It's Lying Season for the NFL (moreso than usual), but it's no great secret the Broncos have a significant need at defensive tackle, again. Last month I profiled Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox, who is expected to be long gone when Denver makes its first pick at #25, provided they remain there. If that scenario indeed plays out, what will be the Broncos' options?
Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy has been talked about quite a bit. Certainly, cornerback is a point of need: perhaps of greatest need other than under tackle. Other folks will have other perspectives, but I think that in general, while interior OL, MLB (unless they like Nate Irving), RB, and possibly safety are all areas of need in degree, press-man coverage CBs and one-gap penetrating DTs might be the hardest to find as the draft moves on.
There are always the players who work out later in the draft, but my feeling is that the lines and the CBs are essential to Denver’s success this year. So is the Mike, but since we don’t know what Denver’s plans for Irving are, and we do on these two positions, I’m going to take the step of looking at the most desirable of the available DTs in Denver’s theoretical scope of scheme - the penetrating under tackle. Sadly, letting Brodrick Bunkley get away has also played hob with the nose tackle position, and some of these players make sense at either slot.
After Cox, I identified another five players that I feel met the general criteria - players who come into the draft essentially with under tackle potential. Some UTs wind up playing DE in some 3-4 variation, so there’s some competition for them from the entire league, just in slightly different ways. That made six I noticed in the draft (including Cox) that I thought were reasonable options in terms of body type, history of sack production, explosive first step, and a reasonably low weight, although some will debate that last. There are others out there - these just seemed to be good fits, and I’ve always held that matching player to scheme is essential. That’s not news.
Look, if Dontari Poe from Memphis is there when Denver picks, it’s a slam dunk to me, but he won’t be (and Kansas City has a good shot at him, sadly). Jerel Worthy might be, and he’s got some explosion that might work at under tackle - I only watched one game of his, so I’m less likely to have an opinion, but everything I’ve seen and heard/read of him has been impressive. But, for the sake of both argument and reason, I’m trying to find players other than Worthy (who will get a lot of press as it is) who might be there late in the first and second rounds, along with some who will go later. Denver is said to have really loved Worthy’s interview and were high on him before that. They might trade and move around, but I’m assuming for today that they won’t.
Sometimes a later round pick develops into a very good player, and for this exercise, I thought that we’d try for someone who might contribute fairly early on, but recognizing that one of the DT pick(s), if there are two, might end up being used later. I added some developmental players who showed signs that they could be good. I suspect that Worthy won’t last past the middle of the second round. Who Denver goes with first is a big question, given their multiple needs.
You take what’s out there and grading by rounds is of somewhat limited value, so there might be some difference on how one or another person sees these. Even so, I wanted to see if certain players seem a good fit for Denver regardless of where they’re ranked, and go on from there:
- Brandon Thompson
- Derek Wolfe
- Akiem Hicks
- Kendall Reyes
- Billy Winn
They aren’t really ranked in any special order, although Brandon Thompson seems to come with a rough first-round grade. The others are variable in terms of what grades were being given out pre-Combine. Let’s look at them:
Thompson is a 6’2” 314 DT out of Clemson who came into Combine with a low first-round grade, which means exactly nothing by itself. He’s a very good run defender on the inside with decent feet and leverage, a good first step, and good hand use. Those are the three basic skills that a UT will need, but they’re not the only ones. Thompson is good at stopping the run in great part because the runner comes to him. His technique tends to get sloppy in pass rushing situations and he struggles against double teams - his best talent is plugging the hole and holding his gap discipline. He gets to the ball carrier in the backfield often enough, but doesn’t often get that next step of making it to the QB.
Although I watched several Clemson games and liked Thompson, he didn’t fit the criteria I’ve set up for this exercise very well. I thought that he could be much more of a Brodrick Bunkley-type in that he’s a good option against the run who won’t get you a lot of sacks (and granted, part of that is scheme-dependent), but is stout on plugging the line. Essentially, I’d have taken the money and given it to Bunkley, whom Denver was foolish to have let get away. They’ve made such mistakes in the past, right about the time of the Jim Bates Experiment, and they’re still trying to rebuild the line as a result.
