Whether it was Vince Wilfork, Alan Branch, Ted Washington or Keith Traylor, the New England Patriots of the Bill Belichick era have always put a premium on big-bodied nose tackles capable of controlling the line of scrimmage and freeing up those around them to make plays. It may not be a luxurious job, but one that is integral to New England’s defensive success — something the team found out the hard way in 2020.
With Danny Shelton having left in free agency and Beau Allen unable to suit up due to a mystery ailment, the Patriots had to move numerous players into that 0-technique throughout the season. With the exception of Carl Davis, who was limited to just three games because of concussion issues, nobody was able to find somewhat consistent success playing the role. This, in turn, hurt New England’s defense in particular versus the run.
Unless they are fully confident in Allen’s ability to return and become a contributor at the nose tackle spot, the Patriots will have to address the position over the course of the offseason. The cheapest (but obviously not only) way to do that is via the draft, and a Day Three prospect out of BYU might just catch the team’s eye.
Name: Khyiris Tonga
Position: Defensive tackle
School: Brigham Young
Opening day age: 24
2020 stats: 11 games; 36 tackles (2.5 for loss); 2.5 sacks, 3 quarterback hits; 1 forced fumble
Size: 6040, 321 lbs
Expected round: Day Three (6th/7th)
Patriots pre-draft meeting: N/A
Strengths: Tonga is a powerful interior defensive lineman who has the size to find success as a two-gap player at the next level. He has proven himself a stout run defender at BYU whose first step and initial push have made him a tough player to leave single-blocked in either running or passing situations: Tonga regularly commanded double-teams in his three years as a starter for the Cougars, and took advantage when given other looks.
Nice rep here from Khyiris Tonga, initiates contact firing off the ball, swats the hands, and gets the quarterback.— Mandrew Harbaugh (@MandrewNFL) February 24, 2021
Simple but effective, got him two sacks in this game with it. pic.twitter.com/gjRdQ6WGPx
Tonga also combines the upper-body strength and lower-body anchor to drive blockers back with his bull rush and push the pocket versus the pass — freeing up others to make plays in the backfield. He also has shown an ability to use leverage to his advantage, and to stay balanced against double-team or down blocks. On top of all that, he also established himself as a leader both on the field due to his high motor and off it.
DT Khyiris Tonga (BYU) was ready to muck vs. USC last year. Enjoy his domination on this poor IOL. SHEESH pic.twitter.com/nOzHa6BFQD— BballZone1 (@BBALL_Z1) September 3, 2020
Weaknesses: Tonga offers limited upside as a pass rusher entering the next level. While he can stand his ground and effectively plug gaps, he will have a hard time getting into the backfield versus NFL-caliber pass protectors. His lack of diverse moves outside the bull rush and inconsistent usage of counters once engaged make for a tough projection outside of the running game. He also tends to get neutralized when his initial push fails to yield results.
Tonga furthermore can be fooled by misdirection plays. For a three-year starter who has 50 games on his résumé his awareness and instincts are a bit on-off at times and he needs to become more confident in reading his keys and making the appropriate decisions. On top of it all, his functional athleticism is also nothing to write home about; he has some solid traits but does not stand out in any particular area.
Why the Patriots? New England lacking a true nose tackle during the 2020 season led to players being put in unfavorable positions — think: Byron Cowart at 0-technique — and challenged the structural integrity of the entire unit, especially versus the run. Tonga would help address that position and give the team a rotational, early-down option at the heart of the defense at a relatively cheap contract.
Why not the Patriots? Tonga lacks the upside the team might want from a player who could see regular snaps based on his position: If a defensive tackle is brought in, why not go with a safer projection and a prospect more likely to make a difference from Day One? Add the fact that Beau Allen is a candidate to return to the fold as well and fill the nose spot after sitting out all of last year, and you can see why New England might want to steer clear.
What would be his role in New England in 2020? Even though Tonga saw plenty of snaps in the passing game at BYU, he would most likely be used primarily as an early-down run stuffer and in short-yardage situations with the Patriots. Playing in a rotation with the other interior defensive linemen — be they named Lawrence Guy, Beau Allen or Byron Cowart — he will see semi-regular action as a rookie.
What would be his role in New England beyond 2020? By his second year, Tonga will ideally be able to fill the role previously played by Danny Shelton: be on the field for around 40 percent of the defensive snaps while being among the top three players at the position. His contributions against the pass will remain limited, but he could still see the occasional snap to command double teams and help second-level blitzers get home.
Does he have positional versatility? Tonga’s versatility will be comparatively limited at the next level. He can serve as the nose/0-technique in the Patriots’ Bear and Okie fronts out of a 3-4 alignment or move to 1-technique when the team rolls out 4-3-based over or under fronts. His size and lack of high-end athleticism likely prevent him from being used elsewhere, though.
What is his special teams value? New England’s defensive tackles are regularly used as part of the field goal and extra point blocking teams, getting push up the middle over the long snapper while trying to get a hand on the football. Other than that, he will not contribute on special teams.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? With Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Carl Davis headed for free agency, the Patriots have just six interior defensive linemen under contract for the 2021 season at the moment. Of those, Beau Allen, Nick Thurman, Bill Murray and Michael Barnett can be used at the same basic position as Tonga. Regardless of who is brought back in free agency, no more than two members of that group will be on the 53-man squad come roster cutdown day.
Verdict: Even if they retain two of Guy, Butler and Wise Jr. in free agency, the Patriots need to upgrade at defensive tackle after what was a disappointing 2020 season for the position. Tonga might help do that given his ability to serve as a two-gapping run-stuffer on early downs from the nose position, but one does have to wonder if New England would feel confident going with a relatively low-ceiling Day Three pick as the solution to its woes. More realistically, the team would go after another DT first before maybe going with Tonga in the sixth or seventh round.