Richner: 2016 Top Defensive Tackles

Last Updated: 5/1/2016 1:00 PM ET
The defensive tackle class in this year's draft is the deepest of any position group in terms of talent and number of draft eligible players. We could see anywhere between six to eight interior defensive lineman be drafted in the first round. NFL front offices are enamored with the skill level, athleticism, and talent at the defensive tackle position.

The defensive tackle group is split into two sections. The first section is the top run stuffers in this year's class. These players are limited in their pass-rushing ability, yet they hold their point of attack and are at the top of the class in terms of shutting down their opponent's interior rushing attack. The second group consists of the top interior pass rushers. These players have shown they can be a consistent force as interior pass rushers.

One statistic that I incorporate is Impact Points. This is based on a formula that calculates a defensive tackle's point value based on total tackles, tackles-for-loss, sacks, forced fumbles, blocked kicks and their team's overall rush defense. Each player's career impact plays is then applied to the total number of games played so we can see the average number of impact plays per game. Last year Leonard Williams had the highest impact plays average with 1.8 impact plays per game. Aaron Donald has the highest average on record for defensive tackles with 2.5 impact plays a game during his college career.

This year Anthony Zettel has the highest amongst FBS level players with an average of 1.8 impact plays per game. Javon Hargrave (South Carolina State) leads all defensive tackles with an average of 2.9 impact plays per game.

Another statistical category is called the pass rushing index percent, this is used to calculate a player's overall impact as a pass rusher. The pass rushing index percent takes sacks, hits, throwaways, hurries, and batted down passes. The index takes a weighted value for each category and applies it to the total number of pass rushing opportunities each player had over the past two seasons. The player who had the highest pass rushing index is Chris Jones, at 6.1 percent. For a point of reference this formula was applied to last year's top NFL interior defensive lineman. J.J. Watt (9.1), Aaron Donald (8.2), Michael Bennett (7.6) and Muhammad Wilkerson (6.9 topped the list.

Pass rushing index only applies to players who played in the FBS level. Complete data for FCS players in terms of snaps played, and other statistical categories could not be verified. These players are still included in our overall draft rankings and review.

After each category is a list of all the defensive line prospects, their draftable grade, total impact plays, average impact plays per game, and pass rusher index rating.

Run Stuffers:

1) Vernon Butler (DT, Louisiana Tech):

The Bulldogs' defense was a formidable powerhouse in terms of shutting down their opponent's rushing attack. This was in large part due to Butler's ability to disrupt and cause chaos in an opponent's backfield which made him the top rush stopper in this year's draft class.

A mountain of a man, Butler measured in at 6'4” and 323 pounds at the NFL Combine. Butler finished the 2015 season with 50 tackles, 10 TFL, and three sacks. He is an unmovable force who has the ability to hold his ground and even push back against double and triple teams.

In 49 career games Butler had 128 tackles, 29 TFL, five sacks, three pass breakups, and one forced fumble. He finished with a total of 40 impact plays, an average of 0.82 impact plays per game.

Deficient as a pass rusher, Butler doesn't have the technique and counter pass rush moves. He would rather run through an opponent instead of around them or tossing them aside. On tape it appears that Butler tires easily and doesn't possess the stamina to sustain his level of production throughout the course of the game.

Over the past two seasons Butler's pass rush productivity rating was 4.0 percent, which ranks him 15th amongst defensive tackles in this draft class

Teams looking to upgrade along the interior of their defensive line, specifically for a big-bodied run stuffer could be the Seattle Seahawks or New York Giants, Butler is a likely first rounder. He might end up being just a two down lineman.

2) Andrew Billings (DT, Baylor):

A young but experienced player, Billings was the most dominant defensive lineman in the Big-12 last season. Billings struck fear into opposing offenses, he couldn't be stopped even when opponents put two or three blockers in front of him. Billings was tied for the team lead in both sacks (5.5) and TFL (14) last season.

Billings was the co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2015. At 6'1” and 311 pounds, Billings is as strong as an ox and broke numerous Baylor weight room records. Opponents can't push Billings around, he is perfectly suited to play the nose tackle in a 3-4 defensive scheme.

