One of the top ranked prospects in the 2024 draft is a player who is rarely mentioned as a Rams target on TST, but he's received very high praise elsewhere.
Bret Stuter for Ramblin'Fan suggested that one of the top 1st round targets for the Rams in the draft should be Illinois DT, Jer'Zhan Newton. JWAC Gridiron made a video profiling Newton, saying that he was a defensive monster who was a sure top 10 overall selection and that his pro comp was Aaron Donald. Dustin Mosher for WiththeFirstPick said that Newton's pro comp was Gerald McCoy, who was the 3rd overall pick in the 2010 draft, behind only Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh.
Defensive tackle might not be the top draft need for the Rams in 2024, but it wasn't a top need for the Rams back in 2014, when they drafted Donald. Nearly all Rams fans want the team to draft an offensive (left) tackle, not a defensive tackle. The Rams prioritized LT in 2014 over Donald, using the 2nd overall selection on Greg Robinson. If the Rams had skipped LT in the 1st round that year, could they have gotten a starting LT from that draft without really trying? Surprisingly, yes. In the 7th round, the Rams drafted Mitchell Van Dyk. Later in that round, the Chicago Bears drafted Charles Leno from Boise State. Nolan Nawrocki said Leno had a soft body, didn't play strong, got walked back to the QB and lacked recovery speed. He saw Leno as a swing backup for a zone team, maybe a candidate to slide inside to G or C. Leno was a starting LT for many seasons with the Bears and went to a Pro Bowl. Whether he was ever good enough to qualify as a true "franchise LT" might be up for debate, but the return value he gave the Bears relative to his draft slot was outstanding. He's one of the extremely rare success stories at LT to come from the 7th rd or UDFA ranks.
Are the Rams barking up the wrong tree again in 2024? Should the apple falling from that tree and hitting us in the head be Newton? Is he really the next Aaron Donald?
Name: Jer'Zhan "Johnny" Newton. Turns 22 years old in August of 2024. Redshirt Junior in eligibility.
School: Illinois. General Studies major. Team captain in 2023.
Size: Listed 6'2'', 295 pounds.
3 star recruit from Florida. Has 4 brothers, 3 of them also played college football players. Played FB in high school before moving to DL. His ESPN recruiting profile listed him at 235 pounds. Other recruiting articles listed his weight at 255 and 270 pounds. Also played basketball.
Newton broke his leg his senior year in HS, but initially tried to play through it, Jack Youngblood style, before they shut him down. He verbally committed to Maryland, but flipped to Illinois on signing day. Lovie Smith was the HC for his freshman season, but got fired and was replaced by Bret Bielema. Was listed at 270 pounds in 2020.
2020 (8 games): 23 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, FF
2021 (12 games): 51 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks
2022 (13 games): 62 tackles, 14 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, 3 PD. Second team All American.
2023 (11 games): 47 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, 2 PD, FF, 3 blocked kicks.
In 2023, he's played over 61 defensive snaps per game, which leads all power 5 DTs. Had a targeting suspension, ejected in the 4th quarter vs Wisconsin, then missed the 1st half of the next game.
PFN Big Board 9th overall
Josh Edwards (CBSSports) 27th overall
PFF Big Board 9th overall
Luke Easterling (SI) mock draft 17th overall
Unconventional build and athleticism. Being a former running back isn't just trivia. Newton's weight distribution and proportions are more like a fullback than a defensive lineman. It presents a curveball for OL trying to block him, because he's short, but quick and powerful. Can get lower than the opponent, gain leverage and win gaps on runs, or dip under pass blocks.
Impressive upper body strength to throw off defenders and shed blocks. "Get off me" power. Uncanny talent at ripping arms of OL down or throwing them sideways to shed the block at the POA at the perfect time to get to the RB.
Violent hands. Good hand usage with a variety of pass rush moves. Active hand fighter to disengage, doesn't give in or give up.
Very good as the looper on a stunt. Another situation where his RB traits shine. He has the body control and balance to turn the corner, then can accelerate to the QB.
Good overall athleticism. Once he gets around a block, he can redirect to the QB. Protects his legs from cut blocks. Thick and beefy in his lower half. Good contact balance.
Versatile in alignment, can play inside in 4-3 or be a DE in both 3 and 4 man fronts.
Outstanding pursuit range for a DT. Not quite as good as a LB, but he has a high motor, good speed and sheds blocks very well, so it is almost like you have an extra LB on the field to help close down runners downfield. Pursues outside of his gap, not one of those DTs who only make an impact in a phonebooth.
