If Will Sutton were two inches taller, he could be projected as a top-10 selection for the 2014 NFL draft.
After a forgettable start to his career at Arizona State, Sutton exploded onto the national radar as a redshirt junior last season. Finishing the season with 23.5 tackles for loss, tied with highly touted South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney for No. 2 in the nation, Sutton quickly emerged as one of the nation’s most disruptive defensive players.
Listed at only 6’1” by Arizona State’s official website, Sutton lacks the height and length desired of an NFL defensive tackle. But with the exception of Clowney, there is no other defensive lineman in college football whose tape is as consistently impressive as that of Sutton.
Throughout the months of June and July, we here at Bleacher Report have been looking ahead to the 2014 draft and breaking down 10 of the top defensive linemen in the upcoming draft class.
That series began with Clowney, and it continues this week with a closer look at Sutton. What makes Sutton one of the draft class’s most talented prospects, and what factors will cause his stock to fall? Let’s take a closer look.
Explosiveness and Athleticism
Sutton’s explosive athleticism is what makes him a special prospect. He has rare quickness and movement skills, giving him the potential to develop into an elite interior pass-rusher at the next level.
Sutton gets terrific jumps off the snap, coming from a combination of great snap anticipation and outstanding acceleration off the line of scrimmage. He can shoot off the line of scrimmage like a sprinter out of his blocks.
He has the pursuit speed to chase down quarterbacks and ball-carriers, but he often does not need to chase when he explodes off the line. Many of his 23.5 tackles for loss last season came as a result of him meeting the ball before the quarterback or ball-carrier even had time to react to his presence in the backfield.
Sutton is fantastic at shooting gaps at the line of scrimmage with his quickness, but he can also beat blockers with his pass-rushing moves. He has displayed both swim and rip moves that can be absolutely vicious when timed well.
When Sutton combines an explosive jump off the snap with a strong pass-rushing move, he can make a blocker look silly and blow up a play very quickly. He did just that in the following play versus California last season (video courtesy of Draft Breakdown).
His ability to beat blockers off the line of scrimmage and penetrate is the most spectacular aspect of his game. He consistently makes an impact by bringing pressure as a pass-rusher and getting in the backfield to shut down run plays.
Sutton’s athletic excellence, however, is more than just straight-line acceleration and speed off the line. He is a quick-footed athlete who moves with rare fluidity and naturality in space for an interior defensive lineman.
He has an impressive ability to cover ground for a defensive tackle. He moves well laterally and can make run stops across the line. He can also track down runs well downfield with his speed and endurance.
Sutton may not have great size for a defensive tackle, but his explosiveness and movement skills are rare for a player of his size, and they should allow him to continue to be a disruptive playmaker at the next level.
How He Measures Up
Sutton’s lack of height probably won’t stop him from being a productive NFL player, but it will likely have an adverse effect on his draft stock. A prototypical NFL defensive tackle stands at 6’3” or taller.
An even more important measurement for Sutton, however, will be his arm length. He does not have great length, which could make it difficult for him to work through blockers with his arms at the next level.
On a more positive note, Sutton has reportedly bulked up this offseason. He currently weighs in at 305 pounds, an ideal weight for a 3-technique defensive tackle, according to Dan Greenspan of NFL.com.
Sutton weighed in at only 271 pounds last season. If Sutton can prove he has added healthy weight while maintaining his outstanding athleticism, his stock should continue to rise in his senior season.
More Than Just an Athlete
Sutton has spectacular athletic traits, but it takes more than athleticism to be one of the nation’s most dominant defensive players.
Sutton has strong pass-rushing moves at the line of scrimmage. The following example versus Missouri shows how effective he can be with his swim move. He not only beat his opponent to bring heavy pressure and force an incompletion, but he also drew a hold from the defeated blocker.
As that play shows, Sutton is also good at leaping up to disrupt passes. He was credited with five pass breakups at Arizona State last season.
Sutton does not have overpowering strength, but he can win one-on-one battles with leverage. He does a good job of playing low, getting underneath his opponent’s shoulder pads and getting his blocker off-balance to drive him back to blow up a play in the backfield.