In 37 career games, Billings has 90 tackles, 29.5 TFL, eight sacks, and two forced fumbles. He finished with a total of 43.5 impact plays, an average of 1.2 impact plays per game.

Not the most complete pass rusher, he has a hard time chasing down quarterbacks from behind. He is good at attacking ball carriers straight in front of him. He has a hard time with stopping his momentum and change of direction. He won't be tackling Russell Wilson from behind next season.

Over the past two seasons, Billings had a pass rush productivity rating of 4.1 percent, which ranks him 12th in amongst defensive tackles in this draft class

With rare power and a compact frame, Billings is perfectly suited to play as a one technique or as a nose tackle. Billings is first round caliber prospect and the Houston Texans or the Pittsburgh Steelers could be a possible landing spot.

3) A'Shawn Robinson (DT, Alabama):

One of the main reasons why opponents had a tough time against Alabama in 2015 is the mammoth defensive tackle, A'Shawn Robinson. Opponents averaged just 2.4 yards per carry and only had seven rushing touchdowns in 2015. Robinson was able to occupy blockers which allowed Alabama's elite linebacker core to roam free and make plays.

Alabama is a powerhouse football program who regularly turns out NFL caliber players at almost every NFL position, except along the defensive line. There have been seven Alabama defensive linemen drafted since 2007 and, with the exception of Marcell Dareus, all the other players have had less than stellar careers.

Robinson has the ability to cause devastation to an opponent's rushing attack. At 6'4” and 307 pounds, Robinson can slide inside or play outside technique. This versatility makes him a valuable prospect to be able to play in multiple defensive schemes or in sub packages.

An experienced starter, Robinson played in 42 games, recording 91.5 tackles, 22 TFL, nine sacks, five pass breakups, one forced fumble and three blocked kicks. He finished his career with 48 impact plays, an average of 1.1 impact plays per game.

Due to his size and length, Robinson has a tendency to get his pad level too high and allow opponents to get underneath and push him around. Losing leverage in the NFL means you lost the battle and will most likely get shoved out of his gap responsibility. As a run defender, he is everything that teams might be looking for. He can take on multiple blockers and play in a two gap system.

Over the past two seasons, Robinson had a pass rush productivity rating of 2.3 percent, which ranks him tied for 25th amongst defensive tackles in this draft class

Robinson is likely a first round caliber prospect who might not fill out the box score each game, but his linebackers and teammates will appreciate his contribution to the team and defense.

4) Kenny Clark (DT/NT, UCLA):

Few players in college football have played more snaps over the past couple of seasons than Clark. According to Pro Football Focus, Clark has logged a total of 1,778 snaps during the past two seasons. Lining up primarily at the nose tackle or in the one technique, Clark is a stout run defender capable of throwing opponents aside and serving crushing blows to ball carriers.

At 6'3” and 314 pounds, Clark is durable and a hard worker who does the dirty work and allows his teammates the freedom to roam and make plays. Double teams did little to disrupt Clark who has the speed to crash through gaps and get into the backfield.

In 39 career games, Clark had a total of 128.5 tackles, 20.5 TFL, seven sacks, six pass breakups, and one forced fumble. Clark's average of 3.3 tackles per game is the highest average amongst defensive tackle prospects in this draft class. He finished with a total of 36.5 impact plays, an average of 0.9 impact plays per game.

Scouts are worried about Clark's higher than average number of missed tackles. Despite him possessing great strength at the point of attack, he continued to miss tackles at a higher rate than other defensive tackles in this draft class. Instead of wrapping up ball carriers, he'd rather throw them to the ground.

Limited as a pass rusher, he will need to continue to develop a counter move and work on his bull rush technique. Over the past two seasons Clark's pass rush productivity score was 2.6 percent, which ranks him 21st amongst defensive tackles in this draft class.

Clark is likely a late first or early second selection. The Cincinnati Bengals or the Atlanta Falcons could be possible landing spots for Clark.

