2014 NFL Draft Position Review: Defensive Tackles

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2014 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2014 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated Feb. 13, 2014. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Defensive Tackles

Defensive Tackle Class
Early-round talent: A
Mid-round: A-
Late-round: B+
Overall grade: A

2014 prospects vs 2013
Louis Nix < Sheldon Richardson
Timmy Jernigan < Star Lotulelei
Ra’Shede Hageman = Sharrif Floyd
Aaron Donald = Sylvester Williams
Ego Ferguson < Kawann Short
Anthony Johnson < Johnathan Hankins
Will Sutton > Bennie Logan
DaQuan Jones < John Jenkins

Last year, I had the 2013 defensive tackle class graded with an A+, B+, B- and an overall grade of an A. Therefore, it was really tough to say some of the 2013 prospects are better than the 2014 players who are also an A-grade class. There also are some apples and oranges comparisons. Louis Nix and Sheldon Richardson are completely different kinds of defensive linemen, so that makes it hard to say that Richardson is a better prospect than Nix because they would go to teams looking for different things.

If you were to merge the two classes, there is more equality. Nix would go behind Richardson and be about even with Lotulelei. Jernigan and Hageman would be about equal to Floyd. The same goes for Donald and Williams as late first-round or early second-round prospects. Short is a better prospect than Ferguson. Those two would go behind Hankins but ahead of their former teammate Logan. Sutton would go ahead of Logan, and Jones would go behind Jenkins.

It will be interesting to see how this year’s prospects perform at the NFL Scouting Combine. We’ll do a tackle update after the Combine as well. Some other defensive tackles who could be second-day picks include South Carolina’s Kelcy Quarles, USC’s George Uko, Tennessee’s Daniel McCullers, Princeton’s Caraun Reid and California’s DeAndre Coleman.



Safest Pick: Louis Nix, Notre Dame
The heavy Nix looks like a very safe pick to pan out in the NFL. He is a load at the point of attack who can cause a lot of disruption. Even when Nix is kept out of the backfield, he is nearly impossible to move off the line of scrimmage. Nix won’t ever put up a big sack total in the NFL, but he should be an excellent run-stuffer, eat up a lot of blockers and get some push down the pocket. It would be very surprising if Nix was a bust.

Biggest Bust Potential: Anthony Johnson, LSU
One has to wonder if Johnson will ever put it all together. He was nicknamed “The Freak” because of his size, strength and speed combination, but that never turned into production at LSU. 2013 was supposed to be the season when the junior became dominant, but it didn’t happen. He had 35 tackles with three sacks and was inconsistent again. Johnson was outperformed by teammate Ego Ferguson. In the NFL, one has to wonder if Johnson will be able to put it all together.



Defensive Tackles Rankings by Attributes


Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: J.J. Watt, Texans
  1. Aaron Donald
  2. Will Sutton
  3. Timmy Jernigan
  4. Ra’Shede Hageman
  5. Ego Ferguson
  6. Anthony Johnson
  7. DaQuan Jones
  8. Louis Nix


Recap: The NFL is always searching for interior linemen who can get after the quarterback. They are a hard commodity to find, and one can make a massive impact on a teams’ ability to rush the passer. Tackles who can rush the quarterback set up a lot of sacks for edge rushers via disruption and double-teams. The fastest way to get to a quarterback is from the middle.

Not only does Donald have the biggest 2013 sack total of this group with 11, he was very consistent with 27.5 sacks over the past three seasons. That is a real accomplishment and Donald showed overwhelming pass rush ability at the Senior Bowl. He has speed, strength and moves. His pass rushing is his best attribute.

Sutton is a very good pass-rusher as well. In 2012, he beat linemen with explosive speed and a nice repertoire of moves. Sutton had 13 sacks as a junior, but saw his production and speed go down as a senior after he gained 15 pounds of bad weight. Once Sutton loses it, he should be back to his old ways.

Jernigan had 4.5 sacks in 2013, and he also is a good pass-rusher. Jernigan applied consistent pressure on the quarterback throughout the season and was very disruptive. In the NFL, he should be a fine interior rusher and probably will produce bigger sack totals than in college.

Hageman is a good pass-rusher who is better than his 2013 total indicates (two sacks). He was constantly double-teamed. Hageman can beat blockers with power or speed.

Ferguson and Johnson can be dangerous pass-rushers, but are more streaky. Either can beat guards with speed but both have to become more consistent.

Jones flashed some pass rush at times and has some quickness. He needs to improve his repertoire of moves. Jones can be disruptive.

