FAB 3. Hall Is A Game-Wrecking DT Target
One of the things I learned from former Bucs general manager Rich McKay was that when the draft is strong at a certain position it is wise to take advantage of it. “When the draft gives you something, you usually need to take it.”
Heading into the offseason, finding an edge rusher was a pressing need for a team like Tampa Bay that posted just 22 sacks last year, which ranked dead last in the league. The problem was that this year was not particularly good when it came to pass-rushing defensive ends in quality or quantity – either in free agency or the NFL Draft. That’s what prompted Bucs general manager Jason Licht to pounce on defensive end Vinny Curry in free agency once the Eagles let him go in a salary cap move, and to trade a third-round pick to the New York Giants for Jason Pierre-Paul.
After releasing lazy underachiever Chris Baker and opting not to re-sign Clinton McDonald and Sealver Siliga, defensive tackle became a major need too, as Tampa Bay had only two defensive tackles – Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy and untested Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, last year’s seventh-round pick – on the roster this offseason. Licht signed Beau Allen to be the starting nose tackle and versatile defensive lineman Mitch Unrein in free agency. Free agency at the tackle position was relatively good, and there is actually a bumper crop of defensive tackles in this year’s draft.
A month ago it was not a foregone conclusion to see the Bucs draft two defensive ends, but now that the depth chart has Pierre-Paul, Curry, Will Gholston, Noah Spence, Will Clarke and Unrein, who can also play defensive end, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tampa Bay passed on this year’s defensive end class unless a tremendous value at the position presented itself in Round 2 or on Day 3.
Defensive tackle, on the other hand, is a different story. The Bucs need one more to challenge Tu’ikolovatu, who spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve, and groom behind McCoy, who is 30 this year and entering his ninth season. In a draft that is flush with defensive tackles, Tampa Bay would be wise to take what the draft is giving them. I suspect the Bucs will likely do that on Day 3, although don’t rule out Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea, who is coming to One Buc Place as one of the 30 players lined up for a pre-draft visit, in the first round, or Fort Hays State defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd in Round 2. The Bucs really like both players.
If you don’t think Licht will take an elite player like Vea or Shepherd despite having McCoy and Allen as the starting defensive tackles you haven’t been paying attention. Last year, Licht signed safety J.J. Wilcox in free agency, only to trade him five months later in August after paying him a $1 million roster bonus when a perceived upgrade like T.J. Ward surfaced in free agency as a salary cap cut in Denver.
In 2015, Licht spent $4.25 million on Bruce Carter in free agency and then drafted another middle linebacker, Kwon Alexander, in the fourth round a month later. Alexander was so impressive in the OTAs, mini-camps and training camp that he unseated the veteran Carter as the starter after just one preseason game.
Players like Vea, Shepherd and perhaps Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne are early options for Tampa Bay, but with drafting a running back and needing help in the secondary being more of a priority, it’s more than likely that the Bucs will address the defensive tackle spot on Day 3. So who are some options in rounds 4-7 where the Bucs have five draft picks?
North Carolina State defensive tackle Justin Jones, who was in PewterReport.com’s latest 2018 Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft is one of them. As is Delaware’s Bilal Nichols, as the Bucs had a defensive line coach in attendance for his workout – not sure if it was Brentson Buckner or assistant Paul Spicer.
But the defensive tackle that really intrigues me is Sam Houston State’s P.J. Hall. He really stood out at the East-West Shrine practices, and in the game where he set up a sack for Central Michigan defensive end Joe Ostman – just like he did all week in practice. Watch this video, but concentrate on the nose tackle with the dreadlocks and the orange helmet – that’s Hall.
Hall started his college career much like that of former Hall of Fame Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp – as a tight end before moving to defense. Hall began his remarkable career as a 6-foot-1, 260-pound defensive end.
“He would have been just fine at tight end, but defensive end is his natural position,” Bearkats head coach K.C. Keeler said. “When we got here he was this redshirt freshman that we didn’t know a whole lot about, but it didn’t take us long to figure out he could be really special. We’re talking about a guy with a 40-inch vertical, a 700-pound squat and a 400-pound bench, and maybe as quick a first step as I’ve ever seen.”
Hall used his athletic gifts to produce one of the most amazing stat lines I have ever seen in my 20-something years of covering the NFL Draft and scouting prospects. Are you ready for this?
