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What do scouts look for in defensive line prospects?

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We continue our scouting series

NFL: SEP 22 Giants at Buccaneers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In Part 6 of our scouting series, we examine the defensive linemen. These players now come in all shapes and sizes and line up all over the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball. We are lumping in nose tackles, 3 Techniques, 5 Techniques, the traditional 4-3 defensive ends as well as standup 3-4 outside linebacker types. The truth is, defining today’s defensive linemen isn’t nearly as important as it once was and rarely do teams stick to a specific front. Of course, rushing the passer carries far more weight than stuffing the run, but you cannot overlook the ability to impact the running game, either.

What traits are we most looking for on those players that line up on the defensive front? Let’s examine the three most important, but we also can’t overlook how important things like power, arm length, flexibility, technique, leverage, quickness off the ball and diagnostic skills are for these men in the trenches. That being said, this is a position in which we might prefer brawn to brains. But having both, of course, is ideal … and rare.

Hustle

This can be rare in defensive linemen. It isn’t uncommon for extremely talented big men on defense to somewhat coast at the high school and even college levels and still be dominant because of their massive physical gifts. They turn it on when they want and still get by. But hustle and competitiveness go a long way at this position. First off, the not-so-talented interior defensive linemen can be quite useful if they play past the whistle and bring a lot of toughness to the table. Those types can last in the league for quite a while. But when you have a highly talented player here that also wants to make every play and never gives up, that is when you find true greatness. Think about the impact it has when interior defensive linemen chase plays down from behind or get out wide to disrupt screen passes or when edge defenders chase down runs away from them or simply refuse to give up during a pass-rush. When smaller defenders see their larger counterparts hustling to the extreme, how can they not do it themselves?

Three-cone

This isn’t a trait, but rather a measurable and it matters more for edge benders. But this drill does do a remarkably good job of quantifying some of the traits listed above like flexibility, leverage, quickness as well as change of direction and balance. Many studies have proven that excellent three-cone scores very often translate to production as a pass-rusher. This makes perfect sense, as an athlete can’t excel doing this drill without being able to get his inside shoulder nice and low without losing speed or acceleration. That bend that you see in the drill is very difficult for stiffer and heavier offensive linemen to get low enough to get suitable blocks on these defenders. And now more than ever, this trait is nearly as important for interior pass-rushers as well, with as much nickel and dime defenses are being played. Also, you have to have explosion when changing directions to put up a great three-cone time, another trait that goes a long way when chasing prey in the NFL. Many defensive linemen can see and read a great running back’s cutback, but they just can’t change their momentum to get there to make the play.

Freakish athleticism

This is a bit of a shortcut, but nowhere else on a football field does great athletic traits translate to becoming a great NFL player than on the defensive line. And nowhere else is the current discrepancy between pure athletic ability greater now than the advantage today’s NFL defensive linemen have over offensive linemen. Look around the rosters in the league right now. Just about every team has more than one guy that is just freaky up front. Every year, the defensive linemen at the combine put up vastly better and better numbers. If you have nothing else, but only freakish athleticism, one can potentially succeed at this level. There are many defensive linemen in history that didn’t play all that hard and the game wasn’t the most important thing to them, but they were blessed with rare traits and were still went on to have very good NFL careers. It is the “Planet Theory.” There just aren’t many human beings on the planet that have the size and athletic ability as top defensive linemen, and this is truer here than at other football positions. Look at a college program like Alabama that just stacks freakish defensive linemen upon freakish defensive linemen and bring them out in waves. It’s like trying to keep up with a basketball team full of LeBron James-like specimens.