This story from PFW contributor Marcus Mosher first appeared in our free daily draft newsletter on Monday. Sign up here and you'll get this kind of great draft analysis delivered straight to your inbox first thing every weekday morning.
Last week, we took a look at college production and athleticism in relation to edge rushers coming into the NFL. The final conclusion was that if a player has a baseline of athleticism and relatively good college production, the odds of said player hitting in the NFL are relatively high. College production should be factored into an evaluation as much as, if not more than any single athletic testing number.
But does that same concept apply to interior defensive linemen? Can tackles for loss really help predict which players will succeed or fail in the NFL? Today, we are going to take a look at the hypothesis that the best defensive tackles/interior defensive linemen not only are good athletes, but they also were productive in school.
For this exercise, we are specifically looking at college production in terms of tackles for losses. In all of the charts below, tackles for a loss are recorded by tracking their best collegiate season and then dividing by the total number of games played. In terms of the player pool that is used in this study, there were over 120 players charted that have been drafted since 2010.
Some of these players have spent time as defensive ends in 3-4 defenses, while most are your traditional 4-3 defensive tackles. Instead of trying to make a distinction between these “types” of players, we will just call them “interior defensive linemen” and include every one.
Our first chart is a simple one. Below is a list of every interior defensive linemen who averaged at least 1.15 tackles for a loss per game and ran under a 7.60 3-cone drill. These are what you would consider your “elite” interior defensive linemen prospects.
According to Pro Football Focus’ 2017 season grades, their top-10 interior defensive linemen can all be found on the above list. It shouldn’t be surprising that the best defensive tackle in the NFL was also by far the most dominant collegiate player we have seen in some time. In his three years starting at Pittsburgh, Donald racked up an incredible 63 tackles for a loss and 28.5 in his senior season. Combine his college production with elite athleticism and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that he has been a star in the NFL. The rest of the list is littered with All-Pro and Pro Bowl-caliber players such as Ndamukong Suh, Fletcher Cox, and J.J. Watt, among others.
Even the “misses,” such as Sheldon Day and Datone Jones, have been productive players in the NFL. Day and Jones are still in the NFL today and have found themselves as parts of a D-line rotation. Overall, if you are going to draft an interior defensive lineman in the first round, he better make these two thresholds or come close to them if you are expecting an elite player.
One interesting name that appears on this list is Stanford’s Harrison Phillips. Phillips is widely considered to be a Day 2 or Day 3 prospect, but his elite production (27 tackles for a loss over the past two seasons) and above-average measurables suggest that he should be in consideration for the first round. He doesn’t have the elite quickness that others on this list have, but his explosiveness and ability to change direction is quite impressive. At the worst, he should be selected in the top 50 picks.
Average College Production and Elite Athletes
Much like what we found out with edge rushers, just because a player doesn’t have elite college production doesn’t mean they can’t be productive in the NFL. However, most of the time, those players need elite athleticism to compensate for their lack of production. Below is a list of every interior defensive linemen who had fewer than 1.15 tackles for a loss per game in college but had a 3-cone time of under 7.52 seconds. The results are actually quite surprising.
Our first list had a hit-rate close to 85 percent in terms of finding above-average interior defensive linemen, most of whom are/were elite players in the NFL. This list is a little closer to a 50 percent hit-rate with the better players averaging at least one tackle for a loss per game. Players such as Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins and Muhammad Wilkerson all had fantastic 3-cone times but averaged at least one tackle for a loss per game. Their production wasn’t ideal, but it was good enough, especially when you consider their overall athleticism.
But athletic marvels such as Marvin Austin and Mike Martin weren’t able to make it in the NFL, and that should be expected from players who were massive underperformers in college despite their elite testing numbers. Once again, it’s not impossible that these type of players can hit, but that should be calculated into their draft value.
Below Average College Production
Finding productive interior defensive linemen who didn’t produce in college can be done. However, the odds aren’t in your favor when trying to do so.
The above list has three 2018 draft-eligible defensive linemen — and all three are being discussed as potential first-round picks. Let’s start with Taven Bryan from Florida. Bryan is an undersized under tackle who is an athletic marvel, but his production leaves a lot to be desired. In three years at Florida, Bryan had a total of just 10.5 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks in 30 games. It’s not impossible that he becomes a big-time player in the NFL, but there really is no reason as to why he should be considered in the first round despite his athleticism.
Nose tackle Vita Vea finds himself in a dangerous place on this list. His production puts him near a bunch of failed nose tackles in the NFL, such as Terrence Cody, John Jenkins and Daniel McCullers. His athleticism might allow him to be a productive player, but his college production suggests that he should be a mid-round pick.
Finally, there is Da’Ron Payne from Alabama. Payne has a lot of love in the draft community and is routinely discussed as a lock first-round pick, but his college production is as poor as any player coming into the NFL since 2010. Payne had just one tackle for a loss in 14 games last season. In his career at Alabama, Payne had a total of just five tackles for a loss on 1,481 snaps.
To his credit, Payne has one of the fastest 10-yard splits (1.66) of any defensive tackle over the past decade, and it’s even more impressive when you consider his size. However, there really is no reason why Payne should be a first-round pick considering his lack of collegiate production.
Nose tackle prospects
Smaller, more athletic defensive tackles usually get all of the love from the scouting community. However, it’s important to account for the big guys up front who keep linebackers clean. That doesn’t mean we should ignore college production (or lack of production) for nose tackles and one-techniques. Below is a list of every defensive linemen who are at least 320 pounds.
Topping the list is arguably the best nose tackle in the NFL in Brandon Williams of the Baltimore Ravens. Although he doesn’t have any one dominant athletic trait, his incredible college production should have been a good indicator that he would be successful at the NFL. The same can be said for Danny Shelton, the former Cleveland Browns first-rounder who was recently dealt to the New England Patriots. He might not have been worth a first-round pick, but Shelton’s college production suggested that he would become at least a productive player in the NFL — and that has certainly been the case over the past two seasons.
On the opposite end is Terrance “Mt.” Cody, who was an All-American at Alabama in 2009. Cody was a big part of Alabama’s National Championship that season, but his athletic testing and college production showed he probably shouldn’t be selected inside of the top-100 picks. Despite being a massive player, Cody didn’t have the college production or athleticism to make the transition to the NFL. Cody was selected in the second round by the Baltimore Ravens but played just four years in the NFL, accumulating only four tackles for a loss and zero sacks.
As always, you have to trust the tape when it comes to evaluating players. But thresholds and studies like this can help NFL draft evaluators mitigate risk when it is their turn to pick. As a general rule, the first round of the draft should be saved for players who have above-average college production and above-average athleticism for the position. From then on, it’s up to the teams to decide how much to value production vs. athleticism.