Filling the gaps: 2015 NFL draft's most versatile defensive linemen
"The more you can do, the more you can do." -- Bill Belichick
The true multi-gap defensive linemen is nothing new in the NFL—from Howie Long to Richard Seymour to Justin Smith to J.J. Watt, many defenders have created Hall of Fame résumés based to a large degree on their ability to stop and disrupt from multiple positions. What is very much a modern concern is the NFL's need for more of these players, as defensive schemes become more multiple and complicated to deal with ever-changing and ever-expanding offenses. More now than ever, that end who crashes down on the outside runner or terrorizes the quarterback from the edge is more valuable if he can kick inside on passing downs in nickel and dime defenses, allowing a higher percentage of base personnel to stay on the field and making it easier for coaches to decide which players work best with which schematic packages.
In the last few seasons, some of the most disruptive 4-3 ends also played a high percentage of their downs on the inside as five-tech tackles. In 2014, Seattle's Michael Bennett lined up everywhere from end to tackle to detached linebacker depth in specific blitz packages, allowing head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to deploy their fronts in different and highly effective ways. And over the last two seasons, ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson have shown an adeptness at moving around the line and wreaking havoc from everywhere. Johnson did so even more in '14 with Hardy on the exempt list. Last season, Julius Peppers played some snaps for the Packers as a stand-up pass rusher—this after playing end and situational tackle for the Panthers and Bears from '02 through '13. The result: Peppers amassed seven sacks, six quarterback hits and 27 quarterback hurries.
Going into this year's draft, NFL teams will be looking at linemen and edge rushers for their primary attributes, to be sure, but an important ancillary factor is certainly the extent to which those players can truly be scheme-diverse and scheme-transcendent. Unless you're a generational talent, or a lead-pipe lock for one NFL team, your draft stock is going to drop if you can't move around the field and allow your coaches to be more creative.
"It depends on the player," Carroll said at the scouting combine when asked him how important that versatility is. "Some guys can, some guys can't. Depends on their makeup. It's hard to throw a blanket over that like that. The more versatility, of course, the added value. But some guys are so good at what they do, you only want them to do that. It depends. But we are always looking for those kinds of makeups of players, that do have unique kind of makeup that would allow them to do multiple things, of course. But that is not the standard. It's just kind of what happens when you get one of those uniquely qualified players."
Quinn, who is now trying to rebuild a defense in Atlanta as the Falcons' new coach, was responsible for several of the gap innovations Seattle featured over the last decade, and it's something he absolutely wants to transfer to his new team—especially when it comes to draftable players.
"That kind of versatility is what we are looking for," Quinn told me. "Here’s an end who can also play defensive tackle. We are looking at linebackers who we can add as pass-rushers and defensive tackles who can move inside and play nose. That type of versatility. We are going to push that in every way we can. There are going to be corners who play nickel. There are going to be safeties that will go down to play outside [linebacker]. All of the guys, we are going to try and find out what type of versatility that they have and try and feature them every way that we can."
"I think it’s real important to have that versatility because often times, your nickel defense might play as many as 500 or 550 snaps in a year of your 1,000 or 1,100 snaps. When you have guys who can play on first and second down and then kick down to play another position on third down, that kind of versatility just adds all kind of value to your team. We are in the process of finding all of the unique guys on the roster and who else we can add to it. Let’s find all of the things they do well and try to feature them."
Quinn is looking for those players, as is every other NFL team. And as Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup recently told me in an installment of the Chalk Talk Football Podcast, it's more of a concern now than ever before.
"I think in the NFL, you like players who have some positional versatility, and they're flexible in the way they can be utilized," Cosell said. "What we look at are specific traits and attributes of players as you evaluate them. And you say, 'Hey—this guy may have lined up this one place in college, but we can use him in a variety of ways.' That works off your evaluation of a given player. Now, overall, I think you will see guys in college—particularly defensive linemen—used with more multiplicity than in years past. But the college game is still not like the NFL game in that regard. When you turn on college tape, you don't see the number and variety of blitzes you see in the NFL. Sometimes, when you see [college] teams blitz, you're almost surprised. It's something that guys can be taught, and it depends on the player."
"I think it definitely helps you a lot more now, because the NFL has gone through these transitions," White said of the new versatility. "Where [before] every team was a 3-4 [defense] or a 4-3, now, you almost have a blending of the two, and I don't know if there are any true 3-4 or 4-3 defenses in the NFL anymore. New styles of defenses incorporate guys who can do both. So, if you have a guy like a Leonard Williams, who can play two-gap [as a traditional 3-4 lineman would] or possibly play in the gap as an up-field rusher in a 4-3, that just adds to his stock. Because now, he can fit into any defense you want him to."
You can listen to both podcasts by clicking on the links below.
So, who in this draft class best projects as the true multi-gap weapons desired by the NFL? Williams presents an object example.
USC DT Leonard Williams
The 6'5", 209-pound Williams is nearly universally regarded as the best defensive player in this class, and his versatility is a big part of that. He presents a major problem for defenses everywhere from five-tech end to nose tackle. Williams's array of moves will keep him from being a one-trick pony against more gifted NFL offensive linemen. He has great lateral speed for his size and can wreck a play from across the field. Williams is an outstanding pursuit player who reads the action well. A dynamic rusher with his hand off the ground from multiple positions, he'll be best-used by a creative coordinator who lines him up in different situations. He has a nice eye for misdirection and play action and is rarely fooled; he can also shoot across gap distances to make plays.
On the downside, Williams does come off the snap a hair slow at times, and that could affect him if he stays at one position against the NFL's more gifted and practiced blockers. It could be said that Williams wouldn't just benefit from a creative coordinator who moves him all over the line; it may be a necessity to bring out everything he has to offer.
Washington DT Danny Shelton
Shelton passes the eye test as a two-gap nose tackle lined up straight over center—at 6'2" and 339 pounds, he hits his blockers low and creates a lot of problems for enemy offensive lines. What makes Shelton unusual is that he can also peel off blockers with astonishing speed for his size and wreck a play at the sideline. He's also very quick through gaps, which leads many to believe that he could be used in more positions—perhaps a three-tech in heavy packages, or even a super-sized five-tech run-stopping end. "We know his ability to play two gaps because he's in two-gap mode by lining up because of how big he is, and he has better movement skills in that short area," NFL Network analyst Charles Davis recently told me. "I know his sack numbers went down as the season went on and the competition jumped up, but they started to run two or three guys at him every time to neutralize the guy." Shelton's sack numbers may not translate to the NFL—he had nine in 2014, and six of them came in Washington's games against Hawaii and Eastern Washington—but he has the potential to be at least a dominant inside tackle, and possibly much more.
Texas DT Malcom Brown
The 6'2", 319-pound Brown played multiple positions for the Longhorns—everything from shade nose tackle to occasional end. He did a lot of two-gap stuff in college, but his speed, quickness and array of hand moves make him a compelling subject in just about every NFL draft room. "You can play him in a one-technique, in a three-technique ... I think you could play him in a zero-tech [right over the center], and he could do that as well," Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network recently said of Brown. "He can two-gap, he can penetrate, and to me that versatility is one of the reasons why I have him up there, because those guys are hard to find."
Oregon DT Arik Armstead
Of all the players on this list, Armstead may have the most physical potential—and the most undetermined future. He has special athleticism for his size (6'7", 292), and he's been compared to Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell. But a closer look at the tape reveals the downside of his relative inexperience—he's not as quick off the snap as he needs to be, he doesn't really have any hand moves to speak of and he made his bones in the NCAA by running around and through blockers. That doesn't generally work in the NFL. Ideally, with the right finishing work, he projects as a 3-4 end who can kick inside and outside in four-man lines.
Florida State DT Eddie Goldman
Goldman can play run-stopping end, two-gap to either side, or one-tech shade nose tackle effectively. When he comes off the snap quickly, he has the potential to blow up blocks and disrupt. He has impressive speed for short stunts around the line and closes quickly to the pocket when he has a headstart. He spends too much time middling around the line when he moves late off the snap and meets blocks too high in his stance. He needs to use his leverage more consistently with a lower set, because he will be enveloped by double teams. Not as disruptive and violent with his hands as you'd like; tends to spar and wrestle as opposed to moving in and dominating. Right now, he's probably best-served in a two-gap nose tackle role, but the fact that he played a lot of end for the Seminoles will have NFL teams wondering if he can do the same for them.
Mississippi State DE Preston Smith
In the Bulldogs' base fronts, Smith was a strong-side run-stopping end for the most part—at 6'5" and 271 pounds, he's not generally quick enough off the snap to get around tackles. That said, he did rack up nine sacks in 2014 and 16 in his collegiate career. He accomplished that with hand moves, the occasional inside counter and what puts him on this list—the fact that he'll move inside to a shade nose role on passing downs. There, he will show some quickness and a lot of persistence, and just overwhelm blockers at times. Smith may be too light to be a base 3-4 end, but among teams with multiple fronts, he's going to be appealing as an end who could move around a lot.