The defensive tackle position is starting to become a specialized position. There were seven players who were labeled as defensive tackles coming out of college who registered double-digit sacks last season. While historically the defensive tackle position is viewed as one that stops the run and clogs the middle, it has evolved into a weapon that teams can utilize that creates havoc up the middle and into the quarterback's pocket.
The defensive tackle group is split into two sections. The first section is the top run stuffers in this year's class. These players are limited in their pass-rushing ability, yet they hold their point of attack and are at the top of the class in terms of shutting down their opponent's interior rushing attack. The second group consists of the top interior pass rushers. These players have shown they can be a consistent force as interior pass rushers.
One statistic that I incorporate is Impact Points. This is based on a formula I created that calculates a defensive tackle's point value based on total tackles, tackles-for-loss, sacks, forced fumbles, blocked kicks and their team's overall rush defense.
1) Danny Shelton (Washington): Few players in college football have the sheer strength and size of the mammoth defensive tackle, Danny Shelton. A clog in the middle, Shelton was a key leader for the Huskies' defense this past year. As a commander along the defensive line, Shelton rarely takes plays off and is a mainstay even in passing situations.
At 6'2” and 339 pounds, Shelton was a three year starter for the Huskies. He was one of their biggest difference makers in elevating the Huskies' pass rush this past season. Shelton finished last season ranked 24th in FBS with 90 sacks this season.
In 53 career games played, Shelton totaled 159.5 tackles, 24 TFL, 11.5 sacks, five PB, and three blocked kicks. He had a total of 49.5 impact plays, an average of .93 impact plays per game.
Shelton's ability as a clog in the middle is what makes him so attractive to NFL teams. He can play in a base 3-4 or 4-3 defensive scheme. Regardless of which team selects him, their linebackers will be the happiest unit on the team. Shelton will occupy double and triple teams allowing his teammates the freedom to roam and make plays.
While Shelton won't be called upon to be a pass rusher in the NFL, showing an improved skill set in that area of his game will impress scouts and coaches alike. The most impressive part of Shelton's game is his durability and stamina. It is not very often that a player of his size and position are called upon to play over 82% of their defensive snaps and Shelton does so with great effort and consistency. Opponents quickly learned that running right at Shelton is not the best plan of attack, but running to the outside doesn't mean you get away from his grasp.
Few players of his size are readily available to come into the NFL and start right away. Statistically they might not be similar, but scouting wise Shelton compares favorably to former first round selection Star Lotulelei.
2) Darius Philon (Arkansas): A young, developing prospect, Philon has played in only 25 career games. In his short playing career at Arkansas, he made an immediate impact and showed scouts that he has the potential to be a quality NFL starter.
At 6'1” and 298 pounds, Philon is able to use his quickness and speed to get in the backfield. His short stature allows him to stay low, hold his point of attack and clog the lanes. Overall, he can withstand a double team and hold his ground, but a few occasions did arise last season where he lost ground and allowed himself to be moved out of his gap responsibility.
Arkansas made a dramatic improvement in terms of their rush defense from 2013 to 2014. In 2013, they allowed 4.7 YPC, 21 rushing TD's, and 178 rushing yards per game. In 2014, with Philion taking over the starting defensive tackle positions, Arkansas allowed 3.5 YPC, 11 rushing TD's, and 114 rushing yards per game.
With a limited number of games played compared to other prospects, Philon's production isn't quite as impressive in terms of traditional box score stats. For his career, he recorded 69 tackles, 20.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks, two PB, and three FF. He finished with a total of 33 impact plays, an average of 1.32 impact plays per game, the fourth highest amongst all defensive tackles.
Still needing time to grow and develop, Philon needs to continue to work on his technique, strength and his ability to toss or shed his blocker. He was able to beat interior college lineman with his speed and quickness, but he will need to add more to his arsenal to be successful in the NFL. Don't be surprised if it takes Philon a season or two before he becomes a consistent starter in the NFL.
3) Grady Jarrett (Clemson): Jarrett is a leader on a defensive unit which shut down opponents' rushing attacks last season. Jarrett is built like big shoe box; at 6'1” and 304 pounds, he has the size to punish opposing linemen with leverage and strength. While it is hard to quantify consistent effort, Jarrett will consistently run down plays and continue to show effort throughout the game.
