NFL Draft 2011: Kenrick Ellis a Potential Mid-Round Steal for Seattle Seahawks
At 6’5", 346 pounds, conventional wisdom places Hampton defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis as a run-stuffing nose tackle in a 3-4 defense.
However, a monster defensive tackle is not a position of need for Seattle, who are currently with veteran Colin Cole and his nearly $4 million salary at the nose tackle spot. Furthermore, the Seahawks do not run a 3-4.
In looking at Ellis’ size, agility, length and clogging ability, however, he projects as potential backup to Red Bryant at the 5-tech in Carroll’s system, an athletic, huge run stuffer.
Bryant broke through in 2010 after Carroll realized Bryant’s unique skill set could be an asset for Seattle, just not at the nose tackle position, as he tailored the strong side end spot to fit Bryant’s skill set.
Can Ellis be Carroll's defensive line project for 2011?
Stop the Run to Force the Pass
The above is one of the main mantras Carroll uses to describe his vision associated with his defensive philosophy.
During 2010 offseason workouts, Pete Carroll raved about the 6’4", 323 pound Red Bryant, his long arms and athleticism. He possesses unusual agility for a man his size.
Projected as an ideal nose tackle in the NFL, he never flashed the potential in his brief career. However, he was someone Carroll believed could be a game changer at the 5-tech strong side defensive end spot in his hybrid 4-3 defense.
Carroll was correct. The run defense ranked second in the NFL through six games with a healthy Red. It featured a secondary that would bend, but a run defense that wouldn’t break. He also made an impact collapsing the pocket and creating sacks in 2010.
A successful project until Bryant suffered a season-ending knee injury, and the defense struggled to find an adequate replacement.
First Round Talent, but a First Rate Red Flag
He has extremely long arms at over 35 inches. An explosive first step for a guy his size, a surprising burst and nimble feet allow him to consistently push the pocket, flashing a small repertoire of rush moves.
Ellis can swallow ball carriers in the hole, clog passing lanes with his massive length and hustle after the quarterback through the whistle; he focuses on "just dominating" and describes himself as relentless.
He at times struggles with pad level and lineman with better technique, but his motor and mean streak often help win one-on-one battles. The major concern is his dismissal from South Carolina in 2008 and one game suspension in 2010.
Ellis is honest in acknowledging he had discipline issues, but he is adamant his off-the-field problems are behind him and he is focused on being an NFL pro. His on-field effort is not the issue, and therefore projects as a hard worker and potential playmaker as a pro if he remains true to his word.
Where Does Ellis Fit?
Where I believe he fits in Seattle’s defense comes from a somewhat unconventional line of thinking. I don’t think Brandon Mebane is an ideal fit going forward at the 3-tech position.
Carroll has previously said the 3-tech position is the prime position along the defensive line in his system. The 3-tech must consistently pressure the quarterback from the inside, along with average-at-worst run defense—Mebane had arguably his least productive season rushing the passer in 2010.
Ellis’ size and skill set make him one of the most unique prospects in the 2011 draft, and presents an interesting opportunity for Pete Carroll that is different from that of Red Bryant in 2010.
Ellis does not fit the bill for a traditional 3-tech. However, Ellis flashes the potential to be an effective, overwhelming inside pass rusher, an above average run stopper and a potential scheme changing player for the Seahawks along the defensive front. Slightly tailoring the position for Ellis and placing him as the bookend partner to Bryant on the interior defensive line would be downright daunting.
Yes, he could see time as a backup at 5-tech and potentially be a replacement for Cole down the road, but Ellis’ potential as an inside force would be the main goal in drafting him. His scheme versatility along the line only adds to his value for Seattle.
If they were to take Eillis, I think Carroll would be willing to experiment with a bold wrinkle in the defensive scheme; a hybrid '46' defensive package.
Not a True '46' Defense
I don’t believe Carroll is willing to adopt the true '46' in 2011. That, in no way, is the premise of this analysis. It’s susceptible to big plays and too aggressive to run on every down in the modern NFL.
It also requires a very specific skill set of players, built around three monsters that dominate the line of scrimmage and free up the rest of the defense for a variety of blitz and cover schemes.
The main wrinkle, however, is that the scheme uses two aggressive strongside outside linebackers to rush the passer, with a strong safety that often plays in the box and a free safety that usually plays a center field role. Corners are often near the line of scrimmage.
The complement of size and speed made it a great pressure defense, but the ‘46’ was also a defense that stopped the run to force mistakes and defensive opportunities in the passing game. Sound familiar?
The Seahawks' Twist to the '46'
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley showed in 2010 he is will bring players from all positions. Unpredictability was one strength to the Seahawks' pass rush.
The '46' often interchanged outside linebackers and strong safeties. Week 6 in Chicago was the most successful example of the Seahawks using their secondary as rushers in 2010, 4.5 sacks and a safety for the defensive backfield—a Soldier Field flashback created through sound preparation by Bradley.
As part of Carroll’s hybrid 4-3 scheme, Ellis will sometimes be responsible for outside contain at the 3-tech position, usually when the Leo end drops in coverage for complex blitzes.
