Live Big or Die Ugly . . . The Sequel That Will Not Die!
2012 Big Ugly Series - Interior DL Review
Submitted by Long Ball, DOF
April 6, 2012
"Long Ball" heads up Drafttek's scouting crew . His personal specialization are the "Big Uglies", Linemen on both the Offensive and Defensive side of the line of scrimmage.
Defensive Line Review (3-4 Defensive Ends)
Interior Defensive Line Review (Defensive Tackles)
Go to Right Offensive Tackle Review
Go to Left Offensive Tackle Review
Go to Interior Offensive Line Review
Interior defensive linemen . . . fancy multiple syllable words to describe the Big Uglies who want to take the head off of every offensive player they see. When analyzing prospects on the defensive side of the ball, we have to consider the positional requirements of the 4-3 versus the 3-4 alignments. Would you believe both alignments evolved from the old 5-2 "Monster" scheme? How about a brief history lesson before looking at the prospects?
The 3-4 defensive alignment evolved from the old 5-2 "Monster" scheme. The nose tackle in the 3-4 was called a nose guard in the 5-2, defensive ends in the 3-4 were called defensive tackles in the 5-2, and the outside linebackers in the 3-4 were stand-up defensive ends in the 5-2, responsible for rushing the passer and covering the flats.
Tom Landry, while defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, pulled Sam Huff from his nose guard position and made him stand on two legs as the traditional 4-3 middle linebacker. He then split the linebackers that were already playing the position to weak side and strong side, moved the defensive tackles in over the offensive guards and had the defensive ends put their hands on the ground and line up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles-thus, the origin of the 4-3 defensive alignment.
Why is this history lesson important? Well, truth be known, from a responsibilities perspective, the defensive ends in a 3-4 alignment have much more in common with defensive tackles in the 4-3 - as they were named in the 5-2. Defensive ends in a 4-3 alignment normally line up on the offensive tackle's outside shoulder. Defensive ends in a 3-4 alignment line head up on the offensive tackle and are responsible for two gaps: between the guard and tackle and outside the tackle (between the tackle and tight end, if one is present). 3-4 defensive ends are normally larger and stronger than their 4-3 counterparts, as the "speed" pass rush comes from the outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme.
There are variations of defensive lineman responsibilities in both alignments; however, the two categorizations that are easiest to understand are the "read, react and control" that allow the linebackers to flow to the play, and the more aggressive "gap penetration" role that attempts to disrupt the offensive play by shooting the gaps. A common misconception is that tackles only have one-gap responsibility in the gap penetration role-rest assured that tackles have two-gap responsibilities in both schemes.
Most nose tackles are huge men with a low center of gravity, making it difficult for offensive lineman to move them; however, this has more to do with utilizing leverage than just absolute size. It is easier to play the position if the weight distribution is from the waist down-but the ability to stay low and maintain balance is paramount to success. These attributes are also important to the strong side defensive tackle in the 4-3, whereas the "3" technique defensive tackles require quickness to shoot the gap, generate a pass rush and generally disrupt the flow of the offensive play.
This year's class has quality and depth at 4-3 DT, less of both at 3-4 DE, but is just plain weak at the NT position-and with the number of teams running this alignment, there will be a propensity to "reach" at that very important position.
---- 4-3 Defensive Tackles ----
The top ranked DT is Fletcher Cox of Mississippi State. At 6'4" and 298 lbs, he can also play DE in a 3-4 alignment (the 3rd year junior played both for the Bulldogs, attaining All-SEC honors while recording 56 tackles and 5 sacks in 2011) . . . let's take a look at his Combine results. At Indianapolis, Cox ran a 4.79 forty (1.63 ten yard split, unbelievable!), 4.53 shuttle, 7.07 3-cone, 26" vertical, 8'07" broad jump and 30 bench reps: this gives him an explosion factor of 65 and his speed/quickness factor will allow him to pursue and control the flanks.
Fletcher's pass rush starts with outstanding quickness off the snap. He penetrates the gap, angling his body to get skinny and slide past interior linemen when lining up as a defensive tackle. Cox's speed allows him to challenge the shoulders of offensive tackles when lining up as a defensive end. He needs to work on his swim move technique and flexibility to turn the corner, which will improve his outside pass rush potential. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Fletcher's bull rush, as he generates power on his initial hit to knock opponents back on their heels. His lateral agility allows him to run around offensive lineman and collapse the pocket.
