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2016 NFL Combine Tale Of The Tape: Defensive Tackles

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We take a close look at the performance numbers of defensive tackles at the Combine and see which prospects stood out.

Sheldon Rankins at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine.
Sheldon Rankins at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Almost every Cowboys mock draft I've seen has the Cowboys taking a defensive tackle at some point in the draft - except for the first round. But which one to pick?

The NFL Combine offered the most recent new data point that we can use to evaluate defensive tackles, and perhaps find an interesting fit for the Cowboys. One way of assessing Combine performance is to look at the raw numbers from the position drills. Sure, running 40 yards in a straight line doesn't necessarily tell you all that much about a defensive tackle, but when teams look at rookie prospects, one of the first things they look at is whether the player meets the physical criteria expected from the position. And the Cowboys are no different, as Cowboys Assistant Director of Player Personnel Will McClay explained in an interview on 105.3 The Fan:

You talk about trying to get the jobs done at certain positions where we have criteria or standards that have been tried and true that we have to meet. So you can love a player on tape and not have a true measurable on him, and then you go and you think he’s 6-2 and he ends up being 5-11 or 6-0. That kind of changes your view on that player a little bit.

Bill Parcells once explained in a TV interview why teams have a set of criteria or standards they work against: For every position, there is a certain combination of physical measurables that has proven successful in the NFL, and deviating from this success model doesn't have high chances of success.

So the first thing we need to do is understand what NFL teams are looking for in their prospects. Gil Brandt, former Cowboys personnel man, published a set of target test results for Combine measurementss a while back. The table below shows the numbers for defensive tackles. For good measure, I've included the Combine numbers Aaron Donald and Tyrone Crawford. Why these two? Crawford is the 3-technique defensive tackle for the Cowboys, and in 2014, the Cowboys had their eyes on Aaron Donald, but he was taken before it was their turn to make a selection. Here's how their Combine numbers compare to the target results.

Drill Significance Defensive Tackles Donald
Crawford
40-yard dash Speed over distance 5.15 4.68 4.89
225-pound bench press reps Upper body strength 26 35
28
Vertical jump Explosiveness, leg strength 30 32 33
Broad jump Explosiveness, leg strength 8'9"
9'8'' 9'5"
20-yard shuttle Flexibility, burst, balance 4.55 4.39 4.44
3-cone drill Agility, change of direction 7.75 7.11 7.09

Both players show the prerequisite athleticism the Cowboys are looking for in their 3-techniques. And while we don't have a specific set of Cowboys target numbers a 1-technique defensive tackle, we'll use Brandt's numbers as a proxy until we do.

The next table shows all the basic measurements for the defensive tackles at the Combine. The "Targets Met" column on the far right shows how many of the six target measurements outlined above a prospect was able to meet. For your convenience, the table is sortable, so you can sort and re-sort to your heart's delight. "Rank" indicates where a player is currently ranked on the CBSSports big board.

Defensive Tackles, 2016 Combine measurables (click column header to sort)

Rank Player Height Weight Proj. Round 40 yds Reps Vert Broad 20 S 3 Cone Targets Met
9 Robinson, A'Shawn 6'4'' 307 1 5.20 22 26" 8'10" 4.74 7.8 1
15 Billings, Andrew 6'1'' 311 1 5.05 31 27.5" 9'5" 4.82 8.05 3
18 Nkemdiche, Robert 6'3'' 294 1 4.87 28 35" 9'8" - - - - 4
21 Reed, Jarran 6'3'' 307 1 5.21 - - 31" 8'8" 4.75 7.77 1
25 Rankins, Sheldon 6'1'' 299 1 5.03 28 34.5" 9'10" 4.59 7.44 5
26 Bullard, Jonathan 6'3'' 285 1-2 4.93 23 32" 9'8" 4.56 7.31 4
29 Clark, Kenny 6'3'' 314 1-2 5.06 29 28.5" 8'6" 4.62 - - 2
33 Butler, Vernon 6'4'' 323 1-2 5.33 26 29.5" 8'8" 4.76 7.82 1
38 Johnson, Austin 6'4'' 314 1-2 5.32 25 26" 8'3" 4.75 7.84 0
57 Washington, Adolphus 6'3'' 301 2 5.17 21 27" 8'3" 4.79 8.06 0
74 Jones, Chris 6'6'' 310 2-3 5.03 26 24.5" 8'10" 4.62 7.44 4
90 Day, Sheldon 6'1'' 293 3 5.07 21 30" 8'6" 4.5 7.44 4
102 Collins, Maliek 6'2'' 311 3-4 5.03 25 29.5" 9'1" 4.52 7.53 4
123 Hargrave, Javon 6'1'' 309 4 4.93 29 34.5" 9'1" 4.7 7.9 4
144 Ridgeway, Hassan 6'3'' 303 4-5 5.02 24 32" 9'5" 4.82 8.28 3
168 Ioannidis, Matt 6'3'' 299 5 5.03 32 28" 9'0" 4.71 7.78 3
175 Henry, Willie 6'3'' 303 5 5.00 28 30.5" 9'2" 4.53 7.57 6
181 Reader, DJ 6'3'' 327 5-6 5.33 30 29.5" 8'3" 4.71 7.9 1
205 Zettel, Anthony 6'4'' 277 6 4.81 28 30.5" 9'1" 4.39 7.63 6
255 Jefferson, Quinton 6'4'' 291 7 4.93 24 29" - - 4.37 7.98 2
269 Wujciak, Connor 6'2'' 291 7-FA 4.91 22 34.5" 9'9" 4.27 7.32 5
318 Thomas, Lawrence 6'3'' 286 7-FA 4.98 - -
35" 9'5" - - - - 3
431 Heath, Joel 6'5'' 293 - - 5.02 26 33" 9'5" 4.52 7.44 6

