For the premium the NFL puts on pass rushers, many teams also have a need for a big space-eating defensive tackle to help them inside against the run. Former Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III is thought to be just the kind of inside presence that those teams are looking for, so I decided to break him down next.
For the purposes of this breakdown I watched Nix play against Temple, Purdue, Michigan State, Arizona State and Pittsburgh. Those games represented the first, third, fourth, sixth and 10th games of Nix's final season, respectively. Cutup videos can be found at Draft Breakdown.
Cat-quick and ... slow
Playing nose tackle in a 4-3 compared to playing it in a 3-4 can be a whole different world. I won't go into a dissertation because that could take up almost this whole post, but here are a few differences:
**If you are already familiar with the differences just skip down to the next section**
In a 3-4, the nose tackle is going to get double-teamed on just about every play. He generally has to back away from the ball a little before the snap and then "catch" the center rather than exploding forward when the ball is snapped. He is usually two-gapping which means, depending upon the blocking scheme, he could be responsible for either A-gap. Because he lines up head-on against the center and off the ball, a 3-4 defensive tackle isn't expected to be much of a factor as a pass rusher, no matter how the offensive line blocks him.
An interview with Louis Nix
An interview with Louis Nix
In a 4-3, the nose tackle gets double-teamed a lot too, but he also sees quite a bit of single blocking on the backside of plays when the opposing center is superior at reach blocking. He lines up at the line of scrimmage like everyone else. He can't come off like a sprinter on the snap, but a 4-3 nose tackle does need to explode off the ball enough to have a fighting chance against a double team, penetrate into the backfield against any reach block and be able to transition to a pass rush against the guard should the center slide over to help block the three-technique.
Did you get all that? LOL
Whether you understood what you just read perfectly or it flew right over your head, I think everybody can get what I'm saying is that a nose tackle generally has much different responsibilities in a 3-4 than he has in a 4-3.
Why this is starting to matter more and more is because every year you see NFL teams going to a hybrid defense. For instance, the Falcons have played a lot of 3-4 and 4-3 and a blend of the two at times over the last couple of seasons under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. It used to be that you could find a nose tackle to fit your specific scheme, but now with hybrid defenses you see a premium being put on nose tackles who can do both.
That means they have to be big enough to anchor down against the run as a zero nose lined head up on the center. They also have to be quick enough off the ball to get penetration against the run. Maybe most importantly, they also have to at least be able to give something in the way of pass rush because this is a passing league, right?
**OK start reading again here**
Which brings me to Louis Nix III.
First of all, he's what we call back home a Big Un!
Nix is definitely heavy enough to play nose tackle in any scheme at 331 pounds. He isn't overly tall at a shade over 6'2, but as I've said before in these breakdowns, height can be a little overrated for an interior defensive lineman.
Where Nix starts to separate himself is the fact that he is also cat-quick at times. He certainly showed that he has the ability to be explosive in short areas when he wants to be. Notre Dame ran somewhat of a hybrid defense, so I got to see Nix playing both, two-gapping and getting off the ball at nose tackle, which helped with my evaluation a lot. I was skeptical before I started watching that he would be a fit in a 4-3 defense, but now I believe he is at least quick enough to fit.
The problem is that as quick as Nix can be, he also looked slow as molasses if he had to run any more than a couple of steps. With more teams using zone schemes when running the ball, you see a lot of them try to stress the 4-3 nose tackles by scheming the ball to cut back through his A-gap. I'm not sure how successful Nix would be at defending those kinds of plays because he doesn't bend his knees after his first couple of steps, which makes him high and slow at times. The linebackers can cover for Nix in a hybrid type of defense where he is head up on the guard two-gapping, but in a fast flow 4-3 scheme, he would give up yards in that backside A-gap based on the games that I watched.
Sometimes the nose, no matter what the scheme, will have to be involved in turning the ball back to his help on the front side of a run. This goes back to having to beat a center's reach block and also having to beat slip blocks where the center goes up to get the linebacker. Being quick off the ball helps a lot, but eventually you might have to escape off that block and run down the line of scrimmage to make the play or make the ball bounce behind you. I have my doubts that Nix could make very many of those kinds of plays.
I saw this happen to him several in those five games. He looks sooooo good getting off the ball, but then it's like everybody else is getting fast-forwarded while he's still going at regular speed. The ball tended to make its way outside of him successfully on those plays for some pretty good gains.
Nobody is expecting a true nose tackle to be a beast of a pass rusher, but Nix's lack of speed also would make me nervous on some 4-3 line stunts and pass rush games where the nose tackle is supposed to wrap around outside for contain. This happens more than you probably notice, but with this coming golden age of mobile quarterbacks, having a super slow guy trying to keep them from escaping the pocket will be setting him, and a defense, up for failure.
I know that one of Nix's most impressive traits is that he is so quick for his size, but his lack of straight-line speed is still a big concern for me.
Ok, so am I saying Nix is only a fit for a 3-4?
No, I am not.
I am saying a traditional 3-4 is probably a much better fit for him. As a zero nose, he is big enough and strong enough not to get dominated at the line of scrimmage and quick enough to make offensive linemen miss when he stunts laterally. Still, based on his film, even his fit in a 3-4 will be bumpy at first.
