2017 NFL Draft Position Review: Defensive Tackles

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2017 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2017 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated March 10, 2017. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Defensive Tackles

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

Merging the 2017 and 2016 prospects
Jonathan Allen
Sheldon Rankins
Caleb Brantley
Robert Nkemdiche
Vernon Butler
Kenny Clark
Malik McDowell
Montravius Adams
A’Shawn Robinson
Eddie Goldman
Jarran Reed
Jaleel Johnson
Jonathan Bullard
Carlos Watkins
Adolphus Washington
Jarron Jones
Charles Walker

This marks the fifth straight season where there is a strong class of defensive tackles, yet the 2016 group could be the best of the bunch because it is loaded with talent. There are interior defensive lineman who will go in Rounds 3-5 who would be selected a round or two higher in a normal year.

If you were to merge the two classes, there is a lot of equality. Jonathan Allen is the best prospect over the past two years. He is closer to the caliber of prospect of Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy or Leonard Williams. Rankins is ahead of Brantley, but they are similar players. McDowell has a skill set that is better than Nkemdiche, Butler or Clark, but McDowell could go later than they did because of character concerns.

Adams is on a par as a prospect with Robinson, Goldman and Reed as a second-rounder. Adams is a better pass-rusher than that trio, thus he is ranked higher. Johnson and Watkins are third-round caliber players on a par with Bullard and Washington. Jones and Walker are behind Washington.

Safest Pick: Jonathan Allen, Alabama
This was an easy pick. Allen is one of the best prospects in the 2017 NFL Draft. He was superb for Alabama in 2015 and went on to dominate in 2016. In the pass rush, Allen is tremendous as an interior speed rusher, but he is also able to beat tackles to put heat on the quarterback. In the ground game, Allen is stout at the point of attack with the ability to fill his gap and is very hard to move at the line of scrimmage. Allen eats up his block and prevents holes from opening up.

Looking at the past years, I was way off on Nix, though it is too early to pass judgement on Reed. Lotulelei has been good for Carolina, and Williams is a pro bowler for the Jets.

Previous Picks:
2016: Jarran Reed
2015: Leonard Williams
2014: Louis Nix
2013: Star Lotulelei

Biggest Bust Potential: Malik McDowell, Michigan State
This was a difficult choice because I love McDowell’s skill set. His size, speed and athleticism are tremendous. Teams have big concerns, however, about his motor and work ethic. He also doesn’t know much regarding technique and will need to learn a lot for the NFL. McDowell was good at the beginning of last season, but seemed to shut it down after getting banged up while the Spartans were in the midst of a losing season.

Some team sources said that McDowell didn’t interview well at the combine. I think he is going to need to go to a perfect situation in order to pan out. He will need strong locker room leadership, good coaching, and scheme stability. I think McDowell is a great talent, but I think here could be bust potential because of the lackluster work ethic and motor.

Reviewing the past, I could be right about Nkemdiche as he was inactive for a lot of his rookie season, but it still is way too early to say he is a bust. It is too early to pass judgement on Edwards as well. I was right about Anthony Johnson and Jesse Williams, although both fell in the draft and weren’t the early round prospects who some made them out to be.

Previous Picks:
2016: Robert Nkemdiche
2015: Mario Edwards Jr.
2014: Anthony Johnson
2013: Jesse Williams

Defensive Tackles Rankings by Attributes

Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: J.J. Watt, Texans
  1. Jonathan Allen
  2. Montravius Adams
  3. Jaleel Johnson
  4. Caleb Brantley
  5. Malik McDowell
  6. Carlos Watkins
  7. Charles Walker
  8. Jarron Jones

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 up the middle, and even just forcing quarterbacks to get off their drop spot hurts the passing game. Pass rush up the middle is more disruptive for quarterbacks than edge rushing.

In the pass rush, Allen is tremendous. He is a quick defender at the point of attack with the ability to fire his gap. He uses his strength to shed blocks and can close in an instant on the quarterback. Allen has the burst to fire by guards into the backfield and the power to bull rush through linemen. He also has natural strength to manhandle offensive linemen and toss them to the side. Allen will also punish quarterbacks and put them into the turf hard. He has displayed excellent versatility during college in terms of rush production from a variety of positions and techniques. He was dangerous as an end or tackle. Allen is very consistent at putting heat on the quarterback and totaled 21.5 sacks over the past two seasons.

