Star Lotulelei is the best defensive player in the 2013 NFL draft.
I'll tell you why.
He's violent. Star Lotulelei plays football with violent hands and generally causes a ruckus in the middle of offensive lines. He predominantly played 3-4 nose tackle at Utah but will be evaluated by scouts regarding capability to play in the 4-3 as a defensive tackle or even as a defensive end in a 3-4.
It all starts with the stance—something that's important remember when watching defensive linemen. Players are taught from a young age to not be sloppy in their stance. A good stance is elementary; it's Football 101. And It's easy to see why. Not many positive plays happen for a player who's displaying poor fundamentals before the ball is even snapped.
Lotulelei displays a trait that I see as vitally important: He maintains a proper, fundamentally sound stance throughout games, and he has tremendous stamina in this regard. Defensive linemen who are known for having an "on/off" switch typically get lazy in their stance when gassed.
Lotulelei is a big player with long arms, but he presents himself to the offensive line in a small, powerful package play in, play out.
Exploding out of the stance is where Lotulelei is most dominant.
NFL football is a personnel game, and the way certain "types" of players are coveted can be cyclical. We are currently seeing NFL front offices placing peak value on interior penetration and disruption from the defensive line.
With the elevation in recent QB play, and new rules making passing harder to defend, quarterbacks cannot have a clean pocket in which to operate. That quarterback and his coaching staff will pick a defense to pieces.
NFL defenses need explosion off the line of scrimmage. The interior of the offensive line must be penetrated and breached on passing downs. Collapsing the middle of the pocket is the most deadly because it takes away QB "escapability"—a trait that manifests itself with the quarterback stepping up and manipulating a pocket. Lotulelei's ability to penetrate was evident in Utah's 2012 matchup against USC.
That's how much time Star Lotulelei gives you as a quarterback. USC's guards have not taken their hands off of the ground, and Lotulelei has already engaged the gap-side shoulder of the center and begun his penetration into the backfield.
Lotulelei is thought of as run-stopping gap-plugger, which makes things even better. He has a violence and explosion that is harnessed through functional balance and anchoring ability. But he also can pursue laterally and shed blocks with his strong hands and long arms.
For this reason, Star Lotulelei is not scheme-dependent. Like the two other best players in the 2013 NFL draft, Alabama offensive guard Chance Warmack and Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, any team can draft Lotulelei and put his services to use immediately.
Lotulelei will be a dominant 4-3 defensive tackle, an anchoring fire hydrant at the nose tackle, or a face-crossing, pass-rushing edge-setter as a 3-4 DE.
The most common "warning sign" that analysts point to in their evaluation of Lotulelei is the most common complaint hurled at virtually every defensive tackle prospect:
The most misused and mis-analyzed aspect in the media's attempt to "scout" defensive linemen. Why?
1) 300-plus pound men get gassed. If you want size and you want space-hogging ability, some leeway is called for in the amount of energy and force a player can humanly exert over the course of a game and/or series.
2) It has to be understood in scouting Star Lotulelei that you are scouting a different animal. He is not a traditional nose tackle. He is a new breed of mobile interior disruptor. Elite pass-rushers are known for "disappearing" at times during games. This is because so many important pass-rush moves are "set up" through others.
Former Steelers DT Oliver Gibson describes perfectly in this video one of Reggie White's favorite moves, the "hump." What one needs to realize is that the hump move takes setting up and is used against an offensive tackle who has been repeatedly attacked with a "rip" move.
It is obvious that Star Lotulelei can bull rush—engaging half a man and rarely allowing opposing linemen a clean shot at his entire body. Offensive linemen are remarkably strong and you do not want, if you're a defensive lineman, to present such powerful athletes full access to your body. Lotulelei avoids this this by attacking his man's responsibility-side shoulder, getting skinny through the gap and then squaring up once positioned.
A solid, pounding bull rush sets up a plethora of moves and pass-rush conversions. We'll break down this sequence vs. BYU in 2012, in which he beautifully executed what we'll call a bull-jerk/swim conversion. The "conversion" indicates that the pass-rusher starts out with one move then converts to another when he deems it advantageous.
Lotulelei was attacking this center with a bull rush during this series. On this play, he lined up just barely shaded to the defense's right on the center's outside eye.
Lotulelei takes control of initial engagement by attacking half a man in an effort to get to the opposite "A" gap that has opened wide thanks to the right guard giving weak-side help to the right tackle. In doing so, Lotulelei gets the center overextended. The center has lowered his center of gravity in anticipation of having to absorb the impact of a bull rush.
Once Lotulelei has the center off-balance, it's time execute the bull-jerk or the "throw." He shows amazing strength with his left arm, using the center's overextension against the anticipated bull rush against him. As the center's momentum moves upfield, Lotulelei helps that momentum to continue by "jerking" the center further in this direction with his left arm, and then swimming over with his right.
By the time Lotulelei is "hip to hip" with the center, he already has him beat. He squares up to the passer.
From the ground, the center watches the QB get flushed out of the pocket—the play-call ruined.
This play didn't result in a sack, but that's not what matters.
Even when Lotulelei is not sacking the quarterback, he plays fundamentally well. It seems odd for analysts to say a nose tackle "disappears" in games. Of course a nose tackle disappears. They plug a gap and generally do a hard job quietly.
The fact that pass-rushing is not a primary responsibility of an interior lineman makes an easy case for Lotulelei to top 2013 NFL draft boards as the best overall player.
To say that Lotulelei is the best player in the 2013 NFL draft can be argued. What cannot be argued is that he belongs in the discussion—a discussion that should only have three names come up: Joeckel, Warmack and Lotulelei.