Getting double-teamed every play is the very definition of a thankless job. The announcer is always going to call out the name of the linebacker who made the tackle for loss and the crowds will go wild, but you rarely hear the name of the guy who occupied two blockers which allowed the linebacker to come through clean and make the play in the first place blaring over the loud speakers. For that reason, it's hard to find guys who love to play zero nose tackle. A lot of cats are just too selfish and want to be the one making all the plays instead of doing their own damn job. However, Nix looks like he's having a ball there most of the time, so I wouldn't have any concerns about him being selfish and hurting the defense.
More Stephen White
More Stephen White
He gets knocked around every single game, but I never saw Nix start slacking with his effort at fighting those double and sometimes triple teams. He fought his ass off every play and his hustle was top-notch.
The only problem was his hands were allllll over the place.
I don't know if Nix was taught to do some of the things I saw him do on film or if his technique was just spotty, but the difference between how he fared when he got his hands inside on the blocker with his thumbs up and when he did not was HUGE. I talked about this in one of my early breakdowns, but for defensive linemen it's usually of the utmost importance that they get their hands inside the breast plate of the offensive lineman so that they can control him. When they get their hands on him, it's also important for them to have their thumbs up so that they can lock their elbows when they get full extension of their arms.
Nix does a great job with that at times. Those are the plays when he tends to look dominant, but then you might see a few plays later where his hands are wide or his elbows are bent and he has little to no effect on the play.
The end result is that a big, powerful guy like Nix doesn't always play big and powerful. That led to him being on the ground quite a bit more than I would normally like from a nose tackle. Look, everybody gets caught slipping every once in a while, but I was also alarmed to see Nix get pancaked six times in those five games, including three times by Michigan State.
That is not supposed to happen ...
Nix's inconsistency with his hands also hampered him from contributing more as a pass rusher.
Again, a nose tackle who can pass rush used to be just a plus, but these days it's better to be able to do a little bit of everything. Nix might not be fast in his long speed, but between his functional strength and his quickness, he definitely has the potential to at least push the pocket back and move quarterbacks off of their spot in the NFL.
The question is will he?
That Nix shows flashes when his technique is good says that he has been taught how to use his hands. That he doesn't do it all the time makes me wonder if that inconsistency would also carry over in the pros even if he got better coaching in the NFL.
The truth is plenty of guys have problems playing with good technique all the time. Whether they're too hyped up to make a play to concern themselves with where to put their hands or they're just too damned tired to try to escape off a block, those guys cheat themselves out of making plays. Often, it also kills any chance they have to be big-time contributors on their defense as well.
There are exceptions; guys who are really huge or really athletic or both can generally get away with having shitty technique and still make plays. When you are a relatively average-sized nose tackle with relatively average speed, you had best get your technique polished up because you aren't likely to just overwhelm anybody. I could get excited for a team taking Nix in the first round if I knew for sure that he would tighten that up and use his hands more consistently.
Unfortunately, I just don't know if he will or won't.
I have seen mock drafts that show Louis Nix III going late in the first round. I think that's ambitious, but it definitely could happen. The thing is Nix, for all the things I talked about in this breakdown, is likely to be a very good player for somebody. Pro Bowl? Maybe not, but herein lies the balancing act that decision-makers face.
What happens when a team with a need for a 3-4 or hybrid nose tackle has a choice in the bottom half of the first round but maybe there is a skill player rated a little bit higher on its board? Well, I wouldn't fault that team for filling a need, and I doubt that if Nix plays well there will be much armchair quarterbacking of the pick. My expectations for a nose tackle taken in the bottom half of the first round wouldn't be the same for a pass-rushing three-technique taken in the same spot.
Yeah, you might take the player rated higher, but a good nose tackle is necessary for most 3-4 or hybrid defenses. Nix needs some work on his technique, but with coaching and better concentration he can fix most of that. The lack of speed issue isn't nearly as big a factor if you run a 3-4 either. He is quick enough to stunt to either A-gap and make plays or two-gap the guard like most hybrid nose tackles have to do. He also is pretty damn good at changing directions on screens as long as the play isn't too far away. I will say it again, this kid, for all his size and being slow and all that, hustles his ass off.
And if he never makes a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team, who will really give a damn? Nose tackles aren't generally going to have the kind of eye-popping stats that get them on those kinds of lists anyway. But if he plays up to his potential, you could have fixed a vital part of your defense for many years to come.
NFL Free Agency
NFL Free Agency
The flip side is there is a poker element involved with those teams as well. What if you can take the higher-rated player and still get Nix later in the second round? You already know that some 4-3 teams that are more fast flow with their defensive line won't be interested in Nix anyway. Then, you have to decide whether to bet that no other 3-4 or hybrid team will take him between now and the next time you pick or if the higher-rated guy is worth more to your team than Nix if you don't think he will be around when you select again.
It will be interesting to see if a team blinks in the first round and takes Nix, or if he slides a little bit with teams in the bottom of the first round trying to get greedy. Nix has all the potential in the world to do well in a 3-4 or a hybrid defense, but I'm just not sure how much draft value you put on that potential.