Against the run, Cox exhibits good size and power, although he can struggle with leverage. One off-season of NFL weight training will build up his lower body and correct this deficiency . . . Fletcher is still growing and has the frame to carry another 10-15 lbs. He has quick hands and utilizes them well to disengage from blockers . . . as he slides off of blocks, he latches onto ballcarriers as they attempt to run by. Cox is alert in his recognition of trap blocks and possesses enough quickness to beat his opponent to the spot. He is a high effort player who locates the football, pursues laterally (and downfield), and has sound tackling technique wrapping up well.
If you haven't figure it out by now, Old Long Ball likes this Bulldog . . . he's a naturally large young man with plenty of room for additional growth and appears to be just scratching the surface of his physical potential (even though he has three years of starting experience in the SEC). His adaptability to play either front makes him good value in the 1st round.
Michael Brockers (6'5", 322 lbs), the Super-Soph from LSU, has that dreaded "P" word all over him (Potential). He's big but young without a whole lot of experience; however, he's another prospect that can play DT in a 4-3 or DE in a 3-4. Michael did not set the world on fire at the NFL Combine, recording a 5.36 forty (1.77 ten yard split), 4.81 shuttle, 7.46 3-cone, 26.5" vertical, 8'09" broad jump and only 19 bench reps: this gives him an explosion factor of 54. "I didn't do too well there." Brockers said "Nerves got to me a little bit. It was a new environment." Although he did improve somewhat at the LSU Pro Day, maturity has to be a concern for this young man.
In 2011, Brockers was awarded Second-Team All-Southeastern Conference. He started all 13 games at left defensive tackle, recording 54 tackles and was third on the team with 9.5 tackles for a loss. He came to play when the lights were brightest, setting a career high with six total tackles (all solo) in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia and added two TFLs, one forced fumble and one pass breakup. In the National Championship game against Alabama, he totaled seven tackles and blocked a kick.
Now before you think I'm getting down on this kid (I do have him ranked #2, after all) in grading his film, Michael does has very good burst out of his stance, and most of the time he was fighting through a double-team or chip. He was rarely taken on by one man, even when facing All-Conference center Ben Jones. Georgia used their guard and center to combo-block him on every passing down. Brockers does need to develop a good second move and will get stood up at first contact when he comes in too high.
As a run defender, Brockers is strong at the point of attack, using his 35" arms to keep blockers from getting into his body and pursues well. He needs to be "coached up" on his technique in using his hands to disengage blockers. His closing speed is good and I like his tackling form and technique in bringing down running backs . . . Michael doesn't go for a kill shot, instead aiming low and hitting the back squarely in the bread-basket.
The NFL team that drafts this young man will have to be patient, coach him up and allow him time to develop; unfortunately, Brockers' potential will probably result in a 1st round selection . . . and the old expression about "Patience is a virtue" does not apply to 1st round draft picks!
The big Nittany Lion Devon Still (6'5", 303 lbs) roared at the Combine that he was the best DT in this year's draft class . . . I don't know about you, but I'm not going to debate him! Confidence aside, Still did nothing to diminish his stock in the eyes of NFL scouts and coaches at the Combine, participating in some of the events despite recovering from a turf toe injury in the TicketCity Bowl, running a 5.08 forty, 29.5" vertical and 26 bench reps.
One of the things I like best about Still's pass rush is if the OL does not punch him right off the bat and starts back-pedaling, he comes in hard and fast and knocks them off-balance. His swim maneuver is pretty good, could use some work, as he puts pressure on QB's but does not get there to complete the sack often enough . . . part of that is due to double-team blocks, which he is effective at taking up 2 blockers and makes them work all the way through the whistle. Two things work against him that need improvement: 1) anticipating the snap count and 2) conditioning, as fatigue can become an issue late in games.
Devon is most productive against the run when slanting into the action . . . now, don't get me wrong, he is strong at the point when establishing leverage and keeping his pads low, but his height produces a constant battle to prevent OL from getting under his pads. Just as in pass-rushing, he is strong fighting through double-teams, and is still able to find the running back amidst traffic. Still's arms are long and his hands are strong and active, but he could do a better job of defeating cut blocks with his hands.
Still could probably play DE in a 3-4, but his talents lend themselves to inside on a 4-man line. He comes from good stock, as his cousin Art Still played for the Kansas City Chiefs, and another cousin, Levon Kirkland, was a standout linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I'm going to devote a whole lot of space to Dontari Poe in the section on 3-4 nose tackles, but yes he could play DT in a 4-man line as well . . . but let's move on to the great state of Connecticut, where Kendall Reyes (6'4", 299 lbs) has been terrorizing offenses in the Big East. He played end and tackle for UConn in 2010, which helped NFL teams using 3-4 or 4-3 schemes to easily envision him as a five or three-technique. At Indianapolis, he ran a 4.95 forty, 4.53 shuttle, 7.43 3-cone, 34.5" vertical, 9'05" broad jump and 36 bench reps (from 33-1/4" arms!): this gives him an explosion factor of 80 and his speed/quickness and agility factor will allow him to pursue and control the flanks. This ability to maintain his agility despite adding weight will make him productive at the next level.
Even though Reyes does not get a lot of sacks, the interior pressure from his pass rush allows his teammates to make quarterbacks pay for holding onto the ball for too long. His strength and ability to utilize leverage is evident, as he is able to bull rush his man into the backfield and also split double teams. Kendall has been well-coached, as he gets his large hands up to block passes if unable to beat his man, and he is alert to pick up on screen plays, following the quarterback on moving pockets.
In playing the run, Reyes displays the strength to stack and shed blockers, combined with the agility to laterally pursue running backs in either direction from inside. He is also quick off the snap and shows good gap penetration when slanting from the 3-technique. His strong hands and agility allows him to avoid cut blocks, and his focus is intense as his eyes are always in the backfield. Kendall may be one of the best prospects at utilizing leverage, as he gets low quickly to get under offense linemen in short-yardage situations; however, he needs to continue to work on his lower body to maintain that low position.
Old Long Ball loves Reyes tackling technique . . . uses his length well and wraps up the ball carrier. Intangibles are off-the-chart for the two-time team captain: teammates rave about his work ethic and durability. No known character issues or off-field incidents, so some team is going to get a dandy!
The enigma known as Jerel Worthy (6'2", 308 lbs) is leaving Spartan-dom early . . . we can debate as to how wise his decision may or may not be, but it is made and he has declared for the NFL Draft. In my book, he will strictly be a 3-technique DT in a 4-3 alignment . . . Jerel flashed disruptive tendencies over the past two seasons, but needs to take his game up another notch before I will consider him an elite prospect. It may simply be a lack of stamina, but he appears to play when he wants to and has a lot of technique work ahead of him, particularly in using his hands to disengage from blockers. At Indianapolis, Worth ran a 5.08 forty, 4.56 shuttle, 7.60 3-cone, 28.5" vertical, 8'11" broad jump, but did not bench press until the Michigan State Pro Day (due to a wrist injury) where he recorded 28 reps: this gives him an explosion factor of 66.
Worthy's best pass rush move is the swim when lined up at an angle, shooting the gap . . . sometimes he lines up as much as a half-yard off the line to give himself room to make his move. He does not split double-teams on a regular basis or exhibit a great bull rush, often giving up after initial contact (which concerns me and will concern NFL DL coaches).
Worthy definitely has power and quick feet to handle one or two-gap run defense responsibilities in the box with a good anchor, and will bring down backs straight up the middle; however, he does not put out the effort to regularly chase plays downfield or towards the sideline. He can spin off blocks but doesn't exhibit change of direction to reach quicker backs going through the hole once he's left it. Jerel can be explosive off the snap and packs a strong initial punch, but then quits and can be blocked when he's upright . . . and when he stays low on gap penetration, it appears he forgets to find the ball.
I think he's a smart young man and studies opponents . . . case in point, he will point out potential hot receivers and run plays to teammates before the snap, which I don't see many interior linemen doing. Stamina/conditioning and technique improvement will be paramount to his success at the next level.
Alameda Ta'amu of Washington, although a fine 4-3 DT, will be discussed with other nose tackles . . . so let's go down Clemson way and talk about Brandon Thompson (6'2", 314 lbs). At the Combine, Thompson did not run the forty, but at his Pro Day posted a 4.9, and his other results at Indy were a 4.71 shuttle, 7.97 3-cone, 31" vertical, 8'04" broad jump, and 35 bench reps: this gives him an explosion factor of 74. His results with the weights were not surprising, as Brandon has been a weight-room fanatic since high school: 450-pound single bench press, 36 reps with 225 pounds, 615-pound squat lift and 370-pound power clean. He did not experience as much success his senior year as his junior season, but it must be noted that he lost 2 key DL teammates: Da'Quan Bowers and Jarvis Jenkins.
