Tackle+ and the 2018 NFL Draft Defensive Line Class

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June 7, 2017
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June 8, 2017

Tackle+ and the 2018 NFL Draft Defensive Line Class

Justis Mosqueda

If you follow me on Twitter you know that 1) I’m not as big of a fan of linebackers as most football fans are (which is much more than the NFL shows during free agency), 2) I think that college statistics, for the most part, are fraudulent and 3) I think athleticism is incredibly important for line of scrimmage defenders.

I have an athleticism formula that is threshold based called “Force Players” that has a very high hit-rate for pass-rusher prospects, but I have dabbled in the idea of using it for interior defensive linemen, because the high-end players at the position also tend to be freak athletes. The reason that I think density-adjusted athleticism is a better predictor for success than raw college statistics is 1) you see way more guys who produce at the college level who flame out in the league than players who make it to the combine and jump out of the gym and 2) a lot of statistics frankly don’t make sense.

A lot of sacks at the college level are luckier than they come at the NFL level. In all honestly, we should be looking at tackles for a loss more than sacks, as 1) they happen more frequently, so the numbers tend to play out to the talent of a player and 2) because tackles for a loss generally happen quickly, signifying a solid first step, which for defensive linemen is the most important single trait of any position in the sport of football. Even for edge rushers, playing with your hands above your eyes and avoiding cut blocks, two signs I’ve noted as solid indicators for a solid combine, translate to the run game.

A tackle is another stat, on any level of football, that I don’t put value into. If you’re a linebacker in coverage and you let a tight end catch a seven-yard pass, but wrap him up, that goes down in the stat sheet as equal to a linebacker who shut down an iso run one yard past the line of scrimmage. That doesn’t make any sense.

When writing our “The Update” NFL previews, I found it odd that linebackers who had massive tackle numbers were signing such low-level contracts. For example, Zach Brown recorded 149 tackles for the Buffalo Bills last season and made both the Pro Bowl and the Second-Team All-Pro list. At just 27 years old, in his prime on paper, he had to wait until April to signed a one-year, $2.3 million deal with the Washington Redskins, who return their two starting inside linebackers in Mason Foster and Will Compton. Foster had 124 tackles in 2016 and Compton had 106 tackles in 2016. Tackles just aren’t telling us enough of the story to say if Brown actually did deserve a bigger contract, or if Foster and Compton played at a level that they should have been replaced.

The idea for a better tackle statistic is simple: only count tackles that are within three yards of the line of scrimmage or shorter. Why? The chains are 10 yards long. Three yards means you successfully got a team off pace and are theoretically putting a team in a situation that will put them on pace for a fourth down, if kept up, in a vacuum.

Why not measure distance/down success rate? There’s some merit to this. I’d be lying if I didn’t say effort had a reason to do with why I’m not going down that path, but I do think there’s legitimacy behind the idea that tackling a ball-carrier for a two-yard gain on a third-and-one still matters. At some point, field position, not just moving the sticks, matters. At the same time, a lot of long runs happen when there are actually a lot of bodies at the line of scrimmage.

Example 1: A running back hits an open hole on a first down, with a team playing two high safeties. Chances are that he’s not going to have an “explosive run” because the safety net that is cast over the top of the defense. He records an seven-yard gain and everyone moves on.

Example 2: Clemson vs Alabama in 2016. This play happens more than people think. It’s a third-and-one, the defense loads the box. If no one tackles Derrick Henry within three yards of the line of scrimmage then it’s a a 50-yard foot race for a touchdown.

There’s value to a three-yard tackle, no matter the down and distance. Don’t let anyone lie to you.

I decided to chart the NFL playoffs this weekend to see how the numbers play out for defenders. I was a bit surprised by the result. Here were the counts for the top 10 players this playoff in terms of tackles within three yards of the line of scrimmage or in the backfield last season:

  • Pittsburgh EDGE James Harrison: 16 (7 backfield plays)
  • Pittsburgh LB Lawrence Timmons: 15 (4 backfield plays)
  • New England DL Alan Branch: 13 (1 backfield play)
  • New England EDGE Trey Flowers: 12 (3 backfield plays)
  • Pittsburgh LB Ryan Shazier: 12 (1 backfield play)
  • Houston EDGE Whitney Mercilus: 10 (4 backfield plays)
  • New England DL Malcolm Brown: 9 (2 backfield plays)
  • Atlanta DL Grady Jarrett: 8 (5 backfield plays)
  • Oakland EDGE Khalil Mack: 8 (2 backfield plays)
  • Atlanta LB Deion Jones: 8 (2 backfield plays)

These numbers aren’t adjusted per-snap, but that’s a pretty good mix of a bunch of different types of front seven defenders. Without those numbers, Branch’s 12 tackles of three yards or shorter go unnoticed. For reference, the Patriots were 28th in TFL percentage in the league, but were 8th in yards per carry last year. This type of context is what makes New England seem so underrated, while being so efficient. Mack’s inclusion in the top 10, despite only playing one game, allows for more context than just his two tackles for a loss against Houston in the wild card game. Everyone watching knew he made more than two significant plays.

