Grading the pro potential: Nose tackles

If Notre Dame's Louis Nix can keep his weight in check, he has the potential be a blend of Hall of Famer Warren Sapp and mammoth run-stuffers like Vince Wilfork and Casey Hampton. NFL scout Dave-Te' Thomas analyzes Nix and several other nose tackle candidates.

More and more teams are trending toward the 3-4 defensive alignment, putting greater emphasis in finding those quick, wide-bodied types that are perfectly capable of taking on multiple blockers and impacting the interior rush lanes. Most are barrel-chested beef-eaters who would make you cringe when they take their shirts off, as it is obvious they will not be entering any Mr. Universe contests.

One of those "ugly body" types is the best nose guard in the college game — Notre Dame's Louis Nix III. He's so ugly that his mother probably had morning sickness after he was born, but before he ate out the donut factory before last season, leading to leg issues that would eventually put him on the sideline late in the year, he was regarded as the only nose guard with first-round potential.

Recent efforts to improve his nutritional program have seen the massive run stuffer arrive at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine at a "trim" 331 pounds. He was generously listed at 347 during the 2013 campaign, but coaches said he had gone well past 370 pounds during his final year, as he looked very lethargic at times, coming up with just two tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

When in shape, most talent evaluators feel that Nix is the most dominating two-gap, zero-technique performers in the game of college football. Often compared to former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp for his incredible explosive burst off the snap and combative nature, others liken him to the New England PatriotsVince Wilfork and former Pittsburgh Steelers great Casey Hampton for the way he easily occupies multiple blockers, feeling his quickness would be ideal to play three-technique in a 4-3 defensive alignment.

Those evaluators cite his aggressive, "take no prisoners" approach to the game that reminds them of former Minnesota Vikings fireplug Pat Williams. Even opposing coaches recognize that Nix is the "heart and soul" of the Irish defense. They are amazed at the quickness displayed by the redshirt junior, as his lateral movements are very fluid, which is demonstrated regularly by his crisp and sudden change-of-direction agility working down the line.

Nix is the first to admit he is quite a character, as he controls the press room, commands respect in the locker room, can be a "pain in the butt" trash talking in the trenches and loves to have fun. But, when the whistle blows and the game begins, all hell breaks loose over the head of an opposing center. Yes, he has a motor mouth but, much like Sapp, he backs it up with a relentless motor. He is just the type that a young team needs when searching for leadership, as he always owns up to his mistakes and, despite a reputation for being rigid, even his head coach (Brian Kelly) looks at his player with great affection.

While Minnesota‘s Ra'Shede Hageman is listed on most draft boards as a 4-3 defensive tackle, his wide body, long arms and sheer power make him an ideal nose guard type, but he does come with a "buyer beware" tag, as his head is not always in the game. He seemed to have turned the corner in 2013, though, leading the team with a career-high 13 tackles-for-loss in 13 games. He had just 11 of those stops during his first 33 contests at the university.

Hageman had to work through a few bumps in the road to become the mature, respected team leader he is today. The two-year starter spent part of his youth shuttling through the foster care system before being adopted by two lawyers. Being in a less stressful home environment helped him excel in athletics during his prep days.

A long talk with the coaches after the 2012 season saw a renewed dedication and an attitude change in the Gopher. If Hageman had to choose role models, he could not have picked a better pair than Houston's J.J. Watt and Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, as he tries to combine their best attributes to blend into his own style of play. He calls Suh "a beast" and noted that "Watt is so quick." The nose guard also used the benefit of his senior season to refine some rough areas of his game, even though many expected him to bolt school early for life in the NFL last year.

Hageman cemented his place among the draft's elite players with his stellar performances throughout the weeklong practices in Mobile, Ala., leading to the 2014 Senior Bowl. He caught a few "oohs and aahs" during the game's weigh-in, displaying a muscular frame with impressive arm length. He then went out to the field and flashed dominating strength and length, routinely driving opponents into the backfield with a his bull rush and showing impressive burst for a man of his imposing 6-foot-6, 318-pound frame.

Hageman was tough to handle in one-on-one drills — putting Miami guard Brandon Linder on his back during one particularly explosive rush — but carried over his impressive play into the full 11-on-11 scrimmages, as well. He left the Senior Bowl having convinced teams to consider his power, size and athleticism. Teams operating under 4-3 and 3-4 principles, alike, were taking notice.

If Hageman plays at the level he showed during the 2013 season, he is another Albert Hayneworth at his best. However, if he returns to the indifferent, inconsistent performer with off-field issues that he was in the past, he is Hayneworth at his worst.

Arizona State‘s Will Sutton was a hurricane on the football field as a 265-pound junior in 2012, recording 13 sacks and 23.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage in 2012. Perhaps he found his way to Nix's food pantry, because he showed up for 2013 fall camp well over 310 pounds and suddenly lost that burst and explosion he displayed the previous year and his production sharply fell off.

