Jones has the upside to become the best defensive tackle in this year's extremely deep class
With the NFL draft merely 5(!) days away, I'll be counting down the days with a positional review of each of the Patriots projected draft needs. After starting the series with three straight offensive positions, I'm turning my attention to the defensive side of the ball today with a look at this year's exceptionally deep crop of defensive tackles.
Position: Defensive tackle
Level of need: Short term: Intermediate Long term: High
The surprising recent releases of Dominique Easley and Chris Jones created a short-term need for some additional depth, but there were already long-term reasons for the team to consider adding yet another interior lineman with a high draft pick. As things currently stand, the team has an excellent three man rotation of Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton, all three of whom fit the category of "big bodied" run defenders rather than explosive interior rushers. The remaining depth behind those three consists of Joe Vellano, offseason signing Markus Kuhn, and possibly 2015 third round pick Geneo Grissom. The release of Easley, who was excellent as a sub-rusher when available last year, leaves a hole on the depth chart for a penetrating three technique to come in on passing downs. Some have speculated that releasing Easley and Jones signified a philosophical switch away from that position/role, but both of those moves can be explained individually due to factors like the salary cap and overall program fit. The undersized and athletic Grissom could have a chance to earn passing down snaps on the interior, and the team's penchant for moving edge players inside on passing downs (Jabaal Sheard absolutely dominated the guards he faced last year in this scenario) will also factor in to replacing Easley's production.
While the team could go into the season with what it has right now and be fine, they'd be leaving themselves vulnerable next season. Brown is currently the only DT under contract beyond this season (again, subject to change depending on Grissom's position), and with both Knighton and Branch on the wrong side of 30 it looks like this group could once again use an infusion of youth and talent for the future. There's never been a better time to invest in the defensive interior, as this year's crop is widely considered the deepest group of interior defenders in recent memory.
Out of reach:
Left without a first round pick, the Patriots can't expect to land a truly elite prospect at any position. Thus, they find themselves well out of the running for studs like Oregon's DeForest Buckner, Louisville's Sheldon Rankins, Baylor's Andrew Billings or Alabama's mammoth duo of A'Shaun Robinson and Jarran Reed. Florida's Jonathan Bullard also appears likely to go early in the second round, which would be disappointing for Patriots staff who met with him at the combine. Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss) is a major wild card as a first round talent who could go on Day One or slide all the way to the Patriots picks, but I can't see the Pats having someone with his obvious off-the-field red flags on their draft board just weeks removed from cutting Easley for off-the-field reasons.
Day two targets:
Chris Jones: Mississippi State
An absolutely monstrous talent, Jones flashed dominant ability in college but inconsistency prevented him from reaching his full disruptive potential. When focused and motivated, he brings a combination of explosion, length (34 1/2" arms) and brute strength that is very tough to block. Equally adept against the run and pass, Jones has the talent to overwhelm single blocking, and at 6'6" and 310 pounds he's big and strong enough to hold his ground against double teams. However, his motor and focus weren't always his strong suit, leading to red flags about his compete level. Like Nkemdiche, Jones is polarizing wild card in this draft class, as I've seen him mocked everywhere from the top 20 to the end of the second round, where the Pats currently hold the 60th and 61st picks. The Pats met with him at the combine and if they liked what they saw, they'll be ecstatic to see a talent like him slide into their range.
Sheldon Day: Notre Dame
Day is undersized but disruptive on passing downs
If the Patriots choose to replace Easley's specific role, they can find a player with a remarkably similar skill-set in Day. Like Easley, Day is undersized (6'1", 293) but he often overwhelms guards with his explosion off the snap. Day certainly wouldn't be an every down player with the Patriots, as he's far too small to effectively 2-gap, but he's very effective when allowed to shoot gaps and penetrate on passing downs. His explosive quickness and first step jump out on film, but Day also possesses quick, violent hands and an unparalleled motor that led to a highly productive career at Notre Dame.
Hassan Ridgeway: Texas
Ridgeway was Malcom Brown's partner in crime prior to the later's joining the Patriots, and there are scouts who believe he is the more talented prospect of the two. At 6'3" and 303 pounds, he's a well-built specimen with excellent strength and surprising quickness for a man his size. While less explosive athleticially than Jones or Day, he still brings upside as a pass rusher (he recorded 6 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss in his breakthrough sophomore season) and has the strength to 2-gap and anchor against double teams. Ridgeway's production didn't always match his talent in college, but his scheme/role versatility will be attractive to the Patriots. There are whispers about his conditioning and weight being an issue in college, but the Patriots committee approach up front would help to alleviate those concerns. He's another prospect the Pats met with at this year's combine.
Vernon Butler: Louisiana Tech
Butler would be a unique chess piece up front for Belichick's defense
A versatile swiss army knife capable of lining up at any position on the defensive line, Butler's long build (6'4", 323, 35 1/8"arms) and explosive power have earned comparisons to Jets All Pro Muhammad Wilkerson. His strength and length make him adept at two gapping (he spent much of his college career manning the nose), but his explosive quickness and non-stop motor also make him a load to handle when he decides to attack a gap and rush the passer. He's another player who could go as high as the first round, but could slide due to how deep this class is on the defensive interior. His versatility would make him an ideal chess piece for Bill Belichick's defense, making it unsurprising that the Pats have had a private visit and workout with the La-Tech product.
Austin Johnson: Penn State
Less of a pass rusher than some of his peers on this list, Johnson makes up for his lack of explosive quickness with excellent play against the run. At 6'4" and 315 pounds, he's a well-built nose whose hand-usage and ability to shed blocks quickly was cited in PFF comparing him to Malcom Brown. He also plays with a great motor, which contributed to his off-the-charts tackle production in college (78 last season). While he brings a strong bull rush to the table, Johnson isn't a particularly explosive pass rusher, which could hurt him in comparison to his impressive peers at the position. The Patriots met with him back at the combine, and he could be a realistic candidate to fall into their range at the end of second round.
