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Draft top 5: Defensive Tackles

In a strong class, these prospects stand above the rest. Greg Gabriel

April 28, 2014
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This is a strong year for defensive tackles. A couple of the players I wrote up in the defensive end category (Ra’Shede Hageman, Stephon Tuitt) can and will be considered as defensive tackles by some of the 4-3 clubs. This year, we have quality talent at the nose tackle position, the three-technique, the one- technique in a 4-3, and guys who have the versatility to play any position. Here are my top five.

1) Aaron Donald – Pittsburgh

When you look at Donald on the hoof, he doesn’t have the huge frame that you would associate with a dominant defensive tackle. He measures 6006 – 285 with 32.5” arms. That is not a prototypical defensive lineman. He does have outstanding athleticism and explosion. He ran 4.68 at the combine, while also doing 35 reps of 225, a 32” vertical jump and a 9’8” long jump. His three-cone and 20-yard shuttle were outstanding.

Donald is very instinctive with a great motor. He goes 100% on every play. He has very good hand use and makes plays both against the run and as a pass rusher. In saying that, he is not a fit for every scheme. I doubt many of the 3-4 clubs will be that interested. He just doesn’t fit their player profile, but the one-gap 4-3 clubs will be all over him. His best fit is as a three-technique, where his quickness and explosiveness can be best used.

I feel that because of his lack of natural size, he will be best off if used in a rotation. That way he won’t get worn down and will actually make more big plays because he will be rested. Some people like to compare him to Geno Atkins of the Bengals. There is a similarity, but Atkins is an inch taller and 20 pounds heavier. The player that he most resembles in size and style of play is a player from the past, John Randle, who was a one man wrecking crew with the Vikings.

2) Louis Nix III – Notre Dame

Nix is never going to win any awards as a pass rusher, but he is the prototypical nose tackle. At 6023 – 331, he has the perfect nose tackle frame. He is a thick, wide body who is strong and has excellent balance.
Nix played at closer to 350 during the year, which was probably a bit too heavy. Talking to people around the Notre Dame program, they feel that if he plays between 335 – 340, he will be at his best.

He is not ever going to be the fastest guy in the 40, but he has a very quick first step and gets penetration to be disruptive. With his size and power, he is consistently able to occupy two blockers and hold the point. He has good hand use to shed, and he makes plays with his quickness and competitive nature.

When used as a pass rusher, he can get a strong push to collapse the pocket, but he is not a counter move guy who is going to get many sacks. He is a base down player and a very good one. His best fit is as a 3-4 nose, but some 4-3 clubs have been taking a close look because of his limited area quickness.

3) Tim Jernigan – Florida State

Jernigan is a junior entering the draft early. He lines up mostly as a zero, one, and two-technique player in their defense. He will also line up outside on occasion. Florida State plays their defensive line in a rotation, but Jernigan is still very productive in his role. He finished the 2013 season with 68 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks.

While he does play often as a zero and one, he does not have the size associated with that position. He compensates with his excellent strength and power as well as his quickness. He shows very good snap reaction with an excellent first step. He gets into his opponent and is able to control the point of attack with his power and hand use. He is an alert, instinctive player who finds the ball and makes plays.

As a pass rusher, he may lack ideal size, but he is powerful through the hips and generates a very good bull rush. While he doesn’t have long arms, he has quick hands, and he makes it difficult for his opponent to block him.

Overall, I think Jernigan’s best fit is as a zero or one-technique in a 4-3. If he gets a little bigger, he can also play nose in a 3-4, but he is not the ideal fit.

4) Kelcy Quarles – South Carolina

This is a name that you don’t hear a lot in draftnik conversation, but everyone in the NFL knows him. While teammate Jadeveon Clowney got all the headlines, Quarles made all the plays. Quarles is one productive inside player. He had 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013. Those are excellent numbers for an inside player.

Like Jernigan, Quarles plays on the nose as well as the one. two, and three-technique positions. He has good, not great, size at 6040 – 300. He is a long armed guy and has the frame to carry 310. He has good speed (5.0), to go along with good change of direction and body control. I'm concerned that he has a tendency to play tall. He is a bit straight-legged, and that hampers his lateral agility a bit.

Still, he is a quick reactor and a top competitor. He makes plays versus the run and pass and goes all out every play. He is well coached and knows how to use his hands. For a big guy, he makes a lot of pursuit plays. He has some speed and always takes good angles to the ball.

Overall, Quarles is an every down player who can play in both a three man or four man front. His best fit is as a 4-3 defensive tackle. While he won’t go in the first round, I feel he is a second round lock.

5) Anthony Johnson – LSU

This is another name that you don’t hear that often. I debated between Anthony and Dominique Easley, but with Easley having had two ACL injuries, I went with Johnson.

Johnson is a third-year junior. LSU may do a better job in recruiting defensive linemen than any other program in the country. Year after year, they bring in quality linemen, and because most leave early, they all seem to play.

Johnson only started in the 2013 season, but he got significant playing time his first two years. He came to LSU at over 330 and played 2013 at closer to 300. He is very athletic with speed, quickness, and body control. He has good instincts and is quick off the ball. He can be a tough guy to block and has shown that he can occupy two blockers. He has good hand use and shows he can get rid of blocks. With his quickness and power, he gets penetration and is disruptive in the run game.

He doesn’t get many sacks as a pass rusher, but he is, again, disruptive and does get pressures. He is a very good bull rusher but needs to develop his counter moves. I feel Johnson can play in both a three or four man front and be productive in either. He will get drafted in the second or third round.

Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

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