In two more games played in 2013 than his junior campaign, he went from 63 tackles, 13 sacks and 23.5 stops-for-loss to 48 hits, four sacks and 13.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage last season. The added weight was definitely the culprit in that sharp decline. He no longer possessed the upfield burst to cross the offensive tackle's face and turn the corner. He also no longer generated the quickness to split the gap and collapse the pocket from the interior.

Sutton has explosive hands to disengage from blocks, but he has to do a much better job in finding the clear lane to close and show a burst toward the ball when he has it. His past indicates that he can flash some legitimate pass-rush technique, including a swim move and good inside rip, but the agility and balance to track down elusive quarterbacks he showed throughout 2012 was not evident in his 2013 performances.

One of my favorites making a rapid rise up draft boards is Southern Mississippi‘s Khyri Thornton. Playing nose guard is usually a role reserved for those with thick skin, not concerned about their own personal success, but that of their team. That is what made it so frustrating for Thornton, who had perhaps two of the finest seasons ever by a Golden Eagles interior line defender the last two seasons, only to see USM win just one of 24 contests during that span.

Battling for a starting job during his first two seasons in the program, Thornton played a big part in that success, as the Eagles went 8-5 during his freshman campaign and 12-2 during his sophomore season. That would see Southern Mississippi's fortunes change drastically in 2012, as it lost all 12 contests, followed by just one victory during in 2013.

In run defense, Thornton is stout at the point of attack and plays with good leverage, enough to anchor and create a pile. He is an alert defender who works hard to keep containment, showing good lateral agility and balance to slide while fighting blockers. He has the long arms (78 5/8-inch wing span) and good strength to lock-out.

Thornton possesses explosive hands to disengage and is the type that won't shed the block until he reads where the ball carrier is going. He demonstrates good effort laterally and downfield in pursuit, along with surprising speed for a man his size (5.03 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine). He can provide an explosive initial punch to jar the offensive lineman back onto his heels, thanks to powerful and quick hands to shed blocks.

Thornton flashes some explosiveness as a hitter, needing little momentum to rock the ball-carrier. He has a thick lower body, which helps him anchor well against the run. He is a powerful bull rusher with good hand strength to disengage quickly, along with the upper-body strength to pull down ball-carriers while occupied with a blocker.

Louisiana Tech‘s Justin Ellis is a Hampton type that would much rather clog the rush lanes than attack the backfield. Once known as "Jelly Bean," he 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 more than 390 pounds. Listed at 357 last season, he continued to drop weight and increase his speed in preparations for playing in the NFL.

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.

Postseason action has seen 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 Wilfolk, especially for the way he can easily overpower blockers and pressure the pocket.

The South has another unrecognized nose guard talent emerging in Arkansas State‘s Ryan Carrethers, a decent strong-side defensive tackle earlier in his career, only to materialize as an elite nose guard when he moved to that position as a senior. His performances in the trenches saw the Red Wolves standout lead the nation's interior down linemen with 93 tackles in 2013.

The position change highlighted his run-stuffing ability, as Carrethers is a stout defender who plays with a strong base. He penetrates into the backfield with quickness and, with his previous experience at other positions in the trenches, he can line up at three- and five-technique spots, thanks to his ability to stack-shed inside or outside.

Carrethers gets past reach blocks on inside runs with quick feet and strength to keep blockers on his shoulder. He usually keeps his head up to find the ball and, while he lacks acceleration to keep outside containment as a five-technique, he is consistent defeating cut blocks with his hands.

The nose guard is not elite in his first step, but has enough to be a penetrating run-stopper inside. Ball-carriers feel every bit of his strength when he tackles them, and blockers are bruised up with his punching and swiping throughout the game. His ability to play multiple positions not only comes from his quick feet but also his strength.

Carrethers lands a big punch into the chest of his man, swipes with aggression to move the blocker aside and uses his low center of gravity to his advantage, getting leverage to stack one-on-one and shed to either direction when playing two-gap at nose guard. He senses zone blocks, using the blockers' inertia vs. them with a strong push to get into the backfield. He also demonstrates the ability to anchor well vs. single and double blocks, making it difficult for him to be moved once he anchors.

The third day of the draft is where teams could unearth another nose guard find in Delaware's Zack Kerr. Tennessee‘s Daniel McCullers is a mountain of a man at 6-foot-7 and 352 pounds, and Ken Bishop of Northern Illinois is a run-stuffing demon. Later in the draft, the Big Ten Conference pair of Wisconsin‘s Beau Allen and Purdue‘s Bruce Gaston are expected to be taken. Others for the final phase could be Calvin Barnett of Oklahoma State, Robert Thomas of Arkansas and Viliami Moala of California.


