TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Like so many others associated with the University of Alabama football program, defensive lineman Jonathan Allen was shocked when watching the National Football League’s draft this past spring.
Three Crimson Tide defensive players had been hailed as likely first-round selections, yet none of them ended up being so. A day later, they were among five Alabama picks in the second round, with All-American linebacker Reggie Ragland going No. 41 overall to the Bills, All-American defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson 46th to the Lions and defensive lineman Jarran Reed 49th to the Seahawks.
Allen couldn’t help but think, “That could have been me.”
“I was disappointed for them,” he said. “They put in a lot of work. I felt bad for them, but at the same time it’s a business.”
Nevertheless, any second thoughts about whether he had made the right decision to return for his senior season went out the window, not that Allen was second-guessing his decision. Actually, it might really pay out in the end.
"I think it's always a tough decision," head coach Nick Saban said. "I think he made a good business decision."
Specifically, Allen had received a second-round grade from the NFL’s advisory committee, and it was a strong draft for defensive linemen, which played a part in his former teammates sliding—teams could focus on another need in the first round and still land a top-notch lineman later on.
Moreover, Allen needed to have shoulder surgery to fix a torn labrum, the cartilage on the socket that helps keep the ball of the joint in place. It's why he had been wearing a shoulder brace since his freshman season and had to occasionally leave games.
The recovery time would have kept him out of the NFL scouting combine, if not all of the predraft evaluation process. Consequently, all the pertinent factors kept pointing in the same direction.
“I felt like if I came back, had surgery, played good, I could play myself into the first round,” Allen said. “I thought it was best for me long term.”
Saban concurred: "He could be one of the top guys this year at his position."
A month ago, Pro Football Focus said he was poised to be the nation's best interior defender, and early draft projections since then have had him rated among the top overall players. Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller had Allen fourth in his most recent mock. He was listed third among defensive linemen/pass-rushers behind Texas A&M's Myles Garrett and Michigan State's Malik McDowell.
The difference financially could be significant. For example, Robinson's deal with the Lions is for four years at $5.2 million. The second defensive lineman selected in 2016, DeForest Buckner, No. 7 by the San Francisco 49ers, got $18.2 million.
Allen's return has been great for the Crimson Tide as well, especially with so many defensive leaders having moved on after last year's national championship. There would have been an obvious void without him, but instead he was one of the three players to represent Alabama at SEC media days—making him an obvious favorite to eventually land team captain honors.
"I try and lead by example," he said.
Through three games, Allen has been as good as expected even though he lost so many valuable comrades off last season’s national championship team. He’s playing at a slightly heavier weight—the product of Leesburg, Virginia, says he’s at about 285 pounds, up from 280 a year ago—and enjoying not having to wear the brace anymore.
Statistically, he’s been credited with 11 tackles and three sacks, four hurries and two passes broken up. Able to line up in the interior or at defensive end, depending on the situation and matchup, Allen has been a menace to every opposing quarterback and has helped as an important cog against the run.
While getting off to a 3-0 start despite having already played two ranked opponents away from Bryant-Denny Stadium, No. 1 Alabama has notched 10 sacks while giving up just 62.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks sixth nationally.
“I wanted to get a little bigger because I knew I would be playing against the run more,” Allen said. “That was probably the biggest reason why I came back, to show that I could be an every-down player, show that I could play the run. I feel like I’ve done a pretty decent job of doing that. I’m just trying to continue to progress in that area.”
But the sacks are what he’s best known for, and with good reason.
When Allen brought Southern California quarterback Max Browne down a second time in the season opener—despite facing some other top NFL prospects on the Trojans offensive line—it was the 20th sack of his career, moving him past former LSU All-American Marcus Spears and into second for the most by a defensive lineman coached by Saban at the collegiate level.
He is now one behind Michigan State defensive lineman Robaire Smith, who had 22 sacks from 1997-99 (he broke his right fibula and missed the 1998 season).
“No way,” Allen said when he heard the rankings. “Close.”
Overall, the Saban-coached player with the most sacks is Michigan State linebacker Julian Peterson (1998-99) with 25. The 1999 Spartans top all Saban-coached teams with 60, to go with 119 tackles for a loss, in just 12 games.
|Most Sacks By Saban-Coached Players|
|Julian Peterson||Michigan State||1998-99||25|
|Robaire Smith||Michigan State||1997-99||22|
|Compiled by the author (*active)|
Allen doesn't see why this year's team can't challenge that mark, which also happens to be the Crimson Tide record set in 1988, when Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas had a whopping 27. Granted, that seems like a stretch for any player nowadays, but last year the trio of Allen (12), Tim Williams (10.5) and Ryan Anderson (six) totaled 30 when the linebackers were primarily considered role players. Neither had a start until this fall.
What also stood out regarding his future draft stock was that all of Allen's 12 sacks came against Power 5 opponents, and 11 were against ranked teams. He'll obviously have a chance to build on that this season, especially with the shoulder healthy again.
So far, Allen has the early lead with three sacks, while Anderson is second with 2.5 and Williams third with one, but it led to what Allen’s already calling the favorite play of his career—last week’s touchdown at Ole Miss. Although the fourth-quarter turnover was initially declared an interception, statisticians have since gone back and ruled it a sack and forced fumble by Williams.
After the ball went straight to Allen, who caught it, he rumbled 75 yards to score what would be the game-winning points in the 48-43 victory.
He calls it a dream play, “especially in an important game like that.” In the process, he sort of looked like his favorite player growing up, NFL star Julius Peppers—who has returned two fumbles and four interceptions for touchdowns while notching 137.5 sacks for the Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.
|Alabama Sacks (2007-16)|
|Alabama Record Book (*Three games)|
“It took him so long to score,” Anderson joked, but he saved his biggest barbs for the escorting players who started celebrating early and nearly let Allen get tackled.
Regardless, the play was symbolic of both Allen’s future and the way he’s viewed by his teammates, out in front and fulfilling his enormous potential.
“He’s the center of our defense, the heart and soul of it,” Anderson said. “That’s our dude.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.