Da’Ron Payne: A Good Decision, That Could Be A Great One

By | April 27, 2018
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via PFF.com

Now that i’ve walked myself off the ledge of “WHY THE HELL DIDN’T WE DRAFT DERWIN JAMES, A NEAR CONSENSUS TOP-7 PLAYER IN THE NFL DRAFT!?!?,” I can calmly and rationally say the following things about the Washington Redskins’ selection of defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne from the University of Alabama.

This Pick Shouldn’t Have Surprised Anyone.

It was reported as far back as the Senior Bowl that the Redskins were intrigued by Da’Ron Payne. Three weeks ago, Chris Cooley said on ESPN980 that he’d wager “good money” that the Redskins had a strong interest in Payne.  It makes sense, considering Jonathan Allen was great in the brief period of time he played this season, and the coaching staff absolutely loved the “ready to play immediately” polish of the guys from Alabama (Allen and Ryan Anderson).

If you’re going to draft defensive players from a particular school, Alabama would have to be at the top of the list.

We also know that Bruce Allen essentially had Minkah Fitzpatrick, Vita Vea, and Da’Ron Payne at the top of his short list of options for #13 (although they might have even preferred Payne over Vea, depending on whom you talk to). I firmly believe that he (stubbornly) stuck to his guns, overrode the advice of his scouts (some — or many — of whom were likely clamoring for the team to take Derwin James when he fell to #13), and took Payne after Fitzpatrick and Vea were gone. Everyone — including Doug Williams, our (puppet) Senior Vice President of Player Personnel — all said the same thing about this draft: everyone provides their input, but Bruce Allen makes the final decision about this pick.

This Was A Good Pick, That Could Be A Great One

Yes, a part of me will keep an eye on the career of Derwin James, fully knowing we passed on him. Yes, a big part of me wanted to see the Redskins draft Vita Vea.

But while Da’Ron Payne might not have garnered the same “buzz” as those other two guys, he’s an athletic monster perfectly cut from the expected fabric from guys playing under Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa.

We’ll start with this: in Alabama’s two “postseason” games (en route to their National Championship win) this season, Da’Ron Payne was their best player on either side of the field. He dominated in the Tide’s Sugar Bowl win against Clemson, and in the National Championship game against Georgia, until Tua Tagovailoa stepped on the field, he was almost singlehandedly keeping the Tide in the game against Georgia (Payne won defensive MVP honors in both games).

While Payne’s “spider chart” on mockdraftable won’t blow anyone away, Todd Mschay described Payne as having “explosive athletic traits at 6-2½ and 311 pounds,” which included a 10-yard spit of 1.67 seconds, and a 40 yard dash time of 4.95 seconds (McShay called those numbers “awesome”). In the Sugar Bowl, Payne intercepted a pass from Clemson’s Kelly Bryant, and returned it 21 yards. Then, on the opposite end of the field, and on the opposite side of the ball, Payne lined up in the offensive backfield, and caught a goal line touchdown pass from Jalen Hurts, punctuating the play with a nifty toe tap at the end. He became the third player third FBS player in the past decade to record an interception and a touchdown catch in the same game.

Again, we’re talking about a defensive lineman that weighs over 310lbs, can bench press over 500lbs, and squat over 630lbs.

Mario Cristobal, the current head coach at the University of Oregon and a former assistant head coach (and offensive line coach) at Alabama, reportedly saw Payne as “the second coming of Warren Sapp, only bigger,” and said of Payne: “There’s nothing like him out there. He’s the 100th percentile. You don’t see it. If you wanted to play him at tight end, you could flip him over and play tight end. If you had him drop 40 pounds, he could probably step in there at middle linebacker. This guy, there’s nothing he can’t do.

For all the stud defensive linemen that Saban has put into the NFL while at Alabama, including Marcel Dareus, Terrance Cody, A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reid, Jonathan Allen, and Dalvin Tomlinson, a lot of people thought Payne was as good as — if not better than, frankly — than any of them. That should say a lot.

Highlight Video:

A few scouting reports on Payne:

Daniel Jeremiah, NFL.com

Payne is a powerful, run-stuffing defensive tackle with pass-rush upside. Against the run, he launches out of his stance and quickly shoots his hands to generate knock-back against single blocks. He will also use a quick slap/swim to disrupt. He holds up well vs. double-teams and has tremendous lateral range. As a pass rusher, he has a quick get-off, but he needs to develop a plan. Most of his pressure is the result of his swim move. He needs to work on counter moves. His effort is excellent. Overall, Payne is built to dominate on run downs right now. He has the athletic ability and power to emerge as a much better pass rusher in the near future.

