How Do Scouts Break Down NFL Defensive Tackle Prospects?
The one question I'm asked most by readers, Twitter followers or prospective writers is, "How do you break down NFL prospects?"
It is also one of the toughest questions to answer in a tweet or quick email exchange.
Here, I'll go deeper.
Each position requires different criteria for scouting, but the method of scouting remains the same. Tape study, background checks and pre-draft workouts are all a part of the puzzle that makes up a player's scouting report. But what goes into a deeper study of each position and each player at that position?
Want to see the other breakdowns? Check them out below.
1. Defensive Alignments—Which Are You Scouting?
When scouting defensive tackles, there are two different positions that serve as a catch-all for scouting—defensive tackle and nose tackle.
Within those two positions there are different techniques—-3-technique, 4-technique, etc.—but the basics that you need to know are that a nose tackle generally lines up "head-up" on the center, while a defensive tackle will move around to different positions along the line.
What's the difference?
0-tech: Head-up on the center, the 0-tech plays as a run defender. Can be a two-gap defender (both A gaps).
1-tech: Shades the center's outside shoulder, can split gaps as a one-gap defender.
2-tech: Head-up on the guard, not as common in the NFL. Can be a two-gap defender (A or B gap).
3-tech: Shades the outside shoulder of the guard. Most common alignment. Allows for one-gap pass rushing through B gap.
4-tech: Also called a "4i" in some schemes. Plays inside shoulder of tackle. Can be a one-gap pass rusher (B gap).
5-tech: Classic alignment for 3-4 defensive ends, who oftentimes move inside to a 3-tech on passing downs. Two-gap position (B and C gaps).
It's important when scouting to chart where a player lines up on the field. You can project a player's NFL position based on size and strength, but you want to know if the defender has experience as a nose tackle, or if he's a pass-rushing 3-tech defender. Sometimes the most simple way to chart a player is the best, and for this I simply sketch out an offensive line and notate where the defender lines up.
By charting where the player lines up—you can also add tally-marks if you want to know how often he plays each spot—you paint a picture of what type of defender the player is currently. That helps distinguish between whether or not the defender is a 3-4 or 4-3 defensive tackle.
2. 3-4 vs. 4-3 Principles
When scouting a defensive lineman, one of the first steps for me is distinguishing which scheme they are a best fit for in the NFL. There are times when a player is scheme-versatile and can play in both a 30 or 40 base set without losing his effectiveness. J.J. Watt was that type of player, as was Sheldon Richardson in the 2013 NFL draft class.
What are the differences in what we're looking for?
A 3-4 defensive end classifies out as a defensive end on my scouting sheets, and you can see more on scouting them here. In looking at nose tackles and a classic defensive tackle, there are physical differences to look for.
A nose tackle is naturally going to be a shorter, heavier player than a standard dual-threat defensive tackle. That's due to the requirements of his job.
Nose Tackle: A one- or two-gap player who is asked to stop the run by clogging rushing lanes. Nose tackles rarely get the up-field push needed to be pass-rushers, but they do generate pressures and hurries by moving the defensive line back toward the quarterback.
Defensive Tackle: A dual-threat player who must be able to rush the quarterback and stop the run. This is a catch-all term for players lining up anywhere from a 0- to 4-technique in a 4-3 defense.
A nose tackle needs to be stronger and play with better leverage, while the ideal defensive tackle prospect has some of those same characteristics but is more well-rounded as an every-down player.
3. Traits and Characteristics
Playing football at a high level all comes down to how well you perform the requirements of the position and how much aptitude you have to get better at those requirements. For defensive ends, we're looking for quick, strong athletes who can make a split-second decision on whether to attack the quarterback or running back.
Here is my scouting checklist for 3-4 and 4-3 defensive tackles.
A. Agility and Athleticism
One of the first things you notice on film about a player is his athletic ability. No matter if you're watching in the stands, in the press box or in the film room, chances are you will first notice a player because of some athletic feat.
When watching Ndamukong Suh at Nebraska, his quickness and explosiveness were evident, and those characteristics caused scouts to dig deeper and look into his game. It led to Suh being the highest rated defensive tackle I've had the pleasure of evaluating.
Athletic ability can be overrated—like the 40-yard dash—but football is an athletically based sport, and the bigger, stronger, faster player is likely to be more effective. The one thing that can change that is technique.
