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The Derrick Nnadi film review: pure strength

NCAA Football: Florida at Florida State
Florida State Seminoles defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi (91) chases down Florida Gators quarterback Austin Appleby (12) during the second half of the game at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Football has changed over the last 15 years or so. Offenses overall have become more pass-oriented and less focused on ground-and-pound football. Defenses have responded by getting smaller, faster and more versatile across the board. It’s a new age, from what they tell me.

Of course, you still have to be able to stop the run when it absolutely counts. The Chiefs learned that, from all appearances, in January. And they don’t seem keen on repeating that particular life lesson.

Enter Derrick Nnadi (the guy across from the center, not the circled one).

I’ve watched a lot of football over the last seven years. And that is one of the most “put the center on skates” snaps I’ve ever seen. Go ahead, watch it again. It’s truly delightful.

General manager Brett Veach used last week’s draft, as far as I can tell, as an opportunity to address very specific weaknesses that plagued the defense last season:

  • So the pass rush stagnant outside of Houston and Jones? They snagged Breeland Speaks (That’s the idea, at least. We’ll see on him).
  • Safeties and coverage units in the nickel sets were problematic? Hi Armani Watts and Dorian O’Daniel!
  • Run defense lacks toughness and strength? You grab arguably the strongest two-down run defender in the entire draft.

And make no mistake, that’s what Derrick Nnadi is. A hard-nosed, tough to move, physical presence in the middle of the line who is built to impose his will on opposing centers and guards when they attempt to run his way.

As we did with Speaks, let’s talk about the traits Nnadi shows on film (I was able to review a half-dozen of his games). We’ll start with the good, then talk about a few concerns. From the get-go, one thing is clear: this dude is strong. Like, the kind of strong that is noticeable on a field full of giants, the kind of strong that allows him to take on two of those giants and not only hold his ground, but take some of his own.

There are a few different kinds of strength in football. You’ve got guys with very strong hands, who are capable of winning hand-fighting battles with ease. Then there are guys with strong arms/chests, who are able to bench press other players off them in order to gain freedom of movement. Then there’s lower body strength, the ability to turn yourself into a granite slab and go nowhere, regardless of what the other guy wants to do.

Nnadi possesses all of those kinds of strength, and it made him a phenomenal run defender in college.

When we think of strength in a run defender, people often picture snaps like the first on in this article: brutishly shoving an opposing offensive lineman backward. And that’s definitely important. However, for me the most important thing for a run defender up front is whether or not he can handle double teams coming at him. If he can’t opposing offensive coordinators will scheme them to run at him all day with an extra blocker starting off on him then sliding to a linebacker.

In college, Nnadi held his ground in that situation time and again.

On this snap Nnadi (playing the A gap between the center and right guard) has to deal with two interior offensive linemen at the snap. The center and guard execute a combo block, in which the center starts off assisting the guard to try and drive Nnadi out of the gap, then moves down the field to the linebacker.

The idea here is, as stated, to use the strength of both players to get movement on the defensive lineman and create a big gap, all while giving momentum to the remaining blocker when the center moves on.

It doesn’t work out here because Nnadi is just too strong, has pad level that’s too low, and sets his base up far too well. So instead of getting movement on him, he stays right where he’s at and is even able to push the guard off his chest in order to watch the ball carrier. When the center moves on (which he has to, or the LB has a free run at the RB), Nnadi disengages and meets the LB in the hole.

Nnadi accomplishes two things here: First, he slows down the center getting to his second block. That’s wildly important in the run game. You always hear about defensive linemen “keeping linebackers clean,” and the reality is it’s all about giving them an extra second of freedom to fill gaps. After that, he dominates his own man, remains aware of what’s going on around him, and makes a hit on the runner.

That’s a great run defense snap for Nnadi, and they happened quite frequently.

This play is another example of Nnadi keeping two offensive linemen engaged long enough for the linebacker to get up the field. It didn’t affect the overall play much, as the defense blew it up quickly, but you can see the problems Nnadi causes to play designs at the point of attack. Teams really didn’t want to go his way, because they just weren’t able to move him much, even with double teams.

Against individual linemen, Nnadi’s strength in run defense flashed as well.

Nnadi weighed 317 pounds at the combine while standing at 6 feet 1. That’s a stout, stout individual. And really, he plays even more stout. Almost any snap you watch, he’s the lowest guy at the snap on either offense or defense, and it shows in how little linemen are able to move him.

Regardless of the type of block, offensive linemen weren’t able to generate push on Nnadi the majority of the time in one-on-one situations. He consistently demonstrated the ability to not only stay put, but also to press OL away from him in order to watch the runner to protect his gaps. Even further, he was able to get movement of his own to put himself in the path of a runner.

Offenses take a risk when they have Nnadi matched up against a single blocker on run downs, because there’s a good chance they not only will fail to move/seal him, but that he’ll be able to generate some push in the direction of the run and shrink any gap they have.

In addition to being borderline immovable on plenty of snaps, Nnadi is also able to use his strength to shed blockers, sometimes just tossing them aside.

(note: in the following clip I call the guard a center for... some reason)

There are very few things more fun than watching a defensive lineman just chuck a 300-pound opponent out of his way. With Nnadi, you are treated to that sight at least several times a game.

Nnadi really demonstrates the whole package as a defensive line run defender. He’s incredibly stout, with a low center of gravity and strength in his upper and lower body. He can keep offensive linemen off him and generally demonstrates solid awareness of where the play is going.

He can take on double teams consistently. He’s able to move individual linemen or even have them slide off him due to his strength and balance. He’s got the ability to re-anchor when he loses initially.

There aren’t many flaws in that aspect of his game, and if he shows up in similar fashion at the next level (always a projection and never a sure thing), he’ll be an immediate help against the run.

So why, then, with all this gushing, wasn’t Nnadi a first or even a second-round pick?

For the exact reason you’ve probably heard a million times by now: he’s not a pass rusher. I could show you a hundred clips of Nnadi generating little pass rush against individual blockers, but that would be pretty dull and is a lot less fun than “good” clips. But it’s the reality.

The bottom line

Given Nnadi’s great strength, you would think that he could consistently generate pressure with a bull rush or a push-pull move. But the reality is that while he occasionally will show a good bull rush or toss aside a blocker to get some pressure, he lacks the quickness to separate from blockers when they’re pass protecting, and when you’ve only got one real “move” to use, that’s generally not going to cut it.

Obviously that’s a very short seeming section on weaknesses, but the fact is that guys who can’t rush the passer at the college level rarely learn to do so effectively as a pro, and Nnadi appears to be part of a dying breed: two-down defensive linemen who are almost invisible when it’s time to rush the passer. That limits his upside an overall impact on the defense. That’s a big deal, and enough to temper my excitement about him overall.

However, from a strength and toughness standpoint, Nnadi appears to be ready to help the defense immediately. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him win the nose tackle job quickly, with the obvious caveat that we’ll need to see how he looks against professional linemen before gauging whether his strength advantage continues at the next level.

For now, I’m quite happy with a guy who appears tailor-made to help with a very, very critical weakness on the defense last year, even if he is one-dimensional. Because when you’re deficient in one area on defense, it can affect an entire game plan.

Here’s hoping Nnadi is part of the solution to last year’s defense’s biggest problem.

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