Derek Wolfe out of Cincinnati had 21.5 tackles for loss his senior year with two forced fumbles and 9.5 sacks. Given those numbers, he’s clearly a possibility at under tackle when you look at his senior year production and the fact that he’s improving each year. He’s also 6’5” and 295 lb with 33-inch-plus arms. He ran his 40 in about five seconds on average (with a 1.70 10-yard split) - about normal for a DT - and showed some athletic ability with a 33.5-inch vertical, 33 reps on the bench, and a 4.44-second 20-yard shuttle. He was part of a Cincinnati DL group that played well last season.
The first problem that I noticed with Wolfe was that oddly, despite his substantial college production and decent test times, he looked somewhat slower in the drills. He lacks some of the lower body development that I thought I’d see, based on the games I'd watched. Explosion, particularly on his first step, seemingly isn’t his forte, which is odd. I’ve seen him blow past an OL player, and I’ve seen him pretty much standing still when they got their hands into him, and I’m not sure which is the real Wolfe - probably both of them. He has several decent pass-rushing moves, including a nice rip move, and that’s not common among college players, but he also forgets how to use his hands and arms on other plays. That was true in the few games that I saw him - hardly enough for a full scouting report, but it matched well enough to those I have.
He cannot smoothly handle a double team and will often end up on the ground when faced with those - you can help him out schematically in degree, but that’s a problem at the next level. It’s back to his lack of good lower body strength and a resulting inability to anchor: his balance and ability to use leverage also play into that. As you’d expect, his balance didn’t look elite. Despite the speed in shorts, Thompson didn’t seem that fast on film and although he had some very nice plays, he was often unable to get into his slant. He’s still a hit-and-miss candidate, but when you consider that he had five sacks in his sophomore year and four as a junior before notching 9.5 last year, is he developing? Seems very likely. No college player is without weaknesses, and that’s true of Wolfe, but he also seems to be stepping up. How do you look at that? I look at giving him good coaching and going from there.
Wolfe, to me, is a potential late-second or later-round pick who might be developed if you feel that you can teach him balance and work on his explosion, both of which should come out of lower body development. You’d also need to improve his play diagnosis, which could help his speed off the snap. Given his production in college, you have to think that somewhere in there is a very good under tackle. His performance at the Senior Bowl also had to improve the way that teams saw him - he won a lot of his one-on-one drills against OL players. I don’t know if he can make the jump to the NFL quickly, but he’s got potential that might be effectively developed over time. If they need someone for a 2012 impact, he’s probably not that guy.
Hicks is something of an anomaly - he was born and schooled in California and he’s from Regina University in Canada. Confused? A lot of people were. He was born in Elk Grove, CA and went to Del Campo High School before attending Sacramento City Community College. Things went so well there that he was supposed to be a transfer to LSU and potentially start on their DL, but problems with housing and potential academic and self-reported NCAA recruiting violations on LSU’s part - the details are extensive and unimportant with Hicks - changed the story. The long and short is that as a result he went up above the border, attended Regina U in Saskatchewan (yes, people do live there). On the strength of his performance there, he still made it to Combine. Watching him in the tests and drills pretty much explained why - and why there are questions, as well.
He may have gotten more and better coaching while preparing for Combine than he has had in his whole career. He was a sleeper at the East-West Shrine game, but played and showed well in his time there.
