When the Raiders selected DT Justin Ellis with the 107th overall selection in this year’s NFL Draft, it represented the first defensive tackle that the Raiders had taken higher than the 6th round since the team, under Al Davis, took Junior Ioane out of Arizona State in 2000.
In that time, the Raiders have, unsurprisingly, struggled to find players to be consistent in the center of the defensive line. Reggie McKenzie has taken a defensive tackle in each of his drafts so far, but both Christo Bilukidi in 2012 and Stacy McGee in 2013 were taken in the 6th round.
With Ellis, the Raiders made their biggest investment in the interior of their defensive line in almost a decade and a half!
So how does Ellis look on tape, you ask?
First, Justin Ellis is a big guy – especially in comparison to others on his team at Louisiana Tech – and he stands out among the other players. He typically played the nose position, which makes sense given his size, but he has the athleticism to also jump to other positions. At times, he even jumped out to play defensive end in a 3-4 alignment.
Ellis shows good explosion off the snap and he gets into offensive line quickly. It’s not unusual for him to get a couple of steps into his stride before the offensive linemen engage him, and so he does a good job of collapsing the front of the pocket and creating pressure up the middle.
Ellis is frequently double teamed but he has exceptional anchoring ability and lower body strength. Even when going against two offensive linemen, Ellis was able to either hold his ground (in a running play) or continue to push toward the quarterback (in a passing play).
While he lacks a variety of pass moves, his bull rush is great and he’s able to push one blocker back, consistently. When he goes against two blockers, he has the ability to at least hold his ground and, at times, he can split the rushers to make a play in the backfield.
Here is an example of a time that Ellis was able to split two blockers to hit a ball carrier in the backfield. In the gif, below, Ellis gets great push on the center and pushes the center back so quickly that the left guard cannot get out of his stance and into Ellis in time. Instead, the guard glances off of Ellis’ side and Ellis is able to get into the backfield and stuff the running back for a big loss:
There is a still shot of Ellis splitting the double team, below. He isn’t able to do this on every snap, but it’s an impressive feat of explosion and coordination:
In fact, when Ellis is fresh, he has a fantastic first step, which allows him to be a disruptive force in the backfield. Here is a screen shot of Ellis coming off the line. Notice how much faster he has come out of his stance than anyone else on either line:
Ellis actually surprised me as a pass rusher – he was much better in the passing game than I expected. It has more to do with pure physical ability and his strengths as a bull-rusher than it does technique. In fact, outside of his bull rush, I hardly saw him do any other pass rushing techniques successfully.
At times, he will attempt spin moves and I saw the swat and swim and rip moves a couple of times, but his bull-rush is his go-to and was by his most effective. I don’t expect this to change much in his transition to the NFL. While he will assuredly continue to work on other moves, he will likely always be a bull-rusher first and foremost. This is not a negative, just an educated guess.
Another thing that stands out for Ellis is that he has a very good motor. Because he has a strong lower body and he’s not particularly tall – he’s listed as 6’2″ and 334lbs – he has a good, low center of gravity and doesn’t get knocked off of his feet very often.
When he does, however, he is not one of those defensive tackles that lays on the ground and watches the play go on around him – he does a good job of getting up and continuing to play.
Here is a link to an example of his motor, that comes from his game versus Southern Miss. In the play, Ellis is knocked down in his initial contact with the left guard, who goes low on him. He falls on top of the guard but keeps his head up and gets up right away, coming up with a big sack on the QB (this play resulted in the picture at the top of this article, too):
Here is another example of Ellis staying in the play. In this example, Ellis gets good inside penetration and the ball carrier goes outside the left tackle for a good gain. Ellis stays with the play, however, and ends up making the tackle about 6 yards down the field. As you can see in the replay, he puts a very solid hit on the running back, who ends up fumbling the ball:
As you can see, when Ellis is “on”, he’s a force to block and makes plays. He does struggle with consistency – something that is common for larger players, who must exert a lot of energy to stay in plays.
There are stretches in his play where he doesn’t stand out much. This, in of itself, isn’t a terrible thing – he isn’t standing out for the wrong reasons, for example. In the NFL, however, he’ll need to improve his conditioning and keep his weight consistent and reasonable – something he struggled to do, at times, in the NFL.
Outside of conditioning, Ellis looks the part of a good to great nose tackle, albeit against lesser competition while playing at Louisiana Tech.
Last year, the Raiders had a lot of trouble with depth on the defensive line, where injuries made rotations difficult and players had to play more snaps than their bodies would allow them to play and still be explosive.
At worst, Ellis looks to be solid rotational player. If he can put the pieces of his game together, he has all of the physical tools to be a special player at the center of the Raiders defensive line.