- Mazi Smith is best zero-technique: The Michigan defender has the heft and power to hold up well when aligned head-up against centers.
- Calijah Kancey excels at three-technique: The Pittsburgh product has the athleticism and pass-rush skill to thrive as a B-gap defender in the NFL.
- Will Anderson Jr dominates off the edge: The Alabama product has all the necessary traits to dominate off the edge in the NFL.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Simply outlining team needs often isn’t enough to pinpoint talent in the draft given the complexity of NFL schemes. Just because a team needs a defensive tackle, it doesn’t mean it can go down the board and draft the next one with “DT” next to their name.
Because of that, I tried to dig a little deeper to identify the top player for each role/technique along the defensive line. For this exercise, I tried to give deference to prospects whose skillset is specific to each role. Because if I didn’t, Georgia’s Jalen Carter would be the winner for pretty much every alignment between the tackles. So let’s break down every alignment, give a recent prototype for the position and then identify the top player in the class there.
The zero-technique isn’t a massively utilized role anymore. The position is characterized by being able to two-gap centers in the run game and push pockets enough to be annoying against the pass. Harrison was the single-best run defender from this alignment over the past decade with a 93.0 run defense grade for his career on the nose (no one else was higher than 90.6 the past decade).
Smith shares the same level of elite upper body strength to control centers with two locked-out arms. In fact, both Harrison and Smith did 34 bench press reps in their pre-draft process. Smith really came into his own as a senior with an 81.3 run-defense grade this past fall. He figures to be the first nose tackle taken in April.
Some team is going to get Michigan DL Mazi Smith in the draft and not have to worry about the interior defensive line for the next half decade +
Elite run defender
Strength/quickness for his size
Interior pass rush ability
— Matt Anderson (@MattAnderson_8) March 24, 2023
The difference between zero and one-technique isn’t massive in practicality, but due to the alignment, a one-technique can often be a bit more of a penetrator. No one in the NFL took more snaps at one-technique (458) or graded out higher last season there (90.7) than Lawrence. His length plus his get-off makes him nearly impossible to stop one-on-one.
While Baylor nose tackle Siaki Ika doesn’t hold a candle to Lawrence athletically, he does have the kind of wiggle for a big man that it takes to get upfield. How many 335-pounders do you know that can spin this quickly?
The quick pass doesn't allow Baylor IDL Siaki Ika to get to the QB but his spin move is lovely for a player that's listed at 350+ pounds. pic.twitter.com/o8YwxE0FfM
— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) February 11, 2023
Put Ika and his 51 pressures over the past two seasons in a penetrating scheme and watch him go to work.
Even if you’ve never seen a defensive line technique chart in your life, chances are you’ve still heard about the three-technique. Warren Sapp helped bring the term to prominence in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 under fronts in the Tampa-2 defense. Because the three-technique is usually aligned to the weakside of the formation, it pretty much guaranteed a one-on-one opportunity for Sapp. Because of that, it’s a position that is characterized by pure disruption. Can you get off the ball and can you win one-on-one? If not, this role ain’t for you.
Sapp’s effectiveness in the role, however, was lapped in recent years by Donald. Since he entered the NFL in 2014, Donald has a 96.0 pass-rushing grade from the three-technique position — the highest of any one player from any one alignment in the PFF era. Silly.
Kancey — in case you haven’t heard — is also a small (6-foot-1, 281 pounds with 30 ⅝-inch arms), athletic defensive tackle that went to Pittsburgh. He even broke Donald’s 40-yard dash combine record for a defensive tackle with a 4.67. Kancey also has a set of pass-rushing moves that blows the rest of the defensive tackle class out of the water. His 93.0 pass-rushing grade from a three-technique alignment was the highest of any FBS defender by 2.3 points.
— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) February 14, 2023
- NFL Prototype: Justin Smith
- 2023: Lukas Van Ness, Iowa
The 4/5-technique role has length as a pre-requisite. You’ll be doing your battle with offensive tackles that sometimes have upwards of 36-inch arms snap after snap. If you have stubby 32-inch arms, that won’t get the job done. You also better be able to establish leverage quickly in the run game because tackles are firing into you without more than a gather step. Former San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith was an animal in this role due to his ability to outmuscle men 50 pounds heavier than him. Sadly, the Smiths of the world are dinosaurs to a degree, as the position has gone out of vogue in the NFL since he retired.
Van Ness shares a few similarities with Smith as an athlete. While Smith developed into a 285-pound block of granite, he was drafted fourth overall out of Missouri as a 267-pound true defensive end. Van Ness tips the scales at 6-foot-5 and 272 pounds with a frame to get bigger. He also has a uniquely low get-off for a man his size as well as 11-inch hands that are tailor-made to grab a hold of jerseys and never let go. That’s why you’ve seen him rise up boards this spring.
Lukas Van Ness vs Paris Johnson Jr. pic.twitter.com/N1n8o19lij
— John Brennan (@jbrens20) March 26, 2023
Being so tight to offensive tackles or head up on tight ends means you need some heft behind you to not get blown off the ball. At 288 pounds, Watt was stout enough to hold his ground in leverage battles and then quick enough to make tackles miss altogether as a pass-rusher. It’s safe to say we may not see a skillset like Watt’s for a while.
Of anyone in the draft class, though, Wilson’s skill set comes the closest. He has absurd 35 ⅜-inch arms and is agile for a 271-pounder. Flip on the tape and you’ll see a powerful dude who takes the fight to opposing offensive tackles instead of the other way around. This role was made for him.
I get an absolute kick out of watching TEs try to block Tyree Wilson lmao. pic.twitter.com/5yPmfJds44
— Nick Martin (@themicknartin) March 22, 2023
A nine-technique doesn’t have to match size with tackles, or even tight ends for that matter, because they build up a head of steam into contact due to their alignment. That leaves them less likely to get forklifted by a tackle when late off the snap and allows them to convert speed-to-power as a pass-rusher. When you hear “speed-to-power,” your ears should probably perk up and images of Miller should be playing in your head. He’s undoubtedly been the best player from this alignment over the past decade.
This class has a player who’s looking to join those ranks in Anderson. He excels out in space with either his hands up or in the turf. Over the past three seasons, Anderson had 50 more pressures from this alignment than anyone else in college football. That’s why he’ll be the first non-quarterback taken in this draft.
Alabama EDGE Will Anderson
Versatile and violent rusher that can stand up or put his hand in the dirt to win. Possesses hands that are creative and very powerful. NFL-ready game right now.pic.twitter.com/u7uCTWCUoi
— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) March 23, 2023