In an NFL draft class absolutely loaded with defensive tackle talent, Baylor's Andrew Billings stands alone as a true freak of nature.
The Waco, Texas, native shouldn't just be viewed as a first-round prospect. He should be in the conversation as a potential top-five overall pick. His natural talent and overall upside are just as impressive as Ole Miss' Laremy Tunsil, Florida State's Jalen Ramsey, UCLA's Myles Jack or whomever anyone wants to place among the top prospects in this year's draft.
Before this argument can advance any further, NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah provided a smart piece of advice when evaluating prospects:
This approach is key, because too many allow the negatives to outweigh the positives in a player's game even when those same positives point toward potential greatness.
Below is an example of negatives found within the skill set of a current elite defender, courtesy of NFL.com: "Won't consistently get the edge on tackles with his get off or quickness. Plays high at times, can be blown off the ball by the double team, but does fight hard to hold ground. Lacks some lateral mobility both rushing the passer and playing in space. Will occasionally give up outside contain."
Some get hung up on these perceived weaknesses instead of projecting how a player can consistently win at the next level. In this particular case, those supposed knocks were attached to the reigning AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year: the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt.
The write-up regarding his strengths became far more accurate:
Watt has a good combination of size and speed. Takes direct routes to the quarterback, uses his hands well to get unblocked and shows a closing burst. Knocks down a lot of passes. Great hand usage against the run as well, keeps blockers off away from his frame and locates the ball-carrier. Outstanding football IQ. Non-stop motor.
As a result of his perceived deficiencies, Watt wasn't the first defensive prospect selected in his draft class. The same can be said of St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Neither was even selected among the top 10 picks of their respective drafts. Yet, these two are the game's best defenders.
Billings possesses the same potential to become an impact defender from Day 1. In fact, the Baylor defensive tackle already invoked a comparison to Donald.
As this is lying season—don't believe anything said by an NFL team on record or anonymously starting with Senior Bowl week—it's always a good idea to refer back to what was said about a prospect during or just after the season.
"For me, it's Billings," an unnamed NFL personnel executive said in November after being asked which prospect was the "safest" in this year's class, per Jeremiah. "Worst case is he's a solid, disruptive starter. Best case—he's an Aaron Donald-type game-plan wrecker."
This isn't to say all three are similar players. They're not. All three are vastly different in how they play the game. Watt is a 5-technique by trade, who can be moved all around the field to take advantage of mismatches. Donald is the game's premier 3-technique and the most disruptive interior defender in the game. Billings, meanwhile, will primarily play 1-technique at the next level.
Similarities stem from the potential to dominate at their particular positions.
Billings actually compared himself to a different member of the Texans: Vince Wilfork. With the explosive power the incoming defensive tackle displays, he could experience a similar career to the two-time Super Bowl-winning nose tackle.
Some will argue Wilfork's impact is a far cry from the one Watt and Donald made in recent years, but such an argument wouldn't include how valuable a top nose tackle or 1-technique can be. The play of those big men in the middle often sends ripples throughout the entire defense. A dominant player like Wilfork can be worth his weight in gold, as he proved during his 12-year career.
Like Wilfork, Billings is an absolute load in the middle of the defense. What many forget about the aging defensive tackle is he served as a disruptive force coming into the NFL as a member of the Miami Hurricanes.
Billings isn't just a space-eater. His ability to completely overwhelm offensive linemen helps separate him from everyone else in a loaded class. He mentioned to the Washington Post's Mike Jones he can take up space in the middle, but it's not his true calling:
I like to keep linebackers clean, but I like making plays. That’s why I focus on: splitting double-teams. I envision myself growing in my knowledge and really playing the game smarter. I want to be able to get all the tricks that the defensive linemen have right now and really use them well against offensive linemen that have been playing for 12 years.
First and foremost, the early entrant is ridiculously strong.
As a high school student, Billings broke a Texas prep state record that stood for 22 years with a 2,010-pound all-around effort in squat (805 pounds), bench (500 pounds) and dead lift (705 pounds).
He continued to build on these numbers during his three years in Art Briles' program. CBS Sports' Pat Kirwan relayed the current max lifts for the 21-year-old powerhouse:
More importantly, Billings' ungodly strength translates to the football field. This isn't always the case, and the latter note about the defensive lineman participating in yoga is key.
Usually, powerful men with increased muscle mass struggle with flexibility. In football, this can be a major problem—particularly along the offensive and defensive lines—because a lineman with flexibility issues generally struggles with pad level and leverage.