Good effort level. Doesn't take plays off, doesn't give up if his team falls behind and things aren't going well.
Extremely explosive off the snap in short yardage and goalline situations. He can burst forward to drive the guard backwards, distorting the line, or can penetrate through gaps. One game I watched, he did this on 3 consecutive snaps near the GL.
While he's short, he can jump in the air and deflect passes at the LOS. Quick twitch and better vertical explosion than typical for a DT.
Comfortable in space. Adjusts well vs QB/RB mesh point.
Good stamina. Played high number of snaps multiple seasons in college. If he became an NFL star, he might stay on the field for most of the team's snaps and not need to be platooned or rotated out much.
Penn State LT, Olu Fashanu is projected to be one of the top selections in the draft. One of the plays where Fashanu is beaten in pass pro, I didn't know who he was blocking when I watched that game. It was Newton.
Very productive for a power conference school, consistent production over multiple seasons. Dominated some opponents, generating QB pressures and disrupting run plays.
Too small. Short arms, not enough body mass and weight. Can be driven out of his gap, washed sideways or driven backwards off the LOS. Has some ability to set the edge, but doesn't inspire confidence that he could do it against bigger NFL tackles. Got obliterated by a double team.
Limited length is a decided disadvantage both as a pass rusher and in the run game. When the OL grabs him, Newton struggles to break their grip. Pass rush moves can get smothered and stuffed by OL with superior length and size. Can get stiff armed by the RB.
Has very little bull rush ability. While he has a variety of moves, they all involve attacking the edge of the blocker. He almost never goes through the middle of the opponent and drives them backwards with a power move.
Something of a "one trick pony", dominating opponents with moves that are all very similar. In the games I watched, I don't recall him ever beating the opponent with a very impressive counter after his initial pass rush move was stopped.
His initial burst off the snap is excellent, but he doesn't carry that momentum through the rest of his pass rush. His 2nd, 3rd and 4th steps aren't as explosive, giving the guard a chance to "breathe" and recover.
Short arms result in missed tackle opportunities. In the hole, he'll reach for the RB, but miss arm tackles when they are just barely out of his reach or he can't get a strong grab. One such play resulted in big YAC for the RB. Misses sacks when the QB jumps away and evades his tackle. I think this could hurt him even more at the NFL level, because slow, statue in the pocket QBs are disappearing and there are more athletic dual threat QBs becoming starters.
Doesn't have sudden, short area, "2 yard burst" to finish plays. This limitation compounds his lack of length, because sometimes a rushing lane for the RB will develop and Newton can't get to it in time to slam the door shut, the RB can slip by him.
Plays with a high pad level for being such a short player. This results in him losing leverage at times, then getting walked sideways down the LOS, out of his gap, opening up running lanes for the RB.
Struggles to anchor at the point of attack, usually relies on counters and quickness to make plays, trying to get around the blocker, instead of stacking the defender to create a traffic jam in the path of the RB.
His quick wins vs run blocks for TFLs make for an impressive highlight tape, but there's an "all or nothing" aspect to it, like a basketball team that lives and dies by 3 pointers or a baseball team that can only score by hitting home runs. If he gambles to get around the blocker and loses, angles the wrong way or the RB cuts back, all Newton ends up doing is opening up a nice hole that can compromise the integrity of the rest of the run defense.
I consider him to be something of a "lamb killer". He beat up on opponents who weren't good, either because they'd lunge at him or they weren't athletic to slide their feet laterally and cut him off, but his pass rusher attempts weren't overly impressive. I question whether he can replicate the same level of success vs legit NFL starters.
Not always disciplined, can be too eager to get to the ball. Going wide in his rush lane sometimes open up space for the QB to scramble up the middle. Overpursued on zone run, opening up cutback for RB.
Since he always tries to go around the block on pass rushes, you can exploit this on draws or similar plays where the DT thinks it is a pass, but get surprised by a run. If the RB runs right at him, DT will try to go around the G, then just have the G shove him in the same direction, there will be a hole at the LOS for the RB.
While he plays many snaps, he can get tired at the end of a long drive or later in the game. When he gets tired, his explosion and impact melt away and he's not a difference maker, he's just another random guy on the field.
Not scheme versatile. He's an excellent fit for a 1 gap, penetrating defensive scheme, and probably could play every DL position in that scheme, but I don't think he can play in a system where the DL have to 2 gap and eat up blockers.
