By Russ Lande
Jadeveon Clowney may be the most talked-about defensive player in this draft, but there are more than a dozen defensive players who could be selected in the first round. Notre Dame's Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt have, at different times, been discussed as potential top 15 picks, but there's a drastic difference between the two. One should be drafted in the first round; the other is a third- or fourth-rounder.
A true third-year junior who never redshirted, Tuitt's height, long arms, strength and athleticism have led to comparisons with Richard Seymour, but I do not see the similarities. Tuitt was not dominant during the games I evaluated (three from 2013, two from 2012), though he was more productive against the run. When he maintains leverage and gets his hands on the offensive linemen quickly, he is consistently able to lock-out and hold ground to contain the play. He flashed the ability to shed the block and make plays. Offenses who tried to block him with a tight end or running back on running plays away saw the ease with which his quick hands defeated their blocks. He also has the speed coming down the line to make the tackle. His tendency to be a beat late off the ball could prove problematic against the run in the NFL and limits his ability to threaten the corner as an edge pass rusher.
Most effective as a "bull" rusher, he can drive the offensive tackle into the quarterback's lap when he maintains leverage and uses his hands aggressively. His lack of explosiveness off the ball will keep him from being a dangerous edge rusher, but when he gets a little space, he can beat the pass blocker with quick hands and turn the corner sharply if he is able to get the edge on offensive tackle. Tuitt consistently displayed good awareness maintaining backside responsibility on play fakes away where the quarterback rolls back toward him to make a throw to the tight end. He finds the ball quickly on running plays.
Tuitt can, frustratingly, lack aggressiveness and competitiveness on every snap. He often seems to be standing around just watching the play. Based on what I saw, I would be uncomfortable drafting him early because he is not going to make an impact as a pass rusher and will need to become much more consistent playing with leverage to be productive against the run at the next level.
While I was frustrated and disappointed with Tuitt's consistency and effort, I was pleasantly surprised by Nix's. Many nose tackles do not play with the passion and intensity Nix did in the games I evaluated. Oftentimes nose tackles are massive defensive linemen who lack quickness and are just strong, powerful interior forces. Nix is different. Consistently the first defensive linemen moving at the snap, Nix displays rare foot quickness for a 350-plus pounder. He is able to consistently get backfield penetration to disrupt run plays behind the line. Despite his initial quickness, agility and good hands, he does not rush the quarterback aggressively every snap and gets stuck on the line too often.
When he bull rushes aggressively, he has rare strength to drive linemen backward with shocking ease. He can dominate one-on-one run blockers when he wants to, but his tendency to get upright and play high at the point of attack causes him struggle to hold ground vs. double-team run blocks. When he maintains a strong, wide base, he can anchor, shed and make tackles on inside runs with surprising ease. Effective as a power-run defender, Nix can defeat run blocks with shockingly quick hands and can burst to the ball carrier to finish plays in close quarters.
He has a habit of getting up on his toes while chasing along the line, which slows him and limits his ability to move through traffic easily. In the end, Nix's production comes in waves and does not point to a first-round pick, but 350-plus pound defensive linemen with his athleticism, competitiveness, strength and intelligence are impossible to find, so a team that plays a 3-4 defense will jump at the chance to draft him in the first round.
When we get to draft day, you can expect to see Nix selected in the top 20, while I have a feeling Tuitt could slide well into the second round because of concerns about his competitiveness and production. Comparing on-field production, competitiveness, athleticism and intangibles, I would be concerned taking Tuitt in the first two rounds as I do not know if he can ever put the entire package together to become a quality starter. While Nix is clearly not in great shape, his athleticism is rare for the position. Combined with his instincts, he would be a good first-round pick as he has the talent to start at nose tackle early in his NFL career.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.