Interior defensive linemen get caught up in the anonymity of the trenches and they don't even have the profile of offensive left tackles protecting their quarterback's blind side. The NFL still recognizes the deep value of an elite defensive tackle, and it has shown in recent drafts that saw Marcell Dareus, Ndamukong Suh, and Gerald McCoy all go in the top three.
Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei could be the next top three overall defensive tackle. Here's why:
Lotulelei is consistently the first defensive (and offensive) lineman up and out of his stance. His snap count anticipation and first-step explosion are exceptional for a defensive tackle. He gets the drop on his opponent and is heady and aggressive enough to often land the first blow and get the offensive lineman staggering backwards. His motor runs hot and he'll get pressure by endurance. Lotulelei is a major disruption in the run game, almost always pushing his opponent into the backfield, if not shedding him and making a tackle for a loss.
Yes, that's Lotulelei covering a running back as a receiver out of the backfield at the bottom the screen. He forced an incompletion on the play. Lotulelei runs and moves amazingly well for a 6'4" 320 lb. man. Think Haloti Ngata.
AGAINST THE PASS
Lotuleiei's ability to move allows defensive coordinators to create exotic blitzes by dropping him into coverage. He is very aware for a defensive tackle and can diagnose screen passes or otherwise change his plan of attack. Lotulelei is also very good at getting his huge paws up in the air when he sees the quarterback unloading the ball. Look at the air the big man gets here:
You never see Lotuleiei getting pushed backwards. He either stalemates double teams or gets his single opponent going backwards on rollerskates. Running backs who try to block him are treated the way a windshield treats a gnat. Lotulelei can also do a brick wall impression:
Lotulelei does not change direction well. He misses tackles in the backfield on quarterbacks and running backs too easily if they use this to their advantage. The weakness caused him to take a face mask penalty in one game I reviewed. This tendency to get too much forward momentum also causes Lotulelei to take himself out of plays by getting too far upfield after winning the battle at the line of scrimmage.
Lotulelei plays high as a pass rusher and can be steered by a skillful blocker. He has almost no variety of pass rush moves beyond the bull rush. Still, when he gets a quarterback in his sights who can't elude him, this is what they see:
NFL quarterbacks will be seeing that in a little over a year. Good luck guys.