If you were me, and you found this photo of Sione Fua- how do you not make it the picture for this article?
On day two of the 2011 NFL draft the Carolina Panthers sought to solidify their biggest need on defense selecting two defensive tackles who should pair well with each other to form an effective, run stopping tandem. Yesterday we looked at the #65 overall pick Terrell McClain, and today we're looking at the #97 pick, DT Sione Fua.
Sione is a player who didn't garner much pomp or circumstance during the pre-draft process. While players like Jarvis Jenkins and the aforementioned McClain were shooting up draft boards Fua remained steadily graded in the 3rd to 5th round level, with some scouts believing he would be the 1st DT off the board in the 3rd round, while others had him sliding to the 5th due to a lack of measurables, but conceded he would be a 'steal' in the 5th round.
While he's not going to blow you away with game breaking speed, he does have astonishing strength which he is good at using to get OL out of their rhythm and knock them off balance. Sione Fua is an extremely intelligent DT, with what's described as an infectious work ethic and with a knack for playing both the run and the pass. Though much is made of his vaunted run stopping ability after anchoring a Stanford 3-4 that improved from 45th in the nation against the run in 2009 to 19th in 2010, in reality Fua is also an underrated pass rusher as he finished the year with 4.5 sacks while playing the 3-4 NT. Personally, I see too many reports talking about Fua's pass rushing as an afterthought, but when you look inside the numbers are see that he totaled sacks against USC (2012 1st round lock Matt Barkley) and Arizona (2012 projected 1st round pick Nick Foles) despite being asked to hold the point of attack in a 3-4 then it becomes rather impressive.
Against the run Fua is very good at moving back the pile and influencing plays that wont appear on a stat sheet. A lot is made of Stanford's game against Oregon last year when LaMichael James ran for 257 yards, but in reality there was nobody on that team that could stop him. Against Cal, however, they held Patriots draft pick Shane Vereen to 62 yards and in the Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech they only allowed 66 total rushing yards, despite facing Cardinals 2nd round pick Ryan Williams.
More on Sione Fua after the jump
As mentioned before, Sione Fua is not the fastest DT which means he will rely heavily on his technique, strength and smarts at the next level. One major area of improvement Sione will need to make is his conditioning; whether it was because he was asked to anchor long drives, or he simply doesn't have the gas for it, there were times in 2010 where he lost a lot of his steam on drives, and as such his technique became more and more sloppy as time went on. Thankfully, this is something that should be easily correctable with an NFL strength and conditioning program.
Another area of concern is his slow, almost plodding foot-speed. What this means is that while Sione will flourish when the plays come at him, he is lacking when a runner changes directions or the OL stunts against him. You can tell that the mental aspect of the game is firing, but the feet aren't quite listening. Hopefully this is an area that can be corrected.
Value of the Pick
This is a point of contention for many fans who look at scouting reports and believe he may have been taken too early, but the reality is that this was a weak draft class for nose tackles. With Kenrick Ellis already off the board Fua was the next NT in line to be selected, and looking how the draft shook out there was a good chance he wouldn't be there when the Panthers picked again. That being said, I still follow my adage of looking at a draft in isolation of what a pick means to a team: Sione Fua has a very good chance of starting at NT this season for the Panthers, and if that occurs then using a 3rd round compensatory selection on him was a good decision.
A few days ago I would have listed this as greater than 90%, however, recently Joseph Person predicted the Panthers will cast an eye towards free agency to fill the starting NT spot while they work with Fua. Cullen Jenkins could be a possibility here, as could Brandon Mebane- but I still think there's a fairly good chance the Panthers will pass on either of these routes and start Fua.
75% chance of starting game one
Fit on the Depth Chart
As it stands at NT there's really Sione Fua, and then everyone else. Since the Panthers let Maake Kemoeatu go last year they never really found a solid answer at NT. Nick Hayden did okay filling in, but really a 292 lbs he's an undersized nose tackle and really is little more than a solid contributor off the bench more than a full time starter. At 6'1", 310 lbs (from his pro day) Fua will likely be the #1 NT heading into camp pending free agency.
I've really liked Sione Fua for a long time dating back to intently studying Stanford games last year while scouting Andrew Luck. As much as Luck was dominant on offense, Fua was the heart and soul of the Stanford defense. Never really a guy who 'wowed' you, but when he was off the field you saw just how anemic the Stanford defense looked without him. He's a player who makes those around him better, and will do what's asked in the trenches- in the end, this is all the Carolina Panthers need out of a NT, eat up some space and let the linebackers make the plays.