I have always called the first two rounds of the NFL draft the "premium rounds." In most cases, the players a club selects in these two rounds have to come in and contribute as rookies.
This year, Notre Dame had two defensive linemen who have the talent to be contributors right away. Nose tackle Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt enter the draft early as underclassmen, but both have the physical traits to make significant contributions as first-year players.
Louis Nix III—Defensive Tackle
|40-yard dash||5.35 (pro day)|
|Tackles for loss||2|
Nix was a four-year junior and a three-year starter for the Irish. He took 19 credit hours this past fall and is taking one three-hour online course this semester to earn his degree. With a degree in hand, Nix felt that it was time to begin his life in the NFL.
As a freshman at Notre Dame, Nix was not ready to be a contributor and was redshirted. He used that year to lose some weight and develop his strength and stamina. That year did him well, as he became a starter at nose tackle in the 2011 season and held the position ever since.
In the 2013 BCS National Championship Game versus Alabama, Nix injured his knee. Rather than have surgery, he rehabbed the knee and prepared for the following fall. Nix played with discomfort in the knee throughout the 2013 season. According to Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune, following the Pittsburgh game, Nix decided to have surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
It was a wise move on Nix's part, as he is 100 percent now and will be ready to begin training with his new NFL team as soon as rookie camps begin following the draft.
Nix is a prototypical NFL nose tackle. He measures 6'2" and weighs 331 pounds. He is a wide body with good arm length. Nix has good overall athleticism and is light on his feet with a nice short area burst. He won't set any records in the 40-yard dash (5.35), but his 10-yard quickness is equal to many defensive linemen who are much smaller.
He has very good initial quickness, often being the first player off the ball. While he had a tendency to play tall at times in 2012, that was not the case in 2013. He comes off low and is very explosive. Nix has quick hands and does a good job not letting blockers control him. He plays with bend and can anchor the middle of the line, often occupying two blockers.
When Nix is going against a single blocker, he can shed quickly, get penetration and be disruptive. Nose tackles are asked to occupy blockers and don't usually make a lot of plays. That's not the case with Nix. With his quickness, strength and power, he recorded his share of tackles.
Most nose tackles aren't very good pass-rushers, either, but again, Nix is an exception. He can collapse the pocket as a bull-rusher and has some counter moves to redirect. While he may not get many sacks, he gets pressures and also does a good job getting his hands up to knock down passes.
Overall, Nix best fit is as a 3-4 nose tackle. He should be able to come in and start as a rookie for most clubs, and because of his athleticism, it's not out of the question for some 4-3 teams to be interested.
Nix will get drafted in the first round. My feeling is it will be somewhere between picks 15 and 25.
Stephon Tuitt—Defensive End
|Tackles for loss||9|
Tuitt was a third-year junior and a two-year starter at defensive end for Notre Dame. He played as a backup his true freshman year and made the transition to a starting role each of the last two seasons. When the Notre Dame defense went to a four-man front in passing situations, he often moved inside to defensive tackle.
Just as Nix is a prototypical nose tackle, Tuitt is a prototypical 5-technique defensive end. Tuitt recently measured in at 6'5" and 302 pounds, but during the 2013 season, his playing weight was closer to 330 pounds.
During the 2012 season, Tuitt played at about 312 pounds and showed flashes of dominance. Following the season, he had hernia surgery, and his weight ballooned to about 330 pounds. The added weight showed during the 2013 season, as Tuitt did not look nearly as quick or athletic.
Despite his size, Tuitt has very good quickness and speed. While that speed and quickness is evident, he is tight in the knees and hips. Tuitt's change of direction and body control are average compared to his playing speed.
Tuitt tends to play too tall, and he has some trouble clearing piles when moving laterally in traffic. When watching him tape, I was surprised how many times Tuitt lost his balance and ended up on the ground. Still, he flashes big-play ability. In 2012, he had an 80-yard touchdown on an interception return versus Navy. In the Michigan game during the 2013 season, he made a diving interception for a touchdown.
Tuitt came up with some "wow" plays every game, but there were also a number of plays where he did very little.
When defending the run, Tuitt can be stout. Though he can get tall, he is still very strong and can hold the point of attack. He exhibits an knack for quickly shedding blocks and for making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. In pursuit, he takes good angles and has the playing speed to catch ball-carriers from behind.
On passing downs, Tuitt is best as a bull-rusher. He has the natural power to walk a blocker back into the quarterback, and if he can beat his opponent with his first step, he shows a good outside charge. He lacks top bend and doesn't have the ability to lower his shoulder and get under his opponent when coming off the edge, but he shows good hand use and an ability to redirect in a limited area.
At the combine, it was discovered he had a broken foot that required surgery. Because of that, he had a limited workout for scouts right after the combine. At that workout, he ran a 5.01 40-yard dash. I have no doubt that when healthy, he would have likely run faster.
Before the injury was discovered, I felt that Tuitt had a chance to be a late first-round pick. Now, I believe he will get drafted in the first half of the second round. He is an ideal 5-technique player and 3-4 teams should covet him.
In a worst-case scenario, Tuitt spends his rookie year as a role player in a line rotation, but I really feel he has the ability to start for most teams from day one.