Analyzing Nose Tackles

Perusing the list of offerings from this past week, I particularly liked the article Trends that Ivan put together, and I want to compliment him on that great effort. It was a very nice job of organizing a lot of disparate information in a way that brought out and clarified many of the concepts that were within its scope. As good articles tend to do, I found that I did have a couple of questions and thoughts from it. I thought they would fit best in an article rather than a comment - I try not to write a 'War and Peace' comment more than once a month...;-). After the response to the historical retrospective on choosing a quarterback, it brought me to the understanding that it will take a little time to cover the issues that have to be considered when choosing a nose tackle for a 3-4 defense. Much of this originally came up in regard to T. Cody, but this is equally important regardless of which NT you decide to draft for your team.

The nose tackle position is, as Ivan pointed out, both the key to an effective 3-4 defense and is also going to be an increasingly important position in the NFL due to the issue of scarcity. It was only a little over a decade ago that there were no more than three teams that ran the 30 front. At this time, about half of the NFL teams run a version or hybrid of it at least some of the time. While it isn't always easy to find good 3-4 DEs (consider the incredible overpayment for Tyson Jackson in the 2008 draft because there were so few), finding a nose tackle is one of the first and most difficult keys to the process of changing from a 40 to a 30 front look. However - much as people seem convinced that the issue at NT is finding a player with the size to play the position, that's not always the case. The first thing a team has to do is to decide what kind of 3-4 defense they will play. Once that is achieved, you can move on to the job of choosing the exact player who will give you the best chance of winning with a fair degree of confidence. From Ivan's Trends:

Cody is the kind of player that will move up the board. First of all, he’s really the only NT in this draft with the prototypical size (not many Ted Washington’s around). Teams who are moving to 3-4 will seriously consider him even counting the risk.

You know, I frequently hear this idea of a 'prototypical size' as it relates to the nose tackle, but the fact is that this continues to confuse me. The theory seems to be that there is only one kind of 'real' NT, hence the 'prototypical' term. In actual application, looking around the NFL, that's not the case at all. The issue has to do more with the specific type of 3-4 that a team is running than it does with matching some theoretical ideal or prototype. As we can see from glancing around the league at different teams and their approaches to the scheme, there are many ways to create a 30 front defense. Since the Broncos are essentially starting very much from scratch, they have the perfect opportunity in a fairly deep draft to consider their own preferred approach to this system and to put that preference into play. After all - this year is unusually good for the nose tackle position, both in the number of players available who could potentially play there, and in the breadth of the body types that might fit the bill. To understand each of these concepts, it's best to start with the beginning - by understanding the modern 3-4 defense. Happily, the reference work there has already been written right here on MHR.

The Three Primary 3-4 Approaches

If you aren't already familiar with it, it's time for you to get acquainted with Steve 'Hoosierteacher's article, The Modern 3-4 Defense. Here are some prototype examples, using his information. Essentially, while there are three main options when running the 3-4, but there are as many subcategories of each as there are defensive coordinators who run them. Because of this, NTs can range from about 300 lb to 360+, and can be used in single gap or two gap formations. Here are some examples.

The New England version of the 3-4 uses a 325 lb player (Wilfork) in a 2 gap formation. This is about an average weight for NTs around the league, so I suppose that you could call that 'typical' rather than 'prototypical', (by which I assume that people mean 'optimal'). This version, as NE runs it, is the classic Fairbanks-Bullough (more commonly called the Bullough these days) version of the 3-4. As NE's success with this system demonstrates, you really don't need the kind of 340 or 350 lb player that so many fans associate with the 3-4. It's just one possible approach.

On the far other end of the spectrum is the Phillips 3-4, which was developed by Bum Phillips and is still used by several teams, including Dallas (where his son, Wade Phillips, is still the current coach). Jay Ratcliff, Dallas' NT is quite light, about 303 lb, and his backup, Junior Saivii, is 313-316, depending on who you ask and where he ate last. The Phillips variation generally (but not always) uses a single gap formation for the NT and emphasizes using a penetrating approach to both pass and run, attempting to get into the backfield and blow up each play. Interestingly, Mike Nolan tried to run that kind of system in San Francisco, despite the less than favorable outcome. His approach switched from one approach to another, 30 front to 40 front, much like a defensive version of the amoeba offense, but he didn't have the players who would fit and maximize the effectiveness of that design. In designing any defense, the scheme has to be carried out by players who are themselves suitable to the approach. The Broncos found that out first hand, during the revolving door period of the mid 2000's.