The table obviously favors potential 3-techniques, as they are usually quicker and more explosive than their 1-technique counterparts, which makes it a little harder to identify potential 1-techniques with this data.

Leading the table, and ticking all target measurements, are Willie Henry, Anthony Zettel (a likely DE who participated in the Combine in the DT group), and Joel Heath. They all have the prerequisite athleticism for a 3-technique, but their game film (as evidenced by their lowly ranking on the CBS big board) leaves a lot to be desired. Ben Gardner, a Cowboys fan favorite, also wowed with outstanding measurements at his pro day (4.83 forty, 39.5" vertical, 10'2'' broad, 6.78 3-cone), but ultimately didn't make it in the NFL.

The two most promising prospects here are Sheldon Rankings, who hits on five targets and just barely missed the cut in the forty, and Robert Nkemdiche, who aced four drills but sat out the short shuttle and 3-cone.

There are some other interesting prospects, who'll likely be available between the 2nd and 4th rounds, who all tick four of the target measurements. Jonathan Bullard, like Anthony Zettel, might be more of a defensive end, but participated in the DT group. Chris Jones, Sheldon Day, Maliek Collins, and Javon Hargrave would all make for interesting mid-round picks.

The thing to keep in mind here though is as you look at the prospects that seem to have done particularly well, they're all bunched pretty tightly around 300 pounds or slightly lower. The heavier guys understandably didn't do quite as well in these drills as their somewhat lighter peers. To get a better handle on that, we'll look at a handful of other metrics to assess our prospects, because being successful in the NFL is about more than simply ticking the right boxes.

1. Production ratio: [(SACKS + TACKLES FOR LOSS) / NUMBER OF COLLEGE GAMES PLAYED = PRODUCTION RATIO]

This number measures the playmaking potential of front seven players coming out of college. In our table below, the number is based on the last two years of a players' college production. What you want in a Production Ratio for a DT is a score of 1.0 or better. Obviously, the higher the number, the better.

2. Kirwan Explosion Index: [BENCH PRESS REPS + VERTICAL JUMP + BROAD JUMP = EXPLOSION NUMBER]

First proposed by Pat Kirwan, this is a simple addition that adds up the number of bench press reps with the broad and vertical jump values. What this number gives you is an idea of the explosive strength of a lineman. An explosion number over 70 is considered a very good result, with anything above 65 still being good.

3. Explosive Power: (VERT+3.5*BROAD)*(WEIGHT/HEIGHT)/3000

This is a metric that was developed, as far as I know, by Tony Wiltshire, a writer for BuffaloBillsDraft.com. Where about half of Kirwan's Explosion Index (KEI) is made up of upper body strength, the Explosive Power metric focuses on lower body strength relative to a player's physique. This metric gives you a good idea of how strong a lineman is off the snap and the amount of pure physical force he can generate out of his legs. A value over 1.05 is elite, a value over 1.0 is excellent.

4. Speed Score: [(WEIGHT * 200) / (40-TIME ^ 4) = SPEED SCORE]

Not all players are created equal, and it doesn't make a lot of sense comparing 40-times of players who may have a weight difference of 60 pounds. The Speed Score takes into account both a player's time in the 40-yard dash as well as his weight. The ratio was initially developed for running backs, but works just as well for DTs. A good score for an interior defensive lineman is 95 or higher.

Defensive Tackles, 2016 Combine additional metrics (click column header to sort)

