After being one of the better positions on the New England Patriots' defense in 2016, the defensive tackle spot took a step backward last year. A mix of injuries, bad play and a lack of quality depth contributed to the unit not being able to consistently be productive against the pass and the run in 2017. As a result, the team invested in a trade to get former Cleveland Browns top-12 pick Danny Shelton on board.
New England might not be done, though, and could look to the draft to add more quality to a group consisting of Shelton, Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy as the top guys. One name to keep an eye on is Michigan's Maurice Hurst. Let's take a closer look at him.
Name: Maurice Hurst
Position: Defensive tackle
2017 stats: 13 games, 61 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 2 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, 1 field goal block
Size: 6012, 292 lbs, 32 arm length, 9 1/2 hand size
Pro day numbers: 4.97 40-yard dash, 31” vertical, 8’8” broad jump, 20 bench-press reps, 6.88 3-cone drill
Expected Round: 1st
Strengths: What stands out most about Hurst's game is his explosive first step, quickness out of his stance, and therefore ability to put pressure on an offensive line immediately after the snap. His footwork and form are big reasons for that as they help him win one-on-one matchups even against bigger blockers in front of him: Hurst tries to stay low to take advantage of his slightly smaller build by forcing linemen to block down to him.
His ability to lower his head and shoulder areas to initiate his attack comes with a solid anchor and active hand use. In general, Hurst is able to generate pressure using a wide variety of techniques and not relying on his quickness to win at the point of attack. He also employed swim and spin moves to get behind the line of scrimmage and is also effective on stunts due to his moving skills.
Hurst also is productive because of his ability to lock on to his target. No matter from which spot he attacks the run or pass – Hurst has the versatility to play multiple techniques along the defensive line, no matter if three- or four-man fronts –, he tries to keep his eyes on the ball carrier. This helps him prevent falling for slide or zone blocking attempts by the offense or giving up too much ground on play-action attempts.
Weaknesses: Despite the success of players like Aaron Donald, 6'1 is still a little undersized for an interior defensive lineman in the NFL. Hurst's smaller build could therefore become an issue when going against bigger-framed offensive linemen who could force him to go around instead of through them – which might come especially true when forced to go against double-team blocks.
Hurst's quickness also hurts him at times as he has overshoots gaps from time to time and runs himself out of the play. Getting more disciplined and patient as a penetrator are two things he will need to learn at the next level. What Hurst also might have to learn, depending on the team he joins, is playing away from his natural one-gap scheme. New England, for example, asks its defensive tackles to guard two gaps – something Hurst would have to learn.
Furthermore, his health is a question mark as Hurst was diagnosed with a heart condition at the NFL scouting combine. The 22-year old was subsequently unable to perform in drills and underwent further testing. While he was later cleared to participate in Michigan’s pro day and not brought in for medical reevaluation two weeks ago, teams might still be cautious when it comes to investing in him.
What would be his role? In New England, Hurst would primarily be used as a rotational 4-3 3-technique defensive tackle to play alongside the team's bigger-bodied interior linemen Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton. He could also see time as a 5-technique end in case the Patriots opt to run more classical 3-man fronts.
How many downs can he play? Four, but he ideally won't. Instead, Hurst would likely rotation in and out if the lineup based on packages and situations which would help keep the entire group of defensive tackles fresh.
What is his special teams value? Michigan regularly used Hurst in the kicking game, where he most prominently saw playing time on the field goal and extra point blocking units. In this role – one he is expected to assume in the NFL – he was able to block one field goal attempt over the course of his five-year college career.
Does he have positional versatility? Hurst saw playing time all over the interior defensive line with the Wolverines. While most of his snaps came from a 3-technique spot, he was also used as a 5-technique and nose tackle, all while playing in three- and four-man fronts.
Will his role change from year 1 to year 2? In year two and with more experience in the system, Hurst would likely be given additional responsibilities. This would especially hold true in case one or both of Brown and/or Shelton are not retained after the 2018 campaign. As a result, Hurst could go from a 45-55% lineman to one playing more than 75% percent of defensive snaps.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? As a projected first-round draft pick, Hurst would be a lock to make New England's 53-man roster. In order to get practice and playing time, though, he would have to compete against primarily penetrating defensive tackles like Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Vincent Valentine.
Why the Patriots? New England lacks adequate pass rush skills from its defensive tackles. While Trey Flowers regularly moves to the interior on obvious passing downs and is quite productive in this department, the team would benefit from adding a pure pass rushing 3-technique to its defensive line. Hurst would be just that and would project to be the player the Patriots thought they get when they drafted Dominique Easley in round one in 2014.
In general, Hurst – the son of former Patriots cornerback Maurice Hurst – would be a terrific addition to a defense that lacked playmakers and high-quality athletes in 2017. His solid technique, array of pass rushing moves and elite moving skills would make him all the more intriguing of a target for the team – a target that would fit in well with the personnel the Patriots currently have along the defensive line.
Speaking of it, Hurst would also bring some stability to the position. With both Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton entering the final year of their respective rookie deals, the team will have to make decisions regarding a) their fifth-year option and b) their long-term outlook. It would not be a surprise if at least one of the duo is not back with the Patriots after 2019 or possibly even 2018. Having Hurst on board would help soften the blow of one or both leaving.
Why not the Patriots? There are three major reasons why New England might not come away from the draft with Maurice Hurst in the fold. For one, he is among the best defensive linemen of this class and comes with enough talent to ultimately become a top-15 selection. As such, he might simply not be in the Patriots' range even when a potential move up the board is put into account.
Furthermore, Hurst's heart condition might prevent the Patriots from investing in him. New England opted to gamble on a high-upside defensive tackle with injury questions before. The gamble, however, did not pay off and the player selected – the aforementioned Easley – appeared in only 22 games for the team over two years (both ending on injured reserve) before being released after the 2015 season.
Finally, the team might also be afraid to invest a high draft pick in a player that is not a clear scheme fit: Hurst is best suited to play in a penetrating one-gap style that allows him to work up the field. New England's defense, however, is built on two-gap principles which dictate that the defensive tackles control the line of scrimmage to free up space for the second level to make plays. Of course, a player of Hurst's talent would likely be able to make any necessary transition.
Verdict: Despite questions about his heart condition, there is no denying Hurst's talent. It would therefore not be a surprise to see him get drafted in the first half of round one and before the Patriots are in their potential trade-up comfort zone. If he fell to them, however, they would have to make a decision: Pick him and potentially risk losing out on a top-tier linebacker or hope that he would still be a round later in the first round?
Considering Hurst's tremendous upside, option certainly appears to be a plausible one to think about. But taking his health and New England's current roster composition into account, the team might opt to still invest elsewhere and gamble that the Michigan product continues his fall down the board to the 31st overall selection. If he is still available at 31, picking Hurst – provided that he has been medically cleared by the team – would be a solid-value selection for the Patriots.