To see how easily such an approach can be varied, consider the Chargers situation in 2009. San Diego used to use a variation on the Phillips that employed a two gap approach with Jamal Williams at NT. That worked well, too, but when Williams went down to injury, they moved to a rotation of three players, Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Ian Scott and Travis Johnson, none of whom are more than 310 lb. They have now changed the depth chart to add Vaughn Martin as the 3rd string NT, moving Johnson back to DE, but they are usually using a single-gap approach. Martin is currently down from 360 to 320 lb - despite being an unusually athletic big man, he was a bit sloppy fat and couldn't penetrate well enough to fit the defense. He's in better football shape now and they hope that he'll take over more and more of the NT duties over the next two years. He came come down from Canada, where he played in the CFL. Even though he's surprisingly light on his feet, the current belief is that he'll play NT at about 315-320. That's close to being about standard these days.

There are players like Ngata from Baltimore who run the two gap 3-4 defense and are around 335 lb. That's fine too; it's one of the many options for the position. However - there is a common belief that this is somehow the 'real' kind of NT. More accurately, the 'real' NT is one who gets tthe job done and done well within the scheme that the team prefers to use. The really isn't a single size that is somehow 'better'. Denver looks to be interested in an attacking, aggresive two gap approach, and their drafting should tend to reflect that.

The third main category of the 3-4 is the zone blitz 3-4, perfected by Dick LeBeau of Pittsburgh (although he developed much of it when he was with Cincinnati). Pitt currently uses the 320 lb Casey Hampton as the NT, and he may use a single gap or a two gap approach, depending on the rest of the play, down and distance. That's increasingly common - as mentioned above, it's much like the defensive version of the 'amoeba' and moves from single to two gap approaches at need. They may rush or drop any of the players near the line in to coverage. As you probably know, this can be run from either the 4-3 or 3-4 fronts. Some teams, like Arizona, will use an under or over shift to further complicate things for the offense.

Mike Shanahan may be creating his own version of the 3-4 in Washington, or so the rumor goes. If so, it will be the biggest 3-4 line I've ever heard of. He's got Haynesworth at 350, (at least, we think that he does, although last I heard Haynesworth was AWOL). Haynesworth has been very clear that he doesn't like the idea of playing nose tackle, claiming that NTs are 'stumpier' than him. Shanny also brought in Maake Kemoeatu at 345 to play NT and Anthony Montgomery at 330. It sounds more like a 4-3 to me, but it's being planned as a 3-4. We'll see - that's a very large group of men, regardless of how they distribute them.

Buffalo has stated that they will go to the 3-4 in 2010, but haven't mentioned which version. As noted, Arizona is also playing a hybrid that movers from 3-4 to 4-3 and Darnell Dockett only runs 285, with while Bryan Robinson is about 305. Cleveland uses Shaun Rodgers as the NT for it's version of the 3-4, and he's back up in the 340 range. Miami is going to the 3-4 now, but they have a 355 lb. DE in Paul Soliai and a 310 NT in Jason Ferguson (with Tony McDaniel also listed as a DT despite being only 305 lb) The possibilities are endless and they depend on both what players you can obtain and what your precise theories of defense are. There really is no single approach - each works as well as the players who execute it.

So, while the list goes on for a while, hopefully the point is clear - any of the 3-4 formations can use a smaller, lighter 3-4 NT and go with a single gap, penetrating approach or a larger player with a two gap approach, as well as playing any number of variations on both approaches. This is why I say that Cody is not prototypical as an NT - his size (with a playing weight of under 335 being sought by many teams) is one option, but since he lacks lateral quickness and has struggled with run/pass recognition, his ability to play the two gap may turn out to be somewhat limited. His situation reminds me in some ways of the discussions around Ron Brace (6'3, 330 lb 2nd round pick in 2008), currently of NE. Brace played in the shadow of BJ Raji, but many scouts felt that Brace was a better player, technically. Raji often got by on size and power, which is fine in college, but doesn't work as well in the NFL. Brace will probably have a while to develop behind Wilfork, which is about the best thing that could happen to him.

The 2010 'Big Three' Candidates

Dan Williams vs. Terrence Cody

When we look at the NT options this year, Dan Williams is unanimously listed above Cody. Regardless of your personal preference between the two players, there are several good reasons why. Despite Cody's impressive size, his conditioning, dedication, quickness and ability to move laterally are all in question. This isn't an attempt to change your (or anyone's) mind; it is just to point out why Williams is more highly rated. Size is only a single issue for the NT. Quickness is one of the things that made Jamal Williams so good - if he was just that big without the agility, he wouldn't have been half the player that he is. Dan Williams is both quick and agile. He also anchors well, as does Cody (and Cal Thomas, who we'll talk about in a minute). Williams has far less trouble with playing too high - Cody does so frequently. While it's good that Cody has dropped weight since the end of the season, I'm just as concerned with what did (and didn't) happen for the 3-4 years prior to that. With 1st or second round money in his pocket and a few months mostly off, what will happen to his weight then? Many agents, coaches and GMs have confided that this is the time that scares them the most with their younger players. It's often when big men get a whole lot bigger, and their first training camp can easily become a parade of injuries from carrying too much weight for their frame.

