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Putting the Free Agent DT Class into Perspective

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How does the free agent defensive tackle class compare to the players already on the Browns and those likely to be selected in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft?

Dan Williams
Dan Williams
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Very quick report here. Sorry, no fancy gifs or full scouting reports this time. I just wanted to report some of my grades on a few of the free agent defensive tackles in order to put this free agent class into perspective with what the Browns have on the team currently, what's available in free agency, and the handful of draft prospects I've discussed so far.

This free agent list is by no means all-inclusive, it's simply a barometer to put the top of the free agent class into perspective.


A few free agent DTs:

		st pn pr zn	positions
T. Knighton	11  8  6	NT10
D. Williams	 9 10  7	NT9, WT9
S. Paea		 7 10  9	WT9, sub9
N. Fairley	 7 10  9	WT9, sub9
K. Ellis	 8  8  7	NT8


Here are the 2014 Browns for comparison:

		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


And the 2015 draft class that I've covered so far:

		st pn pr zn	positions
D Shelton 7  9  9  8 WT9, NT8
E Goldman 7 10  8 10 WT9, NT7
M Brown 7 10  9   WT9, sub9
J Phillips 8  8  9  7 NT8, SE9


Broken down by position:

Nose Tackle:

		st pn pr zn	positions
T Knighton 11  8  6 NT10
D Williams 9 10  7 NT9, WT9
Hughes 10  9  7  8 NT9, WT9
J Phillips 8  8  9  7 NT8, SE9
K Ellis 8  8  7 NT8
D Shelton 7  9  9  8 WT9, NT8
E Goldman 7 10  8 10 WT9, NT7
Kitchen 7  8  7 NT7
Taylor 7  8  7  6 WT7, NT6
Meder 6  8  7 WT6, NT6
Rubin 6  7  7 NT6, SE7
McDaniel 6  7  7 NT6

  • As you can see here, Knighton is the cream of the crop of these nose tackles. He actually broke my scale for stoutness against the run.
  • Dan Williams compares favorably to John Hughes, though is a better penetrator and not quite as stout -- but both excel in each of these areas. Williams actually penetrates more while Hughes fills gaps.
  • The top defensive tackles in the draft do not compare to Knighton, Williams, or Hughes at the nose tackle position (though they may at other spots in the Browns defense), because they don't have the same level of stoutness at the point of attack.
  • Free agent Kenrick Ellis actually compares favorably to the top of the draft class at nose tackle, though he is a much less versatile player (Goldman, Shelton, and Phillips each can play multiple positions) and doesn't offer nearly as much as a pass rusher.
  • The current and former Browns on this list (other than Hughes) do not compare with these top free agents or draft prospects.


Weakside Tackle:

		st pn pr zn	positions
D Williams 9 10  7 NT9, WT9
M Brown 7 10  9   WT9, sub9
E Goldman 7 10  8 10 WT9, NT7
D Shelton 7  9  9  8 WT9, NT8
Hughes 10  9  7  8 NT9, WT9
S Paea 7 10  9 WT9, sub9
N Fairley 7 10  9 WT9, sub9
Taylor 7  8  7  6 WT7, NT6
Meder 6  8  7 WT6, NT6

  • Lots of parity at the weakside tackle position. Dan Williams, Stephen Paea, and Nick Fairley of the free agents along with Malcom Brown, Eddie Goldman, and Danny Shelton of the draft compare closely, as does John Hughes.
  • Some of these guys are pure penetrators that do their work vs. the run by disrupting plays in the backfield: Brown, Fairley, to some extent Paea and Williams.
  • Some are gap fillers instead: Goldman, Shelton, Hughes, along with Paea and Williams.
  • The list is actually very deep here, in draft and free agency. This is just the top of the class and the Browns have many different options to choose from in order to improve at this position this offseason.


Strongside End:

		st pn pr zn	positions
D Bryant 6  8 10 SE9, sub9
J Phillips 8  8  9  7 NT8, SE9
Winn 7  8  8 SE7, sub8
Rubin 6  7  7 NT6, SE7
Fua 7  7  7 SE7

  • I don't see this position as a free agency priority for the Browns given that they have Desmond Bryant and Billy Winn. This could definitely be addressed in the draft, though, despite not being an immediate need. I have scouted strongside ends (5-techs) in the draft and there are some intriguing options available, but I will discuss those at a later date.


Sub:

		st pn pr zn	positions
D Bryant 6 8 10 SE9, sub9 M Brown 7 10 9 WT9, sub9 S Paea 7 10 9 WT9, sub9 N Fairley 7 10 9 WT9, sub9 J Phillips 8 8 9 7 NT8, SE9 A Bryant 5 8 10 sub9 Winn 7 8 8 SE7, sub8

  • Similar to strongside end, there are plenty of intriguing sub defense DTs available in the draft and in free agency, but I don't consider this a pressing need due to having the two Bryants and Winn. If one could be had at a good value in the draft or later stages of free agency, it would still be a nice pickup.


Overall

The Browns have Desmond Bryant and John Hughes as two players capable of being solid starters. They need a third. Bryant has locked down a starting job at strongside end, while Hughes was kept in reserve until the new coaches figured out what they had in him -- and then he got hurt.

Hughes could start at either nose tackle or weakside tackle, depending on who else the team has on the roster, though they may prefer more of a pure penetrator at weakside tackle if they had their choice. Regardless of that, this gives the team flexibility to add a starter at either WT or NT. As it happens, there are far more viable options available at weakside tackle.

They have a solid group of backups in Winn, Taylor, Kitchen, and Armonty Bryant. An upgrade or two here would help a lot, but the addition of an impact starter ahead of them would really ease the burden for these guys and they could get by, though probably not excel.


Bottom Line of Possible Additions

  • Terrance Knighton: Would be a huge upgrade to the defense. Slot him in as the starting nose tackle with Kitchen as his backup. Rotate Hughes and Taylor at weakside tackle and Desmond and Winn at strongside end.
  • Dan Williams: Another tremendous upgrade. He and Hughes could play either of NT or WT positions and potentially even rotate between spots (or simply play left DT and right DT and change roles depending on offensive alignment rather than switching spots).
  • Kenrick Ellis: A modest upgrade. Ellis helps the nose tackle position, but not quite enough to significantly shore up the run defense on his own. However, he would likely be an affordable upgrade and with the addition of an affordable upgrade at weakside tackle (by that, I mean a third-tier guy cheaper than Paea or Fairley or a 3rd-5th rounder in the draft) the team could boost its run defense and overall D-line performance by improving the rotation as a whole.
  • Nick Fairley, Stephen Paea, and others: Could also be considerable upgrades but doesn't put the defense in nearly as flexible of a position. These guys are purely weakside under tackles in this scheme, which means Hughes and Kitchen at nose unless someone else is added. This is the most likely route the team will go either in free agency or the draft and it's a good one, but it's not the best single-player improvement the team could make.




Explanation of positions and labels

(re-post from previous articles in this series, for those not familiar with the abbreviations used above)

Pettine_BASE_saban - Note


Nose Tackle (NT -- ST in the picture above)
  • A 2-gap player asked to occupy and control a blocker(s).
  • Skill set: A stout player that can hold his ground against interior linemen and double teams.

Weakside Tackle (WT)
  • Typically 1-gap assignments -- asked to penetrate or fill.
  • Differing skill sets can be used here: Can be a quicker, disruptive penetrator or a stouter gap filler that is hard to move.

Strongside End (SE)
  • Typically 2-gap assignments.
  • Skill set: Needs greater agility and range than the average defensive tackle to maintain contain on the edge. Doesn't have to be quite as stout at the point-of-attack as an interior lineman.  The ability to penetrate/disengage from offensive tackle once the ballcarrier commits to a path is more important, as are pass rushing skills.

Sub (not pictured above)
  • A dedicated pass rusher at defensive tackle in obvious passing situations.
  • Pass rush skills are a premium here. Stoutness versus the run may be sacrificed.



Grades

A grade of 7 is adequate.

Grades of 8+ are strengths.

Grades of 6- are major liabilities.

  • Stoutness (st) -- Ability to hold ground versus run blocking offensive linemen.
  • Penetration (pn) -- In the run game, the ability to fire through a gap and into the backfield or to fit into a gap and fill it.
  • Pass Rush (pr) -- Ability to threaten pass blockers and the pocket.
  • Zone (zn) -- A separate grade is assigned for players who play better or worse against zone runs than their grades would indicate. Left blank otherwise.
  • Projected Position (position) -- Where the player best fits in Coach Pettine's defensive scheme.


You can find a more in-depth breakdown of the different positions on the Browns defensive line here. For more details on the grades for the Browns 2014 defensive tackles, see this article.