Nose guards will rarely pile up impressive statistics, but middle linebackers and edge rushers can have tremendous success while the strongest player on the team takes on all comers in the middle of the field. Once known as "Jelly Bean," Louisiana Tech's Justin Ellis has been very conscious of keeping his weight in check, as he picked up that moniker when he entered the Bulldogs program weighing in at over 390 pounds.
Listed at 357 pounds prior to his senior campaign, Ellis continued to drop weight and increase his speed in preparations for playing in the National Football League next season, arriving in Indianapolis for the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine at a "slim" 334 pounds. The trimmed-down athlete — who once ran the 40-yard dash at close to 6.0 seconds — tore up the field with an impressive 5.27-second time in front of the league's decision makers.
The 2014 postseason saw Ellis emerge as a true force to be reckoned with, beginning with his stellar performance during practices prior to the East-West Shrine Game. He displayed very active hands and quick feet to defeat blockers off the snap. In one practice session, his sudden spin move left Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard grasping at air, as Ellis exploded into the backfield after steamrolling through Ikard and his guards to get to the ball-carrier.
Ellis demonstrated that you need not be fooled by his girth — this is a player with quick feet who generates more than enough power to consistently walk the blockers back into the pocket — all traits that have some likening his skill level to that of New England's Vince Wilfolk, especially for the way he can easily overpower blockers and pressure the pocket.
Ellis' performance at the East-West Shrine Game would earn him a late invitation to play in the prestigious 2014 Senior Bowl. Curious to see if his East-West performance was a "one week thing," he further proved his ability to play at the next level. All week, the nose guard gave interior blockers fits, as he often used his quickness and snap anticipation to surge past blockers before they were in a stance.
Ellis has shown that he is a quick thinker who reacts well to what the blocker wants to do, either attacking with pure momentum or using a spin or sidestep move to get past him.
He also has the talent to play a variety of roles, much like he did at Tech.
He began his Bulldogs career playing left defensive tackle in a 4-3 system. The following season, he shifted to nose guard when the team incorporated a 3-4 scheme. Back in a 4-3 alignment as a junior, he easily shifted over to right tackle, where he remained as a senior, returning to form after an injury-plagued 2012 campaign.
Even with his imposing frame, Ellis has proven to be quite effective at what the coaches required from him — clog the middle of the field. He has also shown the lateral moves to make plays down the line and the versatility to play any of the interior line positions, whether in a 3-4 scheme or classic 4-3 alignment.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Ellis has a thick, squat frame with a good bubble, wide hips, very thick thighs and calves, good arm length and large hands. He possesses broad shoulders and a big back and despite his thick frame, he has adequate change-of-direction agility. He has a bit of a hand deficiency (left measures at 10 1/8-inches and the right one is 9 5/8), but has decent arm length (33-inches) and reach (78 1/2-inches) to stave off reach blocks. He is not impressive-looking "on the hoof" (19% body fat), and while he does have a noticeable midsection, he is the ideal thick-and-wide body type that teams look for to plug the middle of the line.
Ellis has adequate long-distance speed, but shows good change-of-direction agility and very strong frame to anchor firmly in the trenches. He shows good balance coming out of his stance, along with active hands and a powerful punch to split double teams. He is really more of a small area type of player due to issues with his limited long speed, but does a very good job of taking on and occupying multiple blockers. He is a very physical and powerful athlete with good lower body flexibility for a player of his size. He moves well in the open and can be explosive coming off the snap when he remains low in his pads. He is a good short-area pursuit player with nimble feet working down the line. He would be even quicker if he dropped some bulk, but he uses his frame well to get leverage and defeat blocks. The thing you see on film is his ability to plant and hold his ground firmly to easily combat the lead blocker in attempts to clog the inside rush lane.
Ellis has normal intelligence, but there are times when he needs additional reps in order to take plays from the chalkboard to the playing field. He does have a decent grasp of the defensive playbook and once the play is spelled out for him, it makes sense (just needs time to digest). Still, you can see that once he locates the ball, there is no hesitation in what he is supposed to do in order to make the play.
