At the center of Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s best defenses during his time in Pittsburgh was a very very large man named Casey Hampton. Hampton was officially listed at 6’-1” tall and 325 lbs, but by the prime of his playing career 325 lbs was probably in the rearview mirror.
Asked if his nose tackle's listed playing weight was close, LeBeau deadpanned, "Yeah, his right leg probably weighs about 325."
Not that LeBeau minded. Hampton’s job was to eat space and blockers on a football field and as long as he was doing that LeBeau didn’t care what he ate off the field. For 7 years between 2004 and 2010 in the prime of Hampton’s illustrious career the Steelers never finished outside of the top 5 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed. Hampton was one of the primary drivers of that stout run defense. A 3-4 nose tackle who can consistently require a double team and move piles is an incredibly valuable asset. It essentially makes every running play a 10-on-9 numbers advantage for the defense. Despite their importance to the success of a defense, they rarely accumulate traditional stats. These are not sack masters or tackle machines. They are the rock in the middle of the defense that allows those other guys to succeed.
The closest thing to Casey Hampton in today’s NFL is Brandon Williams from the Ravens. Williams stands 6’-1” tall, like Hampton, and is listed at 340 lbs which is probably pretty close to Hampton’s real playing weight during his prime. Only the most rabid of football fans outside of Baltimore probably even know this guy’s name, but he is likely to be one of the most sought after free agents in the NFL among teams that run 3-4 defenses.
- Age: 27
- Height: 6’-1”
- Weight: 340 lbs
- College: Missouri Southern State
- Experience: 4 years
- Drafted in 3rd round (#94 overall) of 2013 NFL draft by Baltimore
Brandon Williams Career Stats.csv
More important than individual stats for nose tackles is the overall performance of the run defense. Since Williams became the full time starter in 2014, Baltimore has finished 3rd, 12th, and 5th in run defense.
Here is what NFL.com had to say about Williams going in to the 2013 NFL Draft:
Presents a low center of gravity and strong upper body to push consistently push man-up blockers into the backfield. Gets hands on his man fast, extends his arm to get leverage and can hold his ground. Uses his hands to swim or rip past blockers into the backfield. Also wins gaps by attacking a shoulder or out-quicking his man with a first step. Moves down the line adeptly while engaged to flow with plays. Flashes the agility to jump over trash inside and move well in a stand-up rush position despite his thick lower body. Directs teammates on their responsibilities before the snap. Lines up at five-technique, nose and everywhere in-between.
Doesn’t make a lot of plays outside the box because of average effort and closing speed. Inconsistent at finding the ball, lowers his head at times trying to win gaps, allowing himself to get ridden out of plays. Slow to spin off blocks, and double-teams can move him. Must prove himself against stronger linemen, also that he has the stamina to be more than a rotational player.
NFL COMPARISON: Brandon Thompson
Williams became a three-time All-American as a senior, using a combination of strength and agility not usually seen at the Division II. He doesn't have nearly the same skills as someone like Dontari Poe, but has enough talent to be at least a solid rotational tackle who could stick in the league for a while.
How Williams Fits the Titans
The Titans signed Al Woods before the 2014 season to come play the nose tackle spot in Ray Horton’s defense. Woods isn’t your typical big body 3-4 nose. He checks in at 6’-4” tall and 304 lbs which is quite a bit lighter than usual. 2014 was the first year of the transition to the 3-4 and the Titans had to find somebody who had experience playing there since the only other option on the roster when Whisenhunt and Horton arrived was Sammie Lee Hill who had spent his entire NFL career to that point as a 3-technique defensive tackle. Despite his lack of experience, Hill started over Woods during the 2014 season and at the beginning of the 2015 season before injuries opened the door for Woods to step in. The Titans moved on from Hill after that campaign and gave Woods a small contract extension to keep him here through the 2018 season. That brings us to 2016 when Woods was the full time starter ahead of 2nd round pick, Austin Johnson. While the Titans run defense was above average on the season, Woods was largely unimpressive. Since traditional statistics aren’t very useful for evaluating the play of a nose tackle, we have to rely more on data from sites like PFF and the eye test. Woods’ performance in 2016 was dreadful according to PFF grades. He graded out at 46.1 overall which is good for 127th among interior defenders (3-4 NTs, 3-4 DEs, and 4-3 DTs fall in this category). This grade includes pass rush, which isn’t something you really expect a 3-4 nose tackle to excel in, but even if you isolate just his run defense grade you get 53.6 for a ranking of 110th. In my opinion, the eye test tells me that he wasn’t quite that bad, but by the end of the season Austin Johnson was pretty clearly outplaying him.
Brandon Williams, on the other hand, finished as the 25th best run stopper in the NFL among interior defenders according to PFF with a grade of 77.9. His build makes him virtually impossible to move with one offensive lineman as Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin and Williams’ teammate Michael Pierce noted in this article:
Opposing coaches certainly are cognizant of how Williams can wreck a play. The Dallas Cowboys, who are lauded for having the NFL's best offensive line, frequently double-teamed Williams. Before facing the Ravens this season, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called Williams "the man inside" and said he "generally requires two men to block him."
Pierce, who plays alongside Williams, estimated that Williams sees a double team nearly 70 percent of the time.
Take a look at the impact Williams (#98) has on the plays below. These are things I’ve never seen Al Woods do here.
Williams has even been heralded as the most underrated player in the NFL by CBS prior to the start of the 2016 season, which was his best as a pro. He is still largely unknown by most NFL fans, but the Ravens certainly have a healthy respect for his abilities. Long time Ravens Assistant GM, Eric DeCosta recently stated that the Ravens want to bring him back this offseason.
“He’s an ‘A’ player for us, he’s one of our best defensive players,” DeCosta said. “He’s a rock inside. This guy can stuff the run, he can rush the quarterback, he can do everything we want him to do.”
The Ravens clearly will want to do everything they can to retain Williams, but it will be tricky for them. They enter the 2017 offseason with just over $15M of free cap space and only a couple apparent opportunities for “easy” savings. They could move on from guys like Elvis Dumervil and Ben Watson, but that only clears another $9M. They could also decline Mike Wallace’s 2017 team option and save $8M, but that would leave them in a bad spot at wide receiver with Steve Smith retiring (for real this time) and Kamar Aiken hitting free agency as well. Without Wallace they would be down to just the oft-injured Breshad Perriman as the only remaining wide receiver with any real NFL experience. Williams will likely command something around $12-13M per year on the open market so they could fit him in and still just barely be able to slide their rookie contracts in if they cut Dumervil and Watson but kept Wallace. Even that scenario leaves them thin at wide receiver though and it ignores the fact that Timmy Jernigan, their outstanding defensive end/tackle, will be due a major pay raise this offseason if they want to keep him from hitting the open market next season. Will they be willing to pay $12-13M a year to Williams knowing that Jernigan will likely command as much, or more by next season? I’m not sure.
While the primary focus of the Titans 2017 offseason should absolutely be improving the cornerback position, I think getting a guy like Brandon Williams could lock down a key spot in our 3-4 defense for years to come. A lot of people like the idea of Dontari Poe as a nose tackle option, but for my money, Williams is better. He also doesn’t carry the injury history that Poe has accumulated over the last couple seasons. I think adding Brandon Williams to play between Casey and Jones would take the Titans run defense from above average to excellent. Williams is a perfect fit for a Dick LeBeau defense as he could absolutely replicate the role that made Casey Hampton a 5-time Pro Bowler. I would even argue that Williams lateral agility and quickness may be even better than Hampton’s. If the Titans were able to sign this guy I may even break out a dance like his...