Illinois' Akeem Spence could add solid defensive tackle depth as a Day 3 pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Fourth Round, 100th Pick
Akeem Spence declared as a junior for the 2013 NFL draft following a productive three-year career at Illinois. Although he had a very good career for the Fighting Illini, his game is flawed and his upside is limited, which may limit him to a backup role as a long-term NFL player.
Spence is a very good tackler who made a high number of stops for a defensive tackle during his Illinois career (186 total tackles over three seasons, per CFBStats.com). He does an effective job filling the middle as a run-stopper, and when initiating a bull rush, he gets good upper-body drive to push blockers back into the pocket.
Spence’s game suffers from a lack of explosiveness. He is not a very impactful pass-rusher, as he does not have great quickness nor well-developed inside pass-rushing moves, especially when trying to use his hands.
While he can deliver a strong punch as a run defender, he has some issues with counterpunching. He tends to get driven back off the line or down to the ground when he allows the blocker to initiate contact in power run-blocking.
At only 6’1” with 33 1/2” arms, Spence’s height and length are less than ideal for a defensive lineman.
Spence is a decent but unspectacular athlete. He does not have considerable quickness or explosiveness. He runs fairly well for a defensive tackle (he ran a 5.15 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine), but is not going to track down many plays in the open field with his running.
His best physical asset is his strength. He put measurable proof of his strength on display at the combine, putting up 37 repetitions of 225 pounds in the bench press, the third-most of any player at the event.
(All combine results via NFL.com)
Even as an early entry to the draft, Spence has a great deal of experience, having started all 38 games in his three-year Big Ten career.
His motor and endurance over the course of a game are questionable. He fades sometimes, especially in the second half, and he does not always play through to the final whistle.
Off the field, Spence has no noted character issues.
Spence played primarily in a 4-3 defense at Illinois, lining up on both sides of the defensive line as both a nose tackle and 3-technique defensive tackle. He was also occasionally used as a nose tackle in three-man fronts.
Spence does not have a quick first step and is not explosive off the line of scrimmage. He can occasionally beat blockers for pressure with a good jump off the line, but he does not have many upper-body pass-rushing moves to work his way around blockers.
While he is not good at working his way around blockers, he does use his strength well as a bull-rusher. When he starts well off the line, he does a good job of driving into blockers with his hands inside and can effectively use his strength to help collapse the pocket.
But even with his bull-rushing ability, Spence’s limitations as a pass-rusher may limit him to playing on rushing downs at the next level. He was not a very productive at getting to the quarterback in college, with just 3.5 sacks over three seasons.
Against the Run
Spence is a solid player against the run, but he is significantly tougher to run directly at than he is to run away from.
His strength is making plays in the middle of line around the line of scrimmage. He uses his power well to drive blockers into the backfield and shut down power-running attempts, and he is physical at the line of scrimmage.
As mentioned earlier, Spence does need to initiate contact with blockers. He is good at holding his ground in the middle, but he struggles on directional runs by getting turned away from the play by opposing blockers. He lacks the speed or quickness to make many plays outside the guards.
While Spence initiates power well, he gets driven back off the line of scrimmage or down to the ground too often, both by single- and double-teams. He did draw double-teams often during his junior season, which is an indicator that teams took him seriously as a run defender.
Spence does a good job of staying with power runs up the middle when they go upfield, and can make plays off of the line of scrimmage in the interior.
Spence is a very sound tackler. He wraps up runners effectively, does a good job of positioning his body in front of runners to make stops and hits runners strongly, not allowing them to drive him back for additional yardage.
Use of Hands
Spence struggles with using his hands to disengage from blockers. He does not use swim or rip moves often, and is typically ineffective when he attempts to do so, as he is not particularly quick with his hands.
When taking on a blocker straight on, he does a good job of using his upper body to drive into blockers with his inside punch.
Scheme Versatility/Future Role
Spence does not have the size of a 3-4 nose tackle, and does not have the pass-rushing ability to play 3-technique under tackle in a 4-3 or 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4. His best position would be as a 4-3 nose tackle, but he may not be a full-time starting-caliber player in that role either.
His most likely role is that of a rotational player in a 4-3 defense, where he could play either defensive tackle against the run. He is unlikely to be a three-down player, as his lack of explosiveness should render him largely ineffective as a rusher in obvious passing situations.
What round should Akeem Spence be drafted in?
Spence projects as a rotational player who is likely limited to the 4-3 defense. Nonetheless, he is a productive and experienced player who can provide immediate depth as an interior run defender. He is worth a fifth-round selection and could end up rising into Round 4.