While Nix is ranked last, he isn’t bad in pass defense. Nix helped create a lot of sacks the past two seasons by getting push down the middle and forcing the quarterback out of the pocket.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: Haloti Ngata, Ravens
  1. Louis Nix
  2. Ra’Shede Hageman
  3. DaQuan Jones
  4. Ego Ferguson
  5. Timmy Jernigan
  6. Aaron Donald
  7. Will Sutton
  8. Anthony Johnson


Recap: Nix is an excellent run-defender. He is extremely strong at the point of attack and stuffs runs that come his direction. Nix regularly ate up double-teams in 2012 to make tackles close to the line of scrimmage or set up Manti Te’o for a tackle of a short gain. Nix also can bust into the backfield to make tackles for a loss. He is very good in short-yardage situations as well.

Hageman is a superb run-defender. He holds his ground when runs come straight at him and also has the ability to shed his block to chase down ball-carriers.

Coming from the Big Ten, Jones has developed ability as a run-defender. He is tough at the point of attack. Ferguson also is active as he had a nice tackle total (58) in 2013. Jernigan (6-2, 298) is undersized, but he is very strong for his size and uses that along with his speed to be a good run-defender in and out of his gap. The junior had 63 tackles in 2013.

Donald (6-0, 288) is similar to Jernigan. He is undersized, yet very strong for his size. Donald showed his run-defense potential in 2013 by leading the country in tackles for a loss with 28.5. He also had 59 tackles. However, I have Donald lower because at sub-290 pounds, he could have some run-defense challenges in the NFL when he has bigger, stronger and heavier guards going straight at him. That will be the most important test for Donald as pro.

The only good thing about Sutton’s weight gain was he was more stout at the point of attack last year. It will be interesting to see how his run defense is impacted by the weight loss.

Johnson has the potential to be a good run-defender, but he wasn’t consistent enough as a junior.



Motor:
NFL prototype: J.J. Watt, Texans
  1. Aaron Donald
  2. Timmy Jernigan
  3. DaQuan Jones
  4. Louis Nix
  5. Ra’Shede Hageman
  6. Will Sutton
  7. Ego Ferguson
  8. Anthony Johnson


Recap: The top-three players – Donald, Jernigan and Jones – all have excellent motors. None of them is as good as Sheldon Richardson last year. He was utterly relentless to chase down wideouts downfield. Donald and Jernigan don’t quit, and each fights through the whistle. Jones can be blocked, but he doesn’t give up until the play is over.

A lot of heavier defensive linemen are prone to taking plays off because of not being in as good of shape, but Nix gives good effort. He hustles after the ball and isn’t one to quit.

Hageman has a good motor, and you don’t see him dogging it. Sutton is similar, but as stated above, he can wear down at times.

Ferguson doesn’t have a bad motor, but he doesn’t blow you away either. Johnson looks like he takes some plays off. Johnson can fall quiet for stretches.

Speed:
NFL prototype: Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers
  1. Timmy Jernigan
  2. Ego Ferguson
  3. Anthony Johnson
  4. Aaron Donald
  5. Ra’Shede Hageman
  6. Will Sutton
  7. Louis Nix
  8. DaQuan Jones


Recap: Jernigan is the fastest defender in this group. He is the most explosive off the snap with great closing speed. Jernigan can flatout run to get to plays outside of his gap. Ferguson and Johnson aren’t far behind. They both show special quickness off the ball and some times their speed can be overwhelming. However, neither Ferguson nor Johnson were as consistent as Jernigan. Donald also is very fast. Speed is an asset attribute for all of the top four.

Hageman has quickness to his game, and nobody would say he’s a plodder.

A year ago, Sutton would have been ranked first or second in this category, but his weight gain sapped him of his explosiveness. He’ll have to live and die by his speed in the NFL after dropping that weight. If you reranked these players in the speed attribute in a year’s time Sutton could be near the top.

Nix flashes a burst as well, but isn’t as quick as the other tackles. Size and power are his strengths. Nix does have a nice get-off. Jones has some quickness. Even though he’s ranked last, speed isn’t a weakness of his game.



Strength:
NFL prototype: Ndamukong Suh, Lions
  1. Louis Nix
  2. Ra’Shede Hageman
  3. DaQuan Jones
  4. Timmy Jernigan
  5. Aaron Donald
  6. Ego Ferguson
  7. Anthony Johnson
  8. Will Sutton


Recap: Nix is definitely the strongest of the defenders. He can hold his ground against double-teams and has the strength to toss blockers to the side. Against one-on-ones, Nix can be impossible to hold up.

