Finally starting on the defensive side of the ball with my "What to Look For When Scouting Series", today, I focus on a position that has been on the upswing in recent years. That is the evolution of interior defensive lineman. Aaron Donald has been the prototype at the position, but it's easy to see that he's a generational talent and unlike anything that we've seen before.
Outside of that, the talent at the position is the best that it's ever been. Names such as Fletcher Cox, J.J. Watt, Akiem Hicks, and Chris Jones are just a few of the top of the line talents across the league. The talent gap between lineman on either side of the ball continues to become wider every season. With the caliber of athletes entering the league yearly, it's easy to see why.
Here are the top traits to look for when evaluating interior defensive lineman:
1. Understanding Role and Scheme Fit
Sacks and pressures are the top statistics that many look for when judging from afar the exact impact that defensive lineman can have during a given moment. Before looking at the stats and forming an opinion on that particular prospect, you must first examine the type of scheme that they're being placed in and the demands of it.
For example, a 3-4 nose tackle's sole responsibility is to occupy both A gaps on both sides of the ball. As a result of this, their penetration abilities will be sacrificial for their surroundings because of the design of the scheme. A great present day example of the impact that they could have is Detroit Lions nose tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison. While he's not a true up-the-field penetrator, his biggest value comes as a gap plugger where he can maintain a wide range of space. This is why he's considered one of the best run stuffers in the league
On the flip side, Aaron Donald, who's a cyborg at the position, is more of a penetrating style of interior defender, who prides himself on living in the backfield of the opposition.
These two examples are why evaluators must understand the role and scheme fit of the interior defender that is being evaluated. An example from the previous draft class would be comparing two Clemson rushers in Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, who both were completely opposites from a skill set and down-to-down demands at the position.
2. Hand Usage
This trait is one of the easiest to decipher, especially the prospects that are able to use them successfully. Hand usage and hand-to-hand combat are essential in order to experience high variances of success. Upper-tier defensive lineman are able to use their hands to their advantage by keeping their frame clean and being able to shed blockers when necessary.
Ones that are crafty pass rushers usually experience a lot of success because of the type of athleticism that is experienced as well. Combining the two usually makes for a prospect that has a high ceiling. We are currently seeing it with Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. While he has unreal size and power at the position, it's the use of his hands, shock power contained within them, and the ability to jolt offensive lineman back at his leisure that makes him an elite player.
3. Instincts and Awareness
Often times you witness interior defenders that are on the field with no sense of awareness of what's happening on the field, specifically in front of them. The little details from film study and prior experiences to certain tactics go a long way to staying ahead of the curve.
Chicago Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks often explains that whenever he sees an offensive lineman slightly tilting their body and having a light amount of body weight on their stance hand triggers radars in his brain that they are pulling. This signals to him that a back block is incoming from the center. When this happens, he immediately executes a quick swim move over the centers head in anticipation of the back block.
Small tactics like that are what separates some of the borderline good players from the elite ones and it's no secret as to how good Hicks has been in the middle of the defense in Chicago.
The beautiful thing about interior defenders is that they come in all different shapes and sizes. There's no exact science to the upper-tier talents because you have a lot of differences such as DeForest Buckner, who's a towering 6-foot-7, while on the opposite end of the spectrum, there's Poona Ford, who stands at only 6-foot tall.
What they do all share is that they're able to use their size and translate it immediately to acceleration. The prime example to use for this trait is newly paid Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Although a bit undersized and a large reason why he lasted to the fifth-round, but where he hangs his hat on is explosiveness. Jarrett's first step and ball get off are outstanding. When firing out of his stance, he's immediately able to transition his speed to power, which frequently overwhelms offensive lineman.