Adams is a good pass-rusher for an interior lineman. He is a speed rusher who can dart by guards and close on the quarterback in a hurry. He also has functional strength to fight off guards. Adams was phenomenal in the pass-rushing one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl. As a three-technique, he could be a dangerous pass-rusher and produce quality sack totals in the NFL.

Johnson and Brantley has similar ability to Adams. Brantley consistently fires by guards to collapse the pocket and create disruption. He is a talented interior rusher even tough he didn’t produce big sack totals. Johnson has pass-rush ability, but was streaky.

McDowell has a special skill set, but lacks consistency and doesn’t always finish. He flashes a serious rush at times, yet only collected six sacks over the past two seasons. The same description applies to Jones as he has the ability to produce more but didn’t.

Watkins had 10.5 sacks last year, but a lot of that was cleaning up quarterbacks stepping up in the pocket. Still, he finished plays well and has some quickness. At the Senior Bowl, Watkins played well and showed the ability to get into the backfield in the pass-rushing one-on-ones.

Walker is more of a disruptive pass-rusher than a player who finishes the play with a sack.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: J.J. Watt, Texans
  1. Jonathan Allen
  2. Jaleel Johnson
  3. Carlos Watkins
  4. Jarron Jones
  5. Caleb Brantley
  6. Malik McDowell
  7. Charles Walker
  8. Montravius Adams

Recap: Allen is very tough as a run defender. He fills his gap and is very hard to move at the line of scrimmage. Allen eats up his block and prevents holes from opening up. Regularly, you will see him shed his block to stuff a run near the line of scrimmage or fire into the backfield to disrupt a run off the snap. Allen is a well-balanced defender who is effective at limiting both the rushing offense and passing attack.

Johnson is stout at the point of attack and totaled 100 tackles over the past two seasons. Watkins is a tough run defender who occupies his gap and is adept at stuffing running lanes. While Jones is tough at the point of attack, he could be more consistent with his ability to make tackles.

Brantley was a disruptive run defender for Florida last year. He will need to work on handling double-teams and taking on runs that come straight at him, but as a junior, he made a lot of good plays in run defense.

McDowell and Walker both flash some nice plays against the run, but weren’t that consistent in their production in defending the ground game.

Adams’ run defense needs to improve for the NFL. He struggled playing a two-gap technique in 2015, and his run defense looks best when he fires his gap to get upfield. Scouting sources had this to say about Adams, “Can physically do what he wants but his block ID is poor, gets earholes when he has to play static. Can’t anticipate what’s coming, similar to Robert Nkemdiche. Same type of ability and issues. Adams probably will run in the 4.8s at the combine. Adams is a good character kid. He isn’t lazy, just still figuring it out.” Thus, Adams needs to develop his instincts, anticipation, and run defense technique to be a well-balanced three-down defender.

NFL prototype: Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers
  1. Caleb Brantley
  2. Malik McDowell
  3. Jonathan Allen
  4. Montravius Adams
  5. Charles Walker
  6. Jaleel Johnson
  7. Carlos Watkins
  8. Jarron Jones

Recap: All of these tackles have speed, which is pretty impressive. There isn’t a whole lot that separates the top four especially. Brantley is the fastest with his get-off and ability to fire into the backfield. McDowell can beat tackles with speed rushes, which sets him apart. Allen and Adams also are fast defenders at the point of attack. They can knife into the backfield with a burst that catches blockers by surprise.

Walker has a lot of speed. However, he barely played last year, so it is harder to compare him with players who played the entire season.

Johnson, Watkins and Jones all have some quickness. Speed isn’t a weakness of their games, so they aren’t slow plodders.

NFL prototype: Ndamukong Suh, Dolphins
  1. Jonathan Allen
  2. Carlos Watkins
  3. Malik McDowell
  4. Jarron Jones
  5. Jaleel Johnson
  6. Caleb Brantley
  7. Montravius Adams
  8. Charles Walker

Recap: Allen and Watkins are the strongest of the defenders. They can hold their ground against double-teams and have the strength to toss blockers to the side.