Good technique can be the difference between a short and long career. There have been numerous athletes at the defensive tackle position who flashed on film and dominated in workouts but couldn't grasp the technical side of the game. That leads to a short, and frustrating, NFL experience.
Watching college players requires patience, as our goal is to identify what skills they have currently and what skills can be coached or taught. Some players come out of college ready to assault the NFL, while others are a trait or two away from being a complete player.
It is helpful to have an NFL standard to hold college prospects up against. When looking at a player's quickness off the line and ability to explode into the offense, Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals is my standard bearer.
Being quick may seem like an obvious quality, but a player's ability to explode off the line does more than help him get to the quarterback quickest. A quick defensive tackle can eliminate double-teams with a dominant first step, and if you're the first guy off the line, you better your chance of getting into a gap before an offensive lineman can get his feet set and his hands on you.
Judging quickness isn't done with a 40-yard dash, but instead by watching a player's game film to see how successful he is at beating offensive linemen off the ball. A slow first step could be due to a limited athlete, poor concentration or poor anticipation skills. All three are dangerous for a defensive tackle.
Backing up film study with raw numbers is helpful, and looking at a player's three-cone drill time from the NFL Scouting Combine does give you a look at their quickness and athleticism. The key is to verify those numbers on film—or vice versa—and not to rely on one workout to cement your feelings on a player.
The best three-cone drill I've seen from a defensive tackle? J.J. Watt's 6.88 at the 2011 combine is a great standard to hold incoming prospects against.
Bench-press reps are impressive and a fun drill to watch, but translating weight-room strength to the football field is the key. If you can push around a barbell loaded up with 225 pounds, can you push around offensive linemen?
Strength is necessary for stopping the run, making tackles, clogging rushing lanes and defeating double-teams to get to the quarterback. This is especially important for nose tackles or any defensive tackle who will play inside of a 3-technique regularly.
On the inside, a player must be strong enough to hold guards and centers in line, preventing them from getting through the defensive line to the second level of the defense. If a guard or center breaks free of the defensive line and gets to the linebackers, the chances are the offense won the snap.
Given the choice between a strong player and a fast player, I would go for speed, but there is a good argument to be made for strength over speed. My theory is that strength is easier to develop than speed.
3. Hand Use
Breaking free of a double-team requires quickness and strength, but a defender must also be able to use his hands to combat the blocks of offensive linemen.
Hand use is a skill that few college defenders have conquered by the time they enter the NFL draft. Those who do effectively use their hands to disengage from blockers find themselves ready for battle on the inside of the defensive line, where the tackle is batting away the blocks of guards and centers coming at his frame.
Using your hands to beat an offensive lineman may sound complicated, but it's really not in theory. Look for a defender who doesn't lock his hands on the base of an offensive lineman, instead keeping distance between himself and the blocker and using his hands to bat away the blocks of the offensive player.
The key behind a great bull rush, or a goal-line stand, is strength and leverage. Being physically strong is fantastic, but knowing how to use that strength and size makes the difference.
Leverage for a defensive lineman means playing with a low pad-level and keeping his strength and weight in his base as opposed to the upper body. You see defensive linemen playing out of control, with all their weight in their upper body, and often that defender is losing his battle with a blocker.
Leverage allows the defender to control the one-on-one situation with an offensive player.
C. Read and React
You hear people talk about "football IQ," and it's one of the most underrated aspects of scouting.
The ability to read and react to what the offense does is the most important aspect to playing defensive tackle. A complete defensive tackle must be quick, strong and smart.
How do you scout this?
Watch to see what the defensive tackle does when the offensive line gets up-field for a screen pass. Does he pull the chain and go after the quarterback, or drop and get depth to eliminate the pass (which is what we want)? How does the defender react to play-action passing or draw running plays?
You want an aggressive defender, not someone paralyzed by analysis, but you also want a smart player who can adjust on the fly both physically and mentally.
Finding a great defensive tackle prospect isn't easy. In fact, outside of quarterback and defensive end, it is one of the hardest positions to consistently scout. You can weigh, measure, time and study a player, but at the end of the day it all comes down to ability, upside and heart.
A great defensive tackle will be strong, quick, smart and motivated.
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