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NFL Draft 2016: Finding Playmaking Defensive Tackles

We review the college production of 28 defensive tackles available in the 2016 draft, and in addition to some of the better-known names, we unearth a couple of other prospects with intriguing college stats.

Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Earlier this week we looked at the Production Ratio of defensive ends in this year's draft class. Today we switch our focus to defensive tackles.

We've established in previous years that the Production Ratio looks like a solid indicator for how good a college player could be at the NFL level. If you are unfamiliar with the Production Ratio, follow the link above and read up on it. Here's how it's calculated:


The resulting number gives you an idea how disruptive a player is per game, as measured by his sacks or tackles for loss. As usual, we'll look at two Production Ratios, one for the entire college career (an indicator of consistency) and one for the last two seasons of a player's college career (an indicator for potential), though we'll focus on the latter for most of this post. For defensive tackles, a number above 1.0 for the last two years of college is usually indicative of a disruptive defensive tackle, a number above 1.5 generally denotes elite talent for a defensive tackle.

But before we look at the defensive tackles in this year's draft class, let's look at the standout defensive tackles (as measured by total sacks in the NFL) from the past five draft classes and see what their college Production Ratios looked like.

Player College Stats Production Ratio
Round (Pick) Player Team POS Career Sacks Sacks TFL Games College Career Last two seasons
Class of 2010
4 (120) Geno Atkins CIN DT 43 10.5 33.5 50 0.88 0.81
1 (2) Ndamukong Suh DET DT 42 24 50.5 53 1.41 2.07
1 (3) Gerald McCoy TB DT 35.5 14.5 33 40 1.19 1.44
Class of 2011
1 (3) Marcell Dareus
BUF DT 36.5 11 20 33 0.94 1.24
1 (30) Muhammad Wilkerson
NYJ DT 30.5 17 26 36 1.19 1.58
3 (77) Jurell Casey TEN DET 28 8 22 38 0.79 1.35
Class of 2012
1 (12) Fletcher Cox
PHI DT 22 7.5 23.5 36 0.86 1.15
4 (132)
Mike Daniels
GB DT 18 13.5 26.5 47 0.85 1.35
2 (36) Derek Wolfe
DEN DT 17 18.5 37.0 44 1.26 1.62
Class of 2013
1 (13) Sheldon Richardson
NYJ DT 16.5 6 18.5 24 1.02 1.02
2 (44) Kawann Short
CAR DT 16 18 49.5 50 1.35 1.79
Class of 2014
1 (13) Aaron Donald STL DT 20 29.5 66 51 1.87 2.54
2 (48) Timmy Jernigan BAL DT 8 8.5 25 40 0.84 0.93

Five of the players shown here have a Production Ratio above 1.5 (blue cells), six more have a ratio between 1.0 and 1.5. For 11 of the 13 players in the table above, the Production Ratio over their final two college years appears to have been a good indicator of future NFL success. Geno Atkins is the most obvious exception, but nobody in 2010 had any notion of what Atkins would become in the NFL. Timmy Jernigan may have the second-most sacks of his draft class, but he doesn't have a lot of sacks, averaging just four sacks per year over the last two years.

None of the defensive tackles drafted last year managed a high sack total in his rookie season, so I've left out the 2015 rookie class altogether.

It is worth noting that last year's DT draft class had only one player with a Production Ratio above 1.5, and that was Xavier Williams out of Northern Iowa. Northern Iowa plays in the unheralded Missouri Valley Football Conference, not exactly a hotbed for future NFL talent. One thing to always keep in mind with these numbers is that they don't factor in the level of competition a player faced in college, and as with all college stats, you'll probably have significantly discount the production ratio numbers for players who faced weaker college competition. Williams wasn't drafted and signed with the Cardinals as a free agent.

Also worth noting: in all five years listed above, a player not drafted in the first round makes the list of the most disruptive defensive tackles. As a general rule, if you want a disruptive guy in the middle, chances are you'll have to get him in the first round. However, if we were to extend the table above, we'd find more players from later rounds, an indicator that it may be worth looking a bit closer at the college production of defensive tackle prospects, especially in the later rounds.

Again, the mandatory caveat: There are a multitude of factors that determine how well a prospect will do in the NFL. College production is just one of them, but at the very least, the correlation shown above is intriguing.