5) Jarran Reed (DT, Alabama):

A junior college transfer, Reed lacks the experience of other defensive tackles in this draft class but makes up for it with his athleticism and ability to be a disruptor. He is a shutdown defensive tackle in stopping the run. Players rarely come into the NFL prepared to play in a two gap system, but Reed is one of these rare types of talent.

Measuring in at the NFL Combine at 6'3” and 307 pounds, Reed plays with a solid base and has the ability to overpower single blockers. He excels at sliding down the line, not crossing his body and chasing down ball carriers. Once he engages with a blocker, he is adept at shedding block just a split second before the ball carrier hits the hole.

Primarily just a run-down specialist, Reed only played in roughly 55 percent of the total defensive snaps for the past two seasons. In 29 career games, Reed recorded 75 tackles, 11 TFL, two sacks, and seven pass breakups. He amassed a total of 20 impact plays, an average of 0.7 impact plays per game.

As a run stuffer, Reed is a phenomenal talent. As a pass rusher, he leaves much to be desired. He does nothing more than rush straight ahead and will try to overpower his opponent. Reed had a pass rush productivity score of 1.8 percent, which ranks him 28th amongst defensive tackles in this draft class.

Reed is a two down type of player, but even with his limitations he is a star at stopping an opponent's rushing attack. Reed will most likely be a first round draft selection. His statistical production and grade in our metric suggests that Reed has a second round grade. Teams such as the Green Bay Packers or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be possible landing spots for him.

Ranking Player School Draftable Round Impact Plays Avg. Impact Plays/Game Pass Rush Index
1 Vernon Butler Louisiana Tech 1 40 0.8 4.0%
2 Andrew Billings Baylor 1 43.5 1.2 4.1%
3 A'Shawn Robinson Alabama 1 48 1.1 2.3%
4 Kenny Clark UCLA 2 36.5 0.9 2.6%
5 Jarran Reed Alabama 2 20 0.7 1.8%
6 Jonathan Bullard Florida 2-3 50.5 1.0 4.0%
7 Maliek Collins Nebraska 2-3 30 0.8 4.0%
8 Austin Johnson Penn State 3 40.5 1.1 2.8%
9 Willie Henry Michigan 3 35.5 1.0 5.8%
10 Joel Heath Michigan State 3 20 0.5 5.1%
11 Hassan Ridgeway Texas 4-5 27.5 0.8 3.4%
12 Vincent Valentine Nebraska 5 26 0.7 2.5%
13 Antwaun Woods USC 6 24.5 0.5 2.3%
14 D.J. Reader Clemson 6 14 0.3 3.5%
15 Nile Lawrence-Stample Florida State 6 13 0.4 2.4%
16 Chris Mayes Georgia 7 8 0.3 0.7%

Pass Rushers:

1) Sheldon Rankins (DT, Louisville):

After posting a standout performance at the Senior Bowl, Sheldon Rankins cemented his status as the top interior pass rusher in this draft class.

Rankins dominated throughout his college career, displaying both power and speed rush moves rarely seen by defensive tackles. Many scouts at the Senior Bowl commented on Rankins' similarity to Aaron Donald at this stage of his career. As good as Rankins has been throughout his career at Louisville, in my opinion he is not on the same level as Aaron Donald in my opinion.

Rankins is a quality pass rusher whose talents compare most favorably to current Carolina Panthers defensive tackle, Kawann Short.

In 45 career games, Rankins had 102 tackles, 31.5 TFL, 18 sacks, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions. He amassed a total of 65.5 impact plays, an average of 1.5 impact plays a game, third highest amongst defensive tackles in this draft class.

He was widely viewed as a late first rounder, but with his performance in the Senior Bowl, and according to a few head coaches around the league, most believe Rankins will go within the first 15 picks.

With top-tier quickness for a player of his size and stature, Rankins routinely beats his man off the snap. He plays with good leverage and can walk his man into the pocket or turn the corner and beat his man around the edge. Rankins had a pass rush productivity score of 5.2 percent, which ranks him 4th amongst defensive tackles in this draft class.

Being a consistent producer over the past couple of seasons has made Rankins a hot commodity leading up to the draft. Teams such as the New Orleans Saints or the Oakland Raiders could be possible landing spots for Rankins.

