On Monday, Bill argued that Carl Nassib is the most promising defensive lineman from Penn State hoping to be drafted this weekend. While I agree that Nassib is a fine prospect and one that is likely going to give some lucky team a huge bang for their buck when they pick him in the second or third round, I believe that Austin Johnson is the best player that the Lions have to offer on the defensive line this year.
Bill mentioned yesterday that Nassib probably has the lowest floor of the three (Anthony Zettel being the third member of the group), which I agree with. On a similar note, I believe Austin Johnson has the highest floor while also sporting a ceiling that could be just as high as Nassib's.
Austin Johnson is built for the NFL. He's a space-eater who can occupy multiple blockers in the middle of the line, is still quick enough to rush the passer when given the opportunity to do so, knows how to diagnose plays and has a never-ending motor. While at Penn State, he showed the ability to do everything that NFL defensive tackles are asked to do and more.
One of the main reasons that Nassib was able to break out the way he did was the fact that opposing teams routinely devoted two blockers to stopping Johnson. Occupying blockers may not be the kind of thing that shows up on a stat sheet, but it makes every other defender's job easier. Johnson is a phenomenal player on his own, but one of his very best skills is his ability to make everyone around him look better.
Don't think that putting two linemen on Johnson will take him out of the play, though. Despite having four hands draped all over him, AJ still showed the ability to get himself into running lanes and either take out the runner himself or take away an escape route from the backfield and funnel said runner towards an oncoming defender. His brute strength allows him to direct his blockers where he wants to go, not just where they want to go. He won't be able to do this quite as easily in the NFL, but it shouldn't take too long for him to get to a place where he can bully any opposing lineman he wants.
For most defensive tackles, that's where the story ends. And that's okay, because a big, run-stuffing tackle is more than enough for most NFL teams. Johnson is more than that, however. And the extra aspects of his game are what make him truly special.
First off, there's the motor. I mean, my god, have you ever watched this guy run down a running back on a screen pass? There have been multiple occasions over the past two seasons in which Austin Johnson has a) read the screen pass b) disengaged his blocker(s) c) gotten himself to the flat to cut off a running lane and d) run the dude out of bounds or to another defender for a loss or minimal gain. That's a defensive tackle doing all of that. If I told you that was a linebacker, you wouldn't be surprised. But that's a 314 pound tackle. Beware, NFL running backs.
Then there's the pass-rushing ability. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Austin Johnson is the next Geno Atkins or Michael Bennett when it comes to rushing the passer from the tackle position, but you could do far, far worse in that department. Coming off of his most prolific season in terms of plays in the backfield (15.0 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks), Johnson proved that when he has the opportunity to do so, he'll be there to make a play on the quarterback.
Johnson is the total package at the defensive tackle position. In any other year, he would be a sure-fire first round pick. And for all we know, he still is in the minds of NFL scouts. However, with the position being especially loaded this year, an extremely lucky and grateful team is going to have the chance to pick up a potential ten-year starter in the second round. Austin Johnson is the best defensive line prospect from Penn State in this year's NFL Draft, and no disrespect to Carl Nassib or Anthony Zettel, but he has that title firmly locked up.