Let’s talk about what NFL scouts tend to look for when they’re scouting defensive tackles.
The skills and abilities that we’re going to look at will come from some extremely credible sources; a 3-time Super Bowl Champion head coach, a gentleman with nearly 30 years of scouting experience at the NFL level, and one of America’s premier scouting authorities.
I’m speaking of the late-great Bill Walsh, Greg Gabriel from the National Football Post, and Bill Conley, from Scouts Inc.
If you want to check out their articles for yourself, check out Bill Walsh’s How I Evaluate Each Position: Defensive Tackle, Gabriel’s Scouting Defensive Linemen from the National Football Post, and ESPN.com’s Scouts Inc. on Defensive Tackles.
Size/girth. Gabriel says it depends on whether he’s scouting for a 3-4 or a 4-3 d-tackle, but his ideal prospect stands between 6”3’ and 6”6’, and weighs between 295 and 340 pounds.
Coach Walsh said his ideal defensive tackle stood 6”2’, and weighed 290 pounds. He didn’t say whether this size was for a 4-3 or 3-4 tackle, but I’m guessing he had a 4-3 d-tackle in mind when he made the statement.
An NFL scout’s ideal prospect has upper and lower-body girth… In other words, they want to see a body that’s wide and muscular in the legs and torso.
Coach Walsh on size and girth:
[defensive tackles] must have the girth, strength, ballast to hold off the guard, or to step into a tackles’ block without being knocked off the line of scrimmage.
Ability to tackle. A scout’s ideal tackle consistently wraps-up well when they
tackle, and tackle low, with power.
Nasty Attitude. Gabriel on what he looks for attitude-wise, in d-linemen:
One thing is certain when you look for defensive linemen: they have to be tough, nasty people. By definition you are asking them to be in 60-70 5-second street brawls a game. It is not a position for a choir boy. If his personality is a bit on the rough side, that’s fine with me.
Balance. As Gabriel says, “you can’t play the game on the ground!”
Coach Walsh on balance:
If you get knocked off the line, or get knocked sideways or knocked off balance, you cannot play this position.
Good knee bend. A tackle that consistently plays with good knee bend gains leverage, where they’re able to get underneath the offensive lineman. This increases the tackle’s chances of winning the battle against the offensive lineman.
Quickness off the snap. Ever watch the defensive linemen during a pro football game and notice how fast they get off the ball? Sometimes, at least to me, it looks like they knew exactly when the center was going to snap the ball. That’s because the best tackles are able to anticipate the snap of the ball well; so well, that it looks like they knew when the snap was going to take place.
Body control. Most tackles that are good at rushing the passer have solid body control. Body control improves a tackle’s ability to control their much heavier bodies to chase down smaller, more nimble quarterbacks.
Change of direction. With all the athleticism and speed in the NFL, a defensive tackle that can’t change directions quickly is pretty-much useless.
Burst/explosion. Gabriel on explosion and burst:
They usually have great quickness off the ball to gain advantage against the blocker and can redirect their charge very quickly. They also have to have a good burst to the quarterback coming off a block.
Consistent penetration. Regardless of whether you’re a 3-4 nose tackle or a 4-3 tackle, one of your main duties is to penetrate the line of scrimmage and disrupt plays.
Coach Walsh on penetration:
The best defensive tackles move the offensive guard back into the quarterback. They won’t have nearly as many sacks as others, but if they can move the guard back into the quarterback, then the quarterback has to avoid his own lineman as if he were a pass rusher before he throws the ball. So this is a key ability.
Recognition/Instincts. The most effective tackles are able to anticipate blocks, and find the ball quickly. Penetrating the line of scrimmage is great, but if you’re not getting to the ball, what’s the point?
Ability to play 2-Gap/1-Gap Schemes. Gabriel on what scouts look for in gap play:
If he is going to be a 3-4 nose then it is imperative that he is a good 2-gap player. In some 4-3 schemes, he is more of a 1-gap player and has to be more athletic. Many of these types of players are not good pass rushers. When they are used to rush their main job is to get a push and collapse the pocket.
Strength/Power. No need to explain this one, right?Quickness. As Gabriel says, “…they (defensive tackles) need to be more quick than fast…”
Hands. As Coach Walsh says simply: “Quick, strong hands to grab and pull are critical. This is common with the great tackles.”
Ability to shed blocks. The best defensive tackles are able to shed blocks fast.
Lateral agility. Coach Walsh on lateral agility:
You are looking for somebody who can move down the line of scrimmage and make a tackle, pursuing a ball-carrier. That would be lateral quickness in a short area, being able to get underway and move over and through people.
Ability to “move through trash.” In the game of football, there’s bodies everywhere at the line of scrimmage. To be effective as a d-lineman, you gotta be able to consistently navigate through all those bodies and get to the ball to make a play.
Observing the Skills In-Action
At 6-4, 307, Ndamukong Suh meets Gabriel’s size criteria. He also has the upper and lower body girth that scouts look for in defensive tackles.
He definitely has the strength and power you wanna have in your tackle. Mike Tice actually mentions his power in the video, at the :53 second mark.
At the 1:24 mark, Mike Tice also mentions Suh’s ability to consistently penetrate the line of scrimmage. Right after that, they show play after play where he’s driving the offensive lineman back, or just flat-out blowing by them with power and speed to get to the backfield.
At the 2:14 point in the video, Tice gives Suh props on his ability to use his hands well. But right after that, check out his agility and ability to move laterally on the interception return. He’s juking and making cuts like a player half his size.
At the 2:22 mark, on the play where he scoops the ball up and scores, look at how violent he is with his hands. That’s what scouts look for in hand usage.
Remember when I quoted Greg Gabriel as saying that d-tackles need to be more quick than fast? Check out the play at the 2:47 mark. Look at how quick his move was on the o-lineman.
Not sure if you remember, but earlier we discussed that best tackles are able to shed blocks fast. Mr. Suh’s definitely one of the best. Check out the succession of plays starting at the 1:29 mark… He’s shedding blocks and meeting the ball carriers 4 or 5 yards deep in the backfield on some of these plays. That’s the kind of disruption and penetration the best defensive tackles get consistently.
His rare combination of agility, speed, power, and instincts lead him to the ball play after play.
And if you need a visual on what scouts look for in natural knee bend, just watch Mr. Suh in action. And explosion? Suh definitely has the explosion and burst coming off the ball that you wanna see in a d-tackle.
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