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Defensive Tackle - Part 2: The Needs

Grading the defensive tackle position in order to show what upgrades can be made via free agency and/or the draft.

Billy Winn
Billy Winn
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Pettine_BASE_saban - Note

For those who haven't seen part one and are interested in taking a look at it, I outlined the expectations of the defensive tackle positions in the Browns defense and how the current roster grades out at those responsibilities here.

I was planning on having the second article in this series include scouting reports on the top defensive tackle prospects in the 2015 NFL Draft. Then I would have another about the next tier, then the next... I was intending to get these out ahead of the combine as sort of a Who's Who of the position.

I still will do that and the first of these articles (with Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown, Eddie Goldman, Jordan Phillips) is ready to publish. However, due to the feedback on the introductory article, I want to take a moment to further discuss the Browns' needs at the position, as well as the mindset and methods with which I approach these evaluations.

For starters, I'll revamp the way I present my ratings. The scores for Stoutness, Penetration, and Pass Rush ability will stay the same: scored on a 1 to 10 scale and you can compare them directly between one player and another to see who's better with that aspect of the defensive tackle position.

The thing that I'll change is my position ratings. In the first article, I wrote things like "WT1" and said that this meant the player was a starting-caliber weakside tackle in Pettine's defense. Instead, I'll list positions the player is suited to play and include an overall grade for the player at that position. Such as NT8, which means that this player grades as 8/10 as a nose tackle in the Browns style of D.

Another thing worth noting is that man-power running plays and zone runs pose different challenges for defensive linemen. Some fare about the same against both but others may excel versus one and struggle a bit more against the other. To account for these cases, I will add an additional category called Zone (abbreviated "zn"). I'll leave it blank for players who fare mostly the same versus both but I'll assign extra grades for those who do especially better or worse against zone runs. See Taylor and Hughes below for examples.

So with all this in mind, here are the grades of defensive tackles that played regular-season snaps for the Browns this past season:

		st pn pr zn	positions
Hughes		10  9  7  8	NT9, WT9
D Bryant	 6  8 10	SE9, sub9
A Bryant	 5  8 10	sub9
Winn		 7  8  8	SE7, sub8
Kitchen		 7  8  7	NT7
Taylor		 7  8  7  6	WT7, NT6
Meder		 6  8  7	WT6, NT6
Fua		 7  7  7	SE7
Rubin		 6  7  7	NT6, SE7
McDaniel	 6  7  7	NT6

Looking at the grades above, let's see what the team actually has at each position and what is really needed:

  • Hughes is NT9 and WT9
  • D. Bryant is SE9
  • The next best is a 7. As a reminder, I defined a grade of 7 as adequate. By that I meant that it is adequate to see the field in the NFL or make an NFL roster. A 7 is a player that you hope can pick up some minutes without hurting you too much. An 8 or above is where we start getting into players you actually want on the field.
  • The team really needs a third starter that's an 8 or higher, and one that can fit into a spot on the field while D. Bryant and Hughes are on the field. Thankfully, Bryant and Hughes are versatile players, so this new guy could be a nose tackle, a weakside tackle, or a 5-tech strongside end. If he's a good enough player, they can can find a spot for him in this system due to the diversity of the WT, NT, and SE positions.
  • The Browns could also benefit from adding a backup that's an 8 or above. It would be nice to not have a weakness on the defensive line every time there's a substitution.
  • According to this at least, there's no need to add additional 7's or 6's. These would not be upgrades.
  • The Bryants and Winn give two 9's and an 8 in sub-D.