Hageman is very strong as well. Offensive linemen can’t push him around, and he could get better if he improves his ability to shed blocks. Hageman shown the ability to beat some double-teams as well.

Jones, Donald and Jernigan are all strong for their size. They also play with good leverage. Donald has massive arms and shoulders, but his frame looks maxed out at 288 pounds. Ferguson has deceptive strength for a speedy tackle. He holds his ground well and flashes some ability to push offensive linemen around.

Johnson flashes some power at times, but doesn’t show it enough for it to be considered an asset. Sutton was stronger in 2013, but he won’t be a power player in the NFL.

3-4 Defensive End:
NFL prototype: J.J. Watt, Texans
  1. Ra’Shede Hageman
  2. Louis Nix
  3. Ego Ferguson
  4. DaQuan Jones
  5. Will Sutton
  6. Anthony Johnson
  7. Timmy Jernigan
  8. Aaron Donald


Recap: This group doesn’t have a lot of natural 3-4 ends, but Hageman could be the exception. Being 6-foot-6 and 318-pounds means he has the height, length and strength to be a five-technique. It wouldn’t be surprising if Hageman is drafted in the first round by a 3-4 team to play end or nose tackle. He is very versatile.

Some 3-4 teams play heavy players at end, so Nix could get consideration there. He definitely has the power to overwhelm tackles, especially the light pass-protectors at left tackle.

Ferguson has some speed and length to play at end. Jones could be a 3-4 end as well. He has the power to execute as a five-technique.

Sutton, Johnson, Jernigan and Donald are all poor fits as 3-4 ends. They are 4-3 tackles.

Three-Technique:
NFL prototype: Geno Atkins, Bengals
  1. Aaron Donald
  2. Timmy Jernigan
  3. Will Sutton
  4. Anthony Johnson
  5. Ego Ferguson
  6. DaQuan Jones
  7. Ra’Shede Hageman
  8. Louis Nix


Recap: Good three-techniques are generally hard to find, but this draft class has a bunch of them. The first five above have all shown the ability to be skilled three-techniques. Donald’s speed, pass-rush ability and motor give him the top spot. He is a natural three-technique who has a game that flashes similarities to Geno Atkins, Warren Sapp and John Randle. Ditto for Jernigan, but Donald was a more productive pass-rusher, so he gets the top spot.

Sutton is just a hair below Jernigan. In 2012, Sutton was a great three-technique given the way he fired into the gap off the guard’s outside shoulder. The speedy tackle was disruptive, which is what a three0technique needs to do more than anything else. If Sutton gets back to that, he could be a steal.

Johnson and Ferguson are both good fits as three-techniques with their speed and athleticism. Both prospects have a lot of upside to develop. Atkins did as well when he fell to the mid-rounds.

Jones has some quickness, but lacks the pure explosion to be an elite three-technique. Hageman could be more of a power three-technique. He is more of a nose tackle, but could play three-technique if needed. Nix isn’t a three-technique.

3-4 Nose Tackle:
NFL prototype: Vince Wilfork, Patriots
  1. Louis Nix
  2. Ra’Shede Hageman
  3. DaQuan Jones
  4. Aaron Donald
  5. Timmy Jernigan
  6. Will Sutton
  7. Ego Ferguson
  8. Anthony Johnson


Recap: A good nose tackle in a 3-4 defense is a tough commodity to find. Someone like Vince Wilfork sets the tone for the pass rush and the run defense by blasting the center into the backfield. An effective zero-technique stuffs the run and occupies interior blockers to open up lanes for blitzes up the middle.

Nix played nose tackle for years and is very skilled at it. A few seasons from now, he could easily be the player who replaces Wilfork as the prototype. Nix is a natural with his power, burst and body type. He should be a perfect fit manning the zero-technique in a 3-4 defense.

Hageman also has experience playing nose tackle. He can line up over centers and overwhelm them. As stated above, Hageman would be a good fit in a 3-4 that bounces between the five- and zero-techniques. Jones has enough beef to get consideration as a nose tackle.

Some 3-4 teams like smaller and squatty nose tackles. Those teams might like Donald, Jernigan and Sutton for those roles, but all of those prospects will probably get drafted by 4-3 teams. Ditto for Johnson and Ferguson. Neither one of them showed the ability to man the middle of a 3-4 at LSU as the Tigers run a 4-3 defense.




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