2) Chris Jones (DT, Mississippi State):

While Rankins has the production to pair with his scouting traits, Jones has limited production in some ways while his measurables are off the charts. He has only played a limited number of snaps compared to other defensive tackles in this draft class. Despite the lack of production, Jones is a dominant interior offensive lineman in the SEC.

Most opposing offenses focused on targeting Jones with multiple blockers. Opponents would send extra linemen, tailbacks and tight ends to slow down Jones' timing and ability to get after the quarterback. He has the speed and quickness to jet into the backfield and make a play on the ball carrier. He has excellent lateral quickness and does a good job of recognizing and attacking screens and shovel passes.

In 39 career games, Jones recorded 72 tackles, 18 TFL, 8.5 sacks, and nine pass breakups. He amassed a total of 35.5 impact plays per game, an average of 0.9 impact plays per game.

What makes Jones one of the most coveted pass rushers from the interior side of the defensive line in this draft class is his ability to disrupt the timing and apply pressure on the quarterback. He has the highest pass rush productivity score amongst all defensive tackles in the draft, at 6.1 percent.

Jones doesn't have the overall sack numbers like some other players, but he was able to maintain a constant stream of pressure, hits and getting into throwing lanes to knock down passes at a higher rate than anyone else in this draft. He has long arms and the ability to cloud a quarterback's vision and disrupt an opponent's timing on offense.

Jones might slip into the second round, though there has been some talk of late that a team with one of the last remaining picks in the first round is enamored with Jones and might pick him up.

3) Sheldon Day (DT, Notre Dame):

Few players in this draft class understand leverage and how to use leverage to their advantage better than Sheldon Day. He is a monster at bouncing off and getting underneath the pads of opposing linemen. With powerful hands and a strong punch, he can knock a lineman back a few yards before he is even out of his stance.

At 6'1” and 293 pounds, Day is a short, stout interior defensive lineman who dominated during his career in South Bend. A first-team All-American this past season, Day displayed a lightning quick first step that obliterated offensive linemen and caused havoc for opposing offenses.

In 48 career games, Day had 116 tackles, 32 TFL, 7.5 sacks, eight pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. He amassed a total of 53.5 impact plays, an average of 1.1 impact plays per game.

While he possesses the power to drive a lineman back into the pocket, Day has a tough time occupying more than one blocker at a time. He is a little light to play the traditional nose tackle and is more suited to play in a 4-3 scheme, possibly at the three technique.

An efficient and effective pass rusher, Day had a pass rush productivity score of 4.3 percent, ninth highest amongst defensive tackles in this draft class.

In the right system and with an aggressive defensive scheme, Day could be a powerful, disruptive force in the NFL. It might take a season or two for the right defensive coordinator to figure out how to use him. Day looks to be a possible second or third round selection.

4) Anthony Zettel (DT, Penn State):

Most consider Zettel to be a tweener; a player too small to play inside and a guy who is to slow to be kicked outside and play defensive end. When watching Zettel's game film, it became obvious that regardless of where he lined up on the field, Zettel was a constant disruptor. He provides the type of versatility most coaching staffs are looking for and a player who can do all the little things both against the rush and as a pass rusher.

Some scouts used the term “high motor” when talking about Zettel and to be honest, I have never understood what this term means. He is a relentless player who doesn't give up on plays; even if he gets beat he is one of the few defensive linemen in college football who will chase a ball carrier down from behind.

Despite not having the lateral quickness that most scouts are looking for from an elite defensive tackle, Zettel possess the straight ahead speed. He had one of the fastest forty-yard dash times at the NFL Combine this year for defensive tackles at 4.81 seconds.

In 50 career games Zettel had 94.5 tackles, 38 TFL, 20 sacks, 15 PB, two forced fumbles, and four interceptions. He amassed a total of 91 impact plays, an average of 1.8 impact plays per game, second highest amongst draft eligible defensive tackles

While versatility for any defensive player is a solid attribute to have, the issue for Zettel was his versatility in college put him at multiple positions to help the team versus putting him in the right spot to be successful. He excels at snap anticipation; he is usually one of the first guys off his block and was able to pick up a couple of sacks when his man was still in his stance and Zettel sped right past him. Zettel also possess an excellent inside spin move which he has used to garner a couple of sacks during his career.