Let's look at the grades again. This time, pay more attention to the attribute grades (st, pn, pr) rather than the overall position ratings:

		st pn pr zn	positions
Hughes		10  9  7  8	NT9, WT9
D Bryant	 6  8 10	SE9, sub9
A Bryant	 5  8 10	sub9
Winn		 7  8  8	SE7, sub8
Kitchen		 7  8  7	NT7
Taylor		 7  8  7  6	WT7, NT6
Meder		 6  8  7	WT6, NT6
Fua		 7  7  7	SE7
Rubin		 6  7  7	NT6, SE7
McDaniel	 6  7  7	NT6

  • I see a lot of 7s, 6s, and 8s.
  • Stoutness -- There's only one player above a 7. This is a team that was getting blown off the ball and steamrolled. (Some imagery that's been stuck in my head since early in the season is of blocking Athyba Rubin being akin to batting around a beach ball.)
  • Penetration -- A lot of 8's here. No 6's or less. The DL corps is not horrible at this but not excellent at it either. This trait takes into account true penetration into the backfield and also the ability to fill a gap. Hughes, Kitchen, Taylor, and Meder are fillers. The Bryants are penetrators. Winn is somewhere in the middle.
  • Pass Rush -- It's really just the Bryants and Winn here. None of the other guys are horrible at it like some of the league's slower nose tackles or low-motor defensive linemen but they're not consistent threats either.
  • Looking at it from the point of view of individual traits, it's possible that the team could benefit from adding players that rate highly in Stoutness, even if they don't rate all that well overall. (Example: a WT7 that rates 8/7/6 might be nice to have because he's good at something that few on the team are and that would bring a different set of characteristics to the mix.) I don't really agree with this approach because the team has the resources to make bigger upgrades than that, but it would be better than just going into next season with the same roster.

Mindset & Methods

A lot of people approach scouting from a top-down, big picture, overall assessment mindset where they seek to look at a player's game as a whole and evaluate the player based on that.

Many others take a bottom-up, detail-oriented, piece-by-piece approach to look at individual attributes and then combine them to reach an overall grade.

I'm not mentioning these things to criticize either of these methods, but rather to point out which camp I fall in:

Neither... Or Both...

I have a Biology and Chemistry background. A large part of Chemistry and Biochemistry is concerned with the rate or speed of reactions, mixing, diffusion, and other processes. Kinetics. What ultimately dictates the speed of such processes is the slowest factor involved. These are known as limiting factors, limiting reactants, limiting reagents, etc.

Coming from this point of view, I have a natural tendency to look for the limiting factors when scouting. I look for the glue that holds a prospect together. I look for the Achilles' Heel that makes his game fall apart. I don't zero in on the small details. I don't focus on the big picture. I look for the small details which connect to the big picture.

How do you identify which small details matter in the big picture?

The best way to figure out draft prospects is to study the pros first. See what success in the NFL looks like. See what productive players have in common and what differs among them.

Once you've identified critical areas/limiting factors/key traits/whatever you want to call thems, how do you evaluate how good a player is in those areas or what quality/level of a trait they possess?

I see plenty of Vines and GIFs in tweets, posts, and articles that may show a highlight or lowlight play for the player in question but do not show anything relevant to key traits for that player's position. In some scouting circles, people talk about things that "project to the next level" or "translate". This is along the lines of what I'm talking about.

Rather than saying "key traits for that player's position", maybe an even better way to look at it is "key traits for that player's projection", because players at the same position can be very different and "win in different ways". There are fairly wide varieties of skill sets and styles of play at a position. What aspects of this particular player's skill set, athletic ability, and technique will determine how he will play in the NFL?

What about Stoutness, Penetration, and Pass Rush?

I don't see Stoutness, Penetration, or Pass Rush ability on a draft prospect's college tape. It isn't there, because when I use these terms I'm talking about projecting the player's ability in these areas to the NFL level. What we see on the tape is how well he does these things vs. college competition. Often players can be very good against the run in college but awful in the NFL simply due to the jump in competition. Now he's playing against better players so the impact of his strengths is lessened and his weaknesses are magnified. That's why we look at key traits and things that project or translate.

Take Terry Williams from East Carolina University, for example. Some writers in the draft community slot him as high as a top 100 pick in their prospect rankings while others rate him as an undrafted free agent. That's a difference of  over 150 picks.

