INDIANAPOLIS — When most people talk about pass rush, they’re talking about pressure off of the edge that defensive ends and outside linebackers provide. Perhaps that focus on the outside is why effective pass rush coming from the interior is oftentimes considered much more disruptive to opposing quarterbacks
The 2019 NFL Draft is deep in pass rush and defensive line talent, but it’s not just edge rushers; there are a ton of big fellas in this class that can get into the backfield as well.
In recent seasons, we’ve seen Clemson rise to the top of the college football landscape, and they’re producing a ton of NFL talent in the process. Their defensive front seven is almost always chock full of guys who will go on to play on Sundays.
Several members of the Tigers’ 2018 National Championship-winning front seven are in this draft, and the best of them all might be defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.
At 6-3 and 315 pounds, you might think that Wilkins would just be a space-eater who clogs up running lanes and makes things tough for running backs, and while that’s true, over time he has developed into much more than that.
It starts with Wilkins getting a good jump off of the ball at the snap, and even though he takes up a lot of space he can find the cracks in the line to squeeze through and break the protection.
Wilkins has quick feet, which helps him move swiftly in pursuit of the ball. He keeps his legs moving and stays in motion when rushing the passer. He makes moves while not losing momentum, almost attacking reps like an obstacle course. Wilkins uses his hands well and has a lot more moves than a typical interior defender would have.
With Wilkins’ physical profile, he displays good strength to blow his blocker back a little with his hand while keeping his lower body driving forward. This definitely shows up in the run game as Wilkins comes crashing through the line with a helpless offensive linemen being driven backwards towards the ball.
He shows plenty of awareness and keeps his eyes on the ball. When he’s being double-teamed, he’ll keep his arms extended and watch where the ball is going so he can keep himself alive in the play. Even if Wilkins is being held, he’ll reach out and do his best to affect the runner, often succeeding.
He does get hung up on blocks occasionally, and much of the time it appears to be because his pad level is too high. This especially shows up on double-teams on pass plays when he’s stonewalled and then stood-up.
Arguably the main red flag people have with Wilkins is that he sometimes disappears for stretches of the game. That does appear to be a valid concern, but I sometimes discount this for interior defensive linemen. It’s a grueling game, and with the amount of snaps that college teams play nowadays, it’s easy for defenders to get gassed.
Perhaps this is an area that we will see improvement in from Wilkins. When he was potentially going to enter last year’s draft, I had issues with his consistency, but I feel much better about his level of play when watching him before this draft.
FIT WITH THE COLTS
Before the draft each year, there are some players that just look like a natural, seamless fit with particular teams, and this year it’s easy to see that combination with Wilkins and the Colts.
Although we've seen Wilkins at tackle, nose and end in both three and four-man, gap-control fronts at Clemson, the Colts’ four-man defensive line is purely based on getting upfield and harassing the backfield — simply cause chaos and make life difficult for the offense. Wilkins’ blend of power and movement skills and ability to make the backfield his home fits the Colts’ defense like a glove.
The Colts had an adequate pass rush in 2018, but one that could definitely improve, both from the inside and the edge. Wilkins has the perfect play style to improve the Colts’ pressure up the middle, lining up at either the three-technique or nose in the Colts’ four-man front. A 300-plus-pounder would also help ensure they don’t miss a beat against the run after they allowed no 100-yard rushers in the regular season.
Although the draft is more so about adding the best players rather than filling needs, that latter portion may come up for the Colts. Over the next two years, the Colts have defensive tackles Margus Hunt, Hassan Ridgeway, Jihad Ward and Al Woods all set to become free agents, according to OverTheCap, so there’s not much question that the defensive line will continue to be addressed around the clock.
Last, but certainly not least, anyone joining the Colts must also be a team-first player who fits into the locker room, and that is one of Wilkins’ main strengths. It’s not hard to find things pointing Wilkins out as a great teammate, a leader and role model in the community. The guy who is a big teddy bear off the field and a grizzly bear on it would fit right in with the brotherhood that permeates throughout the Colts’ locker room.
"I just really want teams to realize that if they get me then they're investing in something bigger than just football. They're investing in so much more. The ability I have to not only dominate on the field and be effective on the field, but to also just improve culture — whether it's good, bad, ugly, different, (I’ll) just improve culture,” Wilkins said.
“I feel like ultimately I'm the kind of guy you want in the locker room, you want on your team, and you just want on the field with you, because I'm someone who's just extremely committed at being the best at my craft, and to my teammates just being the best player I can be,” Wilkins continued. “That's my goal, and that's what I plan to do on any team that I go to in the NFL."
Whatever team selects Wilkins also appears to be getting someone who will be a student of the game. Wilkins graduated with his first degree in 2 1/2 years so that he would have a degree in case he turned pro after his junior season. He stayed through his senior year, achieving a Master’s degree as well.
Without school to take up his time, Wilkins is looking for new challenges to keep his mind sharp and smart. With professional football, you have to be all in to sustain long-term success, and it sounds like that will be no problem for Wilkins.
Overall, traditional run-stopping nose tackles get propped up a lot in mock drafts every year, and while those guys bring value, almost nothing is more valuable to a defense than big guys like Wilkins who can stop the run but also get into a quarterback’s face in a hurry.