Their interior defensive line was a definitive weakness for the New England Patriots, and they tried their best to bolster it through free agency. But even though players were re-signed to multi-year deals and added from outside the organization, the long-term outlook of the group is somewhat uncertain particularly at the nose position: Davon Godchaux and Carl Davis are playing on two-year and one-year deals respectively.
While Godchaux is projected to serve as the top option at the position at least this season, adding a developmental player to groom behind him might be a good course of action for the club. Enter Alim McNeill.
Name: Alim McNeill
Position: Defensive tackle
School: North Carolina State (Junior)
Opening day age: 21
2020 stats: 11 games (10 starts); 26 tackles (4.5 tackles for loss); 13 quarterback pressures (1 sack, 1 hit, 11 hurries); 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery; 1 interception
Size: 6017, 317 lbs, 79 wingspan, 32 5/8 arm, 9 3/8 hand
Workout numbers: 4.96 40-yard dash, 30 1/2 vertical jump, 9’0” broad jump, 4.65 short shuttle, 7.68 3-cone drill, 27 bench press reps
Expected round: 3rd
Patriots pre-draft meeting: N/A
NC State DT Alim McNeill isn’t being talked about enough. Dude is an absolute wrecking ball in the interior of the defense.— Connor Livesay (@ConnorNFLDraft) January 16, 2021
• 6’2” 315lbs
• very good athlete for big man
• pocket pusher as a pass rusher
• excellent anchor against doubles
• uses length very well
• dog pic.twitter.com/1mRdgJ7pS1
Strengths: At just under 6-foot-2 and 317 pounds, Alim McNeill has the size you want from your interior defensive lineman. His compact build in combination with raw strength and the power to drive blockers back even when faced with double-teams make him an intriguing developmental option at the next level — one that can play in a penetrating one-gap scheme but also might be able to find success in a two-gap system.
A former linebacker and running back in high school, McNeill has the explosiveness to shoot out of his stance and force linemen to react quickly. His lower-body power and aforementioned strength are also amplified by his violent punch and an understanding of using leverage: when keeping his shoulders down he has shown that he can successfully drive his hands into his opponents.
McNeill knows how to set up offensive linemen and contain run plays, and also has shown some positive traits versus the pass. He pushes the pocket well, stays back to mirror the quarterback when unable to get home on his pass rush, and also is able to disrupt passing lanes by getting his arms up quickly. He broke up six passes over the course of his career.
Weaknesses: McNeill registered 10 sacks during his three years in Raleigh, but he projects as a better run defender than inside pass rusher at the next level. He needs to refine his technique and add some more nuance to his pass rushing arsenal. His countermoves are not where they need to be to win against NFL-caliber competition; he primarily won in college because of his brute strength and quick first step.
In general, McNeill is a raw prospect who needs to be molded into an adequate defensive tackle. His leverage is on and off at times, while he needs to get better at processing and playing a disciplined game: he strays from his rush lanes at times and also has shown a tendency to overplay the run. He furthermore lacks desired length and lateral mobility, which will make it hard for him to grow into anything more than a gap-clogger on early downs and in short-yardage situations.
Why the Patriots? Without a true nose tackle available for most of the 2020 season, New England was forced to put in unfavorable positions — think: Byron Cowart at 0-technique — which in turn challenged the structural integrity of the entire unit, especially versus the run. While Davon Godchaux should help in this area, having a second layer of developmental depth behind him would make the unit even stouter.
Why not the Patriots? The main problem from the team’s point of view might simply be his rawness and projected one-dimensionality. New England might decide to invest a safer option capable of making a difference from Day 1 rather than a player that will need to be groomed and might still have only a limited ceiling outside of being an early-down run stuffer.
What would be his role in New England in 2021? With Davon Godchaux in the fold as the projected starting nose tackle, McNeill would play second fiddle at the position and be used primarily in a package-specific role. He should be able to see somewhat regular early-down action, though, and also become a part of short-yardage and goal-line groups.
What would be his role in New England beyond 2021? Davon Godchaux is not expected to go anywhere after the 2021 season, but the goal should still be to get McNeill ready to eventually take over as a starter either in his second or third year. The best-case scenario would be for him to become a regular presence on first and second downs as well as the short-area plays mentioned above.
Does he have positional versatility? While McNeill best projects as a true 0-technique nose tackle at the next level, he has the positional flexibility to also play other spots up front — especially between the guards (0, 1, 2i). N.C. State also employed him in the B-gap at times with the majority of his snaps during his 2018 freshman season coming from a 3-technique alignment.
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, McNeill will not contribute on special teams.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Projected as a Day 2 selection, McNeill would be a lock to make New England’s roster in 2021. In terms of earning snaps, however, he would compete against the other interior linemen on the roster: Davon Godchaux would be his primary competition at the nose, with depth options Carl Davis, Nick Thurman and Bill Murray also pat of the equation. If moved to the 1- and 3-technique spots, he would also go up against Lawrence Guy, Henry Anderson, Byron Cowart, Montravius Adams and Akeem Spence.
Verdict: Investing in McNeill means investing in his potential as a big-bodied interior lineman. If the Patriots feel good about their evaluation and his potential role in their system as a Vince Wilfork-like nose, they could very well decide to use the 96th overall pick to bring him aboard.