Explosion: Probably the single most important skill for an NT is explosion off the line, and that's where Cody really struggles. Big and strong are certainly his best points - explosive is not, nor is he agile or quick. Williams wasn't that much better until his time under Monte Kiffen in 2009 - he had been listed as a probably third rounder as late as August of 2009. Regardless of some of the things that are being said about the Tampa 2 defense instituted at Tennessee, the reality is that Williams simply blossomed under good coaching - period. He had trouble with explosion in his first couple of years, but it was more of a technical issue than a lack of skill, and Monte Kiffen worked it out with him. He's much faster than Cody laterally, which means that he is going to be able to get back into position on runs that Cody will whiff on. The intelligence factor has to come in here as well - Williams has a better football IQ and can catch misdirection more quickly and react to it much faster. Many scouts and scouting sites, including Scott Wright's Draft Countdown have questioned Cody's cognitive abilities. In the defense that Denver wants to run, that might be one of the deciding issues.

Cody has the following weaknesses - I'm taking them from Scott Wright' Draft Countdown because he's got them nicely listed, but you can find them on almost any site:

Major conditioning and stamina issues --- Provides little or nothing as a pass rusher --- Range is extremely limited --- Isn't explosive and lacks a burst --- Is not very quick or agile --- Can use his hands better --- Plays too high at times --- Limited schematically --- Is intelligence a concern?

The issue of questions on Cody's intelligence has been a major red flag for a while now. Despite the common viewpoint of many fans, the job of a NT is much more than just taking up space, Since he has little pass rushing skill, quickness or agility, I worry about him for the Broncos schematically, and moreso if here are issues with intellect (I have yet to see anyone deal with this directly, and right now, it's an open question). He's also downright slow, and the NFL is a very fast game. That does matter, even for a NT. He's going to wash out of plays due to that slow footspeed. Lots of great college players have difficulty making the leap to the NFL. The two reason most commonly given are the much faster speed of the NFL game and it's substantially greater complexity and intellectual requirements. These are concerns with Cody that I have yet to see dealt with directly. That bothers me.

Williams has not had that flag raised. He is substantially quicker and more agile. He also has very good pass/run recognition skills, something that I rarely (if ever) have heard about Cody and he can make adjustments that Cody just won't be fast enough to manage. This is not to say that Cody cannot be a good NFL player - he might well become one. But it's important to recognize that he has certain factors going against him, and those aren't gong to disappear because he is a very heavy man who played well in college. Both are true, but the questions are around the chances that he has at the next level, rather than the one he's just leaving. Both players anchor well. Both can stop the run. Williams has quite a bit more skill in rushing the passer.

Cam Thomas, North Carolina State

Cam Thomas, on the other hand, is a very reasonable choice if neither Williams nor Cody is chosen. He is much faster than Cody, although not as quick as Williams. His bull rush may be the best of the three, but he's going to need to develop more from a technical viewpoint - too many college players come out depending on a single move, and the players that they will be going up against have seen it all before. Any NT has to develop a series of technical moves that will let them defeat both single players and double teams. Thomas is not as good as Williams from the viewpoint of intelligence or agility, but he's a very powerful man. I have long felt that only being able to eat space and take on double teams is a lousy description of the NT position, but as far as that description goes, Thomas is very good. He's a third option, and with over 13 of the NFL teams running the 3-4 part or full time, he's probably going to go by the end of the second round. He anchors very well, is extremely powerful, enjoys fighting double teams and was trained by Tar Heels coaches Butch Davis and defensive line coach John Blake, who have extensive NFL-type coaching backgrounds.

"Our defense is pro style, we're attacking, we're gap-scheming and stuff like that," Thomas said. "Most of the stuff I'm already used to right now."

He's right, and that's certainly in his favor when teams look at him in the draft. Thomas doesn't have the explosion of Williams, but his is better than Cody's. Thomas is also known for his positive, upbeat style and booming laughter. He's probably not on quite the same level as Williams or Cody at this point in his career, but there's no question that he's more agile than Cody, even though he hasn't been properly taught to use that skill yet. Given time (and a coach like Wayne Nunnely), I think that he can get there.

So, that's about it. You can prefer one style of player over another. You can see more options with the Phillips, love the deviousness of the zone blitz or exult about the power of the Bullough. But when you talk about the NT who is going to play in your scheme, you have to look at a lot more than how big the player is.

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR.