When you talk about nose tackles and nose guards, it’s easy to get confused. Traditionally, the guy in the middle in an odd-front defensive line was called the nose guard. The nose in an even-front line is generally called the nose tackle. You’ll still run into those terms when you read materials from coaching seminars and such.
Denver’s scheme is very much a hybrid, so it won’t matter much what you call this player. Either way, the Broncos currently lack someone there who looks like a long term starter in the role of a run-stopping, blocker-absorbing, three-down player who has the ability to collapse the pocket and even pressure the QB, optimally.
Justin Bannan confounded a lot of people in 2012 by outplaying Brodrick Bunkley’s production of the previous season, and at considerably less cost. Both of them are basic two-down linemen - guys who can absorb double teams, stop the run, and leave the field on most passing downs. That’s great - but with the league-wide move to more no-huddle offenses, I believe that Denver will need a three-down NT at some point.
Back when the 4-3 and 3-4 designations were sufficient to describe most defenses, it went pretty much like this: the nose guard in a 3-4 (odd front) Fairbanks-Bullough defense was usually a two-gapper, a player who had to chose his gap between two possibilities at the snap of the ball. He was generally the biggest guy on the line and if you were putting together a 3-4 defense, he was the one player that you had to have to be effective. The Phillips 3-4 went with a single-gapping approach. The nose tackle then could often be a guy like Dallas’s Jay Ratliff, a 6-4 (or much shorter), 303-pound guy who can stunt and twist, has quick feet, and the intellect to match.
Ratliff has primarily played in a Phillips one-gap 3-4, but his body type used to be preferable for the nose tackle slot in a 4-3. For some teams, it still is. On the other end of the scale (so to speak), Kansas City went the traditional route in the 2012 Draft by choosing Dontari Poe as their nose guard of the future - a big guy who’s meant to be a two-gapping player, creating a mess in the middle to counter the tendency of the 3-4 odd front to be susceptible to runs up the middle. Poe didn’t play much of that in college, so KC took the route of assessing his skillset and decided that he could make the switch. We’ll find out over time how that goes.
Denver’s current defense is a hybrid of odd and even fronts, single-gapping and two-gapping linemen with smaller, faster LBs who can disrupt, press the ballcarrier (which really means cutting through the LOS to bring pressure to bear on them), and cover better than Denver defenses of the past.
What do we know of Jack Del Rio’s preferences and/or needs historically?
Obviously, he mixes things up constantly. He used both odd and even fronts in 2012, rolled his DEs (particularly Derek Wolfe) into DTs on appropriate downs, and showed a talent for making it hard for offenses to know what to expect. JDR used a lot of pressure from the outside, from DBs as well as DEs, resulting in 4.5 sacks by the secondary (Chris Harris's 2.5 sacks led all defensive backs in the NFL, and he added three interceptions and two scores).
Del Rio used Wolfe very much as most DCs would an odd-front DE - a guy who anchored well, set the edge, stopped the run, absorbed multiple blockers ,and two-gapped frequently. Derek played all four normal even-front DL positions over his rookie season - NT, DT, RDE and LDE - which is rare. That was part of why I’m so impressed with his six sacks in 2012. He rolled inside on passing downs and acted as an under tackle - often the ‘3 technique’ (on the DL between the guard and the tackle - in reality, they might move considerably from that spot) that Warren Sapp pretty much defined as a player. You want your 3-tech to get you some sacks - it’s a very fine bonus if he can hold down either DE slot as well.
But Wolfe’s not the kind of player that you limit to playing the nose. That role is still open.
We know that Kevin Vickerson is an athletic player who can collapse the pocket (he had two sacks of his own), stop the run, and chase down ballcarriers in pursuit. He also turned 30 in January. Compared to Justin Bannan, though, who’s going to be 34 when the 2013 season opens, Vickerson’s a spring chicken.
