What the Eagles Need At Nose Tackle

The Eagles have dropped not-so-subtle hints about a scheme change all offseason long.

Chip Kelly has talked about preferring a 3-4. And Howie Roseman has discussed the versatility of specific players like Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham.

But one position the Eagles likely will have to address in the coming months is nose tackle. Antonio Dixon could be in the mix, but he’s played a total of 122 snaps the past two seasons.

Before we look at some free-agent options, it’s important to identify what kind of player the Eagles might be looking for. Mike Triplett of The New Orleans Times-Picayune recently provided a breakdown of 3-4 teams vs. 4-3 teams. He found that 14 teams ran a 3-4 or a hybrid that required some use of a nose tackle.

Below is a table with those 14 teams and their nose tackles. Playing time percentages are from Pro Football Focus.

Nose Tackle
Playing Time
RedskinsBarry Cofield6-431867.5%
PackersB.J. Raji6-233768.4%
CardinalsDan Williams6-332741.6%
49ersIsaac Sopoaga6-233032.2%
SeahawksBrandon Mebane6-131162.7%
TexansEarl Mitchell6-330036.1%
ColtsAntonio Johnson6-331049.3%
PatriotsVince Wilfork6-232581.8%
JetsSione Pouha6-332537.9%
RavensTerrence Cody6-434132.1%
SteelersCasey Hampton6-132549.6%
ChiefsDontari Poe6-335074.4%
ChargersCam Thomas6-433537.2%
CowboysJay Ratliff6-430367.3%
AVERAGE6-2 4/5324.152.7%

A few things stand out here. First of all, let’s look at height and weight. All 14 nose tackles fall within the range of 6-1 and 6-4. The average height for the group is 74.8 inches, or just a shade under 6-3.

They are all also between 300 and 350 pounds. The average weight of the group is 324.1.

And then there’s playing time. This might be the most important factor because it shows not all nose tackles are created equal. The Patriots run a hybrid scheme, but they have a five-time Pro Bowler in Vince Wilfork, who played 81.8 percent of the snaps last season. Isaac Sopoaga, meanwhile, is a true first- and second- down, play-the-run, nose tackle. But that meant he was only on the field for 32.2 percent of San Francisco’s snaps.

In other words, this position can be as important as Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis want it to be. As Kelly has said time and again, scheme decisions will be personnel-driven.

Back in July, Field Yates of ESPN.com provided this description for a 3-4 nose tackle:

A 3-4 nose tackle requires an athlete strong and large enough to consistently hammer up against double teams, while also one athletic and instinctive enough to play laterally and diagnose offensive plays.

And Seahawks coach Pete Carroll once offered his description of the nose tackle in a 4-3 under (per FieldGulls.com):

“At Nose Tackle you have to find a player who likes to mix it up. We want a big guy in there who likes to get down and dirty. He is going to get doubled a lot on the run and pass and is going to get down blocked a lot. He has to be a tough player. This guy can be a short and stubby type of player.”

In other words, the nose tackle’s job is often to do the dirty work, not pile up gaudy tackle and sack statistics. His contributions will be measured by how much other players benefit from his actions.

Keeping all that in mind, who are some potential nose tackles available in free agency?

Sopoaga is one. Tom Gamble is obviously familiar with him from his time in San Francisco. But Sopoaga turns 32 in September and does not provide the versatility the Eagles might be looking for. If they simply want a veteran, big-bodied nose tackle who can play the run, though, he could be an option.

Tampa’s Roy Miller is another. He’s 6-2, 310 and only 25-years-old. Miller played 48.7 percent of the snaps last year. He’s also a two-down player and won’t provide a lot of versatility as a pass-rusher. Tommy Lawlor over at IgglesBlitz.com has a good scouting report up on Miller.

Temple product Terrance Knighton will be on the market too. From a size/age perspective, he fits the bill, even though the production and consistency haven’t always been there. Knighton, 26, is 6-3, 330.

Alan Branch (6-6, 325) is another name to watch, especially if the reports about Kelly valuing length on defense are true. Branch is 28 and played the last two seasons in Seattle (a 4-3 under). However, he did not play nose tackle for Gus Bradley and company.

Some have asked about Pittsburgh’s Casey Hampton, but he turns 36 in September. Houston’s Shaun Cody (6-4, 307) is also on the market.

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  • Dan

    I really think taking a NT in free agency would be a mistake. Generally, teams’ won’t let go of such a player until his production begins to decline. The Eagles should start with someone fresh who can come in and learn the terminology early rather than trying to teach a veteran who could be on the decline. If they can get one in free agency cheap, then sure.

  • JofreyRice

    Miller or Knighton would be good choices. When he’s on, Knighton is a much superior player, in terms of movement ability and size. I’m also intrigued by Sammie Lee Hill, who’s had to play behind Suh, Fairley, and Corey Williams.

    There are some good players in this draft, but I doubt the nose tackle is going to be on the field for more than 50% of the snaps. I think you can add a young productive guy that can stuff the run in the base defense here, and fill a hole, so you can take players at other positions in April.

    I also think Eric Winston is being underrated here as a possible FA pickup. He’s only 29, and can come in and play at a very high level–especially if they are going to run an IZ/OZ heavy system, which is what he did in Houston. Reid is making some very weird decisions in KC.

    • nicksaenz1

      I think he set it up to draft Joeckel with the 1st pick and put him at RT, which some gurus are saying he’ll end up playing.

  • Sig

    It would be interesting to know what round those NT were drafted in. Is it a position you can pick up in the layer rounds? Is there a large bust factor?

    • theycallmerob

      Lucky for you, the sequester has left me with some idle time. Their draft rounds are as follow:
      Cofield= 4, Raji= 1, Williams= 1, Sopoaga= 4, Mebane= 3, Mitchell= 3, Johnson= 5, Wilfork= 1, Pouha= 3, Cody= 2, Hampton= 1, Poe= 1, Thomas= 5, Ratliff= 7. Average position is about the 3rd round.
      Although it seems a large hole to fill (no pun intended), IMO there are other needs which would require the higher picks. Kelly/Roseman would be wise to grab a NT prospect later on, but I don’t see any true studs who would do for us what Wilfork and Ngata are known for.

      • I agree spend the first two rounds on other positions pick up a FA NT and draft the kid out of Georgia (the other kid) and call it a day.

  • Knighton was someone I thought would be a good fit here a fews months ago (when I was hoping we would transition). I think that is a real possibility. He has some huge upside given the opportunity.

  • PaoliBulldog

    Adding a two-down NT through free agency and then trying to draft a more athletic NT of the future sounds like the least risky approach.

  • Jack Waggoner

    It definitely depends on the defense, but I don’t think they’re looking for a 0-technique tackle; they want a 1-technique. Which is a bit easier to find since he doesn’t have to be as much of a freak of nature.

  • Andy

    How sure are we about Vince Wilfork’s 325?

  • Mitchell

    Give me Hankins from Ohio State. Someone said his motor is weak but watch the tape. His motor is excellent. You are obviously going to get tired getting double teamed constantly.

  • Jenkins from Georgia…… big athletic nose tackle anchoring one of the better 3-4 defenses in the nation.