Positional overview – It doesn’t seem like a lot of people are talking about defensive tackle as a draft priority for the Patriots. Maybe because they seem to be lacking in so many other areas, especially on offense. Possibly because the last time we saw the Pats defense in action it was holding the 8th most prolific offense in NFL history to three points. Perhaps everyone just assumes they’ll find some street free agent with the ass of a Sumo wrestler, plug him in and they’ll be just fine. Or it could just be that as the relative sexiness of different drafted positions go, everyone wants a wide receiver or edge defender, but defensive tackle is the girl you have to go to prom with because she can’t get a date and your mom takes Spin with her mom and is forcing you to.
But it is a priority for the Patriots. It always has been. In their 19 drafts, they’ve selected no less than 27 defensive linemen, an astonishing five in the 1st round (Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown). I don’t believe that core philosophy of building a defense from the line of scrimmage back has changed. And even as other positions get smaller and emphasize speed and pass coverage more, I’m convinced that Bill Belichick still wants his interior defensive linemen like he always has:
Fortunately, as he seeks to replace the last couple of 1st rounders whom he didn’t chose to retain beyond their rookie contracts, DT might be the strength of this draft class.
Current roster: Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Mike Pennel, David Parry, Frank Herron. (You read that right. After Guy and Butler I could’ve plucked any two random names from the closing credits of “The Good Place” and plugged them in there and nobody would’ve known. Including me. But those are the names on their official depth chart right now.)
The Consensus Best in Show:
Quinnen Williams, Alabama. 6-foot-3, 303 pounds, 4.83 40-time
Not only is Williams the best defensive tackle prospect of 2019, no less an authority than NFL.com ranks him as the best prospect regardless of position. And even those who don’t slot him that high concede he was the best player in the nation last year, above even your Kyler Murrays and Tua Tagovailoas. He had 71 tackles, 19.5 for a loss to go along with his eight sacks, but was more of a disruptor than those numbers would indicate. As you’d assume, coming from Nick Saban’s system he’s played everywhere along the line. He’s so sound in his fundamentals he should be either in an instructional film teaching youth football or as a Web Cam Tackle, putting on private shows demonstrating his techniques to football coaching lifers for a subscription fee. He’s got body control. Functional strength to get leverage and move blockers. And yet his best assets are his hands, that he uses to separate from blockers. He’s not so much explosive as he is quick enough to chase down ball carriers. There’s some question as to whether he’s got the size to make it as a 3-tech 4-3 tackle, but there’s a role for him on all 32 teams. He’s the best tackler in this group. And the best tackle in the draft. It’ll be interesting to see how long he lasts, but it won’t be out of the Top 10 for sure.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Fletcher Cox
The Consensus Best Interior Pass Rusher:
Ed Oliver, Houston. 6-2, 287, 4.70
Your Outland Trophy winner could’ve played anywhere in the country but he chose to tell the Power Five conferences to blow it out their ass and stay in his hometown instead. And in his career totaled a perposteroud 53 tackles for loss. His 13.5 sacks might not make you do a spit take, but the Cougars did have him at nose tackle. While playing in the range of 275-282. Which is like using a Ferrari to haul your camper. Whatever. He blew pro scouts away at his Pro Day, proving himself to be a rare athlete with an explosive first step, agility, fluidity and quickness. His Combine interviews were all mainly about the beef he got into on the sidelines with Major Applewhite for wearing a a cloak on the sidelines while he was out with a knee injury because those are reserved for active players. So I guess how you see that depends on your opinion of Major Applewhite. Anyway, the concern is whether at his size he can hold up physically in the trenches at the next level. But put him in the 3-tech slot and let him use his get-off first step and he’ll create havoc. Failing that, he’s got the traits, competitiveness and effort to play outside or as an off-the-ball Will linebacker.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Aaron Donald (Quit it. You know I’m not saying he’s as good.)
