First off, what is Stoutness? When I first started scouting the 2014 Browns DTs and the 2015 draft and free agent classes, I assigned 1-gap, 2-gap, and pass rush grades. This was a big mistake and I quickly changed it. Why? Those grades didn't give context. They didn't say from what position this was being done or how well a player's skill set and athletic traits make him suited to a particular position. Very different things go into successful play at NT, 2-gapping or otherwise, than at SE, for example.
For that reason, I switched to grading Stoutness, Penetration, Pass Rush, and whether or not the player does better or worse vs. Zone schemes. I also gave positional grades for the positions in Pettine's base defense (as well as a sub grade). I think this does a better job of putting things into context.
For nose tackles, Stoutness equates rather highly with 2-gapping ability. (It's different for SE. A lot of what it takes for them to be successful in a 2-gap assignment falls under what I term Penetration: quickness, agility, ability to shed blocks, etc. Stoutness is also important, though to a much, much lesser extent than with nose tackles.)
Nose tackles are asked, in Pettine/O'Neil terms, to "change the math at the point of attack". They are asked to take on center-guard double teams, to anchor against one blocker and get an arm free to attack a second, to rip laterally through a center's block to engage a guard as well...and to do so without giving up ground. 1 nose tackle stopping 2 offensive linemen in their tracks works wonders for a defense.
I define my Stoutness grade as "the ability of a defensive tackle to hold his ground against blockers". This is a huge factor in how well he can do the things in the above paragraph.
Let's take a look at examples of different levels of Stoutness and you can see what I'm looking for on prospects' tape:
Stoutness = 7
I call a Stoutness 7 grade "NFL backup average". There are plenty of players that see nose tackle reps in the NFL that may grade at 7 in Stoutness, but these aren't the kinds of guys you want starting for you or seeing extensive reps as a backup.
Nose tackles with Stoutness of 7 generally get driven 1-3 yards downfield on running plays and struggle to occupy double teams effectively. This results in the widening of the A-gaps (making for bigger holes for running backs) as well as guards releasing into the second level to attack linebackers and safeties.
Commonly, nose tackles that grade 7 in Stoutness have either flexibility/leverage issues or are significantly undersized or have lower body strength limitations. Ones with flexibility issues typically struggle to improve them significantly to develop better Stoutness. Those who are limited by size or strength while having good bend, however, may have great potential to improve their Stoutness as they develop physically.
See Tyeler Davison at nose tackle below. He engages the center right off the snap and attempts to 2-gap. His goal is to stop the center in his tracks and control him. He also is tasked to take out or at least impede the right guard that comes in to chip him off the snap. He's unable to do any of these things.
Why? Look what happens when you don't bend your knees. He's very high with poor leverage and the center is able to get under his pads and drive him 2 yards downfield, despite not getting great hand placement. (One of the center's arms is outside Davison's frame and even slips off his shoulder pad, yet he has such a leverage advantage he still kicks his butt at the point of attack.) He has his hands full with a single blocker: he's unable to do anything at all to the guard, who releases cleanly to seek and destroy linebackers and defensive backs.
Tyeler Davison at NT versus the center:
Okay, so bend your knees. Any player can do that, right?
Not everyone can bend well. See Angelo Blackson in the following image. He has poor flexibility. He bends his knees a little bit and then leans into the center to make up for the rest. He gets fine leverage as long as he stays squared up with the center.
As soon as his blocker begins to turn, however, Blackson's lean backfires on him. His center of gravity is too far out over his feet and when the center moves out from under him he pitches forward and falls to the ground. It reminds me of a power forward backing down a defender really hard in the low post and then the defender "pulls the chair" on him: sliding out from under the power forward and causing him to fall and get called for traveling.
Angelo Blackson #98 at Left DT facing the center:
So, if you can't bend don't lean too much. But if you don't lean and you can't bend well, how do you get good leverage?
Let's re-visit examples from previous articles. Terry Williams from ECU understands his limitations very well. He has poor flexibility but he doesn't end up on the ground often. He doesn't get caught leaning. He also doesn't hold up well at the point of attack.
I grade Williams' Stoutness as a 6. That's what I would consider a major liability and unsuited to seeing snaps at nose tackle in Pettine's base defense. For reference, this is where Ahtyba Rubin graded in 2014.
Look at how easily Williams gives up ground to this left guard-center double team:
Danny Shelton is better, but not by a lot.
Shelton grades out as a 7 in Stoutness but actually manages a rare NT8 grade (for someone with 7 Stoutness, I mean) due to his penetration, pass rush, and ability to excel versus stretch plays.
In the following image, Shelton is in a 2-gap assignment. Like Terry Williams, he is disciplined and knows better than to lean into his blockers. He stays balanced and attempts to take on the double team. He gets poor leverage, though, due to playing so upright and is driven off the ball -- and even off his feet -- and pushed downfield.
Danny Shelton #55 at Nose Tackle facing a right guard-center double team:
Stoutness = 8
In my grading system, 8 is where something can start to be called an area of strength. Due to how important it is to the position, a nose tackle with 8 Stoutness generally has starter potential or at very least should be a high quality rotational player.
Nose tackles with Stoutness of 8 generally don't get driven much more than a yard downfield on running plays unless they are facing an good double team. They generally can hold up the line of scrimmage well and provide some interference on a second lineman or a fullback while dealing with their primary blocker.