2016 Defensive Tackle Prospects

The table below shows the current top-ranked defensive tackle prospects for the 2016 NFL draft. The table is sorted by their CBS Draft Ranking (Rank per January 15th), though you probably shouldn't attach too much weight to these early rankings. The table contains the top 24 DT prospects that were given a draftable grade by CBS. For your convenience, the table is sortable (just click on the blue column headers).

College Stats
Production Ratio
Rank Player School POS Ht Wt Sacks TFL Games College Career Last two seasons
9 A'Shawn Robinson Alabama DT 6-3 312 9 22.0 42 0.74 0.60
15 Andrew Billings Baylor DT 6-1 310 8 29.5 37 1.01 1.32
22 Robert Nkemdiche Ole Miss DT 6-3 296 7 19.0 35 0.74 0.67
29 Jarran Reed Alabama DT 6-3 313 7 11.0 29 0.62 0.45
30 Kenny Clark UCLA DT 6-2 310 7 20.5 39 0.71 0.87
44 Austin Johnson Penn State DT 6-3 325 9.5 24.0 38 0.88 1.10
54 Sheldon Rankins Louisville DT 6-1 303 17 31.5 45 1.08 1.56
66 Adolphus Washington Ohio State DT 6-4 290 12.5 25.0 49 0.77 0.96
91 Chris Jones Mississippi State DT 6-5 308 11.5 18.0 39 0.76 0.63
96 Vernon Butler Louisiana Tech DT 6-3 309 5 29.0 49 0.69 1.00
112 Sheldon Day Notre Dame DT 6-1 285 6.5 32.0 48 0.80 1.17
116 Nile Lawrence-Stample Florida State DT 6-1 305 6.5 6.5 37 0.35 0.38
144 Maliek Collins Nebraska DT 6-2 300 11 18.0 38 0.76 0.90
155 Adam Gotsis Georgia Tech DT 6-5 285 11.5 27.5 48 0.81 0.76
169 Matt Ioannidis Temple DT 6-3 292 10 30.0 44 0.91 1.13
176 Anthony Zettel Penn State DT/DE 6-4 278 16 38.0 50 1.08 1.54
188 Luther Maddy Virginia Tech DT 6-0 293 9 29.5 56 0.69 0.59
200 Willie Henry Michigan DT 6-2 310 10 18.0 35 0.80 1.09
214 D.J. Reader Clemson DT 6-2 325 5 9.0 47 0.30 0.29
232 Delvon Simmons USC DT 6-5 295 8 20.5 50 0.57 0.67
241 Hassan Ridgeway Texas DT 6-3 320 9.5 17.0 36 0.74 1.06
258 Quinton Jefferson Maryland DT 6-3 287 10.5 27.0 37 1.01 1.40
314 Antwaun Woods USC DT 6-1 320 5 14.5 50 0.39 0.48
585 Mehdi Abdesmad Boston College DT 6-6 286 7.5 21.5 32 0.91 1.28

Overall, this is not a particularly impressive DT class, though Sheldon Rankins and Anthony Zettel cross the 1.5 point threshold, even if just barely.

Rankins could be an interesting get for the Cowboys. His primary position is at the 1-technique, but he offers some pass rushing potential as well. He lined up at DE at times in 2015 for Louisville, and is one of the rare players that can get up the field from the 1-technique spot. Dane Brugler explains:

Has the lateral quickness to stunt and loop around bodies to close on the pocket. He displays terrific effort and is a determined chaser to catch ballcarriers from behind away from the line of scrimmage.

Rankins has heavy hands and terrific initial momentum to generate movement at the point of attack, seeing through blocks to accurately track the ball. He redirects well for a man his size, collecting himself on the move to break down in small spaces.

Rankins is currently ranked 54th on the CBS big board and 94th the Drafttek big board, but there's a good chance he'll move up into first-round consideration once the full pre-draft process is done - and that may be too expensive for the Cowboys, who don't appear to value the 1-tech position too much.

Anthony Zettel is the other player with a ratio above 1.5, though he's a bit of a DE/DT tweener, lacking the length to play outside and lacking the size to play inside. Zettel started out as a DE and moved inside for his junior season, but he's likely to move outside again in the NFL, and while his aggressive style and high-motor play will endear him to fans, his success in college may not translate well to the next level.

Overall though, if you're looking for the next Aaron Donald or Kawann Short, you're probably not going to find them on the list above.

Which may not necessarily be a bad thing. What we are looking for with the Production Ratio are disruptive guys. Guys who can make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Guys who can collapse the pocket and rush the passer from the DT spot. Guys who use brute strength and explosion to overpower their opponents or guys who can use their quickness to get off the snap and squeeze through gaps. Good luck finding one of those this year.

