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Raiders Battle: Competition at defensive tackle is one to watch

Hankins, Nichols to fend off others for starting spots; Group has improved depth

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears
Bilal Nichols experience and play should have him as a starting three-technique for the Las Vegas Raiders this season.
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

On paper, Bilal Nichols and Johnathan Hankins are penciled in as the starters at the three-technique and nose tackle spots, respectively, at defensive tackle for the Las Vegas Raiders. The veteran pair are atop a group of six other players vying for starts, if not snaps, at the defensive tackle spots.

Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler did a tremendous job buoying the depth at the particular position group during free agency and last month’s NFL Draft. Nichols is one of four defensive tackles brought in via free agency (Andrew Billings, Vernon Butler, and Kyle Pecko were the other three). Hankins, on the other hand, was resigned to a one-year deal after hitting unrestricted free agency. Rookies Neil Farrell Jr. (fourth round, 126th overall) and Matthew Butler (fifth round, 175th overall) were added via the draft. Kendal Vickers returns as an incumbent from last season.

One of the main reasons both Nichols and Hankins can be viewed as favorites to start at three and nose, respectively, is the connections they have with new Raiders. Assistant general manager is quite familiar with Nichols during both having spent time with the Chicago Bears. Flip it to Hankins, his defensive line coach when he was with the New York Giants in 2016 was none other than new Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. Graham saw plenty of Hankins then as the defensive tackle played in and started all 16 games and racked up 765 snaps/69 percent of the G-Men’s defensive snaps (both career highs).

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Las Vegas Raiders
Johnathan Hankins (90) plays the role of a space-eating run stuffer well. So much so the Raiders brought him back once more.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Nose And Three

What’s the difference between the two distinct spots at defensive tackle?

The nose, identified as a zero- or one-technique in a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment, lines up and plays directly over the center. The zero accounts for the nose tackle being responsible for both gaps between the center and guards (the A Gap). The one-technique version of a nose tackle still heads-up with the center but shades to the shoulder of the pivot and is responsible for one gap.

No matter if they are zero- or one-techniques, these particular defensive tackles are the mammoth-strong types who are big bodied and have the strength to anchor. They are the ones who draw double teams and stymie the run at the point of attack and aren’t looked at as quarterback hunters.

That gig is normally reserved for the three-technique defensive tackles. This is the sexy premiere interior pass rusher. This particular spot is designed to get the one-on-one matchups with a guard or tackle (B Gap) and the main mission is to break through the line and wreck things in the backfield by harassing and dropping the quarterback and/or getting stops for loss behind the line of scrimmage.

All that above holds importance because Graham has stated his defense will be multiple and the notions of 3-4, 4-3 are ancient terms as the NFL is evolving into nickel-base defenses. Also, Graham is a master disguiser and rotates his defensive linemen to create both confusion and chaos that gives the defense the advantage at the line of scrimmage.

The Competition

Nichols and Hankins offer the versatility Graham, McDaniels and other Raiders coaches demand from their players. Nichols has shuffled across the line during his time in Chicago getting snaps as both a nose and three tech. Ditto for Hankins. While being able to do more than one thing is nice, the inability to focus on a primary duty can stymie a player. Nichols is an example as he didn’t progress anymore than the Bears wanted him.

The thinking is the Raiders can untap that potential and find a solid groove for Nichols with Graham and defensive line Frank Okam leading the way.

Yet, the Raiders official website had a feature on Nichols titled: “Bilal Nichols could be the next disruptive pass rusher on the D-line”, portending to his proposed role. There seems to be a clear distinction between the depth at three tech and nose, though.

Behind Nichols as a pass-rush type are Vickers, the two Butlers — Matthew and Vernon. Nichols stands at 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds with Vickers coming in at 6-foot-3, 295 pounds. Matthew Butler stands at 6-foot-4, 295 pounds while Vernon Butler has tweener size/weight at 6-foot-4, 325 pounds. Of that group, Nichols leads the way in career-sack numbers at 11. Vernon Butler has a total of eight (none in the last two seasons, however), while Vickers as two.

Over at the nose, Hankins will compete against Billings, Farrell Jr. and Peko. Those four tip the scales at: 6-foot-3, 340 pounds for Hankins; 6-foot-1, 311 pounds for Billings; 6-foot-4, 325 pounds for Farrell Jr., and 6-foot-1, 305 pounds for Peko. All of them offer the girth and profile to occupy attention by the center and guards — much like Vernon Butler’s size and frame can handle. Hankins leads this group with 14.5 career sacks and 36 tackles for loss over the course of his nine years in the league. Billings as 3.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss under his career belt (four years). Peko has two sacks and two tackles for loss over his five years.

The Rotation

Starts may be a relative term when all is said and done. As noted above, Graham often will go with the hot-hand approach but does rotate his defensive line groups in and out to maintain freshness and keep the opposing offense on its toes.

The group of eight defensive tackles will certainly be dwindled down as the Raiders progress though camps and preseason games en route to the 53-man roster cut down. Perhaps it’ll be a clear starter at the nose, three technique and a pair of players who excel at one or the other or can do both.

Then there’s also the potential for defensive ends to mix in to the action on the interior, too. So there’s a lot to figure out from here to the Raiders first preseason tilt against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the Pro Football Hall of Fame game on August 4.