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 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