He was the starting nose tackle and anchor of a tough Pirates defense that surprised a lot of people this year with some tight games versus supposedly superior programs including South Carolina, Florida, and an upset of a ranked Virginia Tech team.

He's 6'1" 353 pounds but very agile, quick, and light on his feet. This makes him unusually good at filling gaps, rushing the passer, and getting out across the field on stretch plays for a guy with such a big, squatty build.

To see him in action, check out his Draft Breakdown page.

There are a lot of things that he does very well and a lot of things to like about him as a player...but not all the right things. He has deficiencies in a few key areas that really hurt him as a prospect.

My grades for Terry Williams are:

		st pn pr zn	positions
T Williams 6  8  7  8 NT7, WT7

The glaring hole in his game is a lack of stoutness versus the run.

This is why I chose Williams as the example here. There are so many good things about him as a player but this one major flaw hamstrings his game severely, especially as far as projecting him to an NFL defense -- where he'll have to face NFL offensive linemen -- and particularly at the nose tackle position where Stoutness against the run is by far the most important aspect of the position.

Given his 6/8/7 grades for Stoutness, Penetration, and Pass Rushing he should receive a grade of NT6, but because he does so well against zone runs he earns an NT7 grade. Essentially, he is a player that I would have either inactive or as the last guy on the bench versus man-power gap schemes but I'd activate him and give him significant reps against dedicated zone blocking schemes.

Look at the image below. This is where his problems stem from: Poor bend so he can't get low to get good leverage.


He fires off the ball low but due to poor flexibility he can't keep his legs under him. So, he pops up on contact. This makes him easy to drive off his spot:


(Note: I'm not talking about how he ends up several yards downfield on this play. I'm talking about what happens right off the snap where he fires forward, makes contact, pops up when his forward momentum is stalled, and he's immediately driven back a yard. It's not just the fact that he was pushed a yard upfield, he still doesn't have control of the engagement at that point either. The offensive lineman completely dominates him here and this is a common occurrence for Williams.)

As a result, Terry Williams has a lot of difficulty holding his ground. Instead, he tries to always work forward and when stopped, he tries to use an arm-over move or spins to redirect. Sometimes this works and he's able to slip past the blocker. Many other times it results in him getting bullied up and down the field.

This is why I make a point to grade Stoutness. The ability of a defensive tackle to hold his ground against blockers is a very valuable thing for a defense. A player that does this well can set the line of scrimmage and prevent the offensive line from getting an upfield push. This can free up the linebackers to allow them to flow to the ball unimpeded. It also forces running backs to work to get through the line rather than getting a free trip for the first yard or so.

A player that is poor in this area can make things a lot harder for his teammates. Now offensive linemen are getting a push upfield. Linebackers and possibly even defensive backs have to either fight through blockers or work around them, which often means that they have to commit to a direction (one side of a blocker or the other) earlier than they'd like or, even worse, they get blocked themselves and taken out of the play.

As you can see from this example, what I refer to as "Stoutness" isn't really a physical attribute in itself. It's a grade that I assign to a player based on the sum total of a wide number of athletic traits (such as leverage, functional strength, flexibility, balance, hand usage, footwork, and more) that go into how well he can be expected to hold his ground at the point of attack in the NFL. The traits are what you look at, while the grade is a projection you arrive at.

This article has gone quite long, so I don't want to continue much further, but I would like to give a brief mention of why I also grade Penetration. When I use the term "Penetration", I mean the ability to to shut down a gap (for example: the B-gap between the right guard and right tackle). Getting effective Penetration limits the running back's options: he can't go through that gap, he might have to change direction completely, or he could even be tackled for a loss.

What is typically thought of as penetration is a defender exploding through a gap and into the backfield. I count that as part of my Penetration grade but I also include the ability to fill a gap or effectively 2-gap well enough that the running back doesn't dare take that path. So Penetration, in the sense that I use the term, is the ability to shut down gaps.

Anyways, I just wanted to write this article in order to further explain the way I grade defensive tackles so that the meaning of my grades is clear.