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2020 NFL Draft: The Case For An Early Interior Defensive Line Selection

Houston’s interior pass rush doesn’t exist. It’s time for that to come to an end.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 02 Big 12 Championship Game - Oklahoma v TCU Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I think about this play a lot.

It was Week One, Monday Night Football, and the sun had unknowingly disappeared, matching the game’s namesake after an early kickoff. The Saints faced 2nd and 11 with 9:17 left in the fourth quarter and were driving to accentuate a 24-21 lead.

Houston was in their nickel defense with split safety coverage. They played Cover Four against the Saints’ empty set that had a Trips formation left. The Texans rushed four. Zach Cunningham was the flat defender and Benardrick McKinney had the hook. Carlos Watkins (#91) and D.J. Reader (#98) are lined up as outside shades of the guard. Whitney Mercilus (#59) and J.J. Watt (#99) are outside shades of the tackle. Everyone rushed the gap in front of them, except for Watkins, who tailed into the ‘A’ gap and drew the center into his rush. New Orleans slid their protection left towards McKinney, the usual culprit when a blitz is called.

Preseason fears were on display this game. The pass rush was meek. Ryan Ramczyk timed his punches to perfection to lock down Watt. Mercilus, despite the 10+ sack preseason hype, was negated by Terron Armstead. The interior didn’t do much of anything at all. Over the course of this game, Houston had one sack, three quarterback knockdowns, and two hurries.

This play was different than the previous ones. The outlier. Right guard Larry Warford’s pass set was (#67) too wide, leading to delayed contact, giving Reader space to operate. Reader pounced on the opportunity. He made contact first and struck the outside half of Warford. In this position, he dipped to create leverage and pushed Warford all the way back into Drew Brees.

At the end of his rush, Reader extended Warford with one hand and tried to escape from the block to make a play on the ball. Brees has great feet in the pocket, but when the pocket collapses to this point, he doesn’t have the ability to see over the rush and throw hot; his tendons, bones, and joints don’t have the spring they used to. Brees doesn’t have, and never really had, the speed to outrun the pass rush. The ball moves faster than defenders until hes faced with a situation like this.

Reader didn’t pick up the sack, but his interior rush created it. Mercilus, lined up against Armstead, did what he always does. Long arm, slap away at the punch, and rip the outside shoulder. These rushes are long, wide, and looping. Typically the tackle pushes Mercilus past the quarterback, making the defense play 10 on 11, and the quarterback is never confronted. This time it’s different. Reader’s earthquake sent Brees backwards, from the 33 to the 35 yard line, which morphed Mercilus’ rush from nihilistic into 3rd and 19.

Mercilus had 5.5 sacks through the first seven games of the 2019 season. He didn’t pick up another one until Week 16 when he chased down Jameis Winston twice against Tampa Bay. J.J. Watt’s annual injury allowed more hands to be placed on Reader, turning his ‘3’ technique wiggle into futile jiggle. Watt only ndirectly affected Mercilus’ rush as well. It was Reader turning the pocket into a meteor crater desert tourist attraction that directly affected Mercilus’ rush. By forcing the quarterback backwards, it made the meaningless—Merculis’ wide looping pass rush paths—a meaningful route to the quarterback.

Last season the Texans’ pass rush finished 29th in adjusted sack rate and 26th in pressure rate. They had more sacks than only three other teams: Miami, Detroit, and of course Seattle. To address this flaw, they added Timmy Jernigan in free agency. That’s it. T.E.A.M.s aren’t finished in February, or March, or April, though. Houston still has time between now and September to add additional talent. So far, they have bet on internal development.

The Texans are hoping Watt plays an entire season, which would only be the second instance of this happening in the previous five years. They’re hoping Jernigan is healthy and provides interior pass rush juice. They’re hoping Charles Omenihu continues to iron down the technical aspects of interior pass rushing. They’re hoping Jacob Martin adds enough strength, while maintaining his instantaneous movement off the snap and speed of light burst, to have an answer once his outside rip-dip doesn’t work. They’re hoping for the freshly extended $12 million a year Mercilus to win individual match-ups.

This decision is like kissed pennies tossed into the fountain inside the mall. It’s marveling at the wrinkles of an outstretched palm. It’s a lot of hopes and prayers and if-onlys.