As a four-year starter, Hall recorded 284 tackles, 86.5 tackles for loss for minus-406 yards, 42 sacks for minus-235 yards, an astonishing 29 pass breakups, nine forced fumbles, four interceptions, one fumble recovery and one safety. Granted it was against FCS competition, but that amount of production is simply remarkable at any level.
Oh, I forgot to mention he blocked 14 kicks at Sam Houston State. That’s not a typo. Hall had 14 blocked kicks in college.
As a freshman, Hall recorded 93 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, eight pass breakups, five blocked kicks, four forced fumbles and one interception. That’s an entire career’s worth of production for some college defensive tackles, but Hall was just getting warmed up.
During his sophomore year, Hall saw time at both end and defensive tackle and was up to 280 pounds. He posted 75 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, eight pass breakups, five blocked kicks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery en route to becoming a second-team All-American. Why he wasn’t a first-team All-American I have no idea.
While Hall didn’t block a kick as a junior, he did post 56 tackles and career-highs in tackles for loss with 24.5 and sacks with 13. The Bearkats’ game-wrecker had seven pass breakups and three forced fumbles and was the Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year and a finalist for the Buck Buchanon Award, which is given to the nation’s top defensive player.
Hall missed the first two games of his senior season due to an academic suspension, but still managed to record 60 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, six sacks, six pass breakups, four blocked kicks, an interception and a forced fumble despite constant double-teaming. By his final year, Hall had gained 30 pounds and was over 300. NFL scouts believe last year was an adjustment to the higher weight and that – along with the double-teams – caused a dip in sacks.
Hall had 11 multiple sack games and five games with double-digit sacks and he finished one sack behind Southern Utah’s James Cowser, who had the all-time FCS sack record with 43. His 14 blocked kicks – six field goals, six extra points and two punts – were the second-most all-time behind Leonard Smith at McNeese State, who had 17 blocks between 1980-82 (10 field goals, four extra points and three punts).
“I like blocking kicks, of course, because I’m keeping points off the board,” Hall told HERO Sports. “That’s the main thing is saving us some points because you never know how close a game can end up being … I really don’t know how I have that many. It’s crazy that they keep coming. I feel like it does take something away from them (opponents). We’ve done a couple in one game, and I know it kills the special teams coordinator. It does feel good.”
Bucs general manager Jason Licht loves defensive linemen that have good stats when it comes to batting passes down at the line of scrimmage because it shows tremendous awareness. Hall has broken up 29 passes in four years for the Bearkats. That’s more than a lot of defensive backs that will get drafted by NFL teams next month produce in their college careers.
Tampa Bay had a scout in attendance at the Sam Houston State pro day to see Hall put on a show. Hall, who didn’t get an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine, weighed in at 6-foot-1, 308 pounds and ran a 4.83 into the with and a 4.71 with the wind in the 40-yard dash. That would have been the fifth fastest time in the 40-yard dash for a defensive tackle in Indy.
Hall posted a 38-inch vertical leap, which would have been the second-best measurement, and his 36 reps of 225 pounds would have been the third-best bench press totals. Hall, whose football idol is Houston Texans Pro Bowl defensive end J.J. Watt, ran faster, jumped higher and lifted more than Watt did at his pro day years ago. Watt ran a 4.84 at 290 pounds, bench pressed 34 reps and had a 37-inch vertical.
“P.J. is just one of those guys who is naturally a freak,” said SHSU quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe, who goes against Hall in practice. “When we test in the summer, his 40-yard dash and vertical and broad jump are right up there with our skill guys. His explosiveness and the things he’s able to do are unbelievable. It’s great for our offensive tackles to see every day in practice, because they’re not going to see a better defensive end in the country this season.”
Hall needs to learn to handle down blocks better as he adjusts to playing against much better competition, and become more accustomed to weighing over 300 pounds so he can anchor better against the run. He’s currently projected to go between rounds 4-6.
“It’s been amazing, because at first coming out of high school I wasn’t expecting all of this,” Hall said. “When you’re a high school player, I didn’t know I could really get drafted at Sam. But people have started talking about it more and more and I’ve really been working at it. It’s exciting that everybody is taking about it, all this attention. I’m more of a student of the game now, watching tendencies and stuff like that. I know what the offense is going to do, where they’ll block and how the guards pull.”
The Bucs will be hosting Hall as one of their Top-30 pre-draft visits next month. And with the team needing another defensive tackle, he might be in Tampa Bay for good a few weeks after his visit.