Bannan had a heck of a year in 2012 (592 snaps, 319 of them against the run), and Denver might get away with bringing him back for another year. They still need a developmental option for the nose position. I love Mitch Unrein, but he’s not a starter at this point. Last offseason, Sealver Siliga was considered an up and coming option, but he faded when the pads went on. Malik Jackson also got some snaps last season as a DT - he was in for 123 total snaps over the regular season and playoff game; 43 of them were in run defense, with 77 coming on pass rush downs. The last I heard, he was in the 290-295 lb range in terms of weight. He’s not expected to play nose at this point.
Denver has guys like Ben Garland who might play DE or DT, but who don’t suit the kind of nose player that Del Rio has preferred in the past. Jack has generally gone with bigger DTs - a powerful 325 lb nose would help to strengthen the Broncos line against the run and you’d prefer that he would help increase the effectiveness of the pass rush. There are several guys of that nature in this year’s draft, and the addition of Terrance Knighton, who played under Del Rio in Jacksonville, will help.
I’m going to talk about Johnathan Hankins of Ohio State today, but other players will follow. As a disclaimer, I have no preference of one over the other right now, although some will be probable values or high risk players. Watching Hankins on film in 2012, I saw a guy who, as a 6-3, 320-lb junior (after dropping some weight to increase his quickness between his sophomore and junior years), who showed that he could provide an occasional play in an even front at DE - he’s got that kind of short area quickness. He did play all over the line as a Buckeye, much as Wolfe did in his career at Cincy.
Unlike Wolfe, who I admit to considering to be exactly the kind of value I like in a late first-, early second-round pick, Hankins does have issues with wearing down late in games. Despite seeing this in multiple games, his coaches rave about his football mindset, character and intellect. That can be just a hometown review, but that and the loss of weight to improve his play are encouraging together. He’s projected as a three-down player with positional flexibility, and I think that if his character holds up and he has good coaching (heavily including conditioning and getting to an appropriate balance of body weight and strength), he could be a very good player. Hankins isn’t huge or cut, but he has good functional strength.
He has been battling a knee issue for the past two seasons and has worn a brace over that time - I can’t get any medical info, so we’ll have to assume that Denver wouldn’t even look at him if that was a problem in their eyes.
At combine, it stood out that he goes after his drills full bore, even though it was obvious that he was starting to suck wind eventually. Hankins has big shoulders and looks like he could replace another 15 lb of extra weight with muscle if he has the commitment to do so. He’d become even more effective if he does - and he’s already one of the best of the bigger guys in the 2013 group. He often fights through double teams (Note - if you’re just starting to watch film, remember that no player constantly beats a decent double team) and he can blow centers and guards back off the line when he stays low.
When he leapt off the ground to start one drill at combine, I was impressed again by the quickness I first saw in his game film. He also drops his hips very well when turning the corner to rush the QB or provide backside pursuit. He needs to learn how to bring it on every play. What I also saw on film was a guy with a very fast twitch coming off the snap. He knows when to get sideways to break through a seam in the OL.
I had watched this game against Wisconsin live, so I was happy to find some YouTube footage of it. Hankins doesn’t dominate very often during this game - Wisconsin had a stellar line and center Travis Frederick will be on someone’s NFL roster next season. That’s actually why I like it - you get a better read when a player goes against quality talent. You can see during this game where Hankins is held off, where his weaknesses lie, and where he’s talented.
Look at the 2:17 mark, as Hankins finds his way into the backfield, detaches from his blocker, and brings down the RB for a loss. That kind of tenacity is valuable. At 2:50 you see how well he keeps his head up (consistent throughout what I saw of him) and finds the ballcarrier. That’s what Denver would ask him to do. A lot of DTs don’t keep their head on a swivel, and they miss batted pass chances and sneaky running backs when they don’t.
Denver’s going to be able to take a true BPA approach if they want - it’s a deep draft for multiple positions that they need to upgrade (OL, DT/NT in particular) and it’s not that top-heavy with talent. My own focus is the DT/NT group for now - Denver has a need there. If the right pass-rushing 3-technique comes along, I’ll probably want to look at him, too.
There are several players who would fit the NT role for the Broncos. I’ll have pieces on more of them as the draft approaches.