The 3-4 defense is more prevalent in the NFL than it is in the college game. Still, there are several players who have either succeeded in the 3-4 while in college or show the ability to transition to the role of nose tackle. The Green Bay Packers started B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion at nose tackle over the last two seasons.
Guion is listed at 6'4" and 322 pounds, while Raji drops in at 6'2" and 337. The traditional role for the nose tackle is to stuff the run up the middle and occupy blockers so the inside linebackers are free to move to the ball. With Guion re-signing and Mike Pennel continuing to improve, nose tackle is not a high priority for the Packers this year, and big names like A'Shawn Robinson (Alabama), Jarran Reed (Alabama) and Vernon Butler (Louisiana Tech) could be gone in the early going of round one this April. With that in mind, here are some lesser known names to keep your eye on during the 2016 NFL Combine.
D.J. Reader, Clemson
Reader is all over the board in projections. Scouts Inc. ranks him as the 162nd-best player in the draft, while CBS ranks him at 181 and projects a pick somewhere in the fifth or sixth round. Reader is a large body, listed at 6'3" 325 (though listed at 340 in some places). Despite the size, he is an athletic player with great movement. Clemson used Reader as a fullback on many occasions and he even started on the Clemson baseball team as a freshman. His athleticism is further demonstrated by the fact he was recruited by most schools to play guard.
Reader was able to see the field frequently as a freshman. Throughout 2012, he played 236 snaps and recorded 40 tackles and three quarterback pressures. As a sophomore in 2013, Reader started three games and registered 43 tackles, 5.0 TFL and 3.0 sacks. Reader was expected to be the full time starter on the 2015 team at nose tackle. Reader also had a strong week of practice at the Senior Bowl this year, helping him regain the momentum he lost in missing time at the beginning of the year.
2015 is the reason Reader is showing up so low on the draft boards; Reader only started six games. There was no injury, but D.J. lost his father in June of 2014. Reader has stated that part of the reason he took a personal leave from the team was dealing with the loss of his father, but he has not spoken about the absence much. The interview process will be the most important part of the Combine process for Reader. Expect to see good numbers across the board for the big man. The measureables have always been there, but the question remains as to the dedication to the game and finding out what else might have been keeping Reader from the field in the first half of the 2015 season. Reader will either hang to the mid-to-late rounds or rocket up the boards.
Vincent Valentine, Nebraska
Here is another player getting some mixed reviews. Valentine may get overlooked as he played in the shadow of Maliek Collins, who was the more explosive player and drew much of the offensive attention. Valentine is a 6'3" 320 pound lineman. He is strong and has the ability to occupy blockers. It would be difficult to judge how much Collins presence boosted Valentine's performances.
Scouts Inc. ranks Valentine as the 171st-best player, while CBS ranks him as the 419th-best talent in the draft (32nd best defensive tackle). Despite the wide range of opinions, Valentine has produced in big-time college football. He started six games as a redshirt freshman and played in all 13 games in 2013. During this freshman campaign, he registered 21 tackles (11 solo), five TFL and one sack. As a sophomore, Valentine played in all 13 games again and started 11 of them. Valentine came out for the draft after his junior year in 2015, which saw Valentine start every game and register three sacks, though his tackle numbers dipped a bit.
Valentine is a smart individual. He should be very coachable. He completed his degree at Nebraska and was named to the Nebraska Scholar-Athlete Honor Roll. He should nail the interview process as he majored in journalism while in Lincoln.
The biggest concern with Valentine is his quickness and agility. Valentine is very strong and has a great ability to take on blocks, but he looked slow playing next to the more athletic Collins. Expect good power numbers from Valentine, but a strong showing in the agility drills could boost his draft stock. Look for the Three Man Bag Drill and the Four Bag Agility Drill.
Antwaun Woods, USC
Woods continues the theme of experience. Woods played in 13 games as a freshman (four starts), 13 games as a sophomore (six starts), and 12 games as a junior (10 starts). Woods showed continued process all the way along, and 2015 was his best season. The return for 2015 was important because Woods suffered an injury at the end of 2014 and missed the Holiday Bowl as well as Spring practices.
Again, CBS gives a much lower ranking than Scouts Inc. CBS lists him as the 234th-best player while Scouts Inc. declared him the 146th-best available. CBS has projected a sixth or seventh round pick.
Woods is a stockier player than the others already named. He measures in at around 6'0" and 329 pounds, which makes him one of the shorter and heavier players available. Off the field, Woods completed his degree in Sociology in the Spring of 2015 and started a second bachelor's degree program to stay eligible.
Woods has the statistics to come off the board in the third or fourth rounds and a strong showing with the measureables could really help him out. His strength will make him intriguing. If he can show off some quickness he could find himself in the early part of the middle rounds. Watch his performance in the Three Man Bag Drill and the Body Control Drill.
Javon Hargrave, South Carolina State
That is not a typo, South Carolina State (the school that produced Packers linebacker Joe Thomas). Hargrave may not be the sort to qualify as a possible nose tackle because he is a little undersized for the prototypical nose tackle. At 6'1" and 315 pounds, he is clearly the smallest person on this list. The other reason is Hargrave did not get the top level competition. Hargrave spent his college career playing against FCS talent. Plenty of FCS talent will be playing on Sundays, but he was not facing the weekly competition Woods and Valentine were facing over three seasons. Still, Hargrave was dominant in those games and looks like an early middle round player.
Hargrave will likely project more as a 4-3 defensive tackle because of his size, but he has shown the ability to hold his ground and occupy blockers. If Hargrave can put up some good power numbers in the vertical jump and broad jump we might see some interest piqued among the 3-4 teams. Still, he makes this list more as a curiosity than a force.