2021 NFL Draft Position Review: Defensive Tackles

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2021 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2021 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated April 16, 2021. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Defensive Tackles

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

Merging the 2021 and 2020 prospects
Derrick Brown
Javon Kinlaw
Christian Barmore
Ross Blacklock
Raekwon Davis
Levi Onwuzurike
Justin Madubuike
Daviyon Nixon
DaVon Hamilton
Neville Gallimore
Jordan Elliott
Jay Tufele
Tyler Shelvin
Marvin Wilson
Osa Odighizuwa
Tedarrell Slaton

Just to be clear this article and series is all my opinion based off my own study and information I’ve gotten from general managers, directors of college scouting, national scouts, area scouts, and NFL coaches who know way more than I do.

Last year was a “B” grade group of defensive tackles, with two prospects worthy of being picked in the top half of the first round and some solid depth into Day 2. There is a big drop-off at defensive tackle for the 2021 NFL Draft, as only one will probably go in the first round. The prospects for Days 2 and 3 are also underwhelming. Around the league, the consensus in the scouting community is this is a bad year for defensive tackle talent.

Derrick Brown and Javon Kinlaw were better prospects than Christian Barmore, but they were much more developed and advanced as seniors compared to Barmore, who is a redshirt sophomore. Some sources felt that if Barmore had gone back to school and developed, he could have been a top-10 pick in the 2022 or 2023 NFL Draft. Barmore is the top tackle for the 2021 NFL Draft and will probably end up as the only first-round pick at the position.

Levi Onwuzurike is not as good of a prospect as 2020 second-round picks Ross Blacklock and Raekwon Davis. Justin Madubuike slid to the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft because of character concerns, but on the field, he was better than Onwuzurike and Daviyon Nixon. This year’s group of Jay Tufele, Tyler Shelvin, Marvin Wilson, Osa Odighizuwa and Tedarrell Slaton are worse prospects than 2020 third-round picks DaVon Hamilton, Neville Gallimore and Jordan Elliott.

Safest Pick: Christian Barmore, Alabama
Previous Picks:
2020: Derrick Brown
2019: Christian Wilkins
2018: Vita Vea
2017: Jonathan Allen
2016: Jarran Reed
2015: Leonard Williams
2014: Louis Nix
2013: Star Lotulelei

Looking at the past years, I was way off on Nix, but the rest all of turned into solid pros. Reed broke out in 2018 for the Seahawks and has turned into a solid pro. Lotulelei is a moderate disappointment as a top-16 pick, but he has been a serviceable NFL player. Williams quickly became a Pro Bowler for the Jets and was a beast for the Giants in 2020. Allen has played really well thus far for Washington. Vea has been very good in his three seasons. It is far too early to pass any judgement on Wilkins, but Brown had a strong rookie season.

The 2021 NFL Draft doesn’t really have’t a defensive tackle who jumps out as a safe pick to turn into a good NFL starter. Barmore, at least, has rare interior pass-rush ability. Even if he never develops into a good run defender, the NFL is a passing-riven league that has their defenses playing their sub package around 70 percent of snaps. Thus, Barmore’s natural pass-rush ability could lead to him being a good pro even if he is a liability against the run. Of the defensive tackle prospects for the 2021 NFL Draft, Barmore is the most special and the most rare.

Biggest Bust Potential: Marvin Wilson, Florida State
Previous Picks:
2020: Ross Blacklock
2019: Jerry Tillery
2018: Maurice Hurst
2017: Malik McDowell
2016: Robert Nkemdiche
2015: Mario Edwards Jr.
2014: Anthony Johnson
2013: Jesse Williams

I have a pretty good track record here. McDowell’s career was over before it started because of an ATV accident, so that doesn’t really count. Nkemdiche was a huge bust for the Cardinals, and Edwards was a bust for the Raiders. I was right about Anthony Johnson and Jesse Williams too, although both fell in the draft and weren’t the early-round prospects who some in the media made them out to be. Hurst has not been special for the Raiders. Tillery didn’t do much as a rookie, but flashed real potential in 2020. Blacklock had a rough rookie year, but after just one season, it is too early to pass any judgement on him.

