From the start of the 2016 NFL Draft season, I've been a fan of D.J. Reader. If you loved Casey Hampton, there's not much to dislike about Reader. They have similar sizes and body types -- Reader actually looks a little more fit than Hampton ever did, but that's likely because Reader actually is 327 pounds, whereas Hampton's long-listed weight of 325 pounds is probably a junior-high-school memory.
Reader has all the opportunity in the world to be a true, 3-4 nose tackle. But when I watch him against top-notch competition, there's just something missing.
It isn't effort. For a man his size, he's a ball of energy, and he's always moving until the whistle.
It isn't power. His bull rush is capable of penetrating against the best out there.
It isn't tackling. He uses his arms well, and I've seen him drag down running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage often enough.
I think it's in his head. To be more specific, I think he is in his own head. I'm not saying he isn't intelligent, or that he doesn't look to have a good football I.Q. I'm saying that he looks hesitant, and unsure of himself. He doesn't read well on the fly -- he looks like he's trying to diagnose the entire play before it starts, and when he guesses wrong, he ad-libs like a Bolshoi ballerina thrust into a Texas calf-roping competition.
The good news is that he does have the tools. Despite shortish arms and small hands, he uses them well at times. When he wins the leverage battle, he drives his man into the backfield. When he diagnoses a play before the snap, he gets great penetration. When he's not the play-side tackle, he usually moves well down the line and is in on the stop.
When, when, when.
Lots of whens. And that's the difference between a guy like Reader and, say, Andrew Billings. These are the plays a day-one or day-two defensive lineman will make almost every single snap. These are the things that are second nature. These are the skills that exist, and only need honing. For a guy like Reader -- someone who has survived on strength more than anything else -- there is a lot more work to be done.
He doesn't change direction well, especially when a planned outside run cuts back inside. He's no particular stud when it comes to shedding blockers, and while he usually wins the leverage battle, when he loses it, he loses it bad. In the National Championship against Alabama, he spent a lot of time getting folded -- quite literally -- backward. For a guy as strong as Reader, that shouldn't happen. His short arms and small hands will hurt him more than they help him. And he's a bit top-heavy: the biggest difference, from a body perspective, between Reader and Hampton is that Big Snack had a rear-end roughly half the size of his home state of Texas, which gave him an excellent counterweight to that large gut. Reader's weight is carried mostly above and in front of the belt line, giving him issues firing out of a three point stance in any direction other than straight ahead. His first step when stunting is so slow, it all but stamps and mails in the the play call to the offense.
But, like his other weaknesses, that can be fixed -- or at least masked -- through coaching and technique. And, thanks to his wide, thick frame, he could add or shed weight without any major impact on his game. With so much there to work with, both figuratively and literally, he'd be the type of prospect any team running a 3-4 defense would love to grab on day three, and could be a diamond hidden within quite a bit of rough.
He's a project. But he's a doable project. Working with some guys is like paving a highway with a shovel and a rake. Reader is more like digging out a patio with camp shovel: it's going to take time and hard work, but you'll get it done well, just the same. The question then becomes, do you have the luxury of time? Rome wasn't built in a day, the Titanic couldn't stop on a dime, and D.J. Reader will not be a day-one starter in the NFL. But he'll contribute, and in the right situation, he just might hear his name during player introductions one day.
It might very well be in Pittsburgh.