Updated: Aug 12, 2021
After double-dipping on Tackles in the first 2 rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft, Brad Holmes sent out the clearest iteration yet of Dan Campbell's message of a 'Last Man Standing' mentality as in round 3 they completed a trifecta of drafted Tackles and thus sent the house of draft capital towards strengthening the trenches where the hardest battles are fought in the NFL. This third guy, Nose Tackle Alim McNeill from North Carolina State
Whilst the decision to triple dip on Tackles at the top of the draft was one that few Lions fans saw coming, especially with the high quality of prospects at positions of need like Receiver and Linebacker, on reflection it makes all the sense in the world that this is where Holmes and Campbell begin their project to restore the Lions to relevance. On the offensive side there are 2 critical objectives for the Offensive Line, keeping Jared Goff pressure free and creating room for the backfield of D'Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams and Jermar Jefferson to go and wreck teams. With the addition of Penei Sewell to Taylor Decker and Tyrell Crosby the Lions now possess a quality Left Tackle, a quality Swing Tackle, and a rookie with a ridiculously high ceiling in the NFL who will combine to create a Tackle unit that will give the Lions a great chance of completing those objectives, and when you mesh them with one of the leagues best Centers in Frank Ragnow and talented rookie Jonah Jackson you have a possible top 10 O-Line that will match up with the best D-Line's in the league.
The Defensive Line however has been a shambles in Detroit for years. It feels like it as well as the Lions have consistently NOT got at QB's, which has left many a secondary exposed and vulnerable to Play Action Passers and receivers with elite movement skills. If it wasn't for Romeo Okwara having a breakout year last season the line would have been completely hopeless.
Holmes and Campbell have seen this the moment they walked in the building and have moved quickly to begin fixing this very big problem. The crown jewel of their efforts has been the acquisition of DT Michael Brockers from the LA Rams, the under-appreciated partner in crime of Aaron Donald and someone who Brad Holmes knows and trusts to spearhead the rebuild of the line. He will be aided by a fully fit Trey Flowers who owes the Lions a big season and will hopefully be used effectively in Aaron Glenn's new defensive scheme. The D-Line development will also be aided by the addition of our two new talented rookies, Levi Onwuzurike from Washington who will play in the 3 & 5 Tech roles and is a great disruptor to Offensive Lines. But for me, the far more important acquisition is Alim McNeil. A great Nose Tackle makes a Defense so much harder to combat and should you get the chance to have one you take it with both hands, and my word, do we have one with the Wildcat from North Carolina.
Alim McNeill is 21 years old, 6'2 and weighs about 320 lbs. He spent 3 years with the North Carolina State Wildcats and played in a total of 32 games for them. Over this period he accrued 36 Solo Tackles and 41 Assisted Tackles for a total of 77 Tackles, 17.5 of which were Tackles For Loss. He also has 10 Sacks to his name as well as a Pick Six, 5 Passes Defended, and a pair of Forced Fumbles with a single Fumble Recovery.
Whilst not posting numbers that jump off the screen during the 2020 season (no reason for concern at all), he ended the season by picking up some notable accolades. He made it into the First-Team All-ACC, and he was named an AP (Associated Press) Second-Team All American by The Athletic and Pro Football Focus. McNeill was also the only Wildcat to be selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. His blend of speed for a guy his size and his pure brute strength was appealing to many NFL teams, as witnessed by the crestfallen reaction from the Eagles war room when the Lions swooped in and took him from right under their noses.
McNeill plays primarily as a Nose Tackle. In a 3-4 Defense you'll find him lined up at the 0-Tech position opposite the Center, and in a 4-3 you'll find him between 1-3 Tech which is opposite or either side of the Guard. When looking for a potential great Nose Tackle you'll need to look for the following;
Strength- Nose Tackles are subject to heavy double teams and are facing well-built Centers every week, they need pure strength to be able to frequently overcome them.
Endurance- Nose Tackles will take contact every single play, you need the endurance to take on all that contact and still be full of energy in the 4th quarter when you may be needed to step in and stop potential game winning drives
Explosion- The best way to beat your man on the LOS is to get a jump on him so he can't set himself to face you, so showing explosion off the line and catching him unaware is a big trait for any DT.