Wilson could be a second-day pick based on his 2019 season, but his 2020 campaign was awful. He was a complete non-factor as a pass rusher and looked like was stuck in concrete as a senior. On top of looking bad to close out his college career, team sources say Wilson is a pain to deal with and has the reputation of being a locker room lawyer. Of the 2021 tackle prospects, I think a team could reach on Wilson and end up disappointed.

Defensive Tackles Rankings by Attributes

Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: Aaron Donald, Rams
  1. Christian Barmore
  2. Osa Odighizuwa
  3. Daviyon Nixon
  4. Jay Tufele
  5. Levi Onwuzurike
  6. Marvin Wilson
  7. Tyler Shelvin
  8. Tedarrell Slaton

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 team’s 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.

As an interior pass rusher, Barmore is a special and rare prospect. He has excellent speed off the snap, with a fast first-step and more acceleration after that initial burst. He gets upfield in a hurry thanks to his ability to fire his gap and dart past guards, displaying surprising speed for a big-bodied defensive tackle. That quickness leads to speed-to-power rushes where Barmore rolls offensive linemen into the quarterback as they backpedal to try to compensate for his speed. While Barmore is not strong in the ground game, he shows power in the bull rush to get blockers on roller skates and push them into the backfield. With his length, he keeps blockers from getting into his chest, and he shows strong hands to shed blocks.

On top of his speed and power as a pass rusher, Barmore also has good vision and awareness to adjust to scrambling quarterbacks, yet he retains the keen ball awareness to go for the strip or bat down passes. Barmore is very difficult to block n the pass rush, and he has the rare ability to do that from the interior. I think Barmore is capable of being a special defensive tackle who produces double-digit sack seasons. Barmore’s in-line pass-rush ability coming from a defensive tackle is a very tough commodity to find, and if he has a good defensive end on his line, he could be even more deadly.

Odighizuwa is a dangerous interior pass rusher. He has a burst off the snap that lets him fire upfield to penetrate the pocket, and his relentless motor helps him finish rushes by outfighting blockers to get to the quarterback. Odighizuwa uses active hands to keep guards from getting a hold of him, and his natural pad level keeps him low with good leverage. Thanks to his quality athleticism and agility, Odighizuwa can contort his body to dip underneath blockers and keep gaining on the quarterback. Odighizuwa’s speed and athleticism to contribute in the pass rush are his calling card to get drafted and play in the NFL.

For an interior pass rusher, Nixon is dangerous with special quickness and athleticism. He closes on the quarterback in a hurry and shows good vision, instincts and awareness to adjust to a moving signal-caller. By using his natural and functional strength, Nixon can push through blocks and can close in an instant on the quarterback. He could stand to expand his variety of his pass-rushing moves for the NFL to continue getting after the quarterback, but Nixon showed some variety with his moves in 2020.

Tufele flashes the ability to contribute in putting pressure on the quarterback. Tufele is quick off the snap, and he plays with good pad level to gain leverage on offensive linemen. Tufele possesses a strong swim move and active hands to shed guards, although swim moves are harder to win with in the NFL. Hall of Fame Warren Sapp will always say to save the swim move for the beach because it doesn’t work on NFL guards. Tufele does have developed upper body strength to shove blockers away, and he shows a burst to close. In both phases, Tufele displays an excellent motor and doesn’t quit on plays, going hard through the whistle. He is going to need to improve his pass-rushing moves for the NFL in order to diversify how he intends to beat blockers.

Onwuzurike is more disruptive than productive in terms of the pass rush, and that is illustrated with his paltry seven total sacks over three years of playing time. He is quick to fire his gap, showing an excellent burst off the ball that lets him get into offensive linemen faster than they expect. Onwuzurike uses his speed to push upfield and create some interior pressure. He can get tied up after that initial burst, however, so he never produced a lot of sacks. Onwuzurike needs to improve his pass-rushing moves to shed those second-effort blocks and get home more often. If Onwuzurike maintains his current level of play or just demonstrates marginal improvement, he might produce three to five sacks per year, which would make him more of a contributor in the pass rush rather than a difference-maker.