He’s a 6’4” 324 lb giant with 35.5-inch arms that he uses to his best advantage. He’ll play best if he loses 10 or so lbs of that suet around his middle and works on his strength and conditioning, and he needs to be taken into a program where they will do much what the Chargers did with Canadian player (a real Canadian, this time) Vaughn Martin. Martin was a similar, raw kind of player - big and strong, probably even more raw than Hicks, but they worked with him for a year or so and then he played in rotation. In the past year-plus he’s started to pop, and he’s giving them quality downs out of their Phillips-ish one-gap 3-4, usually at DE - he doesn’t seem to have the background for their NT slot despite his size. Martin has dropped a lot of weight, and there’s a pretty good player under there. Hicks seems similar in that you can see the skill there, but his technique is poor - footwork issues, playing too high, some stiffness in the hips that he could probably be trained through, but the movement you see gives reason to suspect that he can be a very effective NFL player. You can see some clear burst and explosion that would be much more powerful if he just knew the technique better. The size, power, and some athletic agility are all there, just not fully developed. Take a wander through his Combine tests if you want. They’ll show you much the same thing.
Hicks is a developmental prospect. Denver is a team trying to get back to real respectability, and they need to win now, but also to build for the future. As a later round pick, Hicks has some real value.
Reyes is the kind of player that looks very good on paper, but doesn’t always play with the kind of authority that a starting UT has to have. He’s not a bad player by any standard - he’s just not sure to be ready to start, although he’s improving quickly. If you’re okay with that, he could be a very good choice with huge upside. Take a look at just the measurables to begin:
Height: 6’4” Weight: 299
40 Time: 4.79
Vertical: 34.5 Broad: 9-5
Arm: 33 1/4. Hand: 9 1/2.
Looks good, doesn’t it? Speed. decent arm length, decent power, good vertical and bench. What could go wrong? Not that much, it turns out: it’s worth looking into what he brings to the table. Reyes came into college as a 245-lb guy who played three sports. He’s leaving as a 300-lb defensive lineman used to working hard - he doesn’t shy from it, which is a big plus.
Reyes is commonly what’s referred to as a player who could turn into a value pick - and a developmental one. He might be in the rotation or even start later on in the season, but Reyes lacks the coaching right now to find out how high he’s going to be able to climb. It’s not a knock on Connecticut's coaching, but his technique just needs to move up a notch. He needs time in the weight room, especially for his upper body. He’s got nice hands and he used them well last season - I saw a couple of the Connecticut games that he was in and that stood out. At the Senior Bowl practices, the camp buzz was that he was routinely beating offensive lineman with both bull and speed rushes.
What showed in looking at him was the underlying athletic talent, the ability to move quickly, and to change up speed and power techniques - which isn’t common at this level - plus the ability to use his hands well and clear need to develop better upper body strength a more powerful punch to make his hand techniques more effective and to handle the run better. To keep that in perspective, he was only a two-year starter for Connecticut and yet was one of the leaders on the defense. I saw the comment that he’s something of a DT/DE tweener and therefore should be a 3-4 DE. Argh.
Actually, he’s a DE/DT tweener in the sense that he’s got DE speed and DT size. Despite the push for an odd-front DE, that tells me that he’s perfect UT material and might be problematic for offenses at more than one slot, a trait that I like in a player. He’s not perfect material - the upper body issue needs to be addressed and so does the technique, but no player - none - that I saw were finished NFL products, and they aren’t supposed to be. They’re raw material - some are more and some less refined, but all are raw.
Last year, Reyes had 13.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks - I’ve never found a source for college hits and hurries, but I hope to. He had 46 tackles. I love his versatility. If you know what you’re getting and you’re ready to work with that, he’s a good choice.
It’s fair to say that in general, I like Boise State players. I find them to usually be very well coached, with good fundamentals and solid development, not unlike the Wisconsin and Iowa OL players - who are consistently good. Billy Winn is no exception. Some sites have him listed as a DE, and they’re referring to the 3-4 kind, although he’s played at multiple slots from the outside (7 technique) to the nose tackle. He’s a 6’4” 299-lb player with 32.5-inch arms and 9-inch hands - small, for those who believe it matters. How much force he can generate with them seems to be a different issue.