Houston still needs to add talent to its front seven in the upcoming draft later this week and in free agency once the post-draft bargain bin sifting begins. With picks at #40 and then at #90, they have a few different ways they can go about it. They could potentially sit still and snag a pure edge defender like Zach Baun or A.J. Epenesa. They could take the inside-outside unicorn Marlon Davidson. Or they could snatch an interior defensive linemen who could provide an interior rush that sends quarterbacks backwards and into the paths of elongated edge rushes.

In the upcoming draft class, there are two slam dunk first round selections. Feast your eyes on the GOD that is Derrick Brown, and the Olympus denizen Javon Kinlaw. Both will go in or around the top then.

After that, there are six interior defenders that are all cudgeled together.

There’s Neville Gallimore (#90). He drives a fast car real fast. He’s 6’2” and 304 pounds yet still managed to hammer out a 4.79 40. He’s a selfish rusher and didn’t affect others around him at Oklahoma; instead, he created a rush on his own. He was especially great at using that speed to his advantage. He could loop from the ‘A’ gap to the ‘C’ gap to pressure the quarterback.

Gallimore has three legitimate pass rush moves: club, spin, and an arm over. Each one can be linked together, utilized on their own, or attached with a swipe to create the separation needed for the rush to be successful. And he has the quickness to bend back to the quarterback in the pocket—a staple of any plus interior NFL pass rusher.

Gallimore doesn’t really affect the run game however. Additionally, nearly the entirety of his pass rushes are excellent individual moves that flay guards with dagger hands and quickness. He doesn’t use pure power to dent the pocket and walk interior offensive linemen to the quarterback. A real glory boy. He’s selfish, even if he’s an excellent individual rusher. This is probably attributed to that Oklahoma three-man defensive line upbringing. Regardless, he’s the best pure interior rusher of this bunch.

Then there’s Raekwon Davis (#99). An enormous slab of chiseled flesh. He’s 6’6” and 311 lbs. He has stretchy arms and the physical size to be the NFL’s newest rage unleashed upon the league by San Francisco’s Super Bowl run—enormous, physical defensive linemen who can play on the inside and the outside.

Despite having the body and the potential, the results aren’t there. Davis’ production has dropped off substantially, decreasing every season since his 8.5 sack sophomore year. This, plus a mediocre NFL Combine performance, is a red flag.

As a pass rusher, most of Davis’ potential comes from his hulking size. He just doesn’t bring it often enough. He’s late off the ball. He doesn’t make contact first. His punch his timid. Despite the size advantage, guards routinely strike, sit, and extend Davis.

The power is there often enough to prevent your eyes from sealing shut. Every so often, Davis will lunge off the ball low and detonate blockers in the chest, an event so destructive that you can feel it from your mobile phone. After this first wave of fury, Davis can drive the guard until a path is opened up to the quarterback and then use his long arms to smudge the quarterback’s window.

His hands are active, but he doesn’t create any real tangible rush moves with them. It’s a lot of slapping and chopping at fingers without a real plan of attack. It’s all punch, extension, and drive.

In the run game, it’s all about pad level. When the pad level isn’t there, Davis is routinely taken for a ride by double teams.

Even individual blockers (#68) can get underneath him, drive him off the line, and create a run lane. This is something that shouldn’t happen with his size and strength.

He rocks when the pad level is low. He’s matched up against the right guard (#64) here. Although he’s taller, Davis is the same height as the guard. With his hands on the guard’s chest, he’s able to extend him and play the football.

You can’t teach athletic strength like this. The left tackle blocks down. He sits and looks for the puller. Raekwon liquefies the pulling guard and pounces back to make the tackle for a loss.

He’s inconsistent. The motor sputters. The plot is there, but the characters are thin. His best plays don’t outshine the lackadaisical ones. Yet there’s still a great player lurking in there somewhere. There’s a team who could mine the physical traits Davis has to make everyone question what they didn’t see four years ago.

Then there’s Ross Blacklock (#90). His pad level is the single best trait of any interior defensive lineman in this class. He’s an ant that plays low to the earth. At 6’3” and 290 lbs., he always plays with a low center of gravity while keeping his eyes up. He is an uncharacteristically great interior run defender. Blacklock is constantly swaying above the ground, splitting double teams, and lurching into the backfield. Even when he’s unable to get between the two, his pad level creates stalemates, giving his linebackers the chance to chase and tackle.

Against individual blocks, Blacklock has the quickness to beat offensive linemen off the ball even though they have the arcane and mysterious knowledge of the snap count. Blacklock also understands how to play the angles. He’s usually on the inside or outside half of the blocker; he rarely plays the entirety of those players larger than he is.

