Vikings

Don't Let the Trade-Value Debate Distract From Dallas Turner's Elite Skills

Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings’ selection of Alabama edge rusher Dallas Turner with the 17th-overall pick has generated a ton of discussion, but not necessarily about who Turner is as a player. Because of Minnesota’s trade-up to get him, most of the debate has been centered around the draft picks it cost the Vikings to take Turner.

Getting appropriate value for picks and making smart draft-day trades absolutely matters. From a process perspective, the Vikings almost certainly took a loss in spending the capital they did to move up for Turner. But if you had told anyone before the draft that Minnesota would come out of the first round with J.J. McCarthy and Dallas Turner, they would have likely called you insane. Everyone was projecting the Vikings to have to trade both of their picks to go up and get McCarthy. Meanwhile, Turner was projected to go off the board before Minnesota had a pick in most mock drafts.

The idea of a steal is probably overrated. However, now that Turner is on the team, his pre-draft projection, draft slot, or capital spent to get him doesn’t really matter. The cost is sunk, and now we should turn to who Turner is as a player and what he can contribute to the Vikings. I went to the tape to figure that out. I was able to watch Turner’s 2023 games against Texas, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, LSU, Georgia, and Michigan.

Run defense

Pass rush has more value because of the nature of the sport, but for me, player evaluation along the defensive line begins with run defense. Simply put, if you can’t defend the run at an adequate level, you will not see the field until passing-only downs. Run defense makes the difference between a full-time and rotational player. Defending the run at an adequate level is about processing, effort, and technique.

Fortunately for the Vikings, Turner comes from an Alabama program that does a great job of preparing players from a technical and mental perspective, and Turner has clearly absorbed that. He understands how to set the edge on defense and uses his length to lock out opposing blockers. Once he does that, he has the skilled hands to disengage from blockers and get in on the tackle. He keeps his eyes in the backfield and is able to track the RB to make the tackle when the run comes his way. But he also stays disciplined and doesn’t abandon his gap to try to make a play.

Here’s a compilation of Turner disengaging from blocks:

In addition to his technical and mental skills, Turner plays with an edge in the run game. He’s willing to aggressively take on contact from opponents, and it’s really effective in setting the edge against TEs and against linemen in some cases. In the compilation below, you can see him regularly bend back his opponents and squeeze lanes to prevent RBs from finding space in the gap inside of him:

However, Turner’s aggression often falls short against some of the strong offensive tackles he faces. Too often, he ends up getting knocked back multiple yards after contact. As a smaller player (247 lbs. at the scouting combine), Turner’s good leverage and technique only take him so far.

That shouldn’t prevent him from playing a significant role. It’s an issue that Andrew Van Ginkel, the other starting edge option besides Turner, also shares. At only 21 years old, Turner should be able to fill out his frame a bit more and play with more functional strength as he grows into an NFL role. However, he will be somewhat limited against the run as he gets knocked back on plays like the one below.

The more specific issue Turner has in run defense comes when he’s asked to take on double teams. Play strength is a part of it, but there’s also a technical aspect. Turner didn’t see a ton of doubles in the game I watched, but on the two that I found, he got driven back significantly. Part of his issue is poor execution of a knee-drop technique used by smaller players to take on double teams. Hopefully, he can develop that while he gains strength to become a plus run defender at the NFL level.

pass rush

Run defense gets players on the field, but pass rush is the exciting element we all like to see. Turner had great production as a college pass rusher, with 10 sacks in 2023 and 22.5 during his three-year career and 117 total pressures during that time, per PFF.

Turner falls into the rare category of a young player who was highly productive at the highest level of competition in CFB. Among his fellow first-round edges, Laiatu Latu, Jared Verse, and Darius Robinson were all fifth-year seniors who will be 23 for most of the 2024 season. Meanwhile, Chop Robinson significantly lagged behind his peers in terms of production at the college level.

As a pass rusher, the first thing that stands out with Turner is his ability to bull rush. He uses his explosion off the line of scrimmage and long arms to get good leverage up into the chest of opposing tackles and drive them back toward the QB. He regularly compresses the pocket and impacts a QB’s ability to step into his throws or flushes the player from the pocket.

Here’s a compilation:

On this play specifically, his power is on full display. He uses his length to get directly into the LT before he’s set and keeps pushing, never allowing the tackle to get his feet underneath him before ultimately disengaging for the sack.

Turner also explodes off the snap as a pass rusher, which enables him to get upfield quickly. That gives him a head start in winning around the edge, and he’s proficient in fighting with his hands to disengage from opposing tackles. He has a club-rip and a swipe to win the edge and also showcases a ghost move.