Earlier in Billings' career, this knock would have been far more applicable, but he clearly improved over the course of his career.
Below is an example provided by RealGM.com's Jeff Risdon that shows Billings shooting his hands, getting under the offensive lineman's pads and absolutely overwhelming the blocker at the point of attack:
The example isn't a rare occurrence. The Baylor product regularly dominated off the snap.
Players often become labeled by the position they play. In Billings' case, he's generally considered a nose tackle or a 1-technique. A certain perception comes along with being the interior defender lined up over the center.
Those defensive tackles are seen as the garbage men. They do all of the dirty work that allows everyone around them to make plays. It's a thankless job but an important one.
But Billings is more than a garbage man. He's a legitimate playmaker at an unconventional position. What's overlooked in his game is the fact he developed into a consistent upfield player for the Bears.
The interior defender routinely fired off the ball and got into opponents' backfields. He led Baylor last year with 15.5 tackles for loss and tied for the team lead with 5.5 sacks, which contributed to his being named to the AP All-American First Team.
According to College Football Focus, only two defensive tackles graded higher in stopping the run and also graded higher in regards to pass rush: Notre Dame's Sheldon Day and Louisiana Tech's Vernon Butler.
Offensive linemen were often beat off the snap before they even realized Billings was on top of them. The example below serves as the perfect example:
The West Virginia Mountaineers running back didn't have anywhere to go. Billings already beat the center off the snap and had his shoulders turned as the handoff was being completed.
The result? Another tackle for loss.
Often described as college football's strongest man, Billings' overall athleticism tends to be overlooked.
His head coach described what he saw on a daily basis from his best defender, per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Charean Williams:
He’s relentless. He’s just like a bulldog out there chasing the ball. He never stops. That part of him separates him. And then, he’s got an uncanny athletic ability for a guy his size. His lateral movement is really good. His explosiveness off the ball is pretty exceptional.
And his body type, to me, fits good for an interior D-lineman, because his pads are low to begin with. So he does a good job keeping his pads down and getting after it. He’s tough, very physical.
When evaluating Billings, his game extends beyond raw power. It's also how fluid he is when playing.
At 6'1", 311 pounds, the Texas native moves very well for a man his size. He's not just an immovable force in the middle of the defensive line. He can scoot.
The defensive tackle posted an official 5.05-second 40-yard dash, 4.82-second 20-yard shuttle and 8.05-second three-cone at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
While those are solid numbers and he moved very well during position drills, Billings wasn't happy with the results. He wanted to best each of those numbers at Baylor's pro day—and did so.
He ran a 4.92-second 40-yard dash, 4.79-second 20-yard shuttle and 7.71 three-cone, according to BearsTruth.com's Colt Barber. The Houston Texans' Twitter feed actually shared Billings' 40-yard-dash attempt:
Men that big shouldn't be able to move that well.
"I feel like I helped myself a lot at the combine, all the coaches got to see me," Billings said, per the Baylor Bears official site. "But here, I think I really proved myself here with that 40 time and the three-cone drill.”
As Briles mentioned in an earlier quote, relentlessness also served as a staple in the defensive lineman's game. A lineman can move well and run fast, but it doesn't necessarily matter when the player doesn't display a consistent motor.
Two examples show two completely different skill sets yet highlight Billings' overall tenacity.
First, the All-American continued to fight through a double-team from a pair of Oklahoma State Cowboys offensive linemen before he finally applied pressure on the opposing quarterback, courtesy of the Steelers Depot:
In the video, it's easy to see Billings get extension after shooting his hands, keep a flat back, continue to drive the blockers backwards and eventually slip the double-team to create a quarterback hurry.
Below is another instance where Billings didn't give up on the play even when asked to do something completely different, via Baylor's official Twitter feed:
What's absolutely bonkers about this 2014 play against the Kansas Jayhawks is the fact defensive coordinator Phil Bennett first asked his nose tackle to drop into space. Second, Billings chased the running back 35 yards downfield to make a solo tackle.
The Baylor product continually works his way up and down the line of scrimmage—and sometimes more—to get involved in plays. He's big, strong, athletic, active and still developing as a 21-year-old NFL draft prospect. He combines these natural tools with improving hand play and pad level.
Once fully developed in all of these areas, Billings' game should be downright scary and could very well be on par with the best defenders currently in the NFL.