With dual-threat quarterbacks all the rage in the NFL, some teams are re-prioritizing the traits they're looking for in defensive tackles.
While 6-4, 330-pound monsters with the feet and balance of a ballerina will always be the preference, shorter, lighter defenders are becoming increasingly valuable for their ability to penetrate gaps and make big plays behind the line of scrimmage.
That fact gave Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton quite an opportunity to impress scouts Saturday night against the Wisconsin Badgers. With NCAA-best seven offensive linemen drafted into the NFL over the past three years, Wisconsin would provide the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Year with the caliber of competition that NFL talent evaluators would appreciate.
Unfortunately, the preseason All-American was largely ineffective against the Badgers, raising questions about how effective he'll be in the NFL at his current size.
According to the official Sun Devils' website, Sutton played last year at 267 pounds. At that weight, he recorded an eye-popping 23.5 tackles for loss including 13.5 sacks to beat out 2013 first round picks Dion Jordan, Star Lotulelei and Datone Jones to earn all-conference honors.
Likely due to the belief that he needed to be bigger to earn a high selection in the 2014 draft, Sutton gained considerable weight in the offseason. Arizona State lists him nearly 40 pounds heavier now (305). While scouts might appreciate his more traditional weight, they won't like what the expanded waist line did to Sutton's stat-line, as the only official contribution he made Saturday night was a single tackle recorded yards downfield in the final four minutes of the game.
Despite the additional weight, Sutton's remains remarkably quick off the snap. Alternating between left and right defensive tackle and occasionally splitting double-teams, Sutton was a frequent visitor to the Wisconsin backfield.
Savvy blocking by the Badgers, however, tricked Sutton into turning his athleticism into a disadvantage. When the quick-twitch defensive tackle beat them through a gap, Wisconsin blockers simply turned with him, aiding his progress into the backfield and creating a hole into which Badgers' runners could slip through.
Against the run Sutton frequently lunged off the snap, essentially selling out to penetrate gaps and create piles. In doing so, he was often off-balance and in poor position to re-direct when ball-carriers were nearby.
He was the obvious focus of Wisconsin's pass protection, drawing double-teams frequently. Sutton's initial quickness made him a threat to split them but his short arms and questionable conditioning kept him playing patty-cake at the line of scrimmage more often than he's grown used to during his career.
He was briefly sidelined twice, coming off the field upset after a particularly aggressive double-team in the second quarter and limping off in the third quarter after taking a strong hit just above his knee. While he showed his selflessness by excitedly congratulating teammates as they made big plays, Sutton was clearly frustrated in this game.
Sutton is legitimately talented. Further, he and other undersized defensive tackles are entering the NFL at a time in which they'll be more valued than perhaps ever before.
Against traditional pocket passers, edge rushers are critical. Against athletic quarterbacks, however, interior pass rushers are perhaps even more important than their higher profile teammates. Defenses want to keep mobile quarterbacks in the pocket. As such, rather than relentlessly charging upfield (as they would against slow-footed passers), defensive ends must rush with some caution, as they often have containment responsibilities against scrambling threats. With the ends keeping the outside gates closed, defensive tackles capable of defeating blocks can wreak havoc in the middle.
To warrant the early round pick that his production calls for, however, Sutton will have to get back to his playmaking ways... and quickly.