Ellis had injury issues that limited him to being used in a rotation as a junior, but with no health issues in 2013, he went on to have a career year while starting all 12 contests. Do not be fooled by his calm nature off the field, as Ellis is a competitive sort who relishes his role as the defense's "garbage man," taking on multiple blockers constantly to free up a fellow Bulldogs defenders make the play. He is simply unstoppable when he charges through the gaps and uses his hands with tremendous force when facing constant double teams. Some scouts are concerned that he runs out of gas late in games, but he worked hard during the 2013 offseason to get his weight down in order to eliminate his "tired legs" issue as the contest progresses. He is a load to handle when his head is in the game. He can simply dominate the line of scrimmage and force teams to abandon their interior ground game because of his ability to occupy space and handle multiple blockers. He shows very good determination working down the line and likes the physical aspect of playing in the trenches. Still, when he runs out of gas, he will push and lean and is prone to disappearing from the action for long stretches.
By no means is Ellis an explosive mover coming out of his stance, but he is a huge load to move out once he anchors. He is capable of getting on the edge of a blocker and will keep that advantage when his motor is on, but there are questions still about his stamina late in games (more so in 2012, as he suffered a high left ankle sprain in the team's second game vs. Virginia, missing the Nevada-Las Vegas, Idaho and New Mexico State contests and was limited in six other appearances). As a senior, he showed better balance and body control. When Ellis keeps his pads down, he flashes enough short area quickness off the snap to attack the blocker. He will never be sudden, but can create advantage that he will retain. He shows good change-of-direction agility and recovers quickly coming off the ground. He uses his hands to get a good push off the defender and shocks blockers back with his strength and forceful hand jolt, but you would like to see him do so with more regularity.
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY
Strength at Point
Ellis might not use his violent hand punch as much as he should, but he can easily obliterate any blocker once he gets his hands into their body. He is the type that will rarely ever get bounced around by double teams, thanks to his overall strength and ability to remain at a low pad level. With his big, strong hands, body mass and aggression, Ellis excels at shutting down the interior running game. He can split double teams consistently with leverage. He is quick to recover and create a pile. He is almost always double teamed, but once he sets his anchor, he is impossible to move out. His only problem occurs late in games, when he gets too high in his stance. When that happens, he fails to use his punch effectively to defeat the low blocks and will then get taken off his feet. Still, he keeps his pad level down, which is hard for a player his size, but he has the ability to do it. He sets and anchors with strength, doing a great job of holding position at the point of attack.
Use of Hands
Ellis has a strong hand punch, but needs to use it with more regularity and violence. When he uses his hands to engage and shed, the battle quickly turns in his favor. He must work on keeping his hands involved, especially vs. low blocks, but he has the flexibility and ability to use his hands to cross the face of an offensive lineman. He is better served as a one-gap type because of his bulk, but when he flashes his upper strength, he can get off and defeat any block. To shock, jolt, grab and drag down blockers or ball-carriers, Ellis can simply dominate when he keeps his hands active. When he fails to do so vs. cut and chop blocks, he is susceptible to losing leverage. He has those naturally strong hands that simply obliterate his opponent, but he needs to shoot them more often, even though he showed in 2013 that he can be quicker to reset vs. counter moves (see 2013 Tulane, Texas-El Paso and Southern Mississippi games). He has the hand strength to turn, push and knock down anything that gets in his path. When he gets his motor going and keeps his hands active, combo blockers can't tie him up for long.
Ellis will never be able to generate long pursuit speed, but working in the short area, he has adequate change-of-direction agility to work his way down the line. His role at Louisiana Tech was generally to plant himself in the middle of the line and take on multiple blockers, though. He is better off playing strictly in the short area due to some stamina issues. Still, I really like the way this big man moves down the line. He knows his job is to occupy multiple blockers. He might be able to develop an adequate motor going distances, but will need some midsection tone refinement to help improve his overall stamina. He has enough lateral initial steps and strength to string plays wide and shows good body control when changing direction. He also needs to do a better job in protecting his feet from the cut block.
