The Invasiveness of the NFL Draft Process and Robert Nkemdiche’s Talent
The NFL draft process is invasive to an unnecessary degree.
Long before they can be drafted, prospects are forced to play for college teams that scanned their social media like a stalker during the recruiting process before imposing stringent rules on them once they become students, or student-athletes as that fraud Mark Emmert would prefer. Having completed those years of free service to the NFL’s feeder system, prospects are then forced into the draft process.
Interviews with teams where no detail is off the table. Exhibition games where you not only have to strip down in front of a room of media members and team scouts so that you are showcased like a prized racing stud, but where every action will be used to determine the caliber of your character. These exhibition games aren’t mandatory, but if you don’t turn up you can be sure that your character will be questioned, sometimes proudly and publicly from the person making the most money from them, here’s to you Phil Savage.
Then you get to the combine where more interviews are carried out but also medicals so no team can be caught out by any injury you picked up during your three years of free service in the company’s feeder system.
You’re subjected to all of this if you have no reason to be subjected to it. If you give NFL teams reasons to look even deeper into your character, then it gets even tougher. Robert Nkemdiche, a former top recruit to Ole Miss, finds himself in the latter category this year.
Nkemdiche was supposed to be a top-10 pick in this draft. He still might be but it’s extremely unlikely. Question marks over his character spawn from issues with family members and a minor arrest. NFL teams are trying to figure out if Nkemdiche is a bad person or if he has just made some bad decisions. Of course, the NFL has no earthly idea how to evaluate the quality of a person’s character — I mean, look at their commisioner and half the owners in the league. Nobody can project forward the actions of a person. You can have no issues for 25 years and then become problematic, or you can be a problem child until you hit 18 only to then figure out how to be a passable person.
Undoubtedly there will be many in the NFL who are egotistical enough to believe that they can project character, showing off a shallow understanding of incidents and using them to judge a person’s whole life. Everyone has to try even if most understand it’s an impossible task. As we’re seeing with Johnny Manziel, Josh Gordon and Martavis Bryant and many more, you don’t have to be a despicable person to find yourself off the field in the NFL.
Each team will have a different character grade on Nkemdiche. Some will view him as the next Tyrann Mathieu or Bruce Irvin, while others will be wary of trusting him to the point that they won’t draft him. If one of those teams does take a chance on the defender, they will be adding a supremely talented piece to their defensive line.
Defensive linemen aren’t like other positions. They don’t need to be consistent or refined players in college to still be top picks in the draft. Being a project as a defensive lineman is fine so long as you showcase your potential to improve and boast the athleticism to excel against professional athletes.
Nkemdiche’s talent will make him a first-round pick for any team that isn’t intimidated by his “red flags.”
Standing at an athletic 6’3″ and 294 lbs, Nkemdiche isn’t the type of defensive tackle who is going to hold the point of attack against double teams. He is a penetrating defensive tackle, a 3-tech, whose value will be found in his ability to force his way upfield. In the above play, you can see Nkemdiche destroy the design of the run by splitting the double team. He is very quick to get on top of the guard, preventing the center from getting a leverage advantage against him, before turning his body to maintain his balance and slice into the backfield.
As a run defender, this kind of ability is more valuable than it was in previous years because of the prevalence of zone-running schemes.
It will be very difficult for centers and guards to reach Nkemdiche on these types of plays because of his slender frame, body control and burst of explosion. There isn’t a lot of him to hit once he gets off the line of scrimmage and the way he contorts his body makes even less of him to hit. Therefore if you can’t get between his shoulder and the ball carrier, he is going to brush past you and penetrate through the design of the play.
Even when he doesn’t make the tackle in the backfield, like on this play, this disruption is hugely valuable because it forces the running back to adjust and buys time for Nkemdiche’s teammates to close around him.
Explosiveness is the foundation of Nkemdiche’s game. When working in straight lines, Nkemdiche’s speed stands out and allows him to brush past offensive linemen. He doesn’t show off the footwork and body control to pass rush from a wide position off the edge, but he doesn’t need to be that advanced to be an extremely effective interior rusher. Nkemdiche is a fluid athlete with very impressive footwork for his size and strength.
Compartmentalizing a player’s traits will mask their true value. Nkemdiche’s movement skills are functional because of the strength they are infused with.