Kenny Clark: UCLA
Like Johnson, Clark is less dynamic as a pass rusher than some on this list, but he'll immediately be strong player against the run. Brimming with upside, the 20 year old Clark has tons of natural strength and puts his high school wrestling experience to good use in the leverage game. He also possesses plus instincts which he uses to sniff out and defeat blocks. While not an explosive gap shooter, Clark can crank up a nasty bull rush that will make him a handful for most guards and centers to single block. There's a lot of upside here, and Clark is one of many talented interior players who figures to fall in the draft simply due to the amount of quality players at his position.
Adolphus Washington: Ohio State
Washington was a very productive pass rusher over the past two seasons in Columbus, but he has the capability of being far more than a sub rusher at the next level. He's more of a "quick penetrator" than "big space eater", but at 6'3" and 301 pounds Washington is less undersized than some of his 3 technique peers like Day or Easley. He has experience both one and two gapping and has enough strength and length to be competitive on rushing downs, even when asked to hold his gap rather than shoot it. Still, his best attribute is his pass rushing, where he's a twitchy athlete who already possesses an array of moves and counters. If picked by the Patriots, he'd likely take Easley's former snaps as a sub-rushing specialist immediately, giving him time to further develop and get stronger for every down work down the road. However, he's an Urban Meyer prospect who was arrested and suspended for his bowl game after attempting to solicit prostitution from an undercover law enforcement officer, which should raise some major red flags for anyone familiar with the Patriots history with Meyer's Florida players.
Javon Hargrave: South Carolina State
Hargrave has plenty of athleticism and pass rushing upside
Hargrave is raw, but he has major upside as an interior pass rusher. Like Easley, Hargrave's best attribute is his explosive first step, which he used to overwhelm the overmatched guards he faced at the FCS level. Hargrave dominated the lower level of competition he faced, racking up 29.5 sacks and 45.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons, and he validated that production with impressive showings at the East-West Shrine game and Senior Bowl. Despite that production, Hargrave can become much better if he adds some nuance to his pass rush; most of his sacks came from pure physical talent and effort rather than refined pass rushing moves. At 6'1" and 309 pounds, he also has the size and strength to eventually develop into an every down player, but his immediate NFL future is as a third down sub rusher.
Maliek Collins: Nebraska
Yet another candidate to fill Easley's vacated interior rusher role, Collins is an exceptional athlete whose best when allowed to attack upfield and penetrate gaps. His combination of quickness off the snap, violent hands and non-stop motor makes him tough to stop as a pass rusher, and he figures to get better in that department as he adds more moves and counters to his repertoire. However, despite a decently sized frame (6'2", 311), Collins doesn't show the strength to anchor and will be a liability at least initially if asked to two gap. If picked by the Patriots, he'd be a candidate for passing down work only as a rookie.
Day three targets:
Willie Henry: Michigan
An ascending prospect who got better every year at Ann Arbor, Henry is likely to go somewhere in the middle rounds. While not necessarily a dominant one-on-one pass rusher, Henry turned in decent sack production at Michigan due to his effective work on stunts and twists. He also is big and strong enough to 2-gap and has the potential to add more muscle to his 6'3", 303 pound frame.
Matt Ioannidis: Temple
The versatile Ioannidis displayed the ability to line up at every position on the defensive line at Temple, where he proved to be proficient with both one and two gap techniques. Ionannidis gets dinged by some in the scouting community for a lack of explosive athleticism, but he's strong as an ox and was an incredibly productive team leader for the Owls. He's likely to go relatively early on day three.
Anthony Zettel: Penn State
Zettel was productive in college and has experience both on the edge and inside, but at 6'4" and 277 pounds, he comes with the dreaded "tweener" label that figures to send him sliding down draft boards in this deep class. He's an effort player who brings it every down and uses his hands well, but his lack of size and strength may limit him to being just a sub rusher at the next level.
DJ Reader: Clemson
In such a deep and diverse class of interior prospects, it's easy to see how a one dimensional run plugger like Reader could get lost in the shuffle. However limited his game might be, Reader's size (6'3", 327) and strength are pro ready and he has the talent to contribute on early downs in a committee right away. You can do much worse than that with a day three pick.
Nile Lawrence-Staple: Florida State
Another prospect who suffers from being a one dimensional run stuffer in a deep class of interior talent. Lawrence-Staple has the pure size and power (6'1", 320) to anchor against double teams and could contribute as part of a rotation on early downs. His lack of pass rush potential figures to push him deep into day three, where he could bring value as a potential contributor.
Joel Heath: Michigan State
A highly recruited defensive end who eventually bulked up to move inside, Heath presents a lengthy, unique body type (6'5", 293, 34 1/2" arms) that could suit him for a multiple front defense such as the Patriots. He's a hard worker and character guy with decent athleticism and the length to two gap, but he'll probably need to add more muscle to his frame to stick on the interior as a pro. The Patriots have put him through a private workout this spring.
Lawrence Thomas: Michigan State
The highly athletic Thomas shuffled positions through his Spartan career, including time at defensive end and even some reps at fullback as a freshman. That position shuffling probably had something to do with his production never matching his talent level in college. As a pro, he'll likely be an edge setter on early downs with the ability to shift inside on passing downs, where his athleticism will be an asset against slower guards. Like his teammate Heath, Thomas was put through a private workout by Patriots brass this spring.