CREAM OF THE CROP: Louis Nix III (Notre Dame)

BEST OF THE REST: RaShede Hageman (Minnesota)

MOST UNDERRATED: Khyri Thornton (Southern Mississippi)

MOST OVERRATED: Will Sutton (Arizona State)

SUPER SLEEPERS: Justin Ellis (Louisiana Tech) and Ryan Carrethers (Arkansas State)

NOTE ON THE CHART: DT-denotes players who also are well-suited to play defensive tackle in a 4-3.

#NIX III, Louis  6:02331 5.4233 25 1/208'01" 4.948.29 71
HAGEMAN, RaShede (DT) 6:06310 5.0232 35 1/209'06" 4.57.87 6.82
THORNTON, Khyri (DT) 6:03304 5.0328 2909'04" 4.767.83 6.35
SUTTON, Will  6:01303 5.2424 28 1/208'03" 4.597.7 64
ELLIS, Justin 6:02334 5.0325 2807'08" 4.757.81 5.94
CARRETHERS, Ryan  (DT) 6:01337 5.3434 2607'04" 4.67.89 5.46
KERR, Zack  6:01326 5.0828 28 1/208'03" 4.717.93 5.46
McCULLERS, Daniel (DT) 6:07352 5.1827 20 1/208'01" 4.897.95 56
%BISHOP, Ken  6:00306 5.2131 27 1/208'02" 4.828.02 4.97
GASTON, Bruce 6:02308 4.9534 3409'01" 4.557.48 4.97-FA
BARNETT, Calvin (DT) 6:02317 5.2722 27 1/208'10" 4.797.74 4.8PFA
ALLEN, Beau 6:03333 5.2330 3108'08" 4.57.27 4.8PFA
#MOALA, Viliami  6:01336 5.526 25 1/208'00" 4.767.9 4.7FA
%THOMAS, Robert   6:01327 5.2632 25 1/208'00" 5.078.05 4.7FA
HOPKINS, Derrick  6:00309 5.0625 2608'05" 4.587.9 4.6FA
FARMS, Johnnie   6:01318 5.2125 27 1/208'03" 4.877.9 4.6FA
DAVENPORT, Chris (DT)  6:03343 5.2522 28 1/208'05" 5.018.09 4.6FA
RUMPH, Donte  6:02337 5.5714 2408'00" 4.938.32 4.5CMP
#MOALA, Viliami 6:01336 5.523 25 1/208'00" 4.767.9 4.5CMP
PULU, Andru 6:01322 5.1528 2808'06" 4.868.3 4.4CMP
EPENESA, Sealii (DT)  6:02309 5.2523 29 1/208'03" 4.687.68 4.4CMP
ROWELL, Shaq (DT)  6:03305 5.26        4.3CMP
COBBLE, Mister 6:00333 5.4928 23 1/207'09" 5.078.57 4.3CMP
HOOD, Tevin 5:11314 5.28        4.3CMP
COUCH, Maurice   6:02322 5.2        4.3CMP
JOHNSON, Kamal   6:03305 5.28        4.3CMP

Immediate starter...Should have a major impact to the success of the franchise, barring injury...Possesses superior critical factors...Plays with consistency and without abnormal extra effort...Rare talent.
7.6-8.0Star Quality Eventual starter...Should make a significant contribution in his first year...Possesses above average critical factors...Has the talent and skills to start...Will contribute to upgrading the team...Can play without abnormal effort, but has some inconsistency in his play that will improve with refinement and development...Has no real weakness.
7.0-7.5Impact Player Possesses at least average to above average critical factors in all areas...Will contribute immediately, whether as a starter or a valuable reserve...Will move into the starting lineup with seasoning...Above average player who needs to refine certain areas.
6.5-6.9Eventual Starter Could move into the starting lineup within three years...Has average critical factors in all areas...Needs further development, but has the ability to contribute.
6.0-6.4Potential Starter Could force himself into the starting lineup with improved perform- ances...Will make a team...Has average critical factors in most areas, but at least one with less than average quality that he will have a hard time overcoming...Probable draft choice.
5.5-5.9Roster Player Has the ability to serve as a key reserve and possible future starter... Possesses average critical factors, but more than several areas are less than average...Plays with normal extra effort.
5.0-5.4Project Has the skills to play pro ball with proper tutoring...May make a team based on need...Possesses no real strong critical factors and is probably below average in several areas that the player will have a hard time overcoming...Possible draft choice, but only if that team is caught short on talent available at that position.
4.6-4.9Develop- mental Could make a team with an impressive showing in training camp... Not strong in most critical factors...Deficient in more than one area that he will not be able to overcome...At least average in the factor of competitiveness...May not make a team due to his limitations.
4.1-4.5Camp Player Has redeeming qualities that could allow him to play in the pros with improved performances...Deficient in more than one critical factor... Might make a team, but will always be the player that squad will look to replace.
3.5-4.0Reject Might make a team, but has glaring deficiencies in several critical factors...Below average competitor whose athletic skills will allow him to enter training camp, but has a difficult time in trying to make a team.

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