Washington Huskies nose tackle Danny Shelton is generally rated as the top nose tackle prospect for the 2015 NFL draft, but the Oklahoma Sooners' Jordan Phillips deserves far more recognition.
One of these two talents could eventually develop into a top-10 draft pick, and it's not Shelton. Next weekend during the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Phillips could prove why he should be considered a top talent.
Both hold a unique place among this year's draft class.
Pure nose tackles are very rare commodities. There are only so many people walking the planet with the ability to do what an NFL nose tackle is asked to do.
Nose tackles must be big enough to withstand the constant barrage of double- or triple-teams by fellow 300-pound men, flexible enough to maintain good pad level, strong enough to defeat blocks and athletic enough to move about the field and chase down ball-carriers.
The position takes a different mental approach to the game as well.
Nose tackles do the dirty work within a defense. They aren't asked to make many tackles, sacks or the big play. They're not even full-time players. Minute details in technique are especially important to the position. And nose tackles are rarely given the credit they deserve.
Glory hogs need not apply.
Very few men possess that combination of physical and mental traits to thrive at the highest level. Two of them just happen to be available in this year's draft.
But those two prospects are very different with regard to their physical traits and how they play the game.
Shelton is the starting point of the conversation since he is generally considered the higher-ranked prospect.
At first glance, the Washington prospect is the perfectly built nose tackle. Shelton is nearly as wide as he is tall. The defensive lineman stands nearly 6'2" and weighs 343 pounds. He's owns a wide backside and extremely thick legs. Simply put, he has the type of lower body that makes him problematic to uproot once offensive linemen engage their blocks.
And this is where the primary concern with Shelton begins.
His weight could prove to be problematic for teams.
When Shelton stepped onto the scale in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl, he was proud to weigh 343 pounds, according to ClevelandBrowns.com's Andrew Gribble:
Some nose tackles deal with weight issues over the course of their careers. They're often asked to carry far more bulk than they should, and some players struggle to remain under team guidelines. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Casey Hampton was a prime example during his time in the NFL.
Shelton is still a young athlete, but DraftInsider.net's Tony Pauline told Bleacher Report that the defensive lineman played most of last season over 350 pounds and even neared 360 at one point.
This could prove to be a yearly battle for whatever team eventually drafts the former First-Team Academic All-American. If he shows up heavier at the combine than he was in Mobile, major red flags will be raised by teams. Even though Shelton won't be on the field every down, organizations will worry whether or not he has enough stamina to play at a high level throughout a long NFL season.
It's not a coincidence that one goal has defined Shelton's NFL draft preparation.
"I am really focused on improving my endurance and being able to play at a more consistent level," Shelton told FanSided.com's Dan Dahlke.
Also, Shelton's game doesn't necessarily translate to a true two-gap scheme. A nose tackle in certain fronts, particularly 3-4 base defenses (as a 0-technique), is asked to fill the gaps on both sides of the center. Most 4-3 base defenses only require their nose tackle (or 1-technique) to be responsible for the gap in which they are shading the center.
At the Senior Bowl, Shelton proved to be a handful yet inconsistent. He can be a load to move, but that's not where he truly excels.
What really caught the eye of many scouts and fans this past season was Shelton's production from the interior of the Huskies defense.
Shelton finished second on the team with 93 total tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss. He also registered nine sacks.
That level of production is unheard of from a nose tackle.
Shelton's natural ability and build certainly scream "two-gap nose tackle." He can be that player for any team, but his true worth derives from his ability to penetrate and consistently play in an opponent's backfield. Teams won't necessarily want him to simply eat double-teams all game long. His value increases with his ability to make plays from the defensive interior.
Phillips' style of play is far more traditional for a nose tackle.
What separate him from his contemporaries, though, are his rare physical gifts.
The Dallas Morning News' Bob Sturm described Phillips' freakish athleticism:
No stranger to those of us who follow the Big 12 closely, Phillips has been a legendary athlete to place on the radar for several years when we were told about his size/athleticism combo that gave him a chance to be a rare freak of nature that doesn’t come along often. Stories of backflips in full pads are certainly things that defensive backs can pull off, but the biggest man on the roster? No way.
At 6'6" and 334 pounds, Phillips' ability to complete a backflip is mind-boggling.
Does it mean he'll become a good football player? Absolutely not. But it's an indication of the level of athlete being discussed.
Phillips could have a Dontari Poe-like ascension after wowing NFL talent evaluators at the combine.
Poe absolutely blew away teams during his pre-draft athletic testing. The Memphis product exploded onto the scene when he ran his 40-yard dash in 4.98 seconds at 6'4" and 346 pounds and bench-pressed 225 pounds a total of 44 times.
The Oklahoma nose tackle might be a couple inches taller and slightly leaner, but expectations are already building for him to blow away the competition once he gets on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium.
|Junior seasons: Jordan Phillips vs. Dontari Poe|
The comparison between Phillips and Poe goes beyond impressive physical prowess. Their production levels during their final seasons on campus were nearly identical.
How well Phillips tests on the field won't be the most important evaluation during his time in Indianapolis, though.
Medical testing will provide the biggest clue as to whether or not Phillips is worthy of a top draft pick.
The nose tackle battled back issues in 2013 that ended his season after only four games and eventually required surgery. Due to his size and the position he plays, this is clearly a major concern for teams. However, Phillips played in all 13 of Oklahoma's games last year.
If there is a lingering issue, the NFL's army of doctors will find it. If they find nothing, Phillips will immediately rocket up draft boards.
Another issue for Phillips is typical of many nose tackle prospects. His motor isn't consistent, but he can be very impressive when he flashes.
As a result, his reviews will be mixed. NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah provided a perfect example of what a former scout sees upon viewing his film:
Not everyone feels the same as Jeremiah, though. Not even those working for the same company. Bucky Brooks certainly got a different impression of the talented nose tackle:
No one can deny that Phillips' game can be inconsistent. But the key word in all of this is "potential." Phillips' overwhelming potential is what makes him such an intriguing prospect.
Furthermore, plenty of Phillips' play on the field would be enough to warrant a high selection in April's draft.
When the native Kansan is on top of his game, he can be a dominant force.
Below is a sequence of screen captures which highlight what the nose tackle does well:
Phillips is very consistent shooting his hands and using his long arms to his advantage.
In the above picture, the nose tackle's hand placement was ideal. He shot his hands first, and they were already inside on the center's chest, which allowed him to control the situation.
Also, notice the oncoming down-block from the right guard.
Phillips felt the pressure and reacted accordingly:
The athletic nose tackle dipped his outside shoulder to give the guard less surface area to block. It's a term coaches call "getting skinny." The proper technique allowed Phillips to easily split the double-team while he kept his eyes in the backfield.
Once Phillips got upfield far enough, he located the football and tackled the running back for a loss.
When this nose tackle is at his best, he's doing all these things on a down-by-down basis. The end result doesn't require the nose tackle to make a tackle, though.
For example, Phillips can do everything right and never come close to making a play that registers as an official statistic:
There are instances—like in the above picture—where Phillips never even moved from the line of scrimmage. Yet his ability to effectively eat up two blockers allowed both linebackers behind him to flow to the football and make the tackle for a short gain.
These are the types of plays that truly define a top-notch nose tackle.
Shelton should eventually become a highly productive member of an NFL team, but Phillips can truly be special if everything checks out at the combine.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.