Lance Zierlein, NFL.com

Payne came to Alabama as a 350-pound behemoth who was a top 20 national high school recruit, but for his senior year played closer to 300 while still keeping his elite strength to move back the center and shed the block to make plays. With Jonathan Allen in the pros, Payne took over as the playmaker inside, earning second-team All-SEC honors (53 tackles, one sack, one interception, three pass break-ups). Payne saved his best for last, dominating inside against Georgia in the national championship game. He was a 15-game starter as a sophomore in 2016, making 36 tackles, 3.5 for loss, and 1.5 sacks from the nose guard position. Payne started three games in the middle as a true freshman in 2015, stopping the ball 13 times with half a tackle for loss.

Payne possesses one of the most impressive combinations of strength and athleticism that we’ve seen from an interior lineman. He will be the premier run-stuffer in this draft, but he may have enough in the pass rushing toolbox to project as a better pro than college pass rusher. Payne is a game-ready starter who immediately upgrades a defense’s ability to slow the run. If teams view him as just a run-down player, then his draft value could fall a little, but he could become a Pro Bowl defender early in his career.

Greg Cosell, NFLFilms.com

The more I watched Payne the more I liked him and I believe he has a chance to be an outstanding player who develops into a 3 down player who can rush the QB from inside with needed effectiveness.

What consistently stood out watching Payne was that he played with outstanding balance and body control and was not on the ground very often. What also jumped off the film was how feay hands were with the sheer power to jar and drive back OL off the ball. Overall, Payne consistently showed to be a very good athlete for his size and body type (his 4.95 40 yard dash was reflective of that) and my sense is he will get better as an NFL player. I like Payne as a better overall prospect than Jonathan Allen coming out of Alabama a year ago. They are different players re: overall traits and NFL utilization but I believe Payne will be better as a pro.

Pro Football Weekly

Unnatural, rare combination of athleticism and strength for a man his size. Turned in an eye-opening 4.95-second 40-yard dash — only about 15 players his weight or heavier have run faster since 2000. Perhaps more impressive was his 10-yard split time of 1.66 seconds — faster than a handful of receivers and defensive backs. Has bench-pressed 545 pounds before, and he did 27 reps of 225 pounds at the combine. Nice work in the agility drills as well. Flashes good quickness off the snap and often will beat centers out of their stances.

Hands fighter who can maul with the best of them but also do so with nice controlled strength. Well-coached and technically sound. Gets a lot of QB hits and pressures that don’t show up in the box score. Was used equally as run stopper and pass rusher. Has the mass, drive and take-on strength to handle double teams. Works down the line well and can navigate traffic to make plays laterally. Will stack up offensive linemen, keep his head up, steer and shed them and make plays on the ball. Lateral agility and balance to change directions and pivot quickly.

Payne can be a factor in both even and odd fronts, and he played every technique from guard to guard in his career, even lining up as a 5-technique at times. So in theory he should fit in most teams’ schemes, but those that run two-gap systems or demand a little more strength and bulk in their interior players might place a higher value on him. Among the teams that could be good fits for Payne include the Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Washington.

Dane Brugler, NFLDraftScout.com (via DallasNews.com):

Broad shouldered frame with thick trunk and well-distributed body mass. Fluid movement skills with swivel hips and flexible joints. Shoots his powerful hands to shock/displace blockers. Balanced feet at the point of attack, eating up double-teams. Contorts his body to find gaps and drop anchor. Functional range to keep free up/down the line, following the ball. Makes more stops outside the hashes than the typical nose tackle. Gentle giant persona and well-respected in the football building. Steady progression each of his three seasons in Tuscaloosa as he figured out how to utilize his God-given gifts. Experienced in goal-line situations as a lead fullback on offense – caught a touchdown on his only career target. Durable and didn’t miss a game the last three years, starting 29 straight contests to finish his college career.

Payne lined up as the starting nose guard in the middle of Nick Saban’s three-man front. He was asked to be a block-eater and contain rather than get upfield, freeing up his teammates to make plays. Payne showed his pass rush potential in his final two games (Sugar Bowl and National Championship), but why the late spike? That is the main question scouts are asking themselves.

While he doesn’t have the same technique or nasty temperament, Payne flashes Ndamukong Suh qualities to his game, carrying 300+ pounds with ease and tapping into his power when needed. His pass rush skills are more potential than production right now, but his strength as a player will always be vs. the run where he flashes dominance when the batteries are charged. Overall, there are only so many humans on the planet with his mix of fluid athleticism and brute power and his blossoming understanding of how to best use his gifts in unison suggests continued ascension under NFL coaching.

