Top prospect fits for every defensive tackle position

Mike Renner breaks down the various roles of defensive tackles, along with a which top 2016 prospects can fill each one.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)

(AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)

Top prospect fits for every defensive tackle position

As you’ve probably heard by now, the defensive tackle position is the deepest of any position in the entire draft this year. If a team needs help on the interior, however, plugging in a top prospect will not necessarily result in success.

There are many different positions that fall under the umbrella term of “defensive tackle” and a lot of talent in this class could be wasted if a player is slotted into an ill-fitting role.

Below is a chart that breaks down all the different defensive alignments:


The 4-5 techniques are usually associated with 3-4 defensive ends. 3-techniques are usually the smaller tackles in a 4-3, while the 1/2i is the larger, more run-focused tackle. The 0 is traditionally a 3-4 nose tackle. However, fronts in the NFL have become so fluid that 3-4 and 4-3 teams will employ almost every different technique, with varying frequency depending on the situation.

For a case study on the importance of alignment inside, look no further than Shariff Floyd’s grade chart this past season:


Floyd has the skills of a 3-technique (which we’ll get to later) and in that role in Minnesota he’s excelled. When Linval Joseph, their 1-technique, went down with an injury and missed Weeks 13, 14, 15, and 17, the Vikings decided to slide Floyd over between the center and guard with no other suitable replacement. As you see, the position change turned a very good defensive tackle into an invisible man for three of those four games.

Sometimes along the defensive line, fit can be just as important as talent. Let’s take a look at the various alignments, along with a few 2016 prospects that fit each role:

The positional/scheme diverse

Positional versatility has value in and of itself in the NFL for exactly the reason outlined in the Minnesota example. Being able to shift your front in reaction to motion or shifts from the opposing offense without worrying about a guy getting exposed is necessary for many defenses. The prototype here is Ndamukong Suh, who as you see below lines up everywhere along the Dolphins front depending and still produces. All those different alignments are from one quarter of their matchup against the Eagles.


1. Sheldon Rankins, Louisville

Best draft fits: NO(12), MIA(13), OAK(14)

His height (6-1) and weight (299 pounds) might scare some 3-4 teams, but there is little doubt in my mind after watching him play head up on tackles last season that Rankins can do it all and did just that at Louisville. If you’re a 4-3 team that plays sides with their defensive tackles or a 3-4 team that gets creative with its fronts, Rankins is your guy. Over the past two seasons, only DeForest Buckner has a higher overall grade on the interior.

2. Chris Jones, Mississippi State

Best draft fits: OAK(14), IND(18), BUF(19)

A freak of nature at 6-6, 310 pounds and with 34.5-inch arms, Jones lined up all over the Mississippi St. front. Of his 609 snaps, most came over the guards, but he took 68 snaps at nose tackle, 73 snaps outside the tackles, and for some reason the Bulldogs rushed Jones 10 times from an off-ball position. Wherever he lined up though, Jones got after the passer, earning the second-highest pass rushing grade of anyone on this list.

3. Adolphus Washington, Ohio State

Best draft fits: MIA(42), HST(52), NE (60)

The players previously mentioned would move around from snap to snap, but Washington basically switched positions between his junior and senior seasons in Columbus. He took a backseat to Michael Bennett in 2014 and played more over the center before kicking out to an attacking role over guards this past season. Washington’s pass rushing took a notable jump with the change too, as he was the third-highest graded interior rusher this past season.

3-4 defensive ends

If you went back five or so years, the 3-4 defensive end had a much more defined role in many schemes. The player would be lined up at 4- or 5-technique and be asked to fire into the tackle and control both the B and C gaps (two-gap) against the run and play the pass as an afterthought. Now 3-4 defensive ends will kick inside against guards routinely, one gap at times, and they’re expected to provide legitimate pass rush as well. Length and height has always been at a premium for this position and no one exemplifies it better at the moment (or ever) than J.J. Watt.


1. DeForest Buckner, Oregon

Best draft fits: SD(3), BLT (6), SF(7)

Buckner is the prototype for what the 3-4 defensive end once was and Oregon is one school that still utilizes players in that role heavily. Ideally he goes to a 3-4 team still, but with his immense physical skills I wouldn’t think twice about handing in my card with his name on it if I’m a 4-3 team in need of an interior force. Buckner was easily the highest overall graded player on this list. He also proved to be an ironman, leading FBS interior players in snaps and playing over 100(!) snaps in two separate games this season.

2. Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech

Best Draft Fits: KC(28), DEN(31), CLV(32)

Butler is an intriguing player as he has nose tackle size and experience, but did some of his best work outside as a 3-4 defensive end. Some teams could see him as scheme diverse, but he plays too high for me to like him moving inside. His length and hand usage is absolutely superb though and if you get him head up over tackles he can separate and make plays against both run and pass. Butler was the highest graded interior lineman outside the power-5 last year.

3. A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama

Best draft fits: SF(37), CHI(41), IND(48)

It’s easy to project Robinson into a 3-4 after seeing him excel in such a scheme at Alabama. The worry is that he may be limited to a base role and provide little pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He graded out right around average as a pass rusher his last season in Tuscaloosa. He has the size, length and strength, but his lack of athleticism means he’ll likely never be a penetrator and is best-suited as a two-gapper in the NFL.

Palazzolo: Robinson may have been limited as a pass rusher in Alabama’s scheme, but even then, he showed little when given a chance to get after the quarterback. He’s a perfect early-down 3-4 defensive end, but perhaps nothing more at the next level.


The 3-technique is the term used to note any player lined on the outside shoulder of a guard. Warren Sapp may be the most famous 3-tech of all time, playing the weakside defensive tackle position in the Bucs famous 4-3 under front. The 3-technique position doesn’t have a size quota, but it does have one for explosiveness. You better be getting into the backfield consistently and creating havoc to play this position in the NFL. Obviously the prototype in the NFL today is PFF’s reigning defensive player of the year Aaron Donald.


1. Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss

Best draft fits: ATL(17), SEA(26), DEN(31)

A definite ‘tweener,’ Nkemdiche might have to kick outside in the NFL to play in a full-time role. The reason being, Nkemdiche was a liability against any sort of double team in the run game. When given the opportunity to shoot a gap though single-blocked, there were few better in college football. When projecting to the next level, you want to see him go to a scheme that gives him that freedom.

2. Jonathan Bullard, Florida

Best draft fits: DAL(34), JAX(38), NO(47)

4-3 teams may also see Bullard as an edge player, but his skill set profiles perfectly to a 3-technique. He’s an explosive player, but rarely did that explosiveness translate to rushing the passer. It did however make him our highest-graded run defender in all of college football. Bullard has the uncanny ability to cross the face of a defender and make a play away from his gap. Whether that will translate eventually against the pass, though, is the ultimate question.

3. Sheldon Day, Notre Dame

Best draft fits: LA(45), NO(47), CIN(55)

If there is any guy on these lists that is likely pigeonholed into a role at the next level, it’s Day. At Notre Dame he was a bowling ball, consistently leveraging guards into the backfield. At his core, Day is a disruptor, but his biggest issue in college was finishing plays. At just a shade over 6-foot and under 300 pounds, it’s concerning that even against college guards he wasn’t able to disengage from blocks. He was our highest-graded defensive tackle, but only managed the 28th-most stops and 54th-most sacks. Most NFL teams view the 3-technique as a playmaker, and those questions about him finishing won’t help his draft stock.

Nose Tackles

Nose tackles is the catch all term for anyone lining up over the center, but there can still be a noticeable difference in required traits between 1-gap and 2-gap nose tackles. The prototypical 1-tech at the moment is someone like Linval Joseph or Marcell Dareus and it’s characterized by power and length to be able to hold centers at bay with one arm and shed back over the top. 0-techs on the other hand can afford to be a little squattier as they need to be able to get underneath centers and get both hands into their chest. The prototype here is someone like Damon Harrison or Brandon Williams.



1. Andrew Billings, Baylor

Best draft fits: NYJ(20), CIN(24), SEA(26)

He has his limitations, but in a specific role Billings has the potential to be a force. His ideal role is basically attacking the center every single snap. Whether it be versus the run or pass, when Billings gets to explode off the snap into the opposing center, he tends to win the rep. Not many teams offer such an opportunity though and when Billings has to play laterally or cross the face of a center the results aren’t nearly as enthusing.

2. Jarran Reed, Alabama

Best draft fits: NYJ(20), PIT(25), GB(27)

A true 0-tech, Reed is the premier two-gapping nose tackle in this class. He uses his hands and leverage extremely well and almost always controlled centers last year when aligned in a head up position. No nose tackle in the class graded out higher against the run and no defensive tackle had a higher run stop percentage than Reed’s 13.4. The only question with Reed is how much pass rush will he provide?

