How the NFL Draft Informs Defensive Tackle Evaluations

When it comes to winning games at the highest levels of football, perhaps no factor is more critical than a team’s ability to generate pressure with four defensive linemen. List the most consistent top programs in college football- Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State- and you are naming the teams with the nation's most talented defensive fronts. 

The same goes for the NFL. Three of the four teams playing in the conference championship games, the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars, had below league average quarterbacks, but featured defensive lines that were among the best in the NFL. The most heralded free agent acquisition of the offseason was the Los Angeles Rams’ signing of Ndamukong Suh, pairing him with the league’s best defensive tackle and overall player, Aaron Donald. The duo is not just two of the top defensive tackles in the NFL, but are the two best interior defensive linemen the college game has seen in over a decade.  

A team’s ability to create pressure, particularly from the interior, is the name of the game in today’s football. This has forced teams to change the way they view interior offensive line positions. There is an even larger premium being placed on athleticism and movement skills on the offensive line, as the majority of guard prospects are former offensive tackles. 

Think of recent instances of a single defensive player wrecking the opposition's gameplan. Grady Jarrett in Super Bowl LI. Aaron Donald vs. the Seahawks and Falcons. Da’Ron Payne vs. Clemson and Georgia. There is a good chance you will be reminded of a dominant performance along the interior. 

To get a better idea of what the NFL values in defensive tackle prospects, let us take a look at recent NFL drafts. While it is inexact, the draft is our best tool for assessing a prospect due to it being one of the few steps in the process where a player’s value is uniformly quantified in relation to his cohort. 

  • The last five NFL drafts have seen forty-five defensive tackles selected in the first three rounds. 
  • The group averaged 6’3.2”, 279 pounds as high school prospects and 6’3.5”, 308.5 pounds at the NFL combine after their college careers. 
  • Eight of the forty-five were over 300 pounds as high school prospects and just three cut weight from high school to the combine (two of whom are no longer in the NFL). 
  • Nineteen of the draft picks measured under 6’3” at the combine and just four of that group were over 300 pounds as high school prospects, with three no longer being in the NFL. 
  • One third of the forty-five draft picks were ranked as a defensive end as high school prospects. 
  • Well over half of the group were dual-sport athletes and often performed at an all-state level. The strongest cross-sport correlations are shot put, basketball and wrestling, respectively. 

A study of the NFL’s top fifteen interior defensive linemen for the 2017 season per Pro Football Focus yields similar findings.

  • The group averaged 6’3.4”, 273 pounds as high school prospects and 6’3.48” 305 pounds at the NFL combine.
  • Two of the fifteen were over 300 pounds in high school, with both players (Gerald McCoy and Linval Joseph) being over 6’4”.
  • Gerald McCoy was the only player of the fifteen to weigh less at the combine than in high school. 
  • No player under 6’3” (six of the fifteen) was over 300 pounds as a high school prospect and their average weight was 269 pounds. 
  • At least thirteen were multi-sport athletes with multiple all-state basketball players and state champions in the shot put and wrestling.

Despite the NFL’s obvious preferred athletic profile for the position, heavy and poorly proportioned defensive tackles are still overvalued by college programs and recruiting networks. Highly-ranked defensive tackles that carry bad weight fail due to ability-related reasons at a higher rate than others. 

Tennessee’s Reginald McKenzie, Jr. (the prospect formerly known as Kahlil) is a recent example. McKenzie, who was ranked as the 6th prospect nationally in the 2015 cycle according to the 247Sports Composite, tipped the scales at 341 pounds at The Opening in the summer prior to his senior year of high school. With his massive lower body on a sub-6’3” frame, McKenzie was tough for opposing offensive linemen to move, creating the illusion of a dominant performance and thus a top prospect. This is similar to the problem with evaluating offensive linemen in one-on-one settings at camps and national all-star games. McKenzie's deficiencies- a lack of any moves outside of a slow developing bull rush, an inability to redirect on contact and trouble staying upright were evident, but overlooked. As is the case with most heavy, top prospects his strength and girth (the two most easily gained traits for a lineman prospect) were overvalued as the result of a flawed drill. 

McKenzie was ranked among the nation’s top ten prospects despite his weight, scratching his testing numbers and not playing his senior season of high school football. A Volunteer legacy and the son of Raiders’ general manager Reggie McKenzie, he enrolled with high expectations and endeared himself to Tennessee fans in part by needling rival fanbases on social media. McKenzie was listed at 344 pounds as a freshman at Tennessee and was a starter for the Volunteers for one season before surprisingly declaring early for the 2018 NFL draft. He has trimmed down to under 320 pounds, but has yet to show desirable athleticism, posting a SPARQ score at the NFL combine in the 27.4 percentile of NFL defensive linemen. He is currently projected as a late round pick to undrafted free agent and worked out as an offensive guard at Tennessee’s pro day. 