In pass rushing, Thompson explodes off the line with tremendous burst and uses his strong hands to gain an advantage. This helps him as a bull rusher, but unless he is angling through gaps in a 3-technique, he is not really a pass-rush threat. By now, everyone is aware that Old Long Ball likes to study the Big Uglies' back-ends (lower body to maintain leverage) . . . well, Brandon is nicknamed "Yams" in recognition of the huge thighs ('nuff said about that)! However, he is a bit limited in technique due to his short arms.
Thompson does a good job of penetrating gaps, often forcing running backs to take a different hole before they reach the line of scrimmage. He's inconsistent in his ability to separate from blocks due to his short arms, but sets a good anchor to hold up at the point of attack. Brandon has quick feet, good balance and gives good effort in pursuing laterally. His tackling technique is solid, and more often than not utilizes the "chest to chest bear hug" tackle in the hole.
My main concern about Brandon is although he may be "NFL ready" right now, he is already reached his peak from maximizing his physical ability and may have marginal upside.
Whew! I'm winded . . . and we still have some nose tackles to talk about. Fear not, I'm going to talk about Kheeston Randall of Texas during the DE34 segment, and I really like Jaye Howard out of Florida . . . but we're getting on down into 4th round territory and I need to pull a "dark horse" or two out of my backside. There are also a number of small, quick 3-technique DT's in this year's draft that have high motors and give it all, traits I find appealing: Mike Martin (6'1", 306 lbs) of Michigan, Marcus Forston (6'1", 301 lbs) of Miami (FL), Mike Daniels (6'0", 291 lbs) of Iowa and Brett Roy (6'3", 275 lbs) of Nevada. Depending on the NFL team that drafts them and the scheme they utilize, these young men will be good pros. Tell ya what let's do . . . let's discuss "dark horses" at the end for both DT positions!
---- Nose Tackles ----
Ah, nose tackles . . . the key position for any 3-4 alignment! I'll warn you right up front that this is not a talented nor deep class . . . as bad as my old eyes are getting to be, I can find warts on practically all of 'em. Now before you go scolding me, I didn't say they couldn't play . . . but it's going to take some "coaching up" to get these young men ready to perform at a very difficult position.
This year's #1 prospect has question marks: 1) Can he play to his potential in the NFL . . . and if so, why did he not dominate in Conference USA? And 2) After his Combine performance, is he human . . . and if he is human, is he just a Workout Warrior? Yep, you guessed it . . . we're talking about none other than the Pride of Memphis, Dontari Poe (6'4", 346 lbs). Fellas, ya just can't coach size . . . and those size numbers are what NFL teams will be looking at, as Poe's production was just OK: 33 tackles, 8 for losses and 1 sack. However, he was facing constant double-teaming from Conference USA opposition (sounds like with every compliment, I add an insult), but the fact of the matter is he is an NFL talent playing on a Memphis team who, frankly, lacks NFL talent. But whether it is as a nose tackle in a 3-4 alignment or an imposing DT in a 4-3, teams will be interested in Dontari Poe's size and strength up front. Teams are often leery about selecting non-BCS conference players who don't overly destroy their competition, which could cause Poe's stock to drop some. But he definitely answered a number of issues at the Combine . . . for those of you who were under a rock, he ran a 4.98 forty (1.70 ten yard split, unbelievable!), 4.56 shuttle, 7.90 3-cone, 29.5" vertical, 8'09" broad jump and 44 bench reps: this gives him an explosion factor of 82 . . . and did I tell ya he's BIG???
Good strength through his lower body, would be an over (2-gap) 4-3 DT and has the size to be a 3-4 nose. Explodes out of stance, especially early in games, generates his power from his hips and has a better motor than one would expect out of a 350 pound prospect. Unusual change of direction ability for his size, penetrates at will against single blockers. Dontari is surprisingly light on his feet, diagnoses plays quickly, breaks down well and is a very good tackler . . . if he gets a piece of the ball-carrier, he is going down. Was elected Team Captain, so intangibles are there.
Not an ideal nose tackle despite his size, plays with pad level entirely too high (which also hurts his pass-rush moves) and as a result, ends up on skates at times. Poe doesn't disengage quickly against double teams, and is not a dynamic pass-rusher at this point due to limited moves (needs to add to his rip and swim moves). I'm reminded of the definition of the word "potential" . . . means you ain't done it yet!
