The New England Patriots made some major investments along their defensive line last offseason, but the unit still had its ups and downs. Those were on display especially versus the run, with the group failing to consistently clog lanes regardless whether it faced man- or zone-blocking concepts.
One of the issues was the absence of a traditional nose tackle on the roster, a problem that has plagued the Patriots ever since they lost Danny Shelton — who measures at 6-foot-2, 345 pounds — during the 2020 offseason. New England tried to use comparatively undersized players such as Davon Godchaux or Carl Davis as 0-techniques, but they were better suited to play elsewhere on the line.
There are not a lot of players in this year’s draft to offer Shelton-like size, but one candidate who is coming close is LSU’s Neil Farrell Jr.
Name: Neil Farrell Jr.
Position: Defensive tackle
School: LSU (RS-Senior)
Opening day age: 24
2021 season: 1 games; 45 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss; 2 sacks
Size: 6041, 330 lbs, 32 1/4 arm, 77 3/8 wingspan, 10 1/8 hand
Expected round: 4th
Strengths: Farrell Jr. offers impressive size along the interior defensive line and also has some potential to add more bulk: after measuring at 6-foot-4, 330 pounds at the Scouting Combine, he checked in at 339 at his pro day five weeks later. His ideal playing weight might be around 345 when all is said and done (which would make him the biggest defensive tackle on the Patriots’ roster).
His size and solid anchor allows Farrell Jr. to successfully two-gap and eat space in the running game. He displays some good lateral movement skills when tracking the flow of the play, but also has a surprisingly quick first step to penetrate through the hole. Additionally, he has the upper-body strength to consistently hold his position along the line of scrimmage.
Good scouts are always focused on what a player CAN do rather than what they can’t do. Few prospects in this draft are more consistent at what they do best than @LSUfootball DT Neil Farrell Jr. is eating up blocks and clogging inside run lanes.#TheDraftStartsInMOBILE™️ pic.twitter.com/Ln4BX3ugAV— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) April 5, 2022
Weaknesses: While he has a sturdy build, Farrell Jr. lacks truly elite length which might limit his effectiveness against NFL-level linemen as well as his ability to reach ball-carriers outside his frame. He also is not the most nimble-footed athlete; his short-area quickness in particular is a concern after he ran the slowest three-cone drill at the Combine at 8.41 seconds.
His lack of mobility and length limits his upside as a pass rusher. The same is true for his pad level; he has shown that he can anchor well and keep his shoulders down upon initiating contact, but needs to get more consistent.
Inconsistency in general hurt him throughout his college career. While he produced a quality redshirt senior season at LSU, he was up and down the previous four years and never quite put it all together. The question is whether or not 2021 was an outlier, or an encouraging step in the right direction?
What would be his role? Farrell Jr. projects as a rotational interior defensive lineman at the next level, capable of standing his ground when asked to play in a two-gap scheme like New England’s. While his value lies primarily on early downs and in short-yardage situations based on his performance at LSU, he did show some solid pass-rush moves as well during the Senior Bowl.
It’s easy to watch @LSUfootball tape and project DT Neil Farrell Jr. as a factor on early-downs but it’s reps like this one from @seniorbowl 1-on-1’s that have NFL teams thinking @realspillneil might have untapped pass rush ability. Wins w/ quick hands here vs future NFL starter. pic.twitter.com/Z0QoASbUL8— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) April 5, 2022
Does he have positional versatility? While his size limits his versatility, Farrell Jr. regularly moved between the A- and the B-gaps in LSU’s four-man front. He also played a handful of snaps aligned over the opposing offensive tackle, but one has to wonder whether an NFL team will try to groom him in one specific position first before trying to expand his responsibilities. What he can do early on is perform on field goal and extra point blocking units.
Who is his competition? Unless he comes off the board lower than expected, Farrell Jr. would be a safe bet to make New England’s roster. And considering that the team currently has no player under contract offering a similar size to serve as an early-down space eater, he would face limited competition as well.
Why the Patriots? As noted above, the Patriots have been looking for a big-bodied interior lineman ever since losing Danny Shelton. While Davon Godchaux has shown plenty of promise in 2021, he is no true nose and neither is any other player on the current roster. Farrell Jr. would therefore allow New England to continue its tradition of stout D-linemen capable of shutting down the interior particularly in the run game.
Why not the Patriots? If the Patriots want to go space eater in the draft, there is another prospect with a lot more polish and upside available: Georgia’s Jordan Davis would be a tremendous fit along the New England interior defensive line. If the team goes after him in the first round, there would not be a need for any other tackles later. Furthermore, the team might decide to go after even bigger players — Idaho’s Noah Elliss (6-4, 346) or Kentucky’s Marquan McCall (6-2, 354) come to mind — in one of the later rounds.
Verdict: Farrell Jr. may not be as big as some of the other defensive tackles available in this year’s draft, or offer as much upside, but he might offer the best combination of size, upside and value. If the Patriots do not get Jordan Davis in Round 1, drafting Farrell Jr. early on the third day would be a solid addition. Davis is a significantly better prospect, but the 23-year-old would be a solid consolation prize and might just become the nose tackle New England needs.