In the pass rush, Wilson is a case of different stories. In 2019, he showed some strength to fight through blocks and some quickness to close for a big body. He was a complete non-factor in 2020, however, seemingly incapable of getting off blocks. His bull rush did not generate a push, he was very tight and lacked athleticism, and he did not show the speed to fire his gap to get upfield. Wilson also lacked any variety in his pass-rushing moves – such as rip, club, or spin moves – was a complete non-factor in that phase as a senior. If Wilson doesn’t put together a big turnaround at the next level, he will be relegated to the bench on the majority of snaps.

Shelvin and Slaton flash some pass-rush ability for nose tackles, as they can on occasion collapse the pocket with a bull rush. Neither is that consistent, and both will probably rotate out of the game a fair amount in pass-rushing situations.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: J.J. Watt, Cardinals
  1. Tyler Shelvin
  2. Tedarrell Slaton
  3. Jay Tufele
  4. Levi Onwuzurike
  5. Marvin Wilson
  6. Daviyon Nixon
  7. Christian Barmore
  8. Osa Odighizuwa

Recap: Shelvin and Slaton are both tough run defenders for the NFL as they are nearly immoveable objects at the point of attack. They both have a good lateral anchor to take on bump blocks and double teams without getting pushed out of their gaps. With their large size and mass, Shelvin (6-3, 346) and Slaton (6-5, 343) should be tough nose tackles to eat up blocks and cause pile-ups at the line of scrimmage.

Tufele is generally a solid defender against run. He uses his strong upper body to keep guards from pushing him off the ball, and he shows a nice ability to push off and pursue down the line to get in on tackles. With good agility for a thickly built tackle, Tufele does nice job of redirecting through trash to get in on stops. He can also fire his gap to penetrate into the backfield to cause disruption. Tufele can get covered up by longer and bigger defenders, and he could stand to improve his ability to take on bump blocks for the NFL. That will be especially important if Tufele is going to play nose tackle for his pro team.

Onwuzurike is a tough run defender who shows some developed strength to stack his blocker at the line of scrimmage. He plays with nice pad level and leverage to not get pushed backward and maintain gap integrity. With strong hands and some power in his upper body, Onwuzurike is able to fight off blockers and does a nice job of getting in on tackles outside of his gap. He also has a good motor and gives a real effort to run to the ball downfield to get in on tackles.

Against the run, Wilson is generally stout at the point of attack. He uses his size and length to hold his ground, plus has the ability to fight off blocks. In 2019, Wilson used strength and length to fight off blocks and flow to the ball, but in 2020, he was very stationary, just causing a stalemate at the point of attack. Overall, Wilson does a nice job of holding down his gap and plugging up runs that come downhill at him. He has the size and strength to occasionally push his way upfield and cause disruption in the backfield. Wilson is a solid run defender heading into the next level, and it is his best trait.

Nixon is a solid run defender and has a strong, thick lower body to hold his ground at the line of scrimmage. He fills his gap and can be tough to move. Nixoncan eat up his block, prevent holes from opening up, and maintain gap integrity. As a junior, he improved his ability to shed his block to stuff a run near the line of scrimmage or fire into the backfield to disrupt a run off the snap. He also will give an effort to make tackles in the ground game downfield, and he plays with a steady motor.

If Barmore were a good run defender, he would be a top-10 pick, similar to other Alabama defensive tackles like Quinnen Williams and Jonathan Allen. Barmore, however, struggled in the ground game for a lot of his collegiate career. As a pro, Barmore has to get physical and tougher in the ground game. He ends up out of his gap too often due to improvising rather than holding his ground. He can play too high and get out-physicaled by offense linemen. Barmore has the skill set to be a good run defender and showed improvement late in 2020 – see the Notre Dame and Ohio State games -, but currently, Barmore will be a liability as a run defender in the NFL and needs a lot of development in this phase.