Ellis is more of a collision type tackler than one who will wrap and secure. He does not have the sudden agility to make plays in space, but will impact a ball-carrier with his initial hit. In the open field, he tends to lunge at blockers rather than take angles for positioning, but even when he gets sloppy with his hands, he has a strong enough push move to take the ball-carrier down. He is best when asked to collide and wrap in the limited area rather than on the move. He is by no means a soft tackler, but you would like to see him finish more on the quarterback on the rare times he penetrates the backfield. At Tech, Ellis was used more to neutralize the inside running game rather than give chase. He plays with good leverage and flexibility, knowing how to use his size and long arms to engulf the ball-carrier. He can level the ball-carrier or push the pocket, but without a quick burst, it is not a good idea to use him to break down when working in space.
Ellis is an efficient in-line run stuffer. It is nearly impossible for blockers to move him off the line and he does a good job of creating a pile and splitting double teams. Very few runners have had any sort of success running inside on him when he gets inside to impact the gaps and rush lanes. (only five times has an opponent registered a first down rushing vs. Ellis on 33 running p[lays in 2013). When he fires off the line, he can instantly ride the center back into the pocket. He just needs to stop standing up in his stance when he tires late in games, as it gives the opponent a chance to wash him down the line via down blocks. With his ability to handle multiple blockers, it's like having two defensive linemen wrapped into one with Ellis in the middle of the line. He has the ability to not only tie up multiple blockers, but to also engulf the ball-carrier. He plays with very good leverage and when he keeps his pad level down and can hold the point. He has the tools that are more ideally suited for the two-gap, but he just needs to learn how to use his hands better in order to protect his legs. What really stands out is his ability to stack and control the line of scrimmage. He gets such a strong push off the snap, offensive linemen are immediately neutralized and the inside rush lanes get clogged.
Ellis is more of a bull rusher, as it was rare for the staff to use him in attempts to give chase in the backfield (only 2.5 sacks in 37 games at Louisiana Tech). His job is basically to collapse the pocket by pushing multiple blockers into the backfield. He will need to develop some sort of pass rush moves if he wants to play in obvious passing situations at the next level. He is still developing a decent concept for taking angles, but he can get a good push when he sees the lane. He seemed more acceptable to sitting back in run containment for the Bulldogs, reminding me of former New York Jets' Kris Jenkins in that aspect.
Closing on the Quarterback
Ellis has enough foot speed and foot balance to generate a short area burst, but does not have the timed speed needed to give long chase (has just three QB pressures in over 2,000 snaps during his career). He can flash to clear the offensive line, but not the second gear to finish on the quarterback consistently. He has the change-of-direction quickness to close, but must stop using his spin move too often, as it causes him to lose sight of the quarterback.
Ellis does a good job of keeping his focus and concentration, as he is quick to see the scheme and react, especially vs. inside runs. When he locates the ball, he usually heads there with good urgency. He is best when fresh and focused, but he has a good feel for the offensive scheme and can react and get back in the play if he over-pursues. He shows good vision to locate the ball moving laterally, doing a nice job of defeating double teams (he is not the type that gets too caught up in destroying the blockers, delivering the initial hit before looking for other targets to attack, but will keep track of the ball in play).
KRIS JENKINS, ex-New York Jets: NFL teams view Ellis strictly as a run-stuffing nose guard, but he needs to work on improving his stamina to see more playing time at the next level. He has just marginal long pursuit quickness and is not the type that will generate any sort of a pass rush or apply pocket pressure, but he is a terrific load for multiple blockers trying to ride him out or when attempting to clear rush lanes in front of him. If he can work on dropping some unneeded bulk (was 390 as a freshman, 330 as a junior, 357 last season and is presently at 334, indicating he is in need of proper nutritional instruction) and improve his overall foot speed, he will get the playing time he desires. Until then, look for his reps to come mostly against the run.
Dave-Te' Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.