Spin moves look great when they come off, but they are a bit like long-range field goals. They look great when they work out but the majority of the time they are bad decisions. Pass rushers who fall in love with their spin move are more likely to be absorbing hits on their back before their knees hit the ground or will simply allow the blocker to shift his weight laterally to stay between the defender and the quarterback. It takes timing and awareness to be consistently effective with your spin move, but it also takes wide-ranging athleticism.
Nkemdiche has all of those abilities. His balance and quickness allows him to highlight how strong he is on the move. It doesn’t matter if a blocker hits him at a point when he is supposed to be off balance. He can absorb the hit and keep moving in the direction he wants to move in.
This play is a more impressive one than the previous. Nkemdiche appears to recognize the double team from the start, understanding his alignment and how the offensive line will react to the three-man rush. Instead of submitting or rushing his actions to counter the double team, he shows poise to set up his spin move by accelerating into the right guard, using his left shoulder to prop the guard up before setting his feet to twist back across his face.
The right guard recovers well to prevent Nkemdiche from getting to the quarterback, but the defensive tackle did extremely well to create pressure when the pass rush was severely outnumbers across the board.
Production is one of the main criticisms of Nkemdiche’s on-field college career. He finished his three years in Mississippi with just six sacks. Focusing on sacks for an interior rusher is foolish. Being a good interior rusher is about disrupting the design of plays with pressure rather than getting sacks. You can’t realistically expect players rushing from the interior to rack up sacks. Nkemdiche’s production appeared to be further squashed by how he was used.
He featured in a lot of three-man rushes when he was double teamed but the Ole Miss defensive coordinator also featured him in wide stunts where he would line up as a defensive tackle and travel past the other defensive tackle to whip around the outside of the defensive end on the opposite side of the field. These are terrible play designs that should be dropped into a crater where they can never be retrieved.
In the above play, Nkemdiche gets credited with half a sack. The half sack is less significant than the quality of his spin move to beat the right guard in space. This play came late on after Nkemdiche had played a huge number of snaps. You should forgive him the stumble.
The natural next step after you have recognized a defensive lineman who has impressive athleticism is to figure out if he understands how to use his hands. Nkemdiche may not be as consistent as you’d like him to be, but there are plenty of positive signs.
Nkemdiche has quick and precise hands when he uses them. This swim move allows him to shed the Alabama right guard with ease, barely slowing down on his way to the quarterback. Because the offense had called a rolling pocket with a quick throw for the quarterback, Nkemdiche had no chance at getting the sack despite his immediate victory at the line of scrimmage.
With his strength, it’s important for Nkemdiche to use his length effectively. If he gets his hands into your chest or underneath your shoulder pads, it should be impossible for you to stop him. He’s simply too comfortable moving his feet and too strong with his upper body to be contained in one-on-one situations. The above play is a great example of Nkemdiche’s potential if he finds consistency in the NFL.
He doesn’t get the sack again, in fact this play turns into a huge completion and touchdown for the offense, but it doesn’t make sense to focus on the result of the play when he is showing off such quality.
Nkemdiche didn’t show off heavy hands as a pass rusher too often in college, but they could be seen in the running game.
On this play, Nkemdiche keeps his eyes in the backfield while using his hands to stack and shed the left guard. He combines with his fellow defensive tackle to prevent Derek Henry from breaching the line of scrimmage.
It’s unlikely that Nkemdiche will be able to wrench interior linemen to the ground in the NFL, but the quality of line play and the athleticism on the inside appears to be declining every season. If Nkemdiche is doing this to college players he should be able to easily manipulate and knock back NFL guards and centers. Getting the most out of this strength will come down to the quality of his coaching staff and his willingness/ability to absorb coaching.
Malik Jackson just signed a contract for six years that is worth $90 million. He had five sacks last year despite playing all 16 regular season games inside of pass rushers who drew attention away from him.
That’s not to say that Jackson’s contract was bad, but rather to re-emphasize that what matters in the NFL for defensive tackles isn’t your sack total but your ability to create pressure without being a liability against the run. At just 21 years of age, turning 22 in September, Nkemdiche has all the talent to be a star in the NFL. The success of his career will come down to his character and ability to stay out of trouble off the field.
As much as the NFL researches and investigates, they have no clue whether he or anyone else in this class will stay out of trouble. Teams that understand that should be willing to spend a late first or early second-round pick on him.