Hebron Fangupo (6'1", 323 lbs) spent two years on a religious mission in the Philippines after high school before enrolling at Mt. San Antonio Community College (CA) when he returned to the U.S. He was considered one of the top JUCO recruits and chose USC over Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon. Hebron decided to transfer to BYU for his senior season in 2011 after someone broke into his Los Angeles apartment when his wife was home alone. He started 10 games, playing end and tackle and finishing with 26 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss and two pass break-ups.
Fangupo is physically imposing with natural instincts and a good head on his shoulders, but has limited range and is more of a run stuffer. At the Combine, he ran a 5.18 forty (1.70 ten yard split, unbelievable!), 4.62 shuttle, 7.94 3-cone, 31.5" vertical, 8'03" broad jump and 36 bench reps: this gives him an explosion factor of 76.
Hebron is the classic definition of a "fireplug", with a girthy, wide-body size combined with a strong upper and lower body. He is "strong like bull" with the raw power to overwhelm blockers at the point of attack. Sets an anchor that Popeye the Sailor couldn't pull up with an oversized can of spinach, right off the snap, and holds his ground against the run game. Due to the coordination in his lower body, Fangupo can stay balanced on his feet through contact. He displays very good awareness and uses his eyes to quickly locate and either locate the running back or elevate his hands to knock down passes at the line of scrimmage.
Hebron has to watch his weight as it has fluctuated over the years; however, an NFL weight training and dietary counseling will resolve that issue. He has some technique issues to clean up and maintain his leverage instead of trying to out-muscle his opponents. Fangupo is older, mature and a high character guy both on the field (evidenced by his work ethic and positive attitude) as well as off it. BYU utilizes a 3-4 alignment and he has played the nose, as well as end on occasion.
Washington's Alameda Ta'amu (6'3", 348 lbs) is no Shrinking Violet in his own rank. A massive man, he is tough to move and can surprise his opponents with his athleticism. Alameda is raw as a pass rusher and doesn't have the foot speed to chase down ball-carriers. His ability to clog running lanes, however, could make him highly coveted at nose tackle . . . if he can stay low and maintain leverage. At the Combine, he ran a 5.37 forty, 26" vertical, 8'07" broad jump and 35 bench reps: this gives him an explosion factor of 70.
I'm kinda proud of Ta'amu . . . all he had as a junior was a bull rush, but he worked hard on his swim move and displayed it during his senior season. Now, he's never going to be mistaken for an elite pass-rusher, but he's damned quick off the snap and will surprise (translation: bowl over) offensive linemen and collapse the pocket. He does give good effort in chasing the QB, but tires quickly and needs to work on his conditioning and stamina.
But against the run, this stout young man relies on his short, thick legs (I'd call 'em ham hocks, but some of you young 'uns might not know what I was talking about!) to anchor . . . and even a double-team has a helluva time keeping him from clogging up running lanes. Now, Alameda does not pursue laterally real well, but puts out the effort. The main thing he needs to work on is maintaining a low position and leverage, as he will get too high, thinking he can overpower everybody with his upper body strength. And as long as I'm on this "improvement kick", Ta'amu could stand to work on his tackling technique instead of trying to bludgeon everyone in his path.
OK, Dark Horse Time: my first candidate transferred from LSU to north of the border. Regina, which also is the capital of Saskatchewan, is a beautiful city (I spent an Easter holiday up there and was impressed with how clean the city was and how wonderful their water tasted!) Akiem Hicks (6'5", 318 lbs) is a prospect at both DT43 and DE34 . . . very athletic for his size.
I'm going to throw out 4 names of nose tackle prospects to listen for later in the draft (although with the number of teams switching to the 3-4 alignment, it may be earlier than I anticipate): Ishmaa'ily Kitchen (6'3", 334) of Kent State, Chigbo Anunoby (6'4", 324 lbs) of Morehouse College, Damon Harrison (6'2", 340) of William Penn and Charles Deas (6'3", 316) of Shaw College.
Well Professor Long Ball, how did your "dark horses" from last year perform? Pretty well, actually . . . Chris Neild of West Virginia was drafted by the Redskins in the 7th round, backed up Barry Cofield at NT and saw action in all 16 games, recording 10 tackles and 2 sacks, and Cedric Thornton of Southern Arkansas made the Eagles roster.
OK folks, on our next segment we'll move out and take a look at defensive end prospects for both alignments . . . and we may even take a peek at the 4-3 DE's that we think can stand, play and think on 2 feet as OLB in the 3-4.