McDowell (6-6, 295) weighs less than some of these linemen, but he has natural power to him. He can bull rush offensive linemen with violence. He just doesn’t do it consistently.

Jones and Johnson are very strong as well. Offensive linemen can’t push them around, and they can push blockers into the backfield. Both have shown the ability to beat some double-teams as well. Brantley gets into trouble when he stands up too high. When he does that, he loses leverage and his strength goes away, thus he’s behind some of the others.

Adams can have issues with runs coming straight at him and struggled to show the strength to two-gap in 2015. Walker needs to get stronger for the NFL.

NFL prototype: Aaron Donald, Rams
  1. Caleb Brantley
  2. Montravius Adams
  3. Charles Walker
  4. Jonathan Allen
  5. Jaleel Johnson
  6. Malik McDowell
  7. Carlos Watkins
  8. Jarron Jones

Recap: Good three-techniques are generally hard to find, but this draft class has a few of them. The first three above have all shown the ability to be skilled three-techniques. Brantley has speed, pass-rush ability and get-off give him the top spot. He is a natural three-technique who would be a great fit in a Tampa 2.

Adams and Walker are just a little below Brantley. In 2016, Adams was very good as a 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 three-technique needs to do more than anything else. Walker was the same in 2015. He is fast at the point of attack and can dart by offensive linemen. Walker is a natural speed rusher.

Allen also has the speed to be a three-technique in the NFL. Playing that role, where he fights to get upfield and cause disruption, could be his best fit if he is drafted into a 4-3 defense.

Johnson and McDowell both could play as three-techniques with their speed and athleticism. Both prospects have a lot of upside. McDowell’s height and length makes him a better fit as an end in a 4-3 defense.

Watkins and Jones have some quickness, but they are more nose tackles to play next to a true three-technique. If they are drafted into a 4-3 schemes, they will be playing the nose.

3-4 Defensive End:
NFL prototype: J.J. Watt, Texans
  1. Jonathan Allen
  2. Malik McDowell
  3. Jarron Jones
  4. Jaleel Johnson
  5. Montravius Adams
  6. Carlos Watkins
  7. Caleb Brantley
  8. Charles Walker

Recap: This group has a few 3-4 ends. Allen would be a great fit to play a five-technique role. He has enough length and strength to set the edge with the speed to add to the pass rush going against tackles or guards. Allen could be a great fit as a 3-4 defensive end.

McDowell’s best fit would come as a five-technique 3-4 defensive end. He has excellent length, speed, and agility on the edge. If McDowell goes to the right team, he has the potential to be one of the top five-techniques in the NFL.

Jones (6-6, 316) best fit could also come as a 3-4 defensive end. He has long arms (35.5) with height and weight to set the edge. That could be the role that would work for him the best because it would be easier for him to be consistent doing that job rather than causing disruption in a 4-3 system.

Johnson and Adams aren’t great fits as 3-4 ends, but they could probably get away with it. Watkins, Brantley and Walker are all poor fits as 3-4 ends. Brantley and Walker don’t have the length that 3-4 teams look for to match up against offensive tackles. Watkins would be a nose tackle in a 3-4.

3-4 Nose Tackle:
NFL prototype: Dontari Poe, Chiefs
  1. Jarron Jones
  2. Carlos Watkins
  3. Jaleel Johnson
  4. Jonathan Allen
  5. Caleb Brantley
  6. Montravius Adams
  7. Malik McDowell
  8. Charles Walker

Recap: A good nose tackle in a 3-4 defense is a tough commodity to find. Someone like Vince Wilfork or Casey Hampton in their prime 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.

Jones could work well as a zero-technique with his size, burst, and body type. Watkins has the strength and power to man the position. Johnson has enough size to play nose tackle in a 3-4 as well.

Allen also could play nose tackle in a 3-4 because he is so versatile, but really he would be best as a five-technique defensive end. None of Brantley, Adams, McDowell and Walker are fits to be a nose tackle in a 3-4.

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