Zettel had a pass rush productivity score of 4.4 percent, eighth highest amongst defensive tackles in this draft class.

With four career interceptions, Zettel isn't just looking to knock down a quarterback, he reads the quarterback's eyes and jumps into throwing lanes to make an impact play. Zettel is undersized and a player who might not be suited for every defensive scheme or system in the NFL. He was a standout performer in college and someone who continues to show up on each and every defensive series that he is involved in.

Zettel won't be a first or second day draft selection, but someone who can scoop him up on the third day of the draft could be getting themselves a standout performer. The Chicago Bears or Denver Broncos are teams that could be interested in a player of Zettel's skill set. Zettel grades out similar to current Denver Bronco, Derek Wolfe.

5) Adolphus Washington (DT, Ohio State):

Some players get all the glory, accolades and attention by the national media and the general public. Other players do all the dirty work, take on two or three blockers and shut down opponent's rushing attack, yet see little notoriety. Adolphus Washington might not be a household name, but he was the leader who made the Ohio State defense one of the more dominant defensive units in college football over the past couple of seasons.

Though he was largely ignored by the national media for his play on the field, Washington will have to answer for some questionable off-field behavior. He was recently arrested in December for solicitation. Scouts and front offices will be looking into Washington's off-field behavior to see if he has any additional character concerns.

At 6'4” and 301 pounds, Washington possesses the size and strength to shed blockers when asked to attack opposing quarterbacks. Washington has developed from a raw talent who used to get tall at the snap and would lose leverage against his opponent into a smart, technically sound player capable of dominating opponents with strength and technique.

Showcasing his complete arsenal of pass rushing moves against Michigan State this past season, Washington recorded seven tackles, one TFL, one sack, and one fumble recovery. A quick athlete for a player of his size, Washington's snap-to-sack time was 3.54 seconds. He showed impressive agility and power to take down the quarterback with one hand.

In 49 career games, Washington had 106.5 tackles, 25 TFL, 13.5 sacks, four pass breakups, three forced fumbles, and one blocked kick. He amassed a total of 57.5 impact plays, an average of 1.2 impact plays per game.

Washington's impact on a game would come in spurts and his overall effectiveness wasn't as consistent as scouts would like to see from a player who has some playmaking tendencies. Washington had a pass rush productivity score of 4.5 percent, seventh highest amongst defensive tackles in this draft class.

Washington has the tools and the abilities, but the question remains if he can put it all together. He has shown he can be productive; he will just need to do it consistently. Washington is most likely a second to third round selection. Look for teams such as the Miami Dolphins or the Indianapolis Colts to be likely landing spots for Washington.

Ranking Player School Draftable Round Impact Plays Avg. Impact Plays/Game Pass Rush Index
1 Sheldon Rankins Louisville 1 65.5 1.5 5.1%
2 Chris Jones Mississippi State 1 35.5 0.9 6.1%
3 Sheldon Day Notre Dame 2-3 53.5 1.1 4.3%
4 Anthony Zettel Penn State 2-3 91 1.8 4.4%
5 Adolphus Washington Ohio State 2-3 57.5 1.2 4.5%
6 Robert Nkemdiche Mississippi 2-3 27 0.8 4.0%
7 Javon Hargrave South Carolina St. 4 129 2.9 NA
8 Darius Latham Indiana 4 42 1.2 5.3%
9 Matt Ioannidis Temple 4 51 1.2 4.5%
10 Connor Wujciak Boston College 5 46 1.0 4.1%
11 Luther Maddy Virginia Tech 5 51.5 0.9 3.8%
12 A.J. Zuttah Dartmouth 5 41.5 1.0 NA
13 Quinton Jefferson Maryland 6 45 1.2 4.2%
14 Adam Gotsis Georgia Tech 6 60 1.3 2.3%
15 Devaunte Sigler Jacksonville State 7 38 1.0 NA