|Valentine brings major size and upside, but must get in better shape to reach his full potential. Scott Bruhn|
Mountain of a man
The first thing that stands out about Valentine is his pure size. With DraftBreakdown only having one game film edited for Valentine, I had to use two game films for his defensive line teammate and fellow third round pick Maliek Collins instead, but big #98 was hard to miss even without the film pointing out his location pre-snap. At 6'4" and 329 pounds, Valentine is built like a classic nose-tackle, particularly in his thick lower body. Any doubts about his lower body strength should be quelled by this instagram video, which shows him squatting 745(!) pounds in the Nebraska weight room.
Unsurprisingly, Valentine is best when asked to clog gaps against the run. He has the pure size and strength to anchor and hold his ground against double teams, something he'll be asked to do for New England. For example, check out his play at the 2:19 mark of his USC film. USC has a first and goal from four yards out and attempts to run it right up the middle, but Valentine fights his way through a double team and takes that space away, forcing the running back to cut outside into Valentine's defensive help. Occupying space and blockers will be his primary role in New England, and that play certainly illustrates the talent he has to do just that.
Valentine combines his size and power with excellent length (33 1/8" arms), which he uses well to control his would-be blockers. There are excellent flashes on tape of the "stack and shed" technique that the Patriots demand from their defensive linemen, with one such play showing up at the 1:09 mark against UCLA last fall (Valentine, #98, is lined up head up against the left guard). Here, Valentine engages the guard off the snap and extends his arms, using his massive base to hold his ground completely. With the guard unable to move him off the line of scrimmage, Valentine recognizes that the running back is attempting to hit his gap uses his brute strength to toss the guard aside before swallowing up the back for a run stuff.
Valentine's ability to anchor against double teams is very important, as he'll see plenty of them out of necessity. His size and strength make him a very difficult assignment to single block, and there were snaps in college in which he simply bullied his opponent with ease. Check out the 1:09 mark of his Iowa film (big 98 is lined up in the "B" gap between the left guard and left tackle), where he angles his get off inside and simply bulls his way through the guards attempted block to smash the running back after a minimal gain.
That ability to "bully" blockers also shows up on passing downs. Valentine's role on most passing downs will be to occupy double teams, freeing up one-on-one opportunities for others. Valentine might not be a particularly dynamic rusher, but he has the brute strength to bull rush single blocking right back into the quarterback when he's focused and motivated. The 4:08 mark of his USC film illustrates that, as he times his get-off from the snap well and simply overwhelms the left guard.
There are plenty of big bodied space eaters out there, but few possess the athletic traits that Valentine displayed at the combine. His times in the speed and agility drills (5.19 40 yard dash, 29" vertical leap, 9'2" broad jump, 8.03 3 cone drill, 4.59 3 cone shuffle) are insane for a prospect of his size. In fact, his combination of athletic ability and size recalls his new Patriots teammate, Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton, who boasts a similar freakish skill-set.
While Valentine didn't always put his athleticism on full display on the field, the times that he did were highly impressive. He starts the Iowa film with a bang, using his quickness to get inside his blocker before showing great hustle to pursue down the line and chase down a running back from the backside of a zone play. He repeats that effort at the 4:09 mark of the same game, this time breaking through the line to smother the runner for a loss of four (Valentine is lined up as a 3 technique here, shaded along the left guard's outside shoulder).
That athleticism also showed up in his pass rushing, where he shows promise despite a lack of refined moves. When he times the snap well and explodes off the line, he can be very difficult to stop. Valentine chipped in 3 sacks in each of his final two seasons in Lincoln, decent numbers for a space eating nose tackle. While his combination of initial quickness and power already makes him a tough assignment to block, he figures to just get better and better as a pass rusher as he learns to set up his moves and develop counters.
Valentine's current pass rushing approach is heavily reliant on power, with very few "moves" other than a heavy club and a slow but occasionally effective spin move. Still, there were some impressive flashes of pass rush potential on tape. At 4:26 of the Iowa tape, he uses his power to jar the smaller guard back, gaining inside position. Once the guard over compensates to cut off his angle, he spins the other way, freeing himself to land a crushing blow on the quarterback. When this guy gets a shot at quarterback, the quarterback feels it.
Stamina must improve
While Valentine has an obvious NFL skillset, he also comes with plenty of concerns that led many to believe he would go much later than the third round of the draft. Despite spending two years as a starter for the Cornhuskers, Valentine left Nebraska with a reputation as an underacheiver, with whispers amongst teammates and coaches that his conditioning and practice habits were subpar. It's no coincidence that Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio alluded to Valentine's conditioning in a radio interview this week, saying:
This guy is a big, strong guy who played against some pretty good players -- [Iowa’s Austin] Blythe, [Michigan State’s Jack] Allen -- in the Big Ten. And he’s a massive guy. We’ll get him in here, try to get him going early, get him in shape and try to take advantage of the things he does well.
His lack of fitness shows up in several ways. Most notably, there are far too many snaps where he stands straight up coming off the line of scrimmage. Doing so gives him absolutely no leverage and negates the size and strength advantage he has against most blockers. There are a number of plays on tape with this issue, but the 6:40 mark of the Iowa game stands out, as Valentine comes off the ball far too high and gets pancaked. There's no excuse for a player with his size and bulk to get knocked backwards on his ass like that.
That play also illustrates another way his fitness affects him on the field, as he has a tendency to wear down and lose effectiveness over the course of a game. The first half of that film has plenty of effective plays that illustrate his potential, but they occur less and less as the game goes on. By the fourth quarter, the motor that shows up in those eye-opening first quarter snaps is gone, and the result is ineffective play.
It's also worth wondering if Valentine's lack of conditioning played a role in sustaining the injuries that affected his performance last year. Valentine spent much of the season hampered by a high ankle sprain, and also was slowed by knee issues as well. It doesn't take a medical degree to figure out that bad weight, which Valentine currently has plenty of, is not good for the knees or ankles that bear the responsibility of carrying that load.
In addition to his poor fitness, there were plenty of instances were Valentine's awareness failed him on tape. At the 1:56 mark of his USC tape, he shows absolutely no awareness against a zone play and is easily chopped down by a backside cut block. Other times, he seemed completely oblivious to the possibility of a down block. At the 4:33 mark of that same USC film, he gets driven back four yards off the ball almost immediately by a double team that he clearly does not see coming.
It's doubtful that the Patriots are looking for Valentine to slim down, but rather will be looking for a version of him and his power-based game with more stamina. Replacing a few of the doughy pounds around his waistline with added weight room strength can only help him in the long-term. He'll also be helped by the Patriots approach of rotating their bigs up front fairly liberally, which will help him stay fresh. With Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Terrance Knighton already in the fold, Valentine is unlikely to see a major role as a rookie, but he certainly has the talent to crack the rotation if his conditioning and motor improve under the scrutiny of pro coaching.
While Valentine possesses the talent to play in a rotation right away if need be, his selection was made more with the future and his upside in mind. Both Branch and Knighton are on the wrong side of 30 and entering contract years. If Valentine reaches his potential, he should partner with Brown to form a beefy, physical duo that will be very hard to run against for years to come. That upside is considerable: Valentine at his best recalls the dominant form Knighton showed as a member of the Broncos. At the very least, Valentine projects as a usable early down body in a rotation, which has value. It remains to be seen if he turns into a better pro than the likes of Hassan Ridgeway or Andrew Billings, higher rated "big body" defensive tackles that the Patriots passed on in favor of Valentine, but his tape makes both his obvious strengths and flaws painfully clear. If they can get the best out of him, this unpopular draft pick has the potential to become a home run.