This is something I hope I can track, along with TFLs and sacks, weekly as a piece called “Tackle+” this season.

If you don’t care about the NFL draft, you’re a better person for it and should stop reading now.

The coast is clear. Let’s get nerdy.

Earlier this week, we made a post about how NFL Draft Scout gave top-100 grades out to players for the first time for the 2018 draft. I didn’t want to go through 32 teams this offseason to hand out these numbers, though I did for my Green Bay Packers. I figure the best way to test this out is on individual players, and the most important time to evaluate individual players is when you’re drafting them out of college as potential 10-year starters on cost-controlled contracts for three to four seasons.

If you’re going chronologically from largest to smallest for front seven defenders (avoid DE/OLB at all cost), you’re looking at interior defensive linemen (DL on the tiered NFL Draft Scout board we made), edge defenders (EDGE) and then linebackers (LB), so interior defensive linemen was a clear starting point.

The website gave 12 top-100 grades to interior defensive linemen in the upcoming draft class. That’s much more manageable than grading all of the defenders on all 32 NFL teams from a season that for the most part is now irrelevant due to the shuffling of free agency. Those players are:

  • Maurice Hurst, Michigan
  • DaShawn Hand, Alabama
  • Vita Vea, Washington
  • Christian Wilkins, Clemson
  • Lowell Loulelei, Utah
  • DaRon Payne, Alabama
  • Michael Hill, Ohio State
  • Christian LaCouture, LSU
  • Derrick Nnadi, Florida State
  • Flolrunso Fatukasi, UConn
  • Kahlil McKenzie Jr, Tennessee (yes this is Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie’s son)
  • Greg Gaines, Washington

Here is what their 2016 seasons looked like:

It should be noted that McKenzie missed about half of the season due to injury, and LaCouture missed the entire season. Still, even without adjusted for snap efficiency, you see that there’s a pretty significant gap between defensive linemen in terms of production, both in the backfield (Fatukasi only had three backfield plays) and short-yardage tackles (Hurst had nearly as many tackles in the backfield as he did at the line of scrimmage through three yards deep).

For the draft nerds, these were each player’s best game against Power Five competition (I counted backfield plays as 1.5 points and tackles between zero and three yards as 1 point):

  • Folorunso Fatukasi, UConn: Virginia-7.5
  • Christian Wilkins, Clemson: Auburn-7.5
  • Derrick Nnadi, Florida State: North Carolina State-7, Clemson-7
  • Maurice Hurst, Michigan: Penn State-6.5
  • Lowell Lotulelei, Utah: Oregon-6
  • Greg Gaines, Washington: Colorado-4.5
  • DaShawn Hand, Alabama: Kentucky-4.5
  • DaRon Payne, Alabama: Mississippi State-4
  • Vita Vea, Washington: USC-3.5, Rutgers-3.5, Arizona State-3.5, Alabama-3.5
  • Kahlil Mckenzie Jr, Tennessee-Texas A&M-3.5
  • Michael Hill, Ohio State-Nebraska-3
  • Christian LaCouture, LSU-DNP

Tying this all back in with athleticism, here’s the “Speed 40” (read this, simply a density-adjusted 40-yard dash time) of each prospect based on NFL Draft Scout’s estimations:

These seem like conservative estimates, but anything less than -1.00 should be flagged as a question for anyone claiming that a defensive tackle is “athletic,” at least relative to top-100 defensive tackles who exceeded expectations based on their draft status. For reference, Dontari Poe’s combine would have left him with a +5.60 “Speed 40” time.

Just based off of production and athleticism, my top takeaways are that:

  • Wilkins looks like a stud and the DT1 on paper.
  • I feel really good about Hurst and Nnadi, who I’ve liked for a few years now.
  • Hill’s projected status as a second-round pick looks like an overshoot of reality because of the school he goes to.

I will be writing about Tackle+ for the edge defenders and linebackers at some point this summer. Subscribe to the Setting the Edge podcast on iTunes and follow Setting the Edge on Twitter. Tell a friend.