With more and more offensive linemen in the NFL going over the 6'4” mark in height, Jarrett's size allows him to give taller interior linemen trouble. He is able to get underneath their pads and drive them back in the pocket.
A durable player, Jarrett has never missed a game during the past four years. With 48 career games played, Jarrett recorded 111.5 tackles, 29 TFL, 5.5 sacks, two FF and one BK. Jarrett's lack of pass break-ups (zero) on his resume suggest that his shorter arms and inability to block a passing lane might make him just a two down lineman. These are skills that can be learned, and over time he could develop into an every down lineman. He had a total of 39.5 impact plays, an average of .82 impact plays per game.
Jarrett will shine in shutting down an opponent's interior rush attack. At Clemson last season, he occupied blockers which allowed his linebackers, most notably Stephone Anthony, opportunities to roam and make plays all over the field. Limited in terms of pass-rushing ability, Jarrett's primary pass-rushing move is a bull rush. With his quickness, he should develop a couple of countermoves.
Jarrett is an overall quality player who is willing and seems to enjoy doing the dirty work along the trenches. He is a solid athlete who will be a good player in the league for a long time.
4) Jordan Phillips (Oklahoma): Jordan Phillips is a big-bodied interior presence who has shown glimpses of being a dominant player but without the consistency that will be needed to be successful in the NFL. At 6'5” and 329 pounds, he is more raw potential than a finished product at this stage in his development.
After battling through injuries during his first couple of seasons in Norman and having back surgery in 2013, Phillips started all 13 games in 2014. He was a central figure in holding opponents to 3.0 YPC, 15 rushing TD's, and 106 rushing yards per game.
Phillips is limited in terms of his abilities as a pass rusher; with his size, one would expect him to have more pass deflections. In 28 career games he recorded 42.5 tackles, nine TFL, 3.5 sacks, two PB, and one blocked kicked. He had a total of 17.5 impact plays with an average of .63 impact plays per game.
Phillips has flashes of playmaking ability along with a strong presence in clogging up the middle and shutting down interior running lanes. The consistency is what is lacking for Phillips and scouts have noticed that his technique drops off later in games. Being a player of his size, he can be susceptible to losing leverage and in some cases he gets pushed at the point of attack.
With only a few seasons of college play under his belt there is still hope for growth and development. It might take Phillips some time, but he could develop into a Kevin Vickerson or Terrance Knighton type of player in the NFL.
5) Chucky Hunter (TCU): Some players just don't check off every box in terms of typical pro size, weight, speed and other measurables. Some players are outliers who consistently prove that, regardless of their size and speed, they get the job done. One of those players is Chucky Hunter, a 6'1” and 300 pound rock-solid starter for the Horned Frogs during the past three years.
TCU has been one the most dominant rush defense teams in the nation during the past three seasons and a lot of that has to do with the unselfish play of Hunter. In 2014, TCU was ranked 9th in rush defense, holding opponents to 2.8 YPC, nine rushing TD's, and 108 rushing yards per game.
In 50 career games, Hunter had 103 tackles, 23.5 TFL, nine sacks, and two forced fumbles. He had a total of 34.5 impact plays, an average of .69 impact plays per game.
Hunter plays with relentless pursuit and won't stop on a play just because it is across the field. He chases down ball carriers and has the speed to cut into the backfield and cause a distribution. Hunter is suited for a 4-3 defensive scheme because he has the strength to hold his own against double teams. He has set weight room records at TCU benching 520 pounds.
While he may not be a long term starter, Hunter has excellent value as a rotational defensive tackle stopping the run and applying pressure on the quarterback. Hunter won't be a first or second day NFL Draft pick, but later in the draft he could be a possible steal for a team needing a high energy, productive player who has shown a consistent ability to shut down an opponent's interior rushing attack.
