it didn’t feel would be a long term contributor, or them responding to a lesser year from Soliai? Either way we saw fewer snaps and thus less impact plays from a guy whose star was suppose to be on the rise.
|Year||Run Stop %||Rank||Run Grade||Rank|
The table above is a real indication of the problems in valuing Soliai. He is clearly capable with a tremendous upside as his 2010 shows. Even his 2009 demonstrates how much of a playmaking prospect he can be at tackle with the fourth highest percentage of defensive stops in the run games from all DTs. But his streaky play has to be a concern for any team considering making him a centerpiece of their defense after a merely decent 2011. That said how much of that was down to Soliai and how much of that was down to the Dolphins?
Mike Nolan’s defense was intriguing in that it featured specific defenses on first, second, and third down depending on what package the offense was in. This is where the big change came for Soliai who saw far fewer snaps in 2011 in the Dolphins’ second down nickel package as the return of Jared Odrick hastened the Dolphins’ moving on process as the table below shows.
|Year||Total Snaps||1st Down||2nd Down||3rd Down||Base||Nickel/ Dime||Other|
So while Soliai was not nearly as impressive on the field in 2011 it would be unfair to lay the blame solely on him as the Dolphins severely cut down on his opportunities in their second down 4-2-5 sub package. It’s hard to understand why this happened for Soliai who excelled in the role and had previously looked more than just a one-dimensional run-stuffer in 2010, as the table below shows …
Not elite numbers with his pass rushing, but enough to suggest he’s not the single-facet player that Aubrayo Franklin was seen as. Factor in his age (just 28) and that he has plenty of tread left on his tires, and Soliai has plenty to offer to teams using both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes (he wasn’t just limited to lining up on the nose).
The Penetrator – Antonio Garay
For years nose tackles were thought to be the big, plodding Casey Hampton type. They’d eat up blocks and prevent teams from running up either ‘A gap’. However, in recent years we’ve seen teams look for more impact plays from the spot, and for guys that can play in any situation. The constant success of Jay Ratliff in the Dallas defense and the excellence of Shaun Rogers in his debut season in Cleveland saw teams prepared to give guys who can get up field a chance as the centerpiece on a three-man defensive line. One of these guys to thrive in this role was Antonio Garay who came out of nowhere in 2010 to put forth a quite remarkable season.
What makes Garay different is that unlike both Pouha and Soliai who can take on double teams and play two gaps, Garay is very much an explosive, penetrating lineman who is at his best attacking one gap and getting up field. He’s not as strong as a player like Brodrick Bunkley, but has a quicker first step that means he’s more of a nuisance to quarterbacks. You only have to see how he has performed amongst defensive tackles in our pass rushing productivity study to see this.
Top of the charts in 2010, it was only situational rusher Parnell McPhee that bested him in 2011 as Garay maintained his high level of productivity even though he found himself doing the majority of his rushing from the Chargers base defensive package. Given his low profile and how good he is at rushing the passer you’d think Garay would be all about the pass rush. However, it’s quite the opposite with the Charger also excelling when it comes to impacting the run game as the table below shows.
|Year||Run Snaps||Run Stops||Stop %||Rank|
That kind of production, in both phases of the game, is astounding, so why is it that teams should be concerned by Garay? Well for one, this year the Chargers asked more of him and he seemed burdened by the increased expectations. The extra attentions defenses paid to him didn’t help either and he dropped from 2nd in our DT rankings to 31st. Then you have his age which, at 33, may put some teams off. For players whose game isn’t so much about getting up the field that need not be a worry, but with a player whose game needs this it has to be something of a concern? But that’s speculative and Garay’s play hasn’t dropped off a cliff yet so why would it start now? A capable one gap defensive tackle can play in a variety of schemes, and Garay is plenty capable with very little wear on his tires.
A Different Ball Game
In a different era, Aubrayo Franklin may have been the most sought after free agent. Nowadays, his lack of versatility and the rule changes that have made the game more pass-friendly mean we’re in the kind of NFL where teams would rather pass on, than pay pure zero-technique tackles on the wrong side of 30. Still, the crop of guys about to hit the market and their agents will have learned from the fall of Franklin in August last year as team after team passed him by. They stand to possibly lower their demands and accentuate how they can’t be as pigeon-holed as the former 49ers defensive linemen was. Maybe, just maybe, this will see all three get the kind of deals that Franklin missed out on.