What you will find in this draft class are lots of defensive tackles that can stop the run, take on double teams and have the anchor to hold their ground. But you won't need to invest a premium pick for one of those guys.

Sure, there might be another Geno Atkins in this draft, but the odds are slim. The Cowboys probably won't find the twitchy 3-technique they like for their scheme, but will find a lot of guys suited for the 1-technique position. The question is whether any of the prospects above offer them more than the Cowboys already have in Terrell McClain (if he ever stays healthy) or a low-cost free agent signing like Nick Hayden.

Ultimately, the Cowboys have to decide what type of players they want for their DT spots. If you want a big guy who can sit down on two offensive linemen, you can get a guy like that on the third day of the draft, or you can get a cheap, proven veteran in free agency to do just that job.

Or you could take a flyer on one of the small-school guys in the draft with one of your later picks.

The 2016 small-school standouts

Everybody loves an underdog, and the small-school standout is a staple of Dallas Cowboys drafts, and has been for decades. The first Cowboys player to fit the "small-school standout" definition was defensive tackle Jethro Pugh out of Elizabeth (N.C.) City State in the 1964 draft. Since then, the Cowboys have had great success looking for talent in out of the way places, and have compiled an impressive list of small-school talent that includes Hall of Fame OT Rayfield Wright out of Fort Valley State, HoF OG Larry Allen out of Sonoma State, and numerous Pro Bowlers. More recently, the Cowboys found Tony Romo in out of the way Eastern Illinois, and small-school prospects continue to make the roster in Dallas.

But for every feel-good story about guy that made it, there are hundreds of stories about guys who weren't able to make the jump from small schools to the NFL. With that out of the way, here are four small-school DT prospects that may catch the fancy of teams in the 2016 NFL draft.

Rank Player School POS Ht Wt Sacks TFL Games College Career Last two seasons
179 Javon Hargrave South Carolina State DT 6-1 298 37 63.0 45 2.22 3.28
485 O.J. Mau Gardner-Webb DT 6-2 308 12.5 33.5 44 1.05 1.36
268 David Onyemata Manitoba DT 6-3 295 7.5 16.5 25 0.96 1.03
289 Greg Milhouse Jr. Campbell DT 6-2 295 7.5 16.5 22 1.09 1.09

If you're looking for an Aaron Donald Starter Kit, Javon Hargrave is as close as you'll get this year. Eric Galko, writing for Bleacher Report, had this to say about Hargrave:

Small-schooler or not, Hargrave stands, according my assessment, as one of the biggest Senior Bowl roster snubs this year. He doesn’t boast elite size (hovering just below 6’2 and around 290 pounds), but his production, pass-rush refinement and ability to stay low should allow him to thrive against top-tier offensive linemen.

Posting 13.5 sacks in his senior season, Hargrave played an interior penetrating role for South Carolina State, showcasing unique quick-twitch athleticism for a defensive tackle and ripping, swimming and sidestepping blockers with remarkable consistency. He’s a bit overly aggressive, leading him to suffer in the run game and containment, but as a pass-rusher, he’s one of the 2016 class’ best.

Hargrave has the highest Production ratio I've recorded over the five years in which I've been compiling these numbers. Admittedly, it's against inferior competition, and that is a huge watchout. But even if you take away every second sack and every second TFL from Hargrave's stat sheet, he'd still have a higher ratio than all other prospects in this draft. Certainly worth taking a closer look at.

Another guy that could be worth a look is O.J. Mau. Mau primarily played nose tackle in a 3-4 defense at Gardner-Webb and put up impressive numbers despite a taking on double teams in the middle of Gardner-Webb's defense. Asked about which NFL Player he compares himself to, the American Samoan wasn't shy:

Ndamukong Suh because how he be killing folks out there. Man play with a passion.

Mau has signed on for a Combine prep program at Traction Sports, and if he shows well at the Combine, he'll move up form 485th on the CBS Board and might even show up on the Drafttek board.


The Production Ratio, like every other stat-based projection tool, is not going to be a perfect predictor of how successful these players are going to be in the NFL. But it does give you something to think about as you evaluate these players and their potential, and it may be one building block in identifying who this year's playmakers will be - and who won't. In a little over a month, the NFL Combine will provide us with even more metrics, giving us an even bigger data base from which to assess players.

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