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Cowboys 2018 draft: Defensive tackle targets for each day of the draft

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The Cowboys might draft a defensive tackle early in the draft, but we’ve got prospects for any occasion.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys will surely be addressing the defensive tackle position in the rapidly-approaching 2018 NFL Draft. Last season, Dallas made significant improvements on the defensive side of the ball. By the end of the year, an argument could be made that the Cowboys’ defense was playing better than the Cowboys’ offense. However, the Cowboys need to get better in the trenches, in particular the interior of the defensive line.

Last season, the Cowboys relied on the likes of Maliek Collins, Brice Price, Lewis Neal, and Richard Ash to man the 1-tech position. The only name that was drafted out of that list was Collins and he is better suited to play the 3-technique defensive tackle position.

To put their interest in a defensive tackle into perspective, the Cowboys have used four of their 30 pre-draft visits on defensive tackles. They have also had a private workout with one of those players as well. The interest is there and the board will be there, too. The purpose of this article is to get an idea of many defensive tackles and where they will likely be drafted.

Day 1

Vita Vea, Washington

A freakishly-athletic talent, Vea is a guy that has received a ton of heat over the past few months. With how well is weight is distributed, Vea is a dynamic talent with his light feet and quickness off the football. There are questions about his technique and his game being a little raw for the NFL, but Vea can be special if he is coached up by the right coaches. Who better to do that in all of football than Rod Marinelli?

Vea is going to be coveted by a number of teams due to his ability to beat offenses in a variety of ways. On running downs, he has the sheer power to take on double teams in the interior part of the defensive line and keep his ground. He is excellent at diagnosing plays in the backfield and making offensive lines work. On passing downs, he can beat you with a variety of pass-rushing moves to get to the quarterback. Vea could be a special player in Dallas, if he lasts until pick #19, otherwise a trade up will be the only way to get him.

Da’Ron Payne, Alabama

Playing for the biggest dynasty in all of college football, Payne had plenty of chances to show off his ability for NFL teams. Despite playing for a stacked defense, Payne truly was one of the key cogs that made their engine work. At 6-foot-2, 310 pounds, Payne has the power and quickness to contribute in a 4-3 front as a 1-technique defensive tackle or as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.

Payne is excellent at getting off the football and he is efficient at beating interior offensive lineman with deceptively-savvy moves. He was coached extremely well at Alabama. His technique is phenomenal, he uses his powerful hands well, and he rarely was blown off the football. Depending on how the Cowboys deploy him, Payne could be a big-time, three-down contributor. That’s right..... he can do more than just clog space in the 1-technique role.

Taven Bryan, Florida

Two things Marinelli and company value out of their defensive lineman: Quickness off the football and motor. Bryan excels in both of those categories. There are questions of Bryan’s production in college due to him being really a one-year wonder. But despite that, there are the traits and intangibles that coaches in the NFL can work with.

With unique speed and explosiveness, there are not a lot of defensive tackle prospects like Bryan. He shows the ability to play every position on the defensive line. He beat SEC offensive lineman with a variety of pass-rushing moves and he shows excellent ability to bend and beat lineman who are bigger. His quickness and athleticism in the middle will cause problems for many NFL offenses.

Maurice Hurst, Michigan

I am going to sound like a broken record here, but Hurst is another defensive tackle that is the first off the football on each play. While his speed and power is awesome, Hurst is also quite refined for an interior pass-rusher. He can beat offensive lineman with a variety of moves too.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys are likely looking for a guy who is more of a space-clogger. And at his size of 6-foot-2, 285 pounds, Hurst is not necessarily that. Rather than a 1-tech, which is the position the Cowboys are in need of, Hurst would provide more of a presence in the 3-technique defensive tackle role. That could keep Hurst off the Cowboys’ board.

Day 2

Nathan Shephard, Fort Hays State

This is a name Cowboys fans should remember. Dallas has not only allocated one of their 30 pre-draft visits on Shephard, but they have also have a private workout with the player too. Where exactly is Fort Hays State? A small school in Kansas with around 12,000 students.

Shephard is receiving a ton of buzz as the draft nears. Dating back to high school when he was a linebacker, Shephard has always been uniquely athletic. Despite putting on 100 pounds and transitioning to defensive tackle, that athleticism has not gone away. In fact, it is ultimately helping him.

There could be the issue of rawness given how his game will translate from college to the NFL, but there is a lot to like out of Shephard. Dallas has shown a lot of interest in him leading up to this point.

Harrison Phillips, Stanford

At 6-foot-4, 305 pounds, Phillips is quite the specimen. And while his frame screams 1-technique, there is some deceptive athleticism out of Phillips. At Stanford, Phillips was an extremely productive player. He was able to perform in both running and passing downs.

While Phillips seems to go somewhere on Day 2, there are concerns over what his positions will be in the NFL. Can he win in the NFL at 1-technique? Is he fast and athletic enough to play 3-technique? Those are questions that will need to be answered, but he is a blue-collar type of player that could attract attention from a staff that values players of high production and high character like the Cowboys.

Tim Settle, Virginia Tech

If we are talking about the space-clogging, run-stuffer of this year’s defensive tackle class, it is Settle. At 6-foot-3, 335 pounds, Settle is one of the biggest defensive tackles in this class. He even lost weight in 2017 and that led to increased dividends in production.

Defensive tackles that are typically his size do not offer the agility to go along with his frame. That is not the case with Settle. He has some quickness to go along with his size, he uses his arms and hands extremely well, and he moves laterally quite well. Settle is a guy that could be the option near pick No. 50.

Derrick Nnadi, Florida State

At 6-foot-1, 300 pounds, and with the type of build he has, Nnadi is somewhat of a tweener. Nnadi has the potential to be a 3-technique defensive tackle and kick down to be a defensive end on passing downs. Nnadi reacts well to plays and shows excellent anticipation in the middle.

He may have gotten by and produced in college, but it is hard to see how Nnadi will win in the NFL with what he did in college. Nnadi is disruptive nonetheless. He can handle blockers and get in the backfield well. But what his role in the NFL is? That is something NFL coaching will need to figure out.

Day 3

Kendrick Norton, Miami

Son of former Dallas Cowboy Ken Norton, the Miami product has received some crazy bloodlines. At 6-foot-3, 315 pounds, Norton anchored one of the most productive defenses in all of football. Norton is awesome at eating blockers and giving his defense an advantage.

With Norton, the Cowboys will get a player who can beat guys in one-on-ones and eat space against double teams. Norton is going to make his money against the run in the NFL. He won’t be asked to participate on pass-rushing downs. However, with what the Cowboys are missing upfront, Norton would be a nice option.

Poona Ford, Texas

Due to his size and playing style, Ford will be relegated to a 4-3 scheme that will take advantage of his aggressive, space-eating abilities. He relied way too heavily on his size and low playing style to beat opposing interior lineman. Granted, it is easy for him because he is 5-foot-11, 315 pounds.

While his height is concerning, Ford has longer arms than expected as well as a strong upper body to go with it. Depending on how defensive coaches in the NFL use him, Ford can be a nice rotational player for a defensive line.

P.J. Hall, Sam Houston State

With how the Cowboys have valued the defensive tackle position in drafts over the past couple of seasons, Day 3 is where the Cowboys could target a defensive tackle.

While Hall played against lesser competition, his production was off the charts, putting his name on team’s draft radars. With unbelievable power to go along with his awesome pro day numbers, Hall’s name is buzzing even more. With his quickness off the football and his character, Hall is a player the Cowboys could develop interest in.

Which defensive tackles do you want the Cowboys to target in the draft?