3. Austin Johnson, Penn State

Best draft fits: DAL(34), TB(39), ATL(50)

While Reed is a guy that dominates from a head up position, Johnson is a guy that works best off a slight shade (1-tech). The reason for this is his ability to shed so well back across a the centers face. Johnson has the power to work upfield and the hands to then toss centers aside. His abilities are likely best suited for 1-gap schemes like he thrived in at Penn State, earning the third-highest run defense grade in the country.

4. Kenny Clark, UCLA

Best draft fits: GB(57), SD(66), DAL(67)

What really catches my eye when reviewing his numbers are the defensive tackle’s snap counts. He was in on 1,778 over the past two seasons, including 932 this past season which trailed only DeForest Buckner among interior players in the FBS. That’s a ton for a nose tackle and the fact that he was able to stay productive over them is impressive.

*Javon Hargrave is a potential early round pick as well, but was excluded due to our lack of FCS data

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • Sean Meiners

    good article but Carolina who is in need of depth at DT wasn’t mentioned as a possible team for anyone you reviewed. I see it as a serious need, any names come to mind that might fit?

    • Tim Edell

      Carolina just signed run stopping DT Paul Soliai yesterday.

      • Sean Meiners

        Yes I aware of that, still one DT shy on the roster. Also will face challenges resigning Short after this season and Star the next. Cap space may preclude them from keeping both. Soliai is also 32 which means not the long term. This draft is deep in DTs so I half expect to see one drafted.

        • Drew

          While Norman’s contract negotiations deservedly get the headlines there can be no doubt that every move this off-season so far has been done to keep both Short and Star. Short will be extended before the summer and Star extended during the next. Wouldn’t be shocked to see both a DT and DE will be drafted by Carolina this year though as Charles Johnson will be gone for real after this season.

        • JudoPrince

          Defensive tackle is not a problem this year with Lotulelei and Short as starters, boasting one of the best pair in the entire league. You don’t need to invest in two other dominant DT’s playing behind them, rather players who are capable of spelling them. The priority for Carolina this off season on the line is pass rushing DE. They need to increase their pressure totals from this position. With another pass rushing DE, Charles Johnson can also slide into the middle on occasion.

          The Panthers have plenty of cap space to extend Short to a long term deal before the season starts. If Lotulelei doesn’t sign an extension, (may not be likely) DT can be addressed in the early rounds of the following years draft.

          • Sean Meiners

            My initial question was more curious than anything else. In the article he indicated where prospects might fit. He didn’t mention Carolina. I agree there is a need for a DE very much so. But with the depth of DTs in this year’s draft why not draft one in rounds 2/3/4 etc. Likely not a dominant DT but one that can develop over time. Short didn’t blow the doors off the 1st 2 years he played. Star is very injury prone and at this time Carolina has 3 DTs on the roster. The newest is a 2 down tackle that is very limited in pass rush. Don’t be surprised if Gettleman drafts one.

    • Lane Kyser

      Same for Houston

    • ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©

      Same for Washington, and we need a starter at NT.

  • Bonzi77

    I’ve heard the “3 technique, 4 technique, 5 technique, etc” concept discussed for years and had a vague understanding of what it meant, but this is the best I’ve heard it explained.

    • Êl Jímbõ Físher

      It’s literally the easiest thing to figure out with a Google search. Years is such a long time to be clueless on something so basic.

      • Ripsnorter

        Know-it-all douche.

      • Ripsnorter

        I’m gonna take a wild guess that there are “literally” plenty of things easier to figure out on a google search.
        Like the definition of douchebag, for example.

        • Hank Groberg

          Got ’em

  • Samuel Myers

    I just watched Andrew Billings dominate both as a head-up nose tackle and in more of a 2-tech against Oklahoma, where he consistently beat the man in front of him. I am not going to say that he finished as many plays as he could have, but the disruption, the consistency with which he physically outperformed the man in front of him, and his ability to provide DRAMATIC push in the run and pass game were obvious. I agree that he is at his best inside, but the idea that he needs to be lined up against the center more or less one-on-one to thrive is a little bit crazy to me. For my money, he’s the third-best interior defensive lineman in this draft, and that’s only because Rankins and Buckner are potentially elite, extremely versatile talents.

  • Ramsey Francis

    two-gap 3-4 DEs are rarer than many think.Many have been one-gap in hybrid 3-4s post-’95 True 2gap 3-4 ends really gone since early 90s

  • Alfredo Cota

    Awesome breakdown.

  • WJOinfo

    Good, the Saints can get two stud DL players in this draft……………..

  • DKnight007

    Raiders may look at Rankins, Butler and Bullard. If Nkimdch falls to Round 2…they may consider him