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Draft Time: Evaluating the Defensive Tackles

Whether it is clogging running lanes or collapsing a pocket from the inside, good Defensive Tackles are where a superior defense starts or never happens at all. With the departure of Aubrayo Franklin, the Bolts need a Nose Tackle. Fortunatlely for the Chargers, there are some good prospects at the need positions in this draft, some of which may fall to the Chargers in the first round or later.

Jamie Sabau

Shariff Floyd, Florida (Projected: Top 10)

6’2", 300 pounds – Floyd had an upbringing that will remind many of Michael Oher’s. Floyd spent two years playing DE before getting moved back to his "natural" position at the interior line. He is the consensus #2 overall pick in this draft, right behind Joeckel. Floyd carries his 300 pound weight well, with wide shoulders and a powerful lower frame. This helps his game by giving him a solid base to anchor himself and hold his ground on run plays. His upper body and arm strength allows Floyd to knock away a blocker’s hands and get free in pass rush situations. He shows flashes of top end lateral agility, good burst, and short area quickness.

Scouts have cited 3 weaknesses to his game; lack of sustained quickness, playing too high at times (loss of leverage), and turning sideways when playing gaps. Two of those weaknesses can be coached out of him; the quickness may improve with NFL physical training. Floyd has shown steady improvement in his 3 years at Florida and many scouts believe he is only scratching the surface of his ability.

He is being compared to a familiar lineman, Corey Liuget. Most draft watchers predict Floyd going to the rivals or perhaps Jacksonville. While I think Floyd has a good future in the NFL, I doubt he will drop to the 11 pick and even if he does, we already have Liuget and Reyes. Our needs lie more in the Nose Tackle area and I do not believe that Floyd is stout enough to play that position well. He will play better as a traditional DT in a 4-3. Your evaluation may be different, though:

2013 NFL Draft Profile: Sharrif Floyd - Florida (via Erick Ward)

Star Lotuleilei, Utah (Projected: Top 20)

6’3", 315 pounds – Star has been playing DT for the last two years drawing double teams often and triple teams on occasion. His natural power and strength still enabled him to post a pretty respectable stat line and make frequent impact plays from a DT position. Star is a big man with a classic Pacific Islander build, which makes him almost impossible to move without perfect technique from a double team. He does show the rare ability to retain leverage and power while moving laterally and has field quickness, not just short area quickness. His initial move can be awesome and devastating; it was not unusual for him to blow up plays before they even really started to develop.

The biggest weakness scouts have cited is somewhat familiar when evaluating young men that were, by a wide margin, superior athletes to their competition at the college level. Star relies on his strength and the violence of his initial burst to win his match-up. He does not possess a lot of moves to shed blockers or win his match-up battle. When a blocker can resist the initial power move, Star can be stalemated. He will need to work on his technique in the NFL to become a complete player. Scouts have also cited his shorter than usual arms (33"+) and "carrying too much weight in the midsection" (Scout speak for packing a spare tire)as physical issues.

Some questions about a heart irregularity (this issue was medically put to rest right after the combine) may have driven down his value, but he is still expected to be a first round choice. Star grades out well as either 3-4 NT or 4-3 DT. This may be a viable option for the team if he drops to 11 and a trade back is not done. The Bolts could do a lot worse for a nose tackle in this year’s draft. Here is Star’s draft profile. It is impressive:

Star Lotulelei - 2013 NFL Draft Profile (via Erick Ward)

Jesse Williams, Alabama (Projected: 1st Rd)

6’4", 323 pounds – Jesse Williams is a fire hydrant of a man with short arms and legs for size, which gives him an imposing center of gravity. The Australian native is also freakishly strong, bench pressing 600 pounds, repping 30 times at the 225 mark and choosing to let that stand (scouts at his pro day thought he was good for at least 5-10 more based on his smoothness over the last 3 lifts). Williams is new to the game (he started playing when he was 15), but has learned well and has shown a good work ethic and passion to improve his game.