Nose tackles that grade 8 in Stoutness usually have good flexibility and are able to bend their knees to get leverage. They may have lower body strength or size limitations that hold them back from being even stouter at the point of attack. Some though, have just decent and not great flexibility and get a significant portion of their Stoutness from having a short, squatty build.
Compare Warren Herring's Stoutness, bend, and balance in the following examples to that of the players shown above.
Herring is leaning in on the center in the image below. However, his knees are bent considerably. If the center "pulls the chair" on him, he can push off, sink his hips, and drop his weight backwards to give himself a good chance of staying upright and regaining his balance.
This is a lot better than just laying out and flopping to the ground if the blocker moves.
Warren Herring #45 at Left 3-4 End versus the center:
In the next play, we can see Herring 2-gap. He gets his hands on the center and controls him, establishing a roughly 45 degree angle to the line of scrimmage. He shades toward the playside and sees the back take a backside cut. So he sheds the center and dives to the backside, in an attempt to make the tackle.
Herring is able to do this because he's playing with leverage and balance. A player with poor flexibility often has to sacrifice one for the other: give up balance by leaning to get leverage or stay balanced but get poor leverage. Herring gets both because he can get low for leverage while staying balanced over his feet by bending his knees.
Warren Herring #45 at Nose Tackle against center #58:
Here Herring shows off another benefit of good flexibility: he gets up under his blocker and drives him into the backfield.
Warren Herring #45 at Nose Tackle facing the left tackle #65:
What about tall nose tackles? Can taller players get good leverage, and if so, how?
Derrick Lott is 6'4" and still manages to grade as an 8 in Stoutness. The key is that he knows how to use his greater height and length as an advantage and how to hide it as a weakness.
That, and he has good flexibility.
Use that long reach to make first contact. Defeat the offensive lineman's hands and get into his chest. Once you have that, one option is to keep his arms off you completely at arms' length. This is very difficult to do against an NFL guard, they're just too powerful.
Another option is to follow up the advantage of initiating contact by letting your arms bend some and get your body in closer up into the blocker's chest while his arms are stuck outside your frame. Adopt a wider stance and/or rotate knees and feet inward to bend lower for leverage.
Lott demonstrates his ability to make himself "shorter" in the following image. He's able to get into the guard's body by taking a few wide steps while compensating by maintaining leverage on his inside shoulder. With a simple rip move he's past the blocker to the inside and has maintained his balance.
Derrick Lott at Left DT against the right guard:
Here Lott faces a double team. He holds up very well, surrendering no ground. However, he makes the mistake of turning too far to the backside and is unable to rip in the running back's direction. If he had stayed square to the line while engaging the double team, he could have had the angle to rip toward the ballcarrier.
Derrick Lott at Right DT facing a left guard-center double team:
Jordan Phillips, at 6'5", is another tall DT that understands how to manage his size at nose tackle. He also carries a Stoutness grade of 8.
Below, he makes first contact with the center, jolting him and then getting his hands inside. Then he rotates his right knee and foot to get lower to anchor.
He gets a little overenthusiastic, though, shoving the center aside but paying for it by losing his balance as well.
Lott and Phillips grade the same as Herring in Stoutness. These guys grade out as 8, but they've hit their ceilings in this regard. They simply don't have much room to improve in this area, while for Herring the sky's the limit here if he can add lower body strength and bulk.
Stoutness = 9
What is a 9? If 7 forms a baseline of "acceptable but not good" and 8 is a strength, 9 is twice as much of a strength. Here we're starting to talk about excelling at something and being able to consistently perform at a high level. I wouldn't say dominant but we're getting close.
9 Stoutness gives a nose surefire starter capability.
Nose tackles with Stoutness of 9 don't get pushed around much on running plays -- and they push back. These guys set the line of scrimmage and then work from there. They can take on double teams without much trouble and often keep both players occupied. They can fight through a center's block, seek out the guard trying to leak to the second level, and impede his progress.
Nose tackles that grade 9 in Stoutness almost always have good flexibility and ability to bend their knees to get leverage. They also have good lower body strength. Some of the shorter ones don't have elite bend but their stature confers a portion of their leverage advantage. Some have size limitations but the rest of their traits make up for it.
David Parry carries a 9 grade in Stoutness. He doesn't have outstanding flexibility and bend (just good) but he is short, short-armed, thickly-built, and has tremendous lower body strength, giving him leverage advantages.
His stature, of course, carries the opposite kind of disadvantages that Lott and Phillips have. He may have little trouble being the low man in the battle for leverage, but he's unlikely to initiate contact with offensive linemen due to his lesser reach.
In the following play, Parry stacks up the guard and then sheds when he reads that the quarterback has kept the ball. He shows no difficulty maintaining his balance while getting leverage, staying under control and ready to react to the QB's decision on the zone read.
David Parry #58 at Right DT against the left guard #72:
Here Parry gets an outstanding push, with his blocker flailing and falling down in an attempt to get leverage.
Parry would be better-served here to just stack up and then shed to attack the running back. He gets too focused on driving his man into the backfield that he leans into him and loses the ability to come off his block. Soundly defeating the block and making the play would be much better than trying to bury the lineman while missing out on a tackle.
Still, the domination is apparent on this play.
David Parry at Left DT versus the right guard:
Parry's biggest weakness is that he gives up a little ground when blocked in the side by the second man of a double team. He gives up about a yard here, but he keeps both linemen engaged and off of his teammates.
David Parry at Left DT facing a right guard-center double team: