NFL Draft 2021: Rough Diamonds Series: Defensive Tackles

This is part seven of the series where I take a quick look, position by position, at my favourite Day 3/Undrafted guys from the 2021 NFL Draft.

Next up we have the Defensive Tackles. The 2021 Draft crop of Interior Defensive Linemen was considered one of the weaker groups heading into the draft, and that proved to be the case with no 1st round picks here for the first time in 4 years. Everyone wants some beef on their Defensive Lines, but these days teams aren’t just satisfied with size, they need athleticism too. Two of the biggest names to fall in the draft were Marvin Wilson, Florida State and Jaylen Twyman, Pittsburgh but I have three guys to talk about who were very much under the radar.

Ta’Quon Graham: Texas (Round 5, Pick 148 Atlanta)

Graham was a four-star defensive end recruit coming out of high school in 2017. He got buried on the Longhorn’s depth chart for his first two seasons in Austin, but as he got bigger in size, he started getting more playing time at defensive tackle, rather than at edge. In fact, it was the 2019 Sugar Bowl against Georgia where he first flashed next level potential, making some nice plays against an incredibly talented Bulldog offensive line. 

As a Junior he continued his progression, starting all 13 games he played. He caught my eye in a week 11 game against Kansas State and their Bowl game against Utah. He was living in the backfield and disrupting plays in both games, showcasing not only speed but power too. He uses his former defensive end background to blast off the snap, consistently beating the offensive lineman and penetrating the run lanes. The question now was could he continue this development into his senior season and get himself drafted?

The answer was a clear “yes”. He was almost exclusively used as three-tech for the shortened 2020 season, and in the games I saw (TCU, Baylor and Iowa State), he seemed just as quick as before, but now at an even bigger weight at 290lbs. He could still generate some pass rush out on the edge at times, but his calling card now was as a quick hitting, disruptive inside guy who ended up making more plays for others to clean up, than filling up the stat sheet himself. 

He only managed 7 career sacks but had a very healthy 23 tackles-for-loss, with 19 of those coming in his final two seasons at Texas. He put up some impressive numbers at his Pro Day too, including a 4.89/40 at 292lbs and a great 7.31 3-cone, showcasing that former edge background. He also measured in with 35” vines for arms, which he clearly used to his advantage when engaging with lineman. He was an ascending player to me, still making a transition to a different position, but getting better each season. I had him above bigger names like Twyman, Daviyon Nixon, Iowa, and Darius Stills of West Virginia, but even I was surprised when he was picked near the top of Round 5 by the Falcons. 

I think Atlanta sees Graham as a similar player to their 2nd round pick from last year, Marlon Davidson, who I think it’s fair to say struggled as a rookie. With a strong camp and preseason, I see no reason why Graham won’t make the roster and push for snaps in the 2021 season

Jonathan Marshall: Arkansas (Round 6, Pick 207 NY Jets)

A three-star recruit coming out of Shepherd, Texas, Marshall flipped his commitment three times, from TCU to Oklahoma State, before finally settling on Arkansas. He was around 270lbs when he enrolled with the Razorbacks and was considered an edge prospect for them. He got bigger and stronger in his first 2 years in Fayetteville, but they used him in a nose tackle rotation, which didn’t match his skill set very well.

He received more playing time as a Junior in a more traditional defensive tackle, 3-tech role, and here he could display his quickness off the snap, and gap penetration ability. He really flashed against Arkansas’s two highest ranked opponents, Alabama and LSU, standing out whenever they put him out on the field. 

As a senior he was moved back to almost exclusively being a nose tackle, playing head up on the center. He weighed a lot more, and was stronger than he was as a Sophomore, and he really flourished in this role. Marshall is quick and agile for such a big man, but also shows strong hands and great awareness, especially against the run. He played 633 snaps as a senior, more than double the number he played in 2019, as Arkansas continued to leave him on the field to make plays. Playing the nose, it’s hard to fill the stat sheet, but Marshall had his best season statistically in 2020 with 6.5 tackles-for-loss, and his only career sack. Whilst not eye-popping, what these numbers don’t show is the amount of disruption he causes, that leads to big plays for his teammates to capitalise on. He was at his best again against some of the biggest teams on the schedule, looking great again against Alabama, but also showing up big against Mississippi State and Texas A&M. 

Now it’s hard for any prospect at Arkansas to get noticed, but it’s even harder if you’re a big hulking nose tackle with limited production, so it wasn’t overly surprising that Marshall was considered as an undrafted type after the season. That changed though after the Arkansas pro day, where he put up numbers that made scouts sit up and take notice. He weighed in at a very muscular 6’3 310, and then ran a 4.88/40 with a 1.67 split, put up 36 reps on the bench and had a 32” vertical, all astonishing numbers for a man that size. These numbers are almost certainly what got Marshall drafted, but he’s more than just a workout warrior, he has legit tape as well.

Now the Jets was an odd team to draft him, as they already have Quinnen Williams established at one spot, and they just brought in former 12th overall pick in 2016 Sheldon Rankins of the Saints as a free agent. On top of that they also have Folorunso Fatukasi, who is criminally underrated, and former 3rd round pick from 2018 Nathan Shepherd at defensive tackle too. Making an early splash in New York will be difficult, but with Rankins on just a 2-year deal, and Fatukasi scheduled to be an UFA after the 2021 season, he may be able to make a push up the depth chart in 2022.

Photo Credit: Sport Illustrated

Jared Goldwire: Louisville (Undrafted, LA Chargers)

I’m going out on a limb here with Goldwire. I only have four watches of him, and usually you’d like a few more before forming an opinion of a player, but the flashes I’ve seen have me really interested.

A three-star recruit, he didn’t see the field with Louisville until his sophomore year in 2018, and even then, he wasn’t getting tons of snaps. It was a similar story in 2019, where he was used in a rotation at the nose tackle spot and although he did OK, he certainly wasn’t creating any buzz as a draft prospect.

Now a lot like Marshall, Goldwire came on as a senior, and the games I caught (Miami, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and Syracuse) he really stood out. He is tall (6’5) for a true nose tackle, so I don’t think that’s the role for him in the pro’s, but he more than held his own there in 2020 with Louisville. He’s so quick off the snap that he gets into interior lineman before they can set, and here he can work through the contact easily and locate the ball. He can change direction smoothly too and flows to the action really well. The times he struggled it was all pretty much leverage based. He’d be too upright off the snap and expose his chest to the lineman, who could then move him away with ease. There isn’t much in the way of pass rush moves either, but he wasn’t really asked to get the quarterback in college, so this is something he may be able to learn in the NFL.

For someone like Goldwire, testing numbers were always going to be important if he was going to create some buzz before the draft. Now he didn’t blow anyone away with what he did, but there were some nice agility drills, and the jumps were pretty good for a 293-pounder too. The bench was only average, but this may be because he has almost 34” arms, which makes the lifting difficult. It wasn’t surprising he entered the draft with a UDFA rating, and that’s what happened as he was scooped up post draft by the L.A Chargers. Their roster is pretty deep on the defensive line, so he may have to really ball out in OTA’s and training camp to even get a sniff with them.

The flashes you see are really intriguing though, and the games I caught were against quality opposition (alright, perhaps not Syracuse), so I’m buying in that he has enough tools to make an NFL Roster, I just don’t think it’ll be with the Chargers. 

If you are enjoying this series, take a look at the other articles in the series that Keith has written

Follow Keith on Twitter @lordlucken

Next up in the series will be the Linebackers…

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