He has improved in his hand technique to shed blockers and is developing into a cognitive defender that can diagnose plays and drive to the point of attack. His weaknesses lie in his quickness and agility in pass rushing. He has little of either. Like a lot of other big men, he is vulnerable to cut blocks, especially when he gets his pad level high, which he does too often. He also seems to not be comfortable with clutter at his feet. The effort and strength are there, but the quickness and agility are not. He is compared to Vince Wilfork and that is not a bad thing. I believe his 2nd round grade is proper and if he is able to improve his agility, may be a steal. His draft profile shows a guy that takes up a lot of room in the middle and is pretty active:

Jesse Williams - 2013 NFL Draft profile (via Erick Ward)

Johnathan Hankins, Ohio St (Projected: 2nd Rd)

6’3", 320 pounds – Overuse by Urban Meyer probably did not help Hankins’ draft stock this year. Expected to be a top 12 pick at the beginning of the season, Hankins simply did not come off the field in 2012, playing for 65-70 snaps a game. He noticeably wore down at the end of games during the season, some scouts even stating that he looked like he was "taking plays off". Hankins has a large frame which permits his weight to be evenly distributed. He has good feet and a nice initial burst to split blockers and disrupt. He also possesses good agility, has field quickness, and is capable of being active outside the line box.

His scouted weaknesses raise some real concerns for me. He has a tendency to lose his cool or play out of control, which results in penalties for late hits or other PF’s. He has had a knee sprain that has not seemed to heal over two seasons. Scouts described his effort as "streaky". And like other big men, he is susceptible to cut blocks. Hankins also had a better year statistically in 2011, despite less playing time. Word from Ohio St. also leads some to believe that his weight and conditioning needs to be closely monitored.

Hankins is my least favorite of the three highest rated NT prospects. He does have some good physical tools, but the NFL requires smart play along with the physical requirements. The issues with perceived uneven effort and less than stellar off-season conditioning are deal breakers for me, too. And the recurring issue with the knee is the capper. Spending a second round pick on Hankins is too high of a price for player with that set of question marks. If he is there in the 3rd round, and he is the only option left, perhaps that would be fair value. Maybe you see something different:

Johnathan Hankins - 2013 NFL Draft Profile (via Erick Ward)

John Jenkins, Georgia (Projected: 2nd Rd)

6’4", 332 pounds – "Built like a Coke Machine and just as difficult to move." If that is not a good starting point for an NFL Nose Tackle, what is? For a man his size, he does show a good level of quickness and agility. He does not completely depend on his brute strength to win; he keeps his hands and feet active to either drive towards the QB or slide to the ball carrier. His balance is above average and he does have the ability to shrug off a blocker and tackle a runner trying to get by. Not surprisingly, he is a good bull rusher that can simply drive one or two blockers backwards if he wins the pad level (leverage) battle. He does a good job locating the ball.

His pass rush is hindered simply from his size; even with a good jump off the ball, he is simply too wide to avoid contact and being slowed by blockers. Possessing "phone booth quickness", Jenkins will make very few plays outside his immediate area. Scouts commented upon how early in games he wore down last season and consequent rising of his pad level when fatigued. One factor in his faster wearing down last season was his weight. He recently confessed to weighing 370 pounds during the SEC Championship game. In the first half of that game, he was giving Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones all they could handle, but became a non-factor in the 2nd half.

Jenkins has lost 40 pounds since last December and seems to be concentrating on his fitness headed into the draft. I prefer Jenkins over Hankins. If he is still available in the 3rd round, we should definitely get him; he should be considered if he is still on the board in Round 2. This is a player that should have some specific weight and fitness goals included in his contract. Right now, he is being compared to B.J. Raji which is pretty good, but given the right coaching, weight training and nutritional discipline, he has the potential to be the best Bolt NT since J-Wall. Take a look at the human Coke Machine yourself:

John Jenkins - 2013 NFL Draft Profile (via Erick Ward)

Some concluding notes

While I believe that Lotulelei, Williams, Jenkins, and Hankins would all be contributors this season, they would need to be part of a NT rotation. Hankins and Jenkins are probaly best if used for less than 40 plays, Williams perhaps a few more, and Lotulelei, the best athlete in the bunch, can probably be counted on for 60 plays in a game without breaking down at the end.