November 6, 2010; University Park,PA, USA: Penn State Nittany Lions defensive tackle Devon Still (71) sacks Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa (left) late in the 4th quarter at Beaver Stadium. Penn State won 35-21. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

Devon Still: Square Peg For A Round Hole

It’s very early in the mock draft season, so we’re going to be spinning on this merry-go-round a few times, but we’ve got an early dark horse for the Kansas City Chiefs’ #11/#12 overall draft selection, thanks to media draft gurus Mel Kiper and Don Banks.

That beast player is Penn State defensive tackle extraordinaire Devon Still.  And to hear some of the experts tell it, he’s a perfect match for the Red and Gold:

Given the Chiefs’ need for an offensive tackle, they could pounce on Iowa’s Reiff if he falls past No. 9 Miami or opt for Stanford tackle Jonathan Martin. But Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli knows you can never have enough talented defensive linemen, and Still is a top-10-rated prospect who can provide a disruptive force in the middle of the Chiefs’ 3-4 front.

Now, it’s super-early in the process of determining what players fit where, and what teams are clearly hunting for.  And here at AA, we just follow the Chiefs with microscopic focus, whereas Banks (who is quoted above) has the totality of professional football in his jurisdiction, and Kiper follows the totality of the draft process.  So some level of understanding of what these pros have to carry could excuse certain oversights for what exactly fits in Kansas City from time to time.

But let’s clear the air: we are entering the third year of coordinator-turned-head-coach Romeo Crennel’s defense, and the fourth year of GM Scott Pioli’s reign of the two-gap 3-4 defense in Kansas City.  There is no mystery for what this team is looking for defensively, and there is no mystery as to what kind of players fit that scheme, particularly along the defensive line.  In addition to Pioli and Crennel’s time in Kansas City, they were among the most highly discussed personnel scouts for half a decade in New England.  They’re not exactly unknown quantities, people.  So mocking Devon Still to the defense is inexusable.

At this point, we know exactly what the 3-4 defensive line is supposed to look like in Kansas City (and while this may be review for most of you, I’m willing to grant there are still folks out there who are alien to the concept of a 3-4 defensive line in a two-gap scheme):  you’re going to have two massive defensive ends in the prototypical neighborhood of 6’4″-ish, 285 – 310 lbs, and a massive, powerful nose tackle in the range of 315 – 350 lbs, depending on the nose’s strength and athleticism.  Their job will be to win the line of scrimmage by holding the point of attack.  Their primary responsibility is not necessarily to penetrate into the backfield, but to plug the gaps in the offensive line so effectively it forces offensive lineman to double-team them.

Offensive lineman are obviously the biggest and best blockers on offense; so the defensive line’s job is to neutralize what they can do.  Occupy as many of them as possible so that other players, namely linebackers or blitzers, can face as few of them as possible over the course of a game.  In a one-gap scheme, the defensive line’s job is to be disruptive in the opposing team’s backfield, and the rest of the defense covers for them or attacks with them.  In a two-gap scheme, the defensive line’s job is to be a wall of granite that commands serious attention to budge, and the rest of the defense is free to roam.

Devon Still is a study 6’4″ and 310 lbs, with a frame that would allow for even more poundage if a team felt so inclined.  I could see him playing comfortably at 325 lbs.  He’s had a great senior season which rocketed him to the top of the draft board due to him finally learning how to anchor.  Too often as a junior, he was a player with nose tackle size who played with the strength of an undertackle.  This year, he’s finally learned to anchor by getting very low and uncoiling into gaps with such great power; few offensive lineman had answers for him all year.

Still has a ways to go.  He’s still learning the nuances of the position, and while he can play an entire game with steamrolling velocity, he also can completely disappear at times.  The result, perhaps, of his occasionally documented lack of effort that has been mentioned.  This does mean that if you’re able to tap into his potential through good coaching and excellent motivation, you’re getting a guy whose ceiling is a step or two (or three) down from Ndamukong Suh.  But again, that’s if you put all the pieces together.  (It should be mentioned, however, that Still was a team captain and very popular in the locker room.)