I see him as a Robin, not a Batman. I think he could be a productive starter on a balanced defense that has other impact EDGE rushers and defensive linemen, but I don't think he'll ever be an All Pro type player who can carry a defense as the lead dog. I'd draft him to play a Kobie Turner role, not to become the next Akiem Hicks (just to use a player not named Aaron Donald.)
While he's a team captain, coaches and teammates describe him as having a laid back personality. He reminds me a little of Ricky Williams in interviews. Johnny is the 4th of 5 brothers and he strikes me as more of a "little brother" than a big brother, so he might not be suited to be one of the core team leaders on an NFL roster.
Can be baited to jump offsides. When the offense uses late shifts pre-snap to change the formation or post-snap misdirection, I thought that his play recognition could be better. He didn't make huge blunders or anything, but he'd get caught by surprise by a block or baited and pulled in the wrong direction. An underrated part of Aaron Donald's game is his football IQ. Remember that time where he anticipated the RB screen coming, grabbed the RB and it caused an INT (I think to Justin Hollins)?
Draft Grade and Pro Comp
2nd round grade. Sheldon Rankins (12th overall 2016, New Orleans Saints, Louisville)
Rankins broke his leg his rookie season. He later had ankle and knee injuries. When he's been healthy, he's been a good starter in the NFL, but also no one would confuse Rankins with Aaron Donald.
Starting for the Saints in 2017 and 2018, Rankins piled up an impressive 74 QB pressured, per SIS. He had 8 sacks and a 9.9% pressure rate in 2018. He's still a productive player in 2023 with the Houston Texans, with 4 sacks and a 10.4% pressure rate. He has a nearly $10 million salary with the Texans. Another thing that Rankins can do well is he's uncommonly athletic for a DT, making him good in a zone blitz, because he can drop into coverage and get depth very fast, then move in space to help take away short routes and hot reads.
Rankins stats in his best years are good, but Donald is on an entirely different level. Over a period of 8 seasons, AD has a combined pressure rate of 13.3%, which is both ridiculously high and super consistent. It is nearly 2 percentage points better than JJ Watt's number over a similar period. Donald's career worst rate during that period is 9.6%. In other words, AD at his worst is similar to Rankins at his best. What can you say? Aaron Donald as an NFL DT is in a class by himself in the modern era. Rankins had 74 pressures over 2 seasons at his peak. Donald had 92 pressures in a single season! He had 76 pressures each in 2 other years. And that's with all of the double and triple team blocks and the holding penalties that didn't get called.
The 2 worst seasons among Donald's last 8 years are his 2 most recent seasons. Even so, over the same period Myles Garrett (perhaps the best EDGE rusher in the NFL) has a pressure rate of 13.8%. So, Donald from the DT position is nearly as effective rushing the passer as an All Pro level EDGE rusher. That's nuts. It would be like a TE having as many receiving yards as the best WRs in the NFL, plus being a great run blocker on top of it.
Last draft, I gave a 2nd round grade to undersized DT, Calijah Kancey. IMO, Kancey was a better draft prospect than Newton, which is why I don't consider Newton to be a 1st round prospect, even though some boards have him as a top 10 overall pick.
Kancey was the 19th overall pick in the 2023 draft. He's played in 7 games this season, has 2 sacks, 11 tackles, 7 TFLs, 12 pressures (per SIS, PFR gives him only 8), an 8.1% pressure rate and a 53.8 PFF grade.
My ceiling for Newton is another DT from Rankins's draft, Kenny Clark of the Packers. Clark played at UCLA and was the 27th overall pick. If they were in the same draft, I'd rank Clark higher, primarily because Clark had better play strength, he could bull rush linemen back into the QB and he could hold his ground better vs runs. Clark is also undersized, because he only has 32 1/8'' arms. Clark is a very good player, but he also has never had more than 6 sacks in any single season of his pro career. In 8 seasons, Clark has 30.5 career sacks. In Donald's first 8 years, he had 98 sacks, more than 3 times as many. Isn't that wild? Clark is a 2 time Pro Bowler, but he's not even in the same ballpark as AD as a pass rusher. His SIS metrics are like Rankins, so once again, Donald at his very worst is arguably better than Clark at his very best.
So, can we please ban any future "the next Aaron Donald" references from NFL draft profiles? There's no such thing. We'll almost certainly never again see another player like him. He's a "they broke the mold" Hall of Famer.