The Best of the Rest Run-Stuffers:
6) Christian Covington (Rice): Career impact plays: 44.5; Impact plays per game average: 1.35
7) Terry Williams (East Carolina): Career impact plays: 35; Impact plays per game average: .95
8) Luther Maddy (Virginia Tech): Career impact plays: 37; Impact plays per game average: .86
9) Leterrius Walton (Central Michigan): Career impact plays: 29.5; Impact plays per game average: .76
10) Kaleb Eulls (Mississippi State): Career impact plays: 13.5; Impact plays per game average: .26
1) Leonard Williams (USC): The most dominant and highest ranked player in the entire draft, Williams has the ability to step in and be a productive, dominant pass rusher from day one. He can instantly upgrade a team's ability to attack opposing quarterbacks.
At 6'5” and 305 pounds, Williams has the size to play inside in a 3-4 defensive scheme along with the quickness and overall speed to play outside in 4-3 base scheme. His versatility is unlike most dominant defensive tackles we have seen come through the draft in the last five to ten years.
Williams battled through injuries during the past couple of seasons, but he missed very few games and still played in the vast majority of snaps for the USC defense. He possesses the strength to take down a ball carrier or a quarterback if he is able to get his giant bear paws on them.
In 39 career games played Williams recorded 163.5 tackles, 35.5 TFL, 20 sacks, 7 PB, 4 FF, 2 INT, and 1 blocked kicked. He had a total of 71.5 impact plays, an average of 1.83, highest amongst all defensive tackles in this draft class.
Even with a few injuries, Williams speed to get around the corner and into the backfield for a player of his size is incredible. Against Stanford earlier this season and while nursing an ankle injury, Williams registered a sack in a snap-to-sack time of 2.73 seconds. His average snap-to-qb hit time for 2014 is roughly 2.63 seconds.
Williams does a great job of getting his hands up and disrupting the quarterback's vision and throwing lanes. He understands when he is not going to be able to apply pressure to the QB and instead steps back and causes a disruption in the quarterback's timing. He had three pass breakups in 2014 compared to zero in 2013.
He has the size, speed and quickness that resembles past top draft selection Gerald McCoy. If he can maintain his health, Williams should continue to develop into one of the league's most dominant interior pass rushers over the next few years.
2) Michael Bennett (Ohio State): He is a versatile defender who can move to any location on the line of scrimmage and still be a force. NFL scouts will love his versatility and ability to play the inside in a 4-3 or the outside in the 3-4 defense. At 6'3” and 293 pounds, Bennett has the quickness to slip past opposing blockers, cut into the gaps and become a disruption in the backfield.
Bennett was one of the better interior pass rushers in college football last season. He doesn't have the skill level of last year's top interior pass rusher, Aaron Donald, but Bennett started to display dominant ability and a consistent presence for the Buckeyes.
In 49 career games, Bennett recorded 85.5 tackles, 31.5 TFL, 18 sacks, four PB, and seven forced fumbles, highest amongst all defensive tackles in this draft class. He had 60.5 career impact plays, an average of 1.23 impact plays per game.
The speed Bennett provides as an interior pass rusher is what separates him from the rest of the defensive tackles on this list. He routinely applied pressure and his average snap-to-qb hit time was under 2.5 seconds last season. Against Maryland in 2014, Bennett had one sack and two quarterback hits; his one sack came on a snap-to-sack time of 2.50 seconds. His two quarterback hits came on a snap-to-hit time of 2.37 seconds. Both his sack and hit times are incredible times for any pass rusher in college football.
While Bennett's size and speed make him well suited as an interior pass rusher in college, his lack of strength and ability to hold his ground might be cause for concern amongst NFL decision makers. He had a hard time adjusting and fighting through double teams.
3) Malcom Brown (Texas): Brown, who declared for the NFL Draft as an underclassman, started to become a consistent force for the University of Texas defense during the past two seasons. In 2013 he was tasked with playing the nose-tackle position which resulted in his production numbers dropping. In a new defensive scheme in 2014, Brown slid over to the three technique and provided the Longhorns with a much needed interior pass rusher.
As a player who is stout and rarely ever gives up space, Brown can slide past slower offensive linemen with speed usually reserved for outside speed rushers. A power rusher as well, he can dominate a game with a freakish bull rush.