So after the brief introduction of the two-gapping scheme in Kansas City and Devon Still himself, the question emerges: why is he a poor fit in Kansas City?  The short answer: because he doesn’t fit what the Chiefs are lacking, and where he does fit, the Chiefs are almost completely set for 2012.

Kiper and Banks both suggested that Still could occupy the nose position between defensive ends Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson.  But Devon Still doesn’t project to the 3-4 nose tackle position in a two-gap defense.  The biggest difference between the one-gap and two-gap defenses is in the nose tackle position.  The nose tackle in a one-gap is truly a rare, elite player, somebody who can be a force in the run game by shooting a gap and blowing past offensive lineman and stay in for obvious passing situations due to their ability to generate heat on the QB from up the middle.  The two-gap nose isn’t necessarily some elite athlete, but instead is somebody who was born to wrestle in the phone booth.  He is a specialist.  He occupies one very small (but critical) part of the field and comes off during obvious passing downs.  He is indifferent to generating pressure, but instead is focused on plugging.  He is bigger than the one-gap nose (usually), and every play he is a clog that is moving towards wherever the ball happens to be.  As a result, the position is also greatly frustrating to the average player; an elite two-gapping nose truly does cherish his limited, thankless role.  His mind needs to be in the right place.

Still doesn’t come across to me, or really anybody, like The Big Clog that a two-gap defense needs at the nose position.  He gets momentum up field, attacked gaps for Penn State’s defensive scheme, and is still trying to master the art of anchoring and getting his pads low.  If he has any role in a nose tackle position at all, it’s in a one-gap 3-4 or (more likely) a 4-3 defense that needs a bigger presence inside.  And his motor is questioned from time to time, and after dealing with the issues of first-round WR Johnathan Baldwin in 2011, the Chiefs are looking for a squeaky clean player who cherishes his role on the defensive line, like Pioli-draftees Tyson Jackson and Allen Bailey.  Neither of those players have any lapses in their effort or passion, and both of them love to line up in their respective positions.

In order for Still to thrive as a nose tackle for a two-gap scheme, he would have to gain around 10-15 additional pounds of muscle, be motivated to keep his effort consistent, and be extensively coached into anchoring and occupying blockers better.  He’s worth that kind of effort to a lot of 4-3 teams that desperately need size inside, but my guess is the Chiefs are looking for someone they don’t have to rebuild from scratch.

That said, he could be a force as a 3-4 defensive end!  He is athletic enough to handle tackles and cover more ground than the nose tackle position would ask of him!  He’s also got long arms and an explosion that would no-doubt command attention that would free up passrushers on the outside or blitzers on the inside.  Even in the two-gap, he’d be a good fit.

The problem is, the Chiefs are currently three-deep at the defensive end position (four-deep if they do the smart thing and resign Wallace Gilberry).  Players on our defensive line under contract:

LDE: Glenn Dorsey, Allen Bailey
NT: Amon Gordon, Jerrell Powe
RDE: Tyson Jackson, Brandon Bair

Certainly the team likes what it’s getting out of Dorsey and Jackson. It’s a mystery what the team will choose to do with Dorsey when next year’s offseason rolls around, however, they’re unlikely to franchise him, as that honor will unquestionably go to LT Branden Albert.  It also depends on how freak-of-nature Allen Bailey continues to develop.  Bailey’s already got an impressive passrush to his game, if he can develop more into a complete end, we may just Dorsey go into the free market and find a defense that’s a better fit for his talents.

So the path for Still to Kansas City would have to be an investment the Chiefs are making not in the nose tackle position, but into an end position because they (a.) are confident they’re going to let Dorsey go in 2013, and (b.) don’t believe Allen Bailey will be up to the task.

At this point, I’m willing to bet they’re not confident enough in either of those factors.  Devon Still will not be the Chiefs first-round selection.

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