His pass rushing acumen is bizarre. It’s all about pad level here, too. He uses long arms and leverage to get under, extend, and drive back players who outweigh him. He isn’t at his best in one-on-one situations. He’s much better as a looper when he can play the jouster and trot from gap to gap. His outstretched arm is a lance impaling guards off their horse.

Along these paths, Blocklock’s hands are active. He doesn’t allow offensive linemen to stick to him. He can float from the ‘A’ to the ‘C’ gap like Gallimore and use his hands to get off the block and impact the throw.

The extrapolation here is difficult. What do you do with an undersized interior defender who didn’t measure well at Combine jumping tests that measure explosiveness or the shuttle and cone running that measure lateral quickness? What do you do with someone who isn’t particularly strong but is able to play strong because of pad level and leverage? I don’t know how these skills will be used in the professional game, but Blacklock does understand the position well enough. He’s great enough at a centerpiece of the position to warrant a Day Two selection.

There’s Jordan Elliot. He’s slippery and wriggles off blocks. I especially love when he squats against the flow of the offensive line against zone plays, uses the lineman’s momentum against him, and then plays the ball. He can do this. He can punch, extend, shed with a swim. He makes plays in the backfield.

These come against individual blocks, though. Even then, strong interior guards, like the ones Elliott played against in Tennessee, were able to have their way with him. He bails against strong double teams. It’s difficult for him to create stalemates in these situations. He’s usually picked up by the scruff and displaced into the second level. He’s a great player when you’re playing Kansas City, but less so when playing the power schemes of the AFC South or the ones that New England, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh have utilized in the recent past.

As a rusher, Elliott is similar to Gallimore. He can string together individual pass rushes to create interior pressure. He’ll win with chop-rips. He’ll yank linemen down and then arm over. He has a crocodile death roll spin move, atypical from the hog in the mud slop spinning you see from interior rushers. He excels in space and eats up wide splits. Like Gallimore, Elliott doesn’t win with power; he rarely bullrushes. He rushes for himself, not for others.

There’s Justin Madubuike. He has the athletic foundation teams crave at the position. 6’3” and hovering around 300 lbs., he ran fast and benched a lot. Texas A&M used his athleticism to play him all over the defensive line. He lined up everywhere from head up with the center to the outside shade of an offensive tackle.

The highlight plays are better than his play-by-play and game-by-game production. Madubuike goes quiet for long stretches. Running into blocks. Stuck to interior offensive linemen. Playing the entirety of the blocker.

Madubuike is hot and cold. On and off. But when he gets moving, when the spirit finally hits him, he moves. The highlight plays are bangers. A quite game against Arkansas aside from an interception that fell in his lap. Madubuike extends the left guard, yanks him down, swims over the top, goes through the running back, and picks up the sack in the dying light of the fourth quarter.

Some will see him as a slam dunk second round pick. Others will shy away from the long spurts of nothingness. The one thing that is for sure is that when Justin Madubuike goes, he GOES.

Of all the interior players discussed here, Madubuike is the murkiest one. There wasn’t a ton of video available for those mired in serfdom like myself. I wish I had more of it. I wish I had the behind view. I wish I was someone other than me so I could truly grasp what is Justin Madubuike. For now, the flashes are electrifying and the snap-by-snap performance can numb even those who are truly alive.

Each interior defensive lineman in this clump has their pluses and minuses. From the pure interior rushing of Gallimore and Elliot, to the potential of Davis, to Blacklock’s bizarre game, to the spectacular bursts from Madubuike, there’s a lot to like.

The who is the difficult question. The easier one is the should. The Texans haven’t had a real down-by-down interior rusher like this since Antonio Smith wielded his katana at NRG Stadium. J.J. Watt rushes almost exclusively from the outside. The 2019 interior rush dissipated after Reader’s five games of pass rushing production came to an end. A constant interior threat could unlock this pass rush and turn hopefully into actuality.

When it comes to the who, Gallimore is my favorite. Then Elliott. Because these two are the best one-on-one individual interior rushers who could be available for Houston at #40, or even at a hypothetical #60 if they trade down.

Regardless of the who or when, the Texans should look to satisfy this need as early as the second round once the 2020 NFL Draft comes around on Thursday night. If not, the pass rush in 2020, like the one in 2019, could become unanswered prayers, empty thoughts, and comfy quarterbacks once again taking advantage of neglect from the previous offseason.