Odighizuwa (6-2, 280) is a liability in run defense entering the next level. Considering he is vastly undersized for a pro defensive tackle, those issues may never change. Odighizuwa lacks the length, height and weight to stand up blockers and keep them from getting a push. He can get knocked off the ball, and power guards in the NFL are going to pose a problem for pushing Odighizuwa out of his gap. He is going to have real issues defending downhill runs coming straight at him.

NFL prototype: Aaron Donald, Rams
  1. Osa Odighizuwa
  2. Christian Barmore
  3. Levi Onwuzurike
  4. Daviyon Nixon
  5. Jay Tufele
  6. Tyler Shelvin
  7. Tedarrell Slaton
  8. Marvin Wilson

Recap: Odighizuwa is the fastest given his explosion off the snap and ability to fire into the backfield. Those advantages are to be expected considering how light he is. Barmore could be just a little slower than Odighizuwa, but Barmore is about 30 pounds heavier. Onwuzurike, Nixon and Tufele have a disruptive burst off the ball. They are all quick at the point of attack and have the speed necessary to fire a gap and get upfield.

Similar to say the Bengals’ D.J. Reader, Shelvin and Slaton are quick for the type of player they are as heavy nose tackles. Wilson showed more speed in 2019, but in 2020, he looked very slow and sluggish.

NFL prototype: Chris Jones, Chiefs
  1. Christian Barmore
  2. Osa Odighizuwa
  3. Levi Onwuzurike
  4. Daviyon Nixon
  5. Jay Tufele
  6. Marvin Wilson
  7. Tyler Shelvin
  8. Tedarrell Slaton

Recap: Good three-techniques are generally hard to find, and this class has a few players who can do some work at the position.

Barmore and Odighizuwa are natural three-techniques with their speed. That is really the only spot they fit in at the pro level given their weaknesses as run defenders. Onwuzurike, Nixon and Tufele have the speed to be a three-techniques, and that is the best role for all three of them.

Wilson, Shelvin and Slaton won’t fit as three-techniques in the NFL. They are all heavy nose tackles.

3-4 Defensive End:
NFL prototype: J.J. Watt, Cardinals
  1. Marvin Wilson
  2. Christian Barmore
  3. Tedarrell Slaton
  4. Tyler Shelvin
  5. Jay Tufele
  6. Levi Onwuzurike
  7. Daviyon Nixon
  8. Osa Odighizuwa

Recap: This group does not have a lot of natural fits for 3-4 defensive ends. Wilson would be a functional fit to play a five-technique role. He has enough length and strength to set the edge, but he lacks the speed to contribute to the pass rush going against tackles.

Barmore has good length and weight to set the edge with the speed and athleticism to give tackles issues in the pass rush. However, his lack of physicality and issues in the ground game would be problematic as a 3-4 defensive end.

A team could get away with Slaton playing some five-technique because he has the weight and length to hold his ground, but he is more of a nose tackle in a 3-4. Shelton is also a nose tackle in a 3-4. Tufele, Onwuzurike, Nixon and Odighizuwa also don’t fit as 3-4 defensive ends, given their lack of size for that position.

3-4 Nose Tackle:
NFL prototype: D.J. Reader, Bengals
  1. Tyler Shelvin
  2. Tedarrell Slaton
  3. Marvin Wilson
  4. Jay Tufele
  5. Levi Onwuzurike
  6. Daviyon Nixon
  7. Christian Barmore
  8. Osa Odighizuwa

Recap: A good nose tackle for 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.

The 2021 NFL Draft has a couple of 3-4 nose tackles who could be nice mid-round values in Shelvin and Slaton. Both are big, thick, strong and heavy. They could be steals in the draft for this role, similar to Reader was for the Texans coming out of Clemson.

Wilson has the skill set to fit as a zero-technique thanks to size and strength. Tufele could have enough strength and weight to play zero-technique. Even though Tufele lacks the height and weight of most nose tackles, he is strong and capable of stuffing blockers.

The rest of this group wouldn’t fit as well as nose tackles. Onwuzurike, Nixon, Barmore and Odighizuwa don’t have the size or strength to be nose-tackle run stuffers in a 3-4 defense.

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