The future of the New England Patriots defensive line is about as uncertain as any group on the team. With Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise Jr. and John Simon slated to become free agents on March 17th, the Patriots could be left with a variety of unknown players along their front line.
All of those potential losses are amplified when your run defense is ranked 26th in the league, while your pass rush generated the 7th lowest number of sacks in the NFL, despite leading the league in quarterback hurries. Long story short, the defense can’t get home to the quarterback or stop the run, and they are potentially losing out on four veterans.
Regardless of how free agency unfolds, though, you will likely see a lot of change along New England’s defensive line. Specifically at defensive tackle, where two of the team’s best players (Guy and Butler) make their living. So, why don’t the Patriots try their shot at replacing both of their production in one go?
Name: Daviyon Nixon
Position: Defensive tackle
School: Iowa (RS-Junior)
Opening day age: 22
2019 stats: 8 games; 45 tackles (22 solo), 5.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception (71 yard return for a TD), 1 forced fumble
Size: 6’3”, 305 lbs
Expected round: 2nd
#Patriots Draft Target Thread: DL #54 Daviyon Nixon (Iowa) 6’3” 305 lbs.— Keagan (@KeaganStiefel) February 1, 2021
• A ridiculous athlete at the IDL position.
• Disruptive against both the pass and the run.
• Versatility to do whatever he wants, wherever he wants. pic.twitter.com/aIkGhagCZD
Strengths: If you needed one word to describe Nixon it would be “athlete.” There isn’t a more explosive athlete at defensive tackle in this draft: Nixon is explosive off the ball and has tremendous footwork and balance. He’s shown great effort in his pass rush and in pursuit, really good short area quickness and outstanding play recognition.
If you needed one word to describe his game it would be “disruptive.” He’s an extremely disruptive run defender who shoots gaps and meets ball carriers in the back field; he also showed a great ability to track, meaning he can work through the mud while following the ball carrier outside the hash.
Nixon’s athleticism really stands out in the run game. He’s not your classic two gapper but he has no problem mirroring running backs and meeting them in the hole. Even when he makes mistakes, his athleticism keeps him in plays. pic.twitter.com/4GfxhszUzW— Keagan (@KeaganStiefel) February 1, 2021
He also is a relentless pass rusher who is incredible at working in stunts. He was often the clear out-man for the Hawkeyes defense and made some offensive lineman look like children. He’s at his best working the outside shoulder with free space; his hands are punchy and quick while his feet are always square with his shoulders. A technically sound prospect.
Weaknesses: Nixon needs some time to develop if he’s going to be a top tier starter at the next level. He struggled in his run fits when asked to do anything but shoot the gaps and was a little too carefree in his pursuit. It’s not a problem to make a mistake going 100 percent, but it is when those mistakes are easily avoidable.
He’s also been aided by his superior athleticism. He made a lot of little mistakes that NFL offensive lineman will take full advantage of. He needs some polishing, especially if he’s going to play in a Bill Belichick defense.
What would be his role? In the long term, pretty much exactly what Adam Butler does right now. He’s a little bit shorter and stouter than Butler but he’s a much better athlete who played the same exact role at Iowa. Right away, depending on if the Patriots add or keep any defensive tackles through free agency, I’d expect Nixon to play in sub packages as a way to get him integrated while he still learns the defense.
When was the last time you saw a defensive tackle peal off into coverage then collapse on a quarterback for a sack all in the same play? pic.twitter.com/A59lh839X1— Keagan (@KeaganStiefel) February 1, 2021
Does he have positional versatility? In spades, much like Christian Barmore, Nixon played pretty much everything but the 5-technique (outside the offensive tackle) in his time at Iowa. Though he works best as a 3-technique, he can play anywhere along the defensive line due to his athleticism. Iowa ran an even front defense much like the Patriots have in recent years, that would allow for some familiarity.
Who’s his competition? Since there aren’t many players signed on for next season, Nixon doesn’t have much competition. I would imagine Adam Butler would be if he ends up back in a Patriots uniform next season. They both play the 3-tech very well and don’t have much experience at other spots, though either of them would likely be fine somewhere else.
If the Patriots look to ease Nixon in they would likely need to (re-)sign a few free agents to bolster the depth around him. If not, he should be prominently featured in the rotation from Day One on.
Why the Patriots? The Patriots need to make some improvements to their porous run defense. With the potential departures of Guy and Butler, and the possible return of Dont’a Hightower to the linebacker room, they will likely look at defensive tackles for those improvements. Nixon provides a superb athlete who is familiar with a similar system and played at a Patriots breeding ground under Kirk Ferentz. Win-win-win.
As a rusher, Nixon works best in stunts. Not only as the beneficiary but also as the clear out man. He’s had some instances of grown man-ing people. pic.twitter.com/63sbKBDmDg— Keagan (@KeaganStiefel) February 1, 2021
Why not the Patriots? If you take a look at the early-round defensive tackles that Bill Belichick has taken in the past, Nixon doesn’t fit the mold. Malcom Brown, Ron Brace, and Vince Wilfork were all 320+ lb nose tackle types that are built for two-gapping and stopping the run. Nixon is a gap shooter who makes plays by being a better athlete than the men in front of him. The lone early round defensive tackle that they took to play that role was Dominique Easley, and we all know how that ended.
Verdict: If you haven’t convinced yourself that the Patriots are trading back into the early second round then you haven’t been paying attention. Nixon is a prime candidate in that range simply because he would be a plug-and-play guy at a position that they have almost no depth. He’s the kind of prospect that can fix a problem before it gets out of hand.