Position Progression: Defensive Interior
As we fast approach the new season it’s time to turn our attention to the newest members of each NFL teams – their rookies. Everybody expects their new stars to step in and make an impact right away, but the fact is that rarely happens.
We have looked at every draft pick of the PFF era and analyzed their expected progression based on both snaps and grade and the bottom line is you are doing well if your rookie plays at an above average level in his first season in the league. There isn’t a single position that projects first-year players to perform better than the league average and some positions project them to play far below it. Though the NFL has become all about immediate results, despite notable exceptions the draft still remains about acquiring talent for the future, not necessarily the present.
Interior defensive linemen represent a position group that has produced it’s share of studs in recent years, but has also a collection of players that have failed to live up to high expectations. For years there has been a high bust rate among defensive tackles, and these interior players seem to be more difficult for personnel people to accurately project than most other spots.
There are players all over the curve when it comes to defensive interior prospects. For every massive success story there are at least two complete busts or guys who never came close to realizing their potential. The bottom line, though, is that most early-round guys shake out to being average NFL players.
First round interior players do outperform their lower-round counterparts, but it is not by much, and even first-rounders shake out to an average grade of almost exactly zero (PFF’s league-average mark). What first-round guys get that lower round players do not is the opportunity to play – averaging more than 150 snaps a season more than any other round throughout their career progression.
Perhaps because even the disappointing players often still contribute as solid role players, teams continue to give them extended playing time, often hoping in vain to finally see them breakout with the kind of dominance they were expected to bring to the league. As with most positions, Year 3 is the peak for defensive interior players with first-rounders averaging a +3.4 grade and carrying that over to Year 4, which also remains above average.
Best Case Scenario
There are a few standout players over recent years but one is clearly head and shoulders above any other: J.J. Watt. Comparing his line on the graph to anybody else’s displays the difference between even elite players and the kind of generational talent that Watt is. PFF has never been able to go back and run some of the game’s all-time greats through our grading system, but I have little doubt that we are witnessing one of the best to ever play right now.
His grading numbers have spiked literally off the charts (we had to extend the Y-axis to accommodate his progression line) and since entering the league he has amassed a +212.8 grade… a mere 210.9 grading points better than the average progression.
Watt was able to be productive right off the bat, performing well above average as a rookie and then lighting it up from that point on, dominating like nobody the PFF Era has seen before.
Worst Case Scenario
For every J.J. Watt there are a couple of painful first-round players who never come close to living up to their potential. Perhaps the best example of that in this study is Ziggy Hood, who not only disappointed every season of starting in Pittsburgh but somehow managed to continue to hold down a starting role despite the tape he laid down.
Hood has collected a -85.2 grade from his time in the league, notching 3,180 snaps in the process before finally being let go in free agency by the Steelers. He has since been signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars who hope to prove that his disappointing pro career has been little more than being miscast in an ill-suited defensive scheme in Pittsburgh. In college Hood was a standout three-technique defensive tackle at Mizzou, but the Steelers drafted him to play in their 3-4.
Maybe they’re right, but given his play in sub-packages for the Steelers I’ll believe it when I see it. Tyson Alualu, Hood’s new teammate in Jacksonville could also easily have been the worst case scenario poster-boy, coming close to matching the total negative grade and actually putting up a poorer average per season.
The Path Most Trodden
While everybody is looking for a J.J Watt when they take a dominant college defensive interior player, we’re all realistic enough to know that’s not going to happen. The reality is for this position the guy you get most often is going to be seen ultimately as a disappointment, or a player who failed to live up to the high expectations of dominance that he brought into the league with him. Despite those failings, the average player at the position is also a solid contributor, lasting in the league and remaining a valuable part of a rotation.
Alan Branch is the most obvious example of this kind of player. Coming out of Michigan, Branch was supposed to dominate given his physical skills, but it never quite happened. His average performance has hovered around zero, but he has had high points in his career (a +12.9 grade in his fifth season). Though Branch struggled to get on the field his first couple of seasons he has now averaged 457 snaps per year despite never dominating the way he was expected to.
See the progression at other positions:
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