Tony Pauline, DraftAnalyst.com:

My affection for Da’Ron Payne is well-known, as I believe he’s the most underrated defender in this year’s draft, bar none. I reached out to see why teams do not rank Payne as an early first-round pick.

I’m told most teams love Payne the player as well as Payne the person but feel he’s a two-down defender and not much of a pass rusher, which is the reason Payne is not rated as a top-10 prospect by scouts.

It’s a criticism I would agree with, as we described Payne as a “small-area lineman” in our scouting report. He still makes such a big impact, much of which isn’t found on the stat sheet, that I stand by my belief that Payne is underrated and will turn into one of the better defenders from this draft two or three years down the line.

Stephen White, SBNation.com

Washington, who drafted [Da’Ron Payne] with the 13th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, can call him whatever they want, under-tackle in a base 4-3, defensive end in a base 3-4, who cares? As long as they make sure he spends a lot of time lined up in the B-gap getting up the field in a hurry, they will definitely get their money’s worth.

What jumped out to me was that in limited opportunities, Payne was a helluva interior pass rusher. He didn’t have a single sack in the four games I watched, but I seriously don’t give a fuck about that. His get-off was remarkable, even in “heavy” alignments where he wasn’t lined up in a gap, and it’s easy to see how that can aid him as a pass rusher.

I would have loved to have seen more of Payne in alignments that were more conducive to showing off his pass rush skills, but, for whatever reason, Alabama decided to play him as a true nose tackle most of the time in the four games I watched. And, look, I get it. Nick Saban is all about winning championships. Payne playing at nose likely gave Alabama the best chance to win.

And win they did. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Payne did fine as a college nose tackle, don’t get me wrong, but he looked so much quicker when he was lined up in the B gap that sometimes it appeared the tape had been sped up between plays. If Payne had been lined up in the B gap more, there is no telling the kind of stats he might’ve put up last year.

Another Highlight Video:

This Pick Addressed A Weakness, And Potentially Created A Strength

Over the first five games of the season, the Redskins defense held opposing teams to less than 83 yards rushing per game, and gave up over 100 yards rushing to only one running back in this games (Kareem Hunt had 101 yards in Week 4; Washington even held Todd Gurley to less than 90 yards rushing).

Once Allen went down, the flood gates opened. I don’t have the exact number handy, but let’s just say the Redskins surrendered somewhere in the neighborhood of a billion rushing yards per game since then, en route to finishing with the 29th-ranked rushing defense (by DVOA) and 32nd-ranked rushing defense (in yards per game).

We were already going to get Allen back. Now, we add Da’Ron Payne to the line at nose tackle, meaning we finally have a worthwhile piece up the middle (instead of going dumpster diving for guys like Ziggy Hood and Phil Taylor, or overpaying for certified bums like Terrell McClain). Those two will line up next to last year’s breakout player, Matt Ioannidis.

Best of all, they’re all going to be coached by the best defensive line coach in the NFL (and a completely crazy-ass MoFo) in Jim Tomsula.

Joking aside, former NFL General Manager Michael Lombardi talks about the idea of “strengthening a strength” all the time on The Ringer’s GM Street podcast, pointing to reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles — that sentence still makes me want to puke every time I say or type it — as an example.

Last offseason, the Eagles took a good defensive line anchored by Fletcher Cox, and added Timmy Jernigan (such an underrated move) via trade, Chris Long in free agency, and Derek Barnett in the first round of the NFL Draft. For all the talk about Carson Wentz and Nick Foles, the Eagles’ defensive line is what carried them to a Super Bowl.

Washington’s defensive line isn’t in that same class yet. But you at least have the foundation for something with Allen and Ioannidis, and now Da’Ron Payne. I just got done bashing Hood, but he’s at least serviceable (at worst) in a rotation. Anthony Lanier is an underrated player that keeps developing. If they get any contributions from Tayor, McClain, or Stacey McGee (i’m not holding my breath for it), that’s just gravy on top.

This pick isn’t going to catapult the Redskins back atop the NFC East. This pick isn’t going to sell more tickets or sell more jerseys (sorry, Dan Snyder). We’ve had enough of those types of picks, and we’ve seen where they’ve gotten us, by and large, over the past two decades.

Instead, what the selection of Da’Ron Payne did is add another solid building block to a team that’s still in need of a whole bunch of them. And that, in and of itself, is a step in the right direction.

 

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