Texas A&M’s Daylon Mack is another former top defensive tackle prospect from the 2015 cycle that has failed to meet the lofty expectations that come with being a five-star. Mack has even more pronounced limitations with his frame. He is generously listed at 6’1” by Texas A&M, but will be fortunate to crack the six-foot mark with an official measurement. Mack was listed at 330 pounds as a high school prospect and at 335 as a freshman for the Aggies. Prior to the 2017 season, then A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin mentioned Mack’s weight and subsequent conditioning issues, “Daylon Mack, we got his weight down—he’s down to 313 instead of 340. So he can play more than two plays in a row.” 

Mack is entering his senior season and has one career start to date. His production has steadily decreased on an annual basis, even after trimming down to 320 pounds. It is uncommon to see a former five-star prospect without a significant injury history or off-field issues be over-recruited by lesser touted, younger players. 

One of the more extreme examples of a highly-rated, heavy prospect being hampered by weight comes by way of Kentucky’s Matt Elam. He measured in at 6’5”, 372 pounds at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl as a high school senior and was listed at 6’7”, 375 as a freshman before a static 6’7”, 360 for his final three seasons in Lexington (he measured under 6’6” for NFL teams). Elam enrolled at Kentucky with massive expectations. He was among the highest-rated signees of the Mark Stoops era and chose the in-state Wildcats over Alabama. The former four-star prospect struggled to shed bad weight in his midsection and saw his snaps limited due to lack of conditioning and movement skills. Elam was unable to stay on the field and finished his four-year career with 1.5 tackles for loss and zero sacks.

Virginia Tech’s Tim Settle is representative of the limited ceiling for a heavy defensive tackle prospect. Settle measured 6’3”, 361 pounds in high school and was listed at 359 as a true freshman. He was forced to redshirt and cut weight before getting down to 335 pounds and experiencing a productive 2017 season that saw him register 12.5 tackles for loss. Settle serves as an example of a heavy prospect who maximized his physical potential at the college level. Even then, he still performed poorly in athletic tests, with one of the lower SPARQ scores at the NFL Combine (in the 2.6 percentile among NFL defensive tackles). Any NFL draft scouting report on Settle will prominently mention his weight issues and lack of experience as a one-year starter, which is a direct result of his excess pounds and lack of conditioning upon enrolling at Virginia Tech.  

An understanding of a college football program's inner workings is instructive in identifying the hurdles a heavy prospect must clear upon enrollment. College football strength and nutrition programs are geared to add, not cut, mass to a player’s frame. Significant amounts of muscle are gained while food and liquid calories are in never-ending abundance via team meals, training tables and weight room supplements. Even with a team nutritionist holding a player’s hand on a daily basis, an extreme amount of restraint is needed to shed weight. 

IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida offers a college-level strength and nutrition program for its nationally-ranked high school team. IMG's 2017 starting offensive line weighed 390, 385, 360, 318 and 295 pounds, good enough for an average of 349.6. Each player gained significant weight after enrolling at IMG and partaking in the nutrition program. To put the group’s girth in perspective, Arkansas’ 2015 offensive line is the heaviest college front on record and averaged 328 pounds across the board- a full 20 pounds lighter per player than IMG’s high school line. It is worth noting that the lightest player from the 2015 Arkansas offensive line, Frank Ragnow, will be the group's highest draft pick by a wide margin. 

Attend nearly any college football practice in August and you will see the program’s strength coach working with a group of players in non-contact uniforms off to the side. This group is comprised of players who are either injured or need to cut weight and are working on conditioning in lieu of participating in practice. The inability to begin their career in proper condition and then stay on the field for long stretches is a common thread with heavy defensive tackles, as detailed in the examples above. The prominence of uptempo offenses only exacerbates the issue as heavy defensive linemen are prone to tire more quickly and cannot be substituted as often when facing a no-huddle attack. This directly affects their value as a college football player and muddies their projection as an NFL prospect. 

Even if a player does manage to cut weight in a college program, there is no way to retroactively develop functional athleticism, which is typically honed during a prospect's high school years. As previously noted in a prior post concerning offensive linemen, a high school athlete that weighs over 330 pounds is going to struggle to play basketball (one of the strong cross-sport correlations among top defensive tackles). Wrestling, another significant cross-sport correlation, is great for developing balance and an understanding of leverage. Most states cap the heavyweight division at 285 pounds. A prospect who weighs 330 pounds would have to cut forty-five pounds to even participate. 

In February, I wrote that defensive tackle Moro Ojomo was my top prospect in the state of Texas for the 2018 cycle, citing his athletic upside and room for growth. The 16 year-old Texas Longhorn signee is 6’3” 280 pounds- nearly the exact average of the NFL draft picks detailed above. Ojomo was ranked as a three-star prospect and the 27th best defensive tackle according to the 247Sports Composite with players listed at 377, 338, 335 and 329 pounds among those ranked ahead of him. Odds are that Ojomo and his peers with similar builds will outperform most if not all of that heavier group. 

College programs and recruiting networks admittedly judge the success of their evaluations (and for the colleges, player development) by the NFL draft. If the draft is the barometer for success, studying the qualities and career arcs of highly-valued NFL prospects is not only logical, but critical. Even then, the same mistakes are repeated and compounded on an annual basis. Remember this next time a lineman's excess weight is lauded as a positive attribute.

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