In 39 career games, Brown has recorded 114 tackles, 25 TFL, 8.5 sacks, five PB, two FF, and one blocked kicked. He had a total of 43.5 impact plays, an average of 1.12 impact plays per game.
At 6'2” and 319 pounds, Brown can overpower small interior linemen, bull rush them over and attack an opponent's backfield. He showed tremendous development in the use of his hands and the ability to shed would-be blockers. Brown is quick to diagnose a play, doesn't take a lot of missteps, but when he does he's quick to regain and attack opposing ball carriers.
While Brown has shown his strength and the ability to shed blockers, he relies on his speed and quickness more than he should. He has yet to overtake and be the physical, dominating force that you would expect. If he can become more physical and not look to run around opponents but rather through them, then he could develop his ability to contribute as a run defender.
Brown developed a lot as a player from 2013 to 2014 and scouts will be hoping that he can continue with his development. He is still a bit raw and will need some time to learn. He will have to watch his weight if he wants to maintain that quickness. Statistically speaking, he compares to current Denver Bronco Sylvester Williams.
4) Louis Trinca-Pasat (Iowa): The spotlight has been on Trinca-Pasat's teammate, Carl Davis, during the past couple of years as the future star for the Hawkeyes defense. Trinca-Pasat quietly became the leader and a dominant interior pass rusher for the Hawkeyes during these last two seasons. There isn't a ton of publicity for Trinca-Pasat leading up to the draft, but NFL talent evaluators have viewed his film and some see a diamond in the rough.
At 6'1” and 290 pounds, Trinca-Pasat is viewed as undersized with short arms and a player who can be overwhelmed by bigger, stronger players. Yet, even with his lack of prototypical size and bulk, he was still able to lead the Iowa defensive line in tackles this past season.
In 39 career games, he recorded 108 tackles 24.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks, six PB, and one blocked kicked. He had a total of 42 impact plays, an average of 1.08 impact plays per game.
A high-energy type of player, Trinca-Pasat never seems to give up on a play and will always give his best effort regardless of the score. When battling double teams, he showed good balance, was able to keep upright and was rarely taken to the ground. Sometimes it doesn't look pretty, but he consistently showed up on tape making plays and causing havoc all over the field.
While his highly heralded teammate will likely be a second or third round pick, Trinca-Pasat will most likely be a mid to late round selection. If placed with the right teammates, he can be an instant upgrade as a situational pass rusher and contributor on special teams. He will provide quality depth and an instant spark coming off the bench.
5) Xavier Williams (Northern Iowa): Though Williams played for a smaller school, don't mistake his production as being overvalued or less impressive. He is an outstanding interior playmaker who is capable of being one of the best defensive tackles in this draft after it is all complete.
At 6'2” and 309 pounds he is a good combo of strength and speed, a player who uses his background as a former wrestler to overtake his opponents and toss them away. Williams stays low, understands leverage, keep his balance and maintains gap responsibility.
In 42 games for his career, Williams recorded 163 tackles, 29.5 TFL, 14 sacks, six PB, two FF, and seven blocked kicks. His blocked kicks total is the highest amongst all draft eligible players. He had a total of 72.5 impact plays, an average of 1.73 impact plays per game, the second highest next to Leonard Williams in this draft class amongst defensive tackles.
Williams lacks the initial quickness or first step that is so often critical of being a successful interior pass rusher. With some time to develop and some work with strength and conditioning staff, he could develop into one of the top defensive tackles in this class. He is best suited to play the three-technique in a 4-3 defensive scheme. Williams will most likely be a mid to late day three pick, somewhere in the fourth or fifth round.
The Best of the Rest Pass Rushers:
6) Xavier Cooper (Washington State): Career impact plays: 48.5; Impact plays per game average: 1.35
7) Travis Raciti (San Jose State): Career impact plays: 48; Impact plays per game average: .98
8) Carl Davis (Iowa): Career impact plays: 22; Impact plays per game average: .50
9) Eddie Goldman (Florida State): Career impact plays: 20; Impact plays per game average: .57
10) Rakeem Nunez-Roches (Southern Mississippi): Career impact plays: 34; Impact plays per game average: 1.13
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