I’ve seen a lot of Winn for the last three years. He tends to be a high-motor guy, and that’s always a plus for me. He brings a certain level of ferocity to his game, and I always like that. He has decent technique for his level - obviously, you expect some problems, and you’ll see them. He’s good at using his hands to keep his legs clear of trash, though. He’s got a fairly good, if not explosive first step, and a decent closing burst. He doesn’t give up on plays, and he tackles well. Perhaps best of all, he’s about equally skilled at playing the run or the pass. Not surprisingly, he was a high school wrestler and powerlifter - it shows in his use of leverage.
Winn’s footwork is good, and he’s got quick feet in chasing down a play from the backside, penetrating to the RB or QB, or sliding laterally to bring down a ball carrier. He’s capable of playing an even front DE even at nearly 300 lb, and that’s an option that Denver might want to use at times. Letting Von Miller rush from the outside, putting Winn and Robert Ayers shoulder to shoulder and having Ryan McBean or whoever pushing from the NT slot with Elvis Dumervil on the right and one of them dropping into coverage is a tough, tough group to protect the QB against. It’s just one thought among many, but I think that Winn has that versatility.
When it’s run defense, he keeps his pads low, anchors well with a powerful lower body, and spins off of blocks to stay in the play and find the ball. He’ll have things to learn in the NFL - everyone does. But he’s got the basic skillset and a lot of talents that aren’t that common. One question they’ll probably ask him will simply be why he hasn’t dominated more.
Winn has played from outside the tackles at times, usually plays the under tackle, and has taken snaps at the nose (which isn’t his forte), so he also brings an element of versatility that’s uncommon even at the college level. In run defense, he’s good at spinning out of blocks. He’s also known to simply rip an offensive lineman’s hands off of him if the OL gets to him first - his wrestling background and the skills at hand fighting that’s common there still stand out. Once he reaches the ballcarrier, he is an effective tackler. Overall, Winn is an active interior defender who can keep off blocks and stay active in the pass and run defense alike.
I don’t know that he’s a starter at this point, but I do think he has the potential to become one. He won’t slack off in the weight or film rooms, and he’s got a naturally low pad level - he uncoils from his stance and fires forward well. Leverage, hand use, explosive initial step - all the basics of a quality under tackle, with the speed, size, natural weight and mentality that you look for. He does struggle with double teams, and it’s a weakness in his game - he doesn’t know how to disengage from them. I didn’t see or hear that he dominated in college, as you want your second- or third-round pick to have done. That’s a concern as well.
The interview room will be important, because he has to bring across his commitment to the game - he’s taken occasional plays off, and they’ll grill him on them. His production disappears at times, if not for that long. I wouldn’t expect major problems - nothing that I’ve heard, at the least. Folks are talking about a higher second-round grade for him, but no one knows how each draft will unfold. You’ll find first-round-graded players late in the second and even early in the third. It’s fair to say that draft grades are eminently fungible.
So, after looking at some of the remaining higher-ranked DTs - and higher doesn’t necessarily mean first round - we can see that while it’s a competitive year for the pass-rushing DTs that Denver happens to need, they are out there, especially if you add Worthy and Still, both of whom some people believe can be developed well as pass rushers. With the addition of Cox, there are seven potential UTs right there. There are plenty of NTs, DEs for both 4-3 and 3-4 base formations, OLB/DEs, but relatively few true under tackles, which are sometimes called penetrating or even pass rushing DTs. That’s an oversimplification, but it’s how some folks see them. That’s why I wanted to go over a few in terms of why they might work - or not.
You can easily sit with NFL.com’s Combine Tracker and flip back and forth, but if you find any solid UTs that I’ve missed, let me know. The simple fact is, I haven’t seen a lot of them who are ready to step into the NFL. That being the normal case, who might be around at 25 and/or 57 if (and that’s a BIG if) Denver doesn’t move around is still going to be limited to who drops to the Broncos. If they go DT in any of the first four rounds, one of these players is likely to be there. If they go with a second choice later, they’ve still got some good developmental options.