Ellis' recognition skills may be a major area of concern going in his evaluation; defending misdirection plays and screens are a weakness in his game and were in the Seahawks 2010 defense. However, Ellis said at the combine he just wants to play football and is willing to learn any scheme to be a contributor. He will benefit from NFL coaching coming out of a small school, a plus in evaluating Ellis' upside.
Three Points of Emphasis
1.The Seahawks do not use their linebackers like the '46' does. Furthermore, for the ‘46’ sub-package to be successful, the Seahawks need a rejuvenated Lofa Tatupu or be willing to give David Hawthorne a shot at middle linebacker.
The Seahawks, however, schematically require the middle linebacker drop into coverage at times in their 4-3. They need a player who can do more than just find the ball and be a sure tackler, a priority for the Mike in a ‘46.’
Plus, we all know who played the middle linebacker of the ’85 Bears defense. The Seahawks can’t say they have one of the NFL’s few current Mike linebackers that will one day be near Mike Singletary’s level of greatness. Finding the right player to fit the Mike in the '46' package would be the main challenge for Seattle in implementing this type of scheme.
2. Carroll has previously described the 3-tech position as the prime defensive lineman position in his defensive philosophy. The player's responsibilities are to play the C-gap in run support and consistently rush the passer and collapse the pocket in space.
The Seahawks did not consistently get the latter of those two responsibilities in 2010 from the 3-tech position. The potential of Carroll’s scheme wont be maximized until the 3-tech is producing to expectations.
3.The weakside linebacker will also have to possess good range and be a sure tackler. A tweener outside linebacker/safety could be player for the position. Restricted free agent Will Herring converted from safety coming out of Auburn and ran a sub 4.6 40. He doesn’t have to be the biggest guy in Carroll’s defense, just a high motor and disciplined football player.
On a separate but related note, linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr. reportedly put OLB prospect Mason Foster through a full workout that included pass coverage drills at the Washington pro day. He also ran a 4.67 40, bettering his combine time. Foster has the ball instincts and versatility to play in a '46' package.
But the Seahawks Have a Weak Secondary...
Yes, you’re probably asking yourself this question by now. And there is a caveat to the modern variation of the '46'.
The scheme relies on corners that can disrupt on the line of scrimmage and cover downfield to eliminate that big play vulnerability created by the scheme's aggressive nature. The Seahawks are in transition at the corner position, not currently possessing the right personnel for the scheme to be successful right away.
But it's no secret the Seahawks are looking to become more aggressive in the defensive backfield. They are looking to fit tall, fast, physical corners that can make plays one on one in coverage and play within the discipline of the defense in run support.
Earl Thomas is a major piece to this puzzle, a potential elite ball-hawk playing center field. His ideal role would be similar to that of Ed Reed, the playmaker on the back end that cashes in on the opportunity created by the pressure on the line of scrimmage.
His ability to come up in run support only improves his fit to play free safety in this type of package. Without a player of his potential, the scheme would not be nearly as effective.
In Line with an Uncommon Vision
I fully acknowledge the unconventional nature behind the rationale for a ‘46’ package, but after the Week 11 victory in New Orleans, Carroll made a splash with his players and the media, reportedly unveiling his vision for the team in the locker room post game. He placed an emphasis on being “uncommon” with how they do things compared to the rest of the league.
In his third rodeo as an NFL head coach, it's becoming less of a secret Carroll is willing to reach into the bag of tricks and do things his way,install his schemes and create his brand of championship football in the NFL.
Or go down swinging.
It’s fitting Carroll unveiled his vision after a loss to the Saints, an organization that ignored the white noise and embraced uniqueness in their quest to win a super bowl.
The Seahawks’ continued persistence towards upgrading the line of scrimmage this offseason and Carroll’s desire to fortify the defensive front should prove as a factor on draft day.
Carroll proved with Red Bryant he knows how to develop a cornerstone defensive lineman out of what looks to be a misplaced talent. If the Seahawks are willing to take the chance of making Ellis a crucial piece to a 997-pound puzzle in the middle of the Seahawks defense, Curry and Clemons could have a whole lot of space to run free to the quarterback in 2011.
The Seahawks made something out of nothing with their no-stone-unturned approach in 2010, creating a role at anchor of the defensive line for an unheralded, talented prospect.
If Carroll is willing to stay true to form in 2011, the Seahawks may take Ellis at the end of the second round, maybe a bit of a reach, or find a way to maneuver down into third round. If Ellis falls to the fourth and Seattle is successful in waiting until pick No. 96, he would be an absolute steal.
When asked at the combine what he brings to the table, Ellis called himself a physical specimen. That’s nearly impossible to argue. It’s clear in his interview’s he just wants to play football, be a pro bowler and win a super bowl. No team will complain about those goals.
He was later questioned about if coming from a small school would make his transition into the NFL more difficult. He admitted his technique coming out may not be ideal, then followed with “but at Hampton, we’ve got heart.”
Heart that is a legitimate sleeper the Seahawks should target in the 2011 draft.