Daniel McCullers will be a top draft prospect to watch for the Tennessee Volunteers this season.
Daniel McCullers may still be making a name for himself, but the Tennessee defensive tackle will not be overlooked. Listed at 6’8” and 351 pounds by the Volunteers’ official website, McCullers’ size alone makes him stand out every time he takes the field.
McCullers is massive even by NFL standards, but he is more than just a big body. His experience is limited with only one year of major college football under his belt, but he has already displayed immense potential as a nose tackle.
Throughout the months of June and July, we are looking ahead to the 2014 draft here at Bleacher Report and breaking down 10 of the top defensive linemen in the upcoming draft class.
This week, we look at the player who may quite possibly be the largest prospect in the 2014 draft class. Having spent his first two years of college football at the junior college level, McCullers is a senior whose next step following the 2013 season is the NFL.
If he can continue to improve and become a more technically-sound, well-rounded player in 2013, he has a chance to be one of the top players selected in 2014.
Physical Attributes: Mountain of a Man
If McCullers is truly 351 pounds, he has actually lost weight since arriving at Tennessee. He is an enormous man who is one of college football’s tallest and biggest players, and he will continue to be in that category in the NFL.
A weight of 350-plus pounds is typically a negative in the eyes of NFL scouts, but McCullers isn’t out of shape. He is a well-built player who carries his weight well.
McCullers takes advantage of his size and uses it well. He has terrific strength, which he uses to hold gaps against blocks, while he also converts his strength to the power needed to drive opposing offensive linemen into the backfield.
He is not a fast, quick or explosive athlete by NFL standards, but he is a very impressive athlete for his size. He is a nimble runner who moves his feet well in space and covers ground to make plays downfield.
One of McCullers’ most impressive displays of athleticism came in the following play last season versus Florida, where he covered more than 20 yards of ground downfield to track down athletic Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel for a diving tackle from behind. Video courtesy of Draft Breakdown.
It is truly rare ability for a man who is 350-plus pounds to have the speed and running ability to make a play that far downfield. McCullers has an unusual set of physical attributes that will have scouts highly intrigued about his potential as an NFL nose tackle.
Evaluating McCullers’ Elite Potential as a Nose Tackle
Part of the evaluation process for most prospects is figuring out where they are best suited to line up, but the answer is clear and singular with McCullers. He has huge potential as a nose tackle in any defensive front but has no legitimate versatility to play other positions at the next level.
McCullers excels as a block-occupier. He consistently draws multiple blocks with his size and does not get pushed around by double-team blocks. He does a great job of sustaining double-teams and even brings pressure against them, which helps take away blockers and give his teammates more opportunities to make defensive plays.
He is a very difficult defender to run against. He rarely gets driven off the line of scrimmage, thanks to his size and strength, and he does a very good job of using his size and fluid footwork to fill gaps.
McCullers frequently gets or leads run stops by plugging holes, but he also often forces runs away from his gap into pressure by his teammates. Even when he is blocked or a run goes away from him, he does a great job of converging toward the run and shrinking running holes.
At the collegiate level, McCullers is able to rely largely on his size and strength to win battles, but he has shown that he can hold gaps and generate pressure even against top competition.
He proved that last year versus Alabama. He spent much of the game matched up against star Alabama interior offensive linemen and 2013 NFL draft picks Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones (and sometimes double-teamed by both of them), but he was still able to win battles and rarely got driven off the line of scrimmage.
Making Plays At Or Behind The Line of Scrimmage
One of McCullers’ greatest strengths is his ability to drive and bull-rush opponents into the backfield. He does a great job of getting underneath his opponents’ pads to win the battle of leverage. When he wins that battle, he can utilize his strength to overpower his blocker and drive them back toward the quarterback or ball-carrier.
On the other hand, McCullers is not a gap-shooting penetrator. He does not have great speed or acceleration and is not going to explode by blockers off the line of scrimmage.
One area where McCullers can and must improve is in his technical skills and hand usage. He rarely displayed effective pass-rushing moves in his junior season and has not shown the ability to make moves with his hands to disengage and break free from blockers.
As a result, McCullers is far too reliant on his bull-rush and rarely gets by a blocker unless he is able to push them over with his power. He should continue to have some bull-rushing success at the next level given his sheer size and strength but will not make plays in the backfield consistently without significant technical development.
All of that said, McCullers will not be used in a consistent interior pass-rushing role at the next level. He has yet to prove that he even could be a three-down player, but when he does play against the pass, his role as a nose tackle will be to take on blockers to create one-on-one opportunities and blitzing lanes to the quarterback for his teammates.
McCullers should be able to work his way onto the stat sheet as a run-stopper, nonetheless. When he is in position to make a play at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield, he does a good job of tackling the ball-carrier by wrapping the runner up and driving him back.
When a ball-carrier comes toward him, he is a very good tackler for a defensive tackle of his size. That said, he does take poor angles when pursuing the ball-carrier and needs to become better in that area to make more plays in the backfield and in space.
Projecting McCullers’ Fit and Draft Stock
McCullers should play solely as a nose tackle at the next level, as he has prototypical traits for that position but lacks the quickness and penetrative ability to play elsewhere.
He can line up as both a 0-technique nose tackle over the center and as a 1-technique nose tackle between the center and a guard. He should be viewed as a potential starting nose tackle in both even and odd fronts, but his value projects to be highest as the potential anchor in the middle of a 3-4 defense.
McCullers remains a raw talent, but he is likely to make significant strides in his second season at Tennessee. Scouts will be looking for him to become a more technically efficient player in 2013, while they will also look for him to prove whether or not he has the capability of being a three-down player and an every-series player.
With his combination of size, power, gap-filling ability and athleticism, McCullers has the potential to develop into a similar player as former NFL All-Pro nose tackle Ted Washington (a comparison made before me by Bleacher Report’s own Scott Carasik).
If he has a strong senior season, McCullers could challenge Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III to be the top nose tackle in the 2014 draft class. A projected top-20 selection, Nix is a significantly more athletic and technically sound player at this point, but teams looking for a true size presence to clog the middle of the line of scrimmage could gravitate toward McCullers.
McCullers goes into his senior season with the game of a second-day draft selection, but he has the potential to attain first-round draft stock by the end of the season.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.