Leverage Skills / Good Hands- When you can't beat you man with pure explosion, you need to be able to use your hands and body to gain leverage and push O-Linemen into the backfield so you can get at QB's and RB's.
Disruption- The ability to collapse a pocket, create rushing lanes and cause havoc amongst the O-Line is a calling card any great NT will possess.
Selfless Attitude- Nose Tackle is not the most glorified position in the NFL. They put in a hell of a lot of work and take on grueling workloads and a lot of this is aimed towards creating opportunities for their teammates, be it taking on double teams to allow others uninterrupted plays, creating rushing lanes for Linebackers and Secondary guys to rush into the backfield so they can get the eye-catching sacks at the cost of racking up the stats themselves, so attitude is key for a NT.
(For this analysis I watched his games vs Miami (FL) and Liberty from last season)
So does Alim McNeill possess these attributes to help him become a great Nose Tackle in the NFL? In short, yes......every single one.
What jumps off the screen right away is his strength, the man is incredibly strong. On the vast majority of his plays against both Miami and Liberty he is double teamed, sometimes even triple teamed, and is seldom left in a 1 vs 1 situation against the Center, yet he wins the vast majority of the reps all the way through the game. The Miami Center has an absolutely horrible game trying to deal with him right from the very first play when McNeill swats him to the ground and eats up the poor running back trying to hit the gap next to him, on another play McNeil pushes him so far back that the running back who is still 5 yards in the backfield has to pull off a stunning 90 degree change of direction to avoid getting clattered by him. He can also take big hits and simply shake them off as witnessed on one play where the Left Guard absolutely clatters McNeill who has been tussling with the Center and to all intents it looks like he's been cleaned out, but not only has he absorbed the hit, he's latched on the Guard and has stopped him dead in his tracks, and this was a designed play for the Running Back to hit the gap that is meant to be there where McNeill shouldn't still be, and as a result the back runs straight into the guard who cannot get separation and blocks his own man thanks to McNeil's pure strength. It's worth noting as well that in both games, McNeill gets taken to ground just once which considering your in the trenches taking hits every single play is some achievement. Lions fans are going to love seeing how physically dominant McNeill is on the LOS.
Probably the most impressive aspect of watching McNeill on tape is his leverage skills and his use of hand movement. His ability to engage Offensive Linemen but then disengage at will if he is needed elsewhere is something else. There are many examples of him busy grappling with someone and then when a running back hits the gaps near him, him simply disengaging (which is not easy as you need to be winning the play to be able to get out the grasp of your opponent) and in the blink of an eye he's wrapped around the running back and bringing him down. There is a lovely play where he's getting heavy attention from the Center and Right Guard and the QB tries to sneak round them for a big gain if he gets by, McNeil sees this and somehow gets free of them both, blocks the running lane and forces the QB out wide right into the path of the OLB who comes in and absolutely clatters him, in one play you see his strength, leverage abilities, and his influence on the game creating opportunities for his teammates. Outside of that his repertoire of moves is impressive, McNeill can gain leverage on you with a brute strength Bull Rush, his swim movement is on point, pad level is really good and he rarely gets beat by that and it's usually him under the pads pushing you back, and for a 320lb guy, if he's struggling for separation, he's got the most beautiful spin move you'll ever see for a guy that size (13.50 into the Liberty review video that you'll find a link too at the end). Strength and Leverage are without doubt huge strengths for McNeill.
But don't make the mistake of thinking that he is all muscle and no brawn. McNeill is a very clever player. He won't win every play, no player does, but it's clear to see that when he knows he can't win a play, he will then think about what he can do next. And with him that next phase of play is to try and block a QB's passing corridor. Playing against Liberty, there's a play where he gets double teamed and is going nowhere so you see him look up at Malik Willis who's eyes are locked on his target, McNeill leverages his way into the passing corridor and Willis has to throw over him which he does, but cause he's had to go over McNeill he overcooks the pass and misses the receiver and it's picked off. On another play a few minutes later McNeill gets stuffed by the Left Guard so he separates and again goes straight to looking at Willis and gets right in his passing corridor, forcing Willis to move outside and go to a second read instead of having an easy completion. Seeing him able to diagnose plays like this and adjust to the situation just makes you admire him even more, he wants in on every play and knows how to achieve that.
