During head coach Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama, he’s given the program, especially on the defensive side of the ball, an embarrassment of riches of top-rated recruits who eventually emerge as coveted NFL prospects.
Based on what the program has produced in draft classes of the past, four second-round picks may actually be looked at as a down year in terms of the talent Saban's produced on the defensive side of the ball.
Even though Reggie Ragland, A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Cyrus Jones will all contend for starting jobs as rookies and, at least the first three, were near first-round prospects, the Crimson Tide’s best 2015 defender returns for the 2016 season.
Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen returns as not only Alabama’s best defender, but one of the best draft-eligible defensive linemen in the country. And although athletically he may not be able to wow the same way Myles Garrett of Texas A&M or Carl Lawson of Auburn can, his consistent penetration, production while setting up teammates and overall reliability should cement him in the top-10 discussion 11 months from now.
Consistent, Contained Penetration
In Alabama’s hybrid defensive front, the Tide ask Allen to play nearly every position in their 4-3 or 3-4 alignments. Working as a strong-side defender, Allen appreciates his role as an edge-setter. He stays low as he drives with his hands to not really create aggressive penetration but collapse the pocket and react to run or option-run plays.
As an interior defender, Allen thrives as a one-on-one rusher—he one- and two-gaps with great vision as he overpowers guards with powerful rip and inside rush maneuvers. It’s that versatility and quality experience as both an inside and outside defender—and his ability to penetrate from both areas—that make him such a unique and safe prospect.
As a perimeter defender, Allen works best as a premium pocket pusher, as the more he tries to spin or work the edge, the less success he has. With awesome strength in his upper half and the overall controlled nature of his pursuit, Allen can be trusted to protect the edge of the pocket in both run and pass situations.
In the play below, Allen’s lack of elite athleticism or lateral quickness is revealed a bit as an edge defender, in particular with a quarterback working to escape the pocket. But he’s in great position to force the quarterback to release from the pocket from a far-from-ideal deeper position, and Allen has defensive teammates who are able to assist him in finishing off the needed pressure.
Better suited as an interior defender thanks to powerful, contained penetration ability, Allen should see more work as an interior rusher in 2016 as his snap count continues to grow with the departures of Robinson and Reed on the defensive line.
Allen has tested spin and swim moves, but he’s nearly dominant when he just uses his strong rip and overall hand force to rip through interior blockers. Notice, in the two plays below, not only Allen’s tremendous upper-half strength and finishing ability to the ball-carrier, but his contained, balanced approach that forces the quarterback or running back to have nowhere to go but into his tackling arms.
It’s that consistent and containing penetration that makes him such a feared run and pass defender. It’s extremely rare (just twice in the four games from 2015 I’ve watched) that Allen missteps or misreads a play that leads to big-play opportunities for the running back or mobile quarterback. While he doesn’t always finish the tackle, he’s routinely in position to force ball-carriers to adjust from their ideal moves or to have his teammates finish the pursuit.
Setting Up Teammates, Producing on His Own
Working primarily as a strong-side defensive end in 4-3 or 3-4 looks as well as a 3-technique in Alabama's four-man fronts, Allen is asked to set up teammates more often than he’s given one-on-one pursuit assignments. Allen not only welcomes the ability to attack two blockers to free a teammate or work as the stunting interior rusher to allow for a fellow defensive front-seven player to thrive, but he ends up producing in these situations himself.
Allen can better his teammates' opportunities and still find a way to, despite added attention, finish plays himself. In the first play below, Allen is working as an inside-aligned strong-side lineman who’s tasked with absorbing contact from two blockers on an outside zone-read play. Allen, recognizing it’s a zone play and his responsibility is to work laterally and take up two perimeter blockers so the play is neutralized behind the line of scrimmage, is able to overpower two interior defenders and finish the play himself.
And as a stunting defensive lineman, Allen opens up opportunities for his fellow defenders to maximize blocker confusion and indecisiveness. Allen, asked to sink his hips and drive through multiple blockers to free up a teammate, finishes this powerful pursuit across the face of defensive linemen, but he is still able to keep his balance as he attacks upfield and, such as the play below, splits defenders.
Finally, one of Allen’s best skill sets, and something Alabama defenders have become known for over the years, is his vision and anticipation to bail on his pursuit and get his hands up to deflect in passing lanes.
Allen, on the play below, stunts across the face of three offensive linemen and begins to set up his upfield pursuit to the quarterback. Instead, he reads the quarterback's eyes, anticipates a throw and that he won’t get to the passer before the pass is thrown, and times his jump perfectly to deflect an interior route that, based on the defensive positioning, would have likely picked up a first down.
Reliability Greater Than Athletic Ability?
Allen isn’t the most athletic prospect in the country and, in what looks like a strong 2017 pass-rushing draft class, shouldn’t wow as an athlete. But reliability, strength and true scheme versatility aren’t dismissed by NFL teams, and they shouldn’t be in Allen’s case as the draft process begins to build late in the 2016 season.
Wherever Allen plays on the inside, he flashes dominant hand strength and efficient pursuit. His contained tackling and pursuit style rarely force him into overaggressive or misstepped position, and that trust in him as a defender should give the 2016 Crimson Tide, and Allen’s future pro team, the confidence in him to improve the defense just by being out on the field.
It’s true NFL teams covet upside, especially from pass-rushers. But a defender like Allen, whom they can trust not only to set up teammates but produce on his own from the interior, is worth a top-10 overall pick for a team looking for an anchor defender to build around.