Tangibles and Intangibles:
Christian Wilkins, Clemson. 6-3, 315, 5.04
In a class lousy with freakish athletes, Wilkins could be the freakiest. He’s not a straight up power rusher and he’ll lose some 1-on-1s, but he’s got functional power. He’s got the body of a prototypical plodding, inside run stuffer. But his strong suit is his movement and range to make plays all over the field. At Clemson they had him run a lot of stunts, both inside and out, in a 3-point stance or standing up, from all directions, as the pick guy or the one rolling off the pick. He never missed a game in his four year career. He’s got experience on punt coverage units. And after the 2017 season, when a lot of Clemson players were considering declaring for the draft, Wilkins was the one who talked them into staying to make their run to the national title. So it’s largely thanks to the leadership skills of this Academic All-American Communications major that his teammates were treated to Championship Burgers at the White House.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Gerald McCoy
Jeffrey Simmons, Mississippi St. 6-3, 301, 5.03
Simmons was a five-star recruit out of high school. Then when he signed on to play for the Bulldogs three years ago, [“VH1’s Behind the Music” voice:] off the field, things … began … to fall apart. He’d be a mortal lock Top 20 pick in this draft for any team willing to shelter in place against the shit tornado of questions like “Why would you use such a high pick on a player who was seen on video repeated punching a woman in the head?” Because most NFL front offices have a Director of Excusing Bad Behavior in College who would’ve earned his money by explaining how that was three years ago and Simmons apologized and paid restitution and got into no further trouble and won team awards for his work in the classroom and community. What would be harder now for coaches to explain away is “Why would you use such a high pick on a player who just blew out his ACL prepping for the Combine?” When he wasn’t punching that woman or injured, Simmons spent zero time getting in legal trouble and lots and lots of time in opponents’ backfields. Despite drawing double teams practically full time, with 163 tackles, 33 for loss in his three seasons. He’s an imposing physical specimen with a 450 lb bench press and 600 lb squat on his resume. Which is roughly the weight of an inside double team, so it explains his production. The knee issue means he’s no longer Top 20 material. But scouts are putting it out there that they’ll chain themselves to the table in the War Room demanding he not slip past them in the 2nd round.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Ndamukong Suh
The Prototype Nose Tackle:
Dexter Lawrence, Clemson 6-4, 342, 5.05
There was a time not long ago where you couldn’t even pretend to field a top NFL defense without a massive, space-eating, sand-in-the-pants tackle on the inside. Especially if you were running a 3-4, there was no sense in putting your keys in the ignition to drive to the stadium if you didn’t have what Mike Mayock loves to call a War Daddy to line up directly over the center to plug both A gaps. By about 2014, it was looking like the league was trending toward smaller, quick-twitch types, as the only DTs taken in the 1st round were both sub-300 pounders, Aaron Donald and Easley. Well Donald is a unicorn and Easley is just a role player now and the very next draft saw the Pats go back to a more traditional widebody in Brown. So that evolutionary process still has a ways to go yet. And if coaches from the past stepped out of a time portal looking for someone to take back to their era and plug him into the ’70s Steelers, ’80s Bears or ’90s Giants, it would be Lawrence. (Assuming he’d fit through the opening.) He’s a strong, powerful, bully and the flat out best run-stopper in this class. Plus he has the strength to push a pocket from the middle. A lot of his bulk is in his arms and shoulders and not just his gut. A couple of issues with him are that the Urine Patrol once tested him positive for Ostarine, which I believe enhanced your performance while it kills the germs that cause bad breath. And his production has been declining since his freshman year. Whether those two things are a cause/effect is the sort of thing scouting departments get the big bucks to decide.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Damon Harrison
Mr. Unique, On and Off the Field:
Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame. 6-7, 305, 4.93
I suppose I could’ve called him Mr. Polarizing, but when it comes to football talent evaluation, those two terms are pretty interchangeable. Tillery doesn’t fit a lot of molds, and that usually divides the scouting demographic. They look at a 6-7 guy playing on the interior and see a physically imposing player with rare size, athleticism and burst at the snap, or they see someone too tall for the position who’ll get leveraged by blockers in the pros that he won’t be able to overpower like he did in school. And they wonder, fairly, how it is a that big with the wingspan of a the Spruce Goose (34.25 inch arms), never deflected a single pass in his college career, even accidentally. Off the field, they either love his story: An Economics degree graduate who plays the markets, is friends with congressmen, travels the world and taught himself to write ambidextrously. Or they buy into what they heard on Notre Dame broadcasts, that he’s a lousy teammate and a self-promoting dick that nobody likes. It’s an eye of the beholder thing. What’s not in dispute is that he had a great showing at the Indianapolis DraftCon ’19 but really suffered from not being at the Senior Bowl where he could’ve maybe proved he’s not as big a pud as everyone says.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Stephon Tuitt
