Why Jonathan Allen should be a top-five pick in the draft
Few defensive players even hear their name mentioned in the Heisman Trophy conversation, as it takes an elite effort in all phases to garner that kind of attention. That’s just what Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen accomplished as a senior, dominating as a pass-rusher, playing strong run defense, and putting the icing on the cake with a number of splash plays that at least put him in the conversation.
Ultimately, Allen did not get the invite to New York, though we certainly made our case, and he had to settle for merely being PFF College’s Defensive Player of the Year. Of course, outstanding play in college does not always make for a great NFL prospect, but the same skills Allen used to lead Alabama’s defense should translate nicely on Sundays. Here’s a look at Allen’s career path and where he’ll contribute at the next level.
From rotational player to superstar
Alabama is loaded defensively, so it’s not a knock to be a rotational player on the Crimson Tide depth chart. Allen was certainly not hurting for playing time in 2014 and 2015 as he combined to play 903 snaps, but he took on much more of a full-time role in 2016 with 746 snaps, 73.8 percent of Alabama’s total.
Those 2014 and 2015 seasons were a strong foreshadowing for what was going to happen this past season. Those 903 snaps from 2014 and 2015 were outstanding, as Allen picked up 20 sacks, 14 QB hits and 43 hurries on his 580 rushes, dominant numbers for essentially a season and a quarter of pass rushes. While he spent most of his time rushing the passer, Allen was also strong in the running game, and his continued development in that area was one of the bigger questions he had to answer heading into 2016 – a test he passed with flying colors. Our three years of grading show strong year-to-year improvement from Allen.
Pressuring the quarterback
The area of Allen’s game that had him in the first-round mix coming into the 2016 and vaulted him into a potential top-five pick is his ability to affect the quarterback. While he’s an interior defensive lineman by name, Allen spent a lot of time on the edge where he also had success rushing the passer. Of his 67 total pressures on the season, Allen picked up 13 of them when lined up outside the left tackle (REO, 9-technique) including six of his 13 sacks. That versatility makes Allen even more intriguing at the next level has he’s shown the ability to win against offensive tackles, and more NFL teams are putting their power rushers on the edge in order to compress the pocket rather than finding guys who simply win with speed.
While Allen can do some damage on the edge, he’ll still make his money on the interior where his strength and technique will allow him to take advantage of opposing guards and centers. He works better when engaging and using a variety of pass-rush moves, rather than just shooting gaps, but he’s still capable of using his quickness off the ball to cause disruption. Allen rushed from a “3-technique” position (outside shoulder of the guard) on 205 of his 464 rushes and he managed to pressure the quarterback at a high rate (17.6 percent of his snaps). While that may have been his most-used alignment, Allen’s breakdown shows that he’s capable of getting to the quarterback from all angles.
Stopping the run
It’s no secret that Alabama not only finds the most talented players in the country, particularly up front along the defensive line, but they’re also extremely well-versed in their technique when playing the run. It’s a rare sight to see an Alabama defensive lineman playing with poor gap discipline or hand usage, and for that reason, Allen lost snaps to other star players like Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson in recent years, both second-round picks in 2016. Both Reed and Robinson were rarely caught out of position in the run game and they saw the majority of the snaps on early downs in 2015, leaving Allen to slide in as more of a subpackage pass-rusher.
Despite playing the run well when given the opportunity, Allen still had questions to answer as far as his early-down value and matching the production left from the two high draft picks. It was clear early on that Allen was up to the task and he finished with an 86.5 grade against the run in 2016 while nearly doubling his snaps in that area (143 snaps against the run in 2015, 282 snaps in 2016). He did a fine job of not only disrupting plays by engaging and jacking up blockers, but he also finished plays as evidenced by his 11.5 run-stop percentage that ranked 11th in the nation among all interior defensive linemen.
Much like he is as a pass-rusher, Allen does his best work when using his strength to explode into blockers and his strong, quick hands to shed them. If there is a weakness, there are times in which he won’t win on initial contact and offensive linemen will have their way with him at the point of attack, perhaps a concern for Allen’s prospects at the next level against top-notch guards. Similar to his strengths and weaknesses as a pass-rusher, Allen is not as effective at shooting gaps and he can get taken out of his gap in those situations. Ultimately, Allen can be effective enough to win on the interior in the run game, but he’s likely better served to play some snaps further away from the ball, particularly if he plays as a 6-technique (head up over the tight end) where he can take advantage of NFL tight ends in the run game.
Allen’s rise from first-round player to potential top-five pick was one of the stories of the college football season in 2016. Not only because of draft stock, but because Allen was the best player on the nation’s best defense that rolled through nearly every opponent. At the next level, Allen is capable of playing from multiple alignments, with his cleanest role being on the edge on early downs and on the interior in pass-rushing situations. He’ll add a movable piece to the defense as his strength and technique allow him to hold his own against bigger guards in the running game and he has the power to press the pocket from the edge as a pass-rusher. Allen’s three-year production was outstanding, and it was no accident that he’s continued to improve his game every year. Expect Allen to contribute immediately as a potential three-down player with multiple roles along the defensive line.