Although he does not have terrific size or strength, Sutton has shown he can line up as a nose tackle and occupy multiple blockers. He draws double-teams frequently, given his explosiveness, and his active feet and ability to establish leverage allow him to keep blockers occupied and free up his teammates to make plays.
Shortcomings in His Game
Sutton’s measurables should draw most of the negative attention to him as a prospect, but for as impressive as he is on tape and as productive as he has been, there are some other areas of concern in his game.
Sutton has elite pass-rushing potential, but he must develop a more complete technical game to reach that potential.
While he is very explosive off the snap with both his first-step burst and his initial pass-rushing moves, he struggles to break free once he is engaged by a blocker. He needs to develop secondary rush moves in his game instead of being reliant on his initial move to defeat pass protection, which will be a bigger challenge at the NFL level.
As a run defender, his limited power and strength can cause problems at times. When he allows a blocker to engage him, he can be driven back away from running plays. He also has subpar balance and gets knocked down more often than he should, especially on cut blocks.
Another area of Sutton’s game that can and must improve is his tackling.
While Sutton is a hard, physical hitter, he is not a great form tackler. Specifically, he has a tendency to reach out away from his body and attempt arm tackles rather than follow through tackles with his body.
His arm tackling tendencies result too often in whiffed tackles and/or ball-carriers driving through his contact for additional yardage. In the following example versus Missouri, quarterback Corbin Berkstresser ran right through his arms en route to a six-yard touchdown.
Sutton’s skills and productivity could make him a first-round talent, but while he cannot control his height and length, he needs to improve in other areas, such as pass-rush technique and tackling, to avoid a fall down the draft board.
Projecting Sutton’s Fit and Draft Stock
The majority of Sutton’s success at Arizona State has come when he has lined up as a 3-technique defensive tackle between the offensive tackle and guard on the opposing offensive line. He is best suited to retain that role at the next level as an under tackle penetrator in a 4-3 defensive scheme.
Sutton has experience playing both nose tackle and defensive end as well, but playing him in either of those spots regularly would be taking him out of his element. He lacks the size and strength of a traditional nose tackle, while he has not shown the ability to consistently make plays against offensive tackles on the edge.
Nonetheless, his experience playing all over the line increases his versatility and therefore his draft stock. Ideally, he would play in a four-man front as a gap shooter next to a block-occupying nose tackle. That said, his combined explosiveness and ability to take on double-teams also make him an intriguing 5-technique defensive end prospect for 3-4 defenses.
Although he has never looked natural on a consistent basis in the defensive end role, he has occasionally flashed that he can beat an offensive tackle around the edge and arc with speed to the quarterback, as seen in the following example versus Colorado.
While it is clear he is best suited to play 3-technique defensive tackle at the next level, his draft stock is less clear.
If you go to Sutton’s Draft Breakdown page and watch any assortment of his game footage, you’ll be hard-pressed not to come away impressed. He is a high-motor player who consistently takes advantage of his strong skills to make plays throughout games. He has the potential to be a spectacular player at the next level.
His draft stock has a high ceiling, potentially as high as the top 10 if he can follow up his redshirt junior season with an equally strong senior year. Numerous concerns about him and his game, however, could cause him to fall well out of the first round of the draft.
Sutton’s lack of height likely will hurt his stock, though whether it should is up for debate. Missing the entire 2010 season due to academic issues will also raise questions from NFL teams. To improve his draft stock, he must also become better at disengaging from blocks and making sound tackles.
All of those concerns were likely factored in by the NFL Draft Advisory Committee when they, according to ESPN’s Joe Schad, graded Sutton as a fifth-round pick following his junior season.
In context, the advisory committee is known for giving notoriously conservative grades to draft prospects, and it is extremely unlikely a prospect of Sutton’s caliber would be graded that low throughout the NFL. That said, the grade does indicate NFL teams have their concerns about Sutton and makes a fall to the third round seem just as plausible as a first-round selection at this point.
It’s tough to say how early Sutton will be selected. Evaluating his game, however, shows that the team who drafts him just might end up with one of the NFL’s most disruptive interior defensive linemen.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.