Finding the Fit: Defensive Tackle
What the Falcons do at defensive tackle will depend heavily on the health of Peria Jerry. If the Falcons are confident that Jerry is going to be able to come back strong from his knee injury, then there need at this position really is only about depth.
But if the Falcons are worried about Jerry’s health not only this year, but moving forward due to his rich history of injuries (he’s missed time in 5 of the past 6 years), then they may instead look for an insurance policy.
But regardless it makes sense for the Falcons to look at adding depth. Thomas Johnson had some moments as a fill-in starter for Jerry, but he’s a journeyman and is better off the bench than as a starter. So getting a player that can potentially challenge or replace him as the top backup tackle would be ideal. One could argue that Jonathan Babineaux was overworked last year, and that backup should be able to spell him as well.
Vance Walker came on strong at the end of the year and will push Johnson, but his upside may be limited only as a backup long-term. The Falcons may want to add a player that can potentially start for the team if Jerry can’t stay healthy down the road.
1. Motor – It’s clear in looking at what Babineaux and Jerry possess that make them good fits in Atlanta are their motors. Both are high motor players, and that skill doesn’t escape Thomas Johnson, which is why he likely surpass the likes of Walker and Trey Lewis last summer. So it’s obvious the Falcons want someone that can (and wants to) push these guys for playing time, so he’s going to have to work just as hard if not harder than them.
2. Versatility – The Falcons don’t employ as strict a distinction between nose tackle and under tackle as many other 4-3 teams. So it works best for their tackles to be able to play either spot. This isn’t exactly common on the college level either, so versatility often comes from other traits which include…
3. Strength – Nose tackles need to be strong because they line up over the center, and thus are going to have to engage a blocker straight up. So in order to beat that blocker, they usually have to rely on strength and a bull rush. But strength is more important because it’s likely that this backup will get more work on running downs early on in the rotation because Jerry and Babineaux are such capable pass rushers.
4. Quickness – A three-technique guy often will use a swim move to beat the guard because he lines up over the outside shoulder, which requires quickness much like a defensive end because he can shoot upfield. While the Falcons will likely look for guys that can help them on running downs because of the presence of Babineaux and Jerry as pass rushers, they do feature an attacking scheme, so all of their tackles need to be able to at least push the pocket if they aren’t going to be sack artists. Quickness helps a lot in guys being able to get position and leverage as run stoppers.
While most would love the Falcons to get a widebody in the same mold as Grady Jackson, the truth is that Jackson was most effective his earliest days in Atlanta when he was a quicker, more disruptive presence. And while this rookie will spend most of his snaps on running downs early, he still needs to show some ability as a pass rusher because of the Falcons heavy dose of rotation and the fact that he may supplant Jerry as a starter down the road.
So that precludes obvious 3-4 nose tackles like Dan Williams (Tennessee), Terrence Cody (Alabama), Cam Thomas (North Carolina), Terrell Troup (Central Florida), Jeff Owens (Georgia), and Al Woods (LSU) from consideration.
And we can scratch the top two tackles (Suh and McCoy) off the board since they are locks as Top 5 picks. And it’s highly doubtful that even if they are concerned about Jerry’s healthy that they will use another first round pick on a tackle, so that probably removes Jared Odrick and Brian Price as options.
The player that immediately emerges as an option is Georgia’s Geno Atkins. He played both nose and 3-technique at Georgia. He has the quickness to be a factor as a pass rusher, but also is a capable run stopper. He’s got NFL bloodlines, but some have questioned his motor and work ethic as he didn’t have as good a senior year as people expected. He had a good finish to his season and a good Senior Bowl week, so the talent is obviously there. But it remains to be seen if can self-motivate himself enough to be a challenger as a starter down the road, or will he simply just settle for being a backup.
Tyson Alualu (California) might be the opposite in that he has a very high motor. He played end in Cal’s 3-4 scheme, but he should project well as a 4-3 tackle. He has a high motor, versatility, having played across Cal’s defensive line. But he’s not the strongest run stopper and can get pushed around a bit. But he does fit as a guy that will work hard to get better.
Arthur Jones (Syracuse) is a player similar to Babineaux in that he uses his quickness to be a good run stopper. e played the nose in Syracuse’s 4-man front, but has the quickess to also play the 3-technique. But his senior year was marred by injuries, having torn a pectoral last January and then dealing with a knee injury in the final month of the season. So while he fits in Atlanta, it’s unknown if the Falcons want to roll the dice on another tackle that could be perceived as injury prone.
D’Anthony Smith (Louisiana Tech) is athletic, but still a little raw in that he hasn’t lived up to his athletic potential. He wasn’t quite a force in the middle, but with development could be what is considered a late bloomer.
Mike Neal (Purdue) may project better as a 3-4 end, but can also play in the 4-3. He’s a high motor player that can be a disrutpive two-way player. Corey Peters (Kentucky) has a similar description.
Lamarr Houston (Texas) has a good motor, played across Texas’s front and was productive this past year in a tough Big 12. But he doesn’t really possess the great upside to be a top starter.
If the Falcons were focusing more on motor than physical and athletic potential then Mick Williams (Pittsburgh), Boo Robinson and John Russell (both from Wake Forest), and Alan-Michael Cash (N.C. State) fit the bill. None possess the ideal size to project as starters long-term. But all are high motor players that won’t be outworked by guys. Williams was the most disruptive presence on a Pitt defensive line that led the nation in sacks. Robinson has potential as a run stopper, but isn’t very big. No one is going to outwork Russell, who is a bit of a tweener as a 3-4 end/4-3 tackle. And like Williams and Robinson, Cash is short for a tackle, but his motor often makes up for his deficiencies as a run stopper.
The Final Verdict
Alualu probably meshes more with the Falcons preference for guys with high motors, but Atkins probably has more physical ability and upside. But either player if they should fall to the Falcons pick as third rounders who make solid additions that could push Jerry. And if Jerry can’t manage to stay healthy, would make nice insurance policies.
Smith, Neal, Peters, and Houston would make solid middle round picks because they too possess some starting potential, but also make good fits as No. 3 tackles. Of that group, Houston is probably the best fit since he’s probably the more versatile option.
Of the others, Williams and Robinson probably stand the best chance of getting drafted. But their short, squatty frames limit their size potential, and they will probably be late round picks. Williams compares favorably to Babineaux due to his disruptive abilities and motor. And like Babineaux could eventually work himself into being a competent starter down the road, making him a nice value as a late round guy.