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Eagles Offseason Evaluations: DT Elijah Qualls

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Could Qualls fill the potential early-season void at defensive tackle?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

I loved the Elijah Qualls pick the day it was made. My 121st player fell to 214 (likely due to frame concerns, as we’ll see), and provided big-time value for an Eagles team with both DTs Timmy Jernigan and Beau Allen in a contract year, and only UDFAs Destiny Vaeao and Aziz Shittu behind them.

The defensive tackle cards largely fell Philadelphia’s way during the 2017 (Super Bowl winning) season, however: Jernigan played quite well next to all-star Fletcher Cox, Beau Allen put out one of his best seasons to date, and Vaeao and Qualls both provided decent reps in clean-up duty.

But then the cards started shifting sides. With Jernigan’s health and future in doubt and Beau fighting for starting reps in Tampa, Philadelphia desperately needs one of their young interior defenders to demand increased reps. The gap may not hurt them this year, with Jernigan still on the roster (but will he be healthy) and newly acquired Michael Bennett offering quality inside snaps (but how long will he be effective?)—but in the seasons to come, they’ll need at least a DT3 from the young crop of players.

And I think that players is Elijah Qualls.

Why he can get on the field

Qualls’ entire game is predicated on the power he can generate through his flexible frame. As such, he’s a staunch run defender, as he’s tough to move off of his spot, and can work well against zone concepts that try to down block/reach block him. Because of the bend throughout his frame, he can work through tough angles and maintain his ground in gaps—so even though he doesn’t often make the play, he’s still redirecting the ball carrier and eliminating a potential running lane.

That last rep? That’s Zack Martin, All-World guard for the Cowboys. When Qualls is quick off the snap (which at this point in his career is hit or miss), he can leverage his hands into the pads of his opponent, and that’s where his torsion strength really shines. That landing of the hands is key, however, as Qualls has T-Rex arms (30 5/8”) that prevent his ability to stack and shed with great frequency.

Qualls also gets on the field because he provides a better rush profile than his companion on the depth chart, third-year DT Destiny Vaeao out of Washington State. Neither are great pass-rushers at this juncture—but again, Qualls game comes down to power, and he can gear that brute force into more significant rush reps than Vaeao, who is smaller and weaker.

Take for example, these reps against the Chicago Bears. Vaeao and Qualls both got reps in the waning minutes of this blowout, and as a result, we have a nice opportunity to compare their games. In the first clip, Vaeao comes looping into the C, #65 Cody Whitehair (good player) with a nice long runway--but he isn’t able to displace Whitehair off his spot, as he’s stunned by Whitehair’s punch and his rush peters out.

Later in the game, Qualls takes the same loop from the same alignment—but with an even shorter runway, as Whitehair immediately opens to him. Whitehair even has more time to square his hips and set his feet—but Qualls immediate jolts Whitehair back and starts rolling his hips, pushing the pocket and forcing QB Mitchell Trubisky to throw off-platform. Incomplete!

While Qualls may not yet be ready to step into Timmy Jernigan’s cleats, he’s certainly capable of filling that Big Beau Allen role of gap-clogging on running downs, and pocket-pushing on passing downs.

Where you’re expecting growth

Qualls’ pass-rush has grown in his time in Philadelphia, but he’s still missing a piece or two. When you turn on the tape, it’s littered with disruptive plays that affected the integrity of the pocket and helped his teammates get to the quarterback—but the reality is that Qualls is not yet a finisher.

Travis Frederick; Kyle Long; Zack Martin (twice!). Two bull-rushes, a push-pull, and even a little counter step (good quickness!). There’s just not much in the stat sheet there.

The biggest issue is the usage of hands to soften rush angles and disengage. Remember we mentioned Qualls’ T-Rex arms? When a defensive lineman lack length, he needs to be exceptionally quick off the ball to win the hand game (not really Qualls) or unbelievably powerful to just mow down his opponent and create traffic (that’s more like it). Qualls’ ability to add pressures, knockdowns, and sacks to his scorecard is wholly contingent on the work he did this offseason in incorporating his hands into his rush plans.

You expect development here because many bowling-ball behemoths come out of college without much hand development—they didn’t need it, when they were bulldozing scrubs left and right—and NFL coaching and veteran mentoring often makes a big impact there. But you also expect it because Qualls flashed it during games in the 2017 season.

These reps are sequential (on the same drive, no less). On the first, Long (RG #75) immediately lands that right-handed punch on Qualls’ shoulder, and as Qualls attempts to swat that hand away, Long works his left hand into position, gets his hips square, and stymies Qualls’ power.

But on the next rep—man, this is cool—you can see Qualls bat away Long’s left hand after the initial punch lands. This is independent hand usage, and it’s super fly. Qualls swats the right-handed punch just as he did before, but this time recognizes the next chess move in the sequence and beats Long to it. Accordingly, he generates an interior rush lane and puts pressure on the quarterback.

As Qualls reps and reps and reps situations like these, he’ll be quicker with his strikes, more powerful with his leverage, and more effective getting to his target. But for a rookie, that was quite the promising sequence.

What worries you when he’s on the field

Qualls’ game is predicated on power (woah, where have we heard that before?). As such, when he encounters a situation in which he can’t win with power, he panics a bit. And that’s evident nowhere more than it is when he faces a double-team.

Qualls is an effective gap-plugger because he’s a wriggler—he likes to get skinny, work back across faces, plant his foot and bend. He’s slippery, and I’d imagine irritating as heck to latch onto and drive for offensive linemen. But when he’s approached with thick double teams around which he can’t slip, he gets skittish. He starts trying to spin away; he drops his hands; he doesn’t drop his weight. And accordingly, you get big time displacement.

Admittedly, the Cowboys are a top-three double-teaming OL in the NFL. Few do it better. But it’s tough to ignore how well they moved such a big body (320 lbs!) off his spot, and it forces the question: can Qualls learn how to drop his knee, anchor, and split double teams with frequency? Otherwise, offensive coordinators will identify his weakness and regularly come thick off the line at him, paving roadways for easy yardage in the running game.