The Two Smallish DTs the Patriots Have Met With:
Dre’Mont Jones, Ohio St. 6-3, 281, 5.12
Chaos is a ladder. And Jones used the chaos of Nick Bosa’s season-ending injury to climb from Third Team All-Big 10 to First Team, going from 20 tackles, five for a loss and one sack to 43, 13 and 8.5 from one year to the next. As you might figure from a guy with a tweener body type like his, his strong suit is agility and quickness. Whether it’s getting through the G-T gap as a 3-tech in a 4-man front or getting home on twists and stunts, he’s got the skill set to be a 3-down player. He’s also show the kind of stick-and-jab punching style to fight off blocks and stick his nose in against the run. It remains to be seen if he can add enough bulk to hold up at the next level inside the tackle box. But it’s been done. The Patriots used one of their Combine interviews on Jones. And while I’ve long since wanted Belichick to block Urban Meyer’s phone number, that does mean something.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Nick Fairley
Kingsley Keke, Texas A&M. 6-3, 288, 4.95
The Patriots held a private workout with Keke, yet another tweener type who played inside for the Aggies but in some places is being listed among the defensive end prospects. Which makes perfect sense given his position versatility. He’s played as much as 20 pounds heavier and been utilized in different alignments throughout his career. He mostly benefited from having Jimbo Fisher in charge, going from one sack in 2017 to 7.5 and a trip to the Senior Bowl. He might give away four inches in height to Jerry Tillery, but his arms are actually longer, giving him the Wreck-It-Ralph build to disrupt passing lanes. He’s got to build on his repertoire of rush moves and improve his hand fighting, making him probably a 3rd-4th round pick for a team with a lot of them looking for someone with high upside they can develop. I can think of one.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Mario Edwards
Renell Wren, Arizona St. 6-5, 318, 5.01
You know for sure a guy is late to the draft party when there isn’t even a YouTube of his highlights set to a thumping Hip Hop bass with lyrics that would ruin your life if you sang them in public. Wren wasn’t even a starter until Herm Edwards showed up in Tempe and gave him the job as a redshirt senior. His size/frame/speed ratio is a combo platter of tasty, batter-fried potential, but he’s yet to figure out how to maximize it. The Sun Devils aren’t exactly Defensive Line U, with Will Sutton (82nd in 2014) being the only Top 100 ASU D-lineman taken in the last 15 years. Wren is a little too raw right now to crack the first hundred picks, but with the right coaching and patience could develop into a force. I’d like him for that and for the chance to spend his whole career calling him Kylo.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Kedric Golson
Terry Beckner, Jr., Missouri. 6-4, 296, 5.19
Beckner was highly recruited by the major programs and Missouri winning the sweepstakes was a longshot coming in. It just took a while for it to pay out. Early in his career he tore the ACL in each knee, then got suspended for using the same banned substance I just saw on a billboard outside the airport that reads, “Smile, Boston. Weed is Legal!” But by 2017 he was healthy enough to start all 26 games his team has played since. He flashes brilliance, as his 11 TFLs and 3.5 sacks would indicate. He’s got some system versatility and could fit into a one- or two-gap scheme and is capable at stopping the run, but he’s not a pure stack-and-shed player. It’s a matter of whether he can sustain it, as consistency and his playing shape have been called into question. Plus he’s missed tackles in big games against Texas and Georgia. He could be a late Saturday pick or a street free agent, depending on what teams make of his aforementioned flashes.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Easley
The Perfect Patriot: Christian Wilkins. He just checks so many boxes, from his size and speed to his durability, from his academics to the leaderishness. I believe they value all those things and this guy could bring the traits of Seymour, Wilfork and Jerod Mayo all in one package. But he won’t be unless a Brain-Eating Bacteria spreads throughout all the war rooms except New England’s. And it won’t. No matter how hard I wish. So forget it.
Whom the Patriots Will Take: Dexter Lawrence. First of all, they prefer their defensive front players to be from the major programs. As Bill Parcells has said on separate occasions, as the season goes on, fast guys get slower but big guys don’t get smaller. And you can only get the big players from the big schools. The selection of Malcom Brown not five drafts ago, plus the acquistions of guys like Terrance Knighton and Danny Shelton tell me they are far from convinced the position of giant, glass-chewing DT with a tackle total as high as his cholesterol count is not extinct. That for as long as football still comes down to four fat men trying to defeat five fat men, then the team with the physically superior fat men will win. Dexter Lawrence: The Vince Wilfork of this dynasty’s next generation. Belichick will get his elephants.