Rank
Player Height Weight Proj. Rd Prod. Ratio Expl. Indx Expl. Power Speed Targets met
9 Robinson, A'Shawn 6'4'' 307 1 0.60 56.1 0.88 84.0 0
15 Billings, Andrew 6'1'' 311 1 1.32 68.0 1.04 95.6 4
18 Nkemdiche, Robert 6'3'' 294 1 0.67 72.8 1.07 104.5 3
21 Reed, Jarran 6'3'' 307 1 0.45 39.8 1.01 83.3 1
25 Rankins, Sheldon 6'1'' 299 1 1.56 71.6 1.08 93.4 3
26 Bullard, Jonathan 6'3'' 285 1-2 1.35 64.8 1.00 96.5 3
29 Clark, Kenny 6'3'' 314 1-2 0.87 66.1 0.97 95.8 2
33 Butler, Vernon 6'4'' 323 1-2 1.00 64.3 1.01 80.0 2
38 Johnson, Austin 6'4'' 314 1-2 1.10 59.3 0.90 78.4 1
57 Washington, Adolphus 6'3'' 301 2 0.96 56.3 0.89 84.3 0
74 Jones, Chris 6'6'' 310 2-3 0.63 58.6 0.83 96.9 1
90 Day, Sheldon 6'1'' 293 3 1.17 59.6 0.96 88.7 1
102 Collins, Maliek 6'2'' 311 3-4 0.90 63.6 1.03 97.2 2
123 Hargrave, Javon 6'1'' 309 4 3.28 72.6 1.12 104.6 4
144 Ridgeway, Hassan 6'3'' 303 4-5 1.06 65.5 1.04 95.4 4
168 Ioannidis, Matt 6'3'' 299 5 1.13 69 0.94 93.4 2
175 Henry, Willie 6'3'' 303 5 1.09 67.7 1.01 97.0 4
181 Reader, DJ 6'3'' 327 5-6 0.29 67.8 1.02 81.0 2
205 Zettel, Anthony 6'4'' 277 6 1.54 67.6 0.90 103.5 3
255 Jefferson, Quinton 6'4'' 291 7 1.40 53 0.44 98.5 2
269 Wujciak, Connor 6'2'' 291 7-FA 1.04 66.4 1.07 100.1 4
318 Thomas, Lawrence 6'3'' 286 7-FA 0.57 44.5 1.03 93.0 1
431 Heath, Joel 6'5'' 293 - - 0.60 68.5 1.00 92.3 2

With NFL fans caught up in the excitement of the Combine, sometimes it's easy to forget that a one-day workout session cannot trump four or more years of game film. Particularly in cases where freakish athleticism does not match on-field production (or vice versa), teams will need to take a closer look at why that is the case. It's not necessarily a red flag, but it warrants a closer look. Similarly, one bad day of working out will not discount consistent production at a high level in college.

There are five guys who tick all four boxes in this table.

  • This is where potential 1-technique Andrew Billings really comes into his own. He was lost in the wash in the first table that looked purely at athletic markers, and Billings simply isn't the fastest guy around. But he has a strong track record of production, he's explosive in his upper and lower body, and has good speed for his size.
  • Javon Hargrave is a prospect with exciting potential as a 3-technique, but as a small-school guy faces questions about his level of competition in college.
  • Hassan Ridgeway, Henry Willie, and Connor Wujciak are potential third-day picks with interesting athletic markers.
  • Rankins and Nkemdiche each tick three of the boxes, Rankings narrowly missing the cut on the speed score, and Nkemdiche coming up short on college production.

A few other observations about the numbers:

1 vs 3: Some of the prospects in the list above will be 1-techniques, some will be 3-techniques. If you want a penetrating 3-technique, you'll want a guy with elite athleticism and a good track record of production in college. If you want a pocket-collapsing 1-technique, you'll want a guy with size who may not stand out with his athletic markers, but should do well in the performance metris in the second table.

The Marcus Spears factor. At his pro day, Marcus Spears ran a 5.05 forty, had a 31 inch vertical jump and a 4.44 20-yard shuttle, all at 307 pounds. Additionally, Marcus Spears had a 1.60 production ratio (28 games, 15 sacks, 30 TFLs) over his final two seasons at LSU. Compared to this year's draft class, Spears would have been one of the top prospects. And ultimately, that's the risk with this group: Will they be better than Marcus Spears? If you get a Spears-type player on the third day of the draft, you will have done well, but if you take him on the first two days, you may have over-invested.

What about "quick-twitch"? After the 2013 draft, Jerry Jones explained what the Cowboys were looking for ("In our system, we probably would put a premium on quick-twitch potential three-technique") and didn't see in Sharrif Floyd. A year later, the Cowboys interest in Aaron Donald further solidified what a quick-twitch 3-technique should look like. But that's not necessarily a requirement at the 1-technique spot in the current defensive scheme, though it certainly wouldn't hurt.

If you want a 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. But if you want a 1-technique who can consistently collapse the pocket against two defenders, you'll want a guy with size and outstanding upper- and lower body explosiveness and strength. And there are not many of those guys around.

Late round prospects? If you sum up the green cells in both tables above, there are a few interesting late-round prospects assembled here. Michigan's Willie Henry leads all prospects with 10 green boxes (Aaron Donald also had 10 green boxes), Connor Wujciak out of Boston College comes in with nine green boxes, Javon Hargrave (South Carolina State) and Joel Heath (Michigan State) follow with eight. All are third-day prospects, all show intriguing athletic potential, but all will also need a lot of development to succeed at the NFL level.

In the next installment of our look at the Combine results, we'll look at how the defensive ends performed.