The 2016 NFL Draft is filled with talented defensive linemen that should be able to make an impact early on in their careers. One of those players could be Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
Robert Nkemdiche was a former five star defensive end prospect who moved to defensive tackle during his sophomore year. Nkemdiche is wildly athletic, but struggles with some of the basic fundamentals of defensive line play.
Here's an example of Nkemdiche failing to execute basic function of defensive line play.
Defensive linemen that are asked to defend one gap often work in what's called a "triangle system". In a triangle system the lineman has two "keys": his read key which is the offensive linemen that he's directly lined up across from and his pressure key which is the offensive linemen lined up to the outside of him.
As the three technique Nkemdiche needs to hold strong in the B gap. Gap discipline is the foundation of any defense and players who can't stay in their gap really serve as a detriment to the entire defense. Consistent gap discipline is an area that Nkemdiche struggles with tremendously and it's due to a combination of slow reactions and sloppy technique.
Notice where Nkemdiche is looking at the snap of the ball. A basic fundamental of football is to see what you're going to hit; this is impossible if you're looking at the ground. Jacob Coker hasn't even handed the ball off to Derrick Henry and Nkemdiche has lost this rep. After the right guard's first step Nkemdiche finds himself in the A gap meaning he's failed read the "triangle" and already lost to his read key. This opens himself to a clean, mean pancake by center Ryan Kelly.
Even though Nkemdiche didn't have an effect on the result of the play, the process that he implements is flawed at an extremely basic level of defensive line play.
Let's set up our triangle read again.
Nkemdiche's initial interactions with the offensive linemen are good. He sees the guard, fires out at the snap of the ball, and attacks his read key.
The next step after attacking the read key is to get a sense of what his pressure key (the right tackle) is going to do. Once he deciphers that the right tackle is going to come down for the double team he essentially has one job: don't get blown off the line of scrimmage.
There are two main ways to attack a double team: blow up your read key and split it, or make a pile at the line of scrimmage to keep the linebackers clean. Nkemdiche lacks the instinctual intelligence to commit to either of these moves. Instead he just gets pummeled five yards downfield and allows the guard to make an extremely easy block on the second level.
Here's another example from his game against Mississippi State where he fails to react to his pressure key and gets blown off the ball even though he gets a good jump off the snap. Nkemdiche is lined over the left guard.
Right now, the most consistent part of Nkemdiche's game is his ability to chase down run plays from the backside. There's no denying that he's absolute freak athlete for a defensive tackle, but things still have to line up for him to make these plays.
An epidemic in college and a small part of the NFL is asking offensive linemen to complete "impossible blocks". Alabama's right guard wasn't keyed in on Nkemdiche on this play. His assignment was to chip him and get to the second level to cut off the flowing linebacker. This leaves Ryan Kelly in a near impossible situation.
It's unreasonable to expect a center to reach a three technique's outside shoulder, especially one with freakish athleticism like Nkemdiche has. This allows Nkemdiche to do what he does best: run and chase. Even though Nkemdiche attacks the A gap instead of the B gap he was aligned over, once he gets his torso past the line of scrimmage it's a wrap.
Nkemdiche is inconsistent with punching his hands and attack what's in front of him. Even though he gets through the (wrong) gap here, he doesn't use his hands to swim until the right guard has already declared that he's moving on to the second. He leans in with his shoulder before clearing his arm over top on his way to the backfield.
Of course, it's not all bad with Nkemdiche. Players as physically gifted as him are going to be "right" on a handful plays. He does flash raw power and explosion; when he does stay in his gap, read his keys, and shoot his hands he makes magnificent plays even if they don't show up on the stat sheet.
Nkemdiche is really a space player, which is a weird archetype to have as an interior player. If he gets a sliver of space, he can make things happen. Give him a wide area to work with and he'll run circles around most interior offensive linemen.
Nkemdiche has a tricky projection moving forward. On one hand he's in year two of a really tough transition. Moving from defensive end to the interior is difficult. The speed of the game is much faster playing defensive tackle. Down blocks, pulls, cuts, etc. all happen in the blink of an eye while playing on the edge is a bit more graceful.
However, he has two years of playing defensive tackle under his belt and still doesn't look like much more than a sub package player at this point in his career. He's not really polished in any facet of his game and is overly reliant on his athletic ability save for a spin move he's able to execute, albeit inconsistently.
His value right now is a bit unclear and the combine shouldn't change anything. It wouldn't be surprising if he ends up going high in the draft if a team isn't scared off by his off the field issues and thinks they can instill a baseline template of fundamentals to his game. That lack of fundamentals pushes him to Day 2 of the draft for me.
Where does he fit in with the Falcons?
I'm not sure Nkemdiche can really play anything other than three technique in the Falcons scheme. He doesn't take on blocks well enough to be the strongside, two gapping defensive end and he doesn't have the experience coming off the edge to play LEO. It'd be a crowded group with Ra'Shede Hageman, Jonathan Babineaux, and Grady Jarrett already there, but with Dan Quinn's desire to increase the athleticism on defense, it's not that farfetched of an idea.