I feel like I need to remind people before reading this breakdown on Robert Nkemdiche that my assessments don't take into account off-field issues at all. These are projections based strictly on how I view each prospect as a player and whether I think their skill sets should transition well to the NFL. A guy can play like a top-five pick, but we all know that character issues could potentially knock them down draft boards.
Nkemdiche did play like a first-round pick in the five games I watched. That doesn't mean he was perfect or even close, but he showed me enough in those five games that I can foresee Nkemdiche being a force on the next level. I think a team with an attacking style 4-3 defense (where "attacking" means they want their interior defensive linemen to get up the field and rush the passer just like their defensive ends) would be the perfect landing spot for him.
That doesn't mean he can't play well in other schemes, too. I just personally believe his greatest chance for success in the NFL is as an undertackle/three-technique. Sure, he could be a five-technique in a 3-4 and maybe even a nose tackle in a 4-3, but I don't think a team will get nearly as much bang for their buck in those positions as they would if they put him at undertackle.
Nkemdiche is definitely going to need a lot of technique work, however. I don't think I saw him play a single reach block by, you know, not getting reached in five games. He did make some plays with a backdoor (allowing yourself to get blocked inside so you can go behind the blocker to make the play) on reach blocks on several occasions, but as you might imagine that approach was kind of hit-or-miss. The chances of him winning with a backdoor on every reach block will go down significantly once he reaches the pros and has to face more athletic guys.
Well except for this one game ...
Now, I haven't done any breakdowns of Alabama offensive linemen this offseason, so I'm not 100 percent sure how good they were this past season. What I do know is that those guys were a lot harder for Nkemdiche to beat than the offensive lines on the other four teams. Alabama's offensive line was much more physical with Nkemdiche, as well.
All of a sudden, Nkemdiche was the one getting knocked on his ass instead of the other way around. Not all the time, but definitely some of the time which wasn't something I saw much of in the other four games. He still ended up making some nice plays against Alabama, including a sack off a pretty spin move near the end of the game, which is why not being quite as dominant against those guys wasn't really that alarming for me.
Watching him get moved around more than usual did reiterate to me how important it will be to get his technique flaws ironed out.
The good news is Nkemdiche is big, strong as an ox and pretty damned agile. That means he has pretty much everything he needs to become a monster. Yes, he was inconsistent, but his flashes were so very impressive. Any defensive line coach worth his salt would be licking his chops at the prospect of being able to mold this kid into weapon.
For instance, Nkemdiche's get off is pretty explosive on tape most of the time. Before you say it, I don't think it was due to him guessing the snap count either. A guy with that kind of get off shouldn't be getting reached on a regular basis like he was. Maybe the Ole Miss coaches wanted him to backdoor everything. Teaching a guy with that kind of quickness off the ball to blow up his B gap when he sees reach blocks and try to turn any runs back while also giving him the option to slip underneath and make the play shouldn't be all that hard.
That's before we even get to how strong Nkemdiche looked at times. Just about every play where a guard or tackle tried to base block him one-on-one on a running play, Nkemdiche whupped ... dat ... ass.
That's including the Alabama guys, by the way.
As a run defender, he didn't maintain outside leverage against reach blocks and couldn't always hold his ground against double teams. Even that can be alleviated by better technique, especially if he can learn how to stay a little lower once he realizes he is being doubled.
While Nkemdiche proved to be an effective and somewhat diverse pass rusher inside, he could stand to expand his repertoire when it comes to beating guards around the edge. He is too physically talented not to be better at that than he is.
Once again, it shouldn't be hard for a good defensive line coach to get him right. And if Nkemdiche can get to where he can play consistently near his potential, he is going to be a guard's worst nightmare.
If that was the end of the story, I would have no problem saying this kid has top-10 talent and call it a day, because he does. However, there are a couple of other issues that have to be addressed before I can feel comfortable with that.
If you've read my breakdowns on defensive linemen you know a stickler for me is effort, and his effort was sometimes lacking. Not a lot. Generally not on plays where he would have made a difference. Still, when I'm looking at a guy who is going to have to bust his ass to improve his technique, any questions about work ethic is going to raise more red flags and make me question whether he will git 'er done.
Hell, I was watching the UT Martin game with the sound on and the announcers rightly called Nkemdiche out while showing a replay of his piss poor effort on a quarterback scramble. I couldn't do anything but nod my head.
He came back and blocked the field goal right after that, but still.
The whole time I watched him damn near walk on that play, I wondered to myself how hard is he going to work at being better with his hands? How much is he going to be willing to sacrifice to reach his potential?
Like I said, it didn't happen often, but I still didn't like seeing it at all.
On the other hand you have a few plays like this one where he runs all the way over from the backside of a play to finish off the running back near the far sideline.
I'm not going to go overboard with this, but one thing I will say is most guys who are inconsistent with their play are usually inconsistent with their effort as well. Improve the latter and the former usually always improves too.
Another knock I have on Nkemdiche is that he sometimes plays a little stiff in the hips. This shows up when he is trying to make a tackle from the backside of a play before the running back can make it through the line of scrimmage. It isn't a lack of speed or quickness that prevents Nkemdiche from intercepting the ball carrier. The fact that he doesn't turn and run down the line immediately, drifting just a hair too far upfield instead, dooms his prospects for being in position to make the tackle.
Interestingly enough, when Nkemdiche has to fight through contact, as he does here with the center back block and the tackle hinging on a counter play, he does a great job of keeping his feet and getting down the line of scrimmage to make the play.
It was when the opposing team chose to leave him unblocked that he seemed to have more trouble getting where he needed to go, but not all the time.
Here's the deal, Nkemdiche is just a football player. I know that's a little cliche, but it's the truth. He came in starting as a freshman defensive end and wound up inside by the end of his first year. In a lot of ways he's still finding himself as a defensive tackle (among other things). All the tools for him to be a top notch three-technique are evident when you watch him play, and 6'3, 290 pound guys who run a sub 4.9 forty do not grow on trees. Even being a little stiff at times and even with a few forgettable plays as far as effort is concerned, this kid just looks like he was meant to play this game when he's on the field.
And on another note he did some pretty good things on offense as well.
The off-field stuff may affect how high he is drafted, but if he gets drafted to be a three-technique and if he can stay out of trouble, Robert Nkemdiche could be a guy with eight or more sacks every year. It's going to come down to how he fits in the scheme and the work he puts in to get better.
Going by the tape, he is the only true three-technique I've seen so far. Now it comes down to who is going to weigh the rewards versus the risks. No matter where he ends up getting drafted, he may well still end up being the pick of the litter of all the three-techniques in this draft.
Since I don't have access to all-22 for college football games, I use the next best thing, Draft Breakdown. They have the TV copy from a bunch of top prospects already cut up and ready to go. Their site is also compatible with the new NoHuddle app which turns your cell phone into a "cowboy clicker," which is pretty damn neat. For the purposes of this breakdown I watched former Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche play against UT Martin, Fresno State, Alabama, Florida and Auburn. Those represented the first, second, third, fifth and ninth games on schedule last season, respectively.