So what kind of player are you getting with McNeill? You're getting a run stuffer extraordinaire. He swallows up anything and anybody who dares to try and run up the center of the field as O-Linemen simply can't contain him till the Back gets past, and when McNeil gets his hands on you, you're going nowhere, there is not a single example of someone shedding a tackle from him, once you see contact the play is over. You're getting a Nose Tackle who creates havoc in the Offensive Line, whether it be him taking up the attention of multiple opponents and giving opportunities to his teammates, collapsing the pocket and forcing QB's to run for dear life, or driving opponents to commit fouls on him just cause they don't want to deal with him on a level playing field (you don't see this in the film but college is a lot more lax with its rules and there are a fair few examples of fouls been committed that would be called in the NFL). You're also getting the ultimate team player. McNeill stats last season were not relatively great on paper, but that's before you see all the work he does in the trenches and believe you me, his impact on games cannot be understated, and he's well aware of this. He did an interview with Empire Sports Media before the draft and he was asked about his contribution for the team and he said he loved what he brought to the team, about how perfecting his game allows his teammates to flourish and at the end of it, he gets the recognition from his coaches and scouts and that is what matters when your part of a team, that everybody has their role to fill and if everyone does that then they will always be successful as a team. That's exactly the attitude a Nose Tackle in the NFL is going to need as he may not get the appreciation from casual fans for the flashy plays, but those who know the game will absolutely appreciate him for everything that he does on the field.
Now does he have any issues? Of course he does, he's not going 3rd round if he's a perfect player and he's a rookie transitioning as well. The big issue comes with his pass rushing, he needs to be able to win plays a little bit sooner than he does now to give himself time to get at the QB, and in the NFL that only gets harder to do. He has the move set, he just needs to be able to hone it to gain every advantage he can when rushing the passer. He's said on interview that he needs to improve his explosiveness off the line which personally I didn't see as an issue but it's good how he is always trying to push himself to the next level so that may fit into the pass rush scenario, extra explosion will get him to the QB quicker. Outside of that all he just really needs to carry on developing how he is with the rest of his game, he's already well on track with most aspects. And if the reports are anything to go by he settled in camp like a duck to water and is giving Ragnow and the Offensive Line a very tough time of it which does not surprise me in the slightest. McNeill is only going to keep getting better and lining up against Ragnow who is a top 3 Center in the league is only going to make him an even better prospect. Out of all the rookies he excites me the most and I'm quite confident when I predict in 5 years when his pro-deal comes around that he is going to be near or at the level of Kenny Clark, the premier NFL Nose Tackle over in Green Bay, he can be that good.
Alim McNeill is exactly what the doctor ordered for the Lions, a potential premier Nose Tackle (that's no slight on John Penisini, we are a pro-Penisini pod). Schematically with us playing a 3-4, a quality Nose Tackle is an absolute must and he brings all the attributes and more as to what we are going to need from him. His run stuffing abilities are going to be absolutely vital this season, given the Lions schedule is filled with run heavy teams like the Browns, Ravens, and 49ers and that's before you look at some of the league's elite running backs like Aaron Jones and Dalvin Cook who reside in our division. But even more importantly, the pure chaos he is able to inject into opposition Offensive Lines is going to present so many opportunities for his teammates to get into the opposition backfield to stop plays developing before they happen which is something we have needed for so long, guys like Derrick Barnes and Trey Flowers are going to thrive having genuine pass rushing lanes opened up for them. Kudos to Brad Holmes for this draft pick, I can't state just how much McNeill is going to change our franchise for the better. So here's to hoping this is the start of a very bright future in Detroit for the former wildcat who has now levelled up to a Lion.
If you wish to see my more in-depth review of Alim McNeill's college tape, just follow the link below:
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