Turner turns the corner well on a number of the plays above. However, he doesn’t quite have the freaky bend of a Von Miller, Danielle Hunter, or Brian Burns as a speed rusher, which will limit his upside. “Bend” in a pass rusher is about having lower body/ankle flexibility to rotate your lower half and change your rush path to get a flat angle toward the QB. The play below against Texas A&M is an example where Turner doesn’t show the bend of the league’s top players.

Once he plants his inside foot, like in the still below, the hope is that he will be able to come flat toward the quarterback. Instead, he needs two more yards of depth to cover that ground and isn’t really a part of the play.

In addition to being strong with a bull rush and technically sound to win around the edge, Turner has a very competent inside counter. The same disengaging ability that helps him in the run game helps here, and his burst off of the line of scrimmage helps set up opposing tackles for failure when he cuts inside. The lateral movement to win inside is different from the flexibility to win the edge, and Turner has that part of athleticism in spades.

Look at the wins below:

Finally, Turner has significant experience running stunts in the Alabama defense. That’s great because Brian Flores employs stunts regularly, and the rules of the stunts Alabama runs come from the same tree as Flores. This allowed us to get a look at Turner rushing against interior offensive linemen, who he consistently beat with his superior athleticism. He also showed an understanding of the rules as a crasher on stunts, occupying blockers to allow the looping player to come free around him.

Flores often used Danielle Hunter as a “spinner” lined up inside last year. Given Turner’s ability to beat opponents on the interior, I would expect Flores to use Turner, not Jonathan Greenard, in that role in 2024.

coverage

Different defensive structures have slightly different requirements, and Minnesota’s blitz-heavy scheme sometimes demands that edge rushers play in coverage. It’ll never be a huge part of the evaluation, but the ability to take on that role can be a bonus. Because Nick Saban’s scheme also asked edges to play in coverage, we got to see some of that from Turner.

Turner is not going to be an elite coverage player and is definitely below Andrew Van Ginkel or a typical off-ball linebacker in terms of coverage ability. You can see from the plays below that he’s a little rigid and mechanical in his movements to be a true coverage guy. However, he offers more than any edge player the Vikings had last year.

What I like about Turner is that he has experience making real coverage reads in the Saban defense. For example, in the play below, his first responsibility is to carry the No. 2 receiver vertically. However, he also has flat responsibility. He does a good job of keeping his eyes on No. 1 and covering him in the flat when it’s a stop route.

You can also see Turner’s speed. On the play below, he keeps stride with a WR and an incredibly fast one at that. Granted, he allows separation when the route is broken off. Still, that’s much better than getting beaten quickly over the top for a TD.

athleticism

I normally start with the athleticism category first, but what impressed me about Turner was his ability from a technical perspective, so I wanted to discuss that before gushing about his athletic potential. Turner has rare explosion for even an NFL edge, with an incredible 4.46-second 40-yard dash and 40 1/2″ vertical jump at 6’2 3/4″ and 247 lbs. Turner also has incredibly long arms at 34 3/8″, which regularly shows up in the examples above.

Turner’s size and lack of agility testing are noteworthy, because not testing well there usually means that the player doesn’t have great times. Both of those issues show up: size in Turner’s ability to anchor against the run and agility in his relative lack of elite bend. That’s nitpicky, but it’s the difference between a bona fide top-five edge rusher and a mid-first-round pick.

Still, Turner’s high-level athletic traits are worth admiring. Below are three plays that showcase them. He has the ability to keep his legs churning and turn upfield against an OT leaning on his back, an impressive burst off the line it takes to execute a ghost move, and the ability to recover from putting his arms up and still affect the quarterback.

The 40-time and burst show up on a number of different plays where he beats tackles to the spot in pass protection, gets into the backfield on TFLs, or otherwise affects plays. Turner is a violent player, and the speed helps him convey that image. It’s hard not to smile when looking at some of the hard hits he puts on QBs in the plays below. He’ll just need to learn not to land on guys with his full body weight at the NFL level.

Turner’s athleticism and length truly shine in one of the most difficult things for an edge to do: working inside crack blocks and getting to outside runs. These types of misdirection plays are meant to take the edge fully out of it, and Turner was able to force his way back in and make plays in multiple examples.

The final thing I like to see from players is motor, and Turner has one. There were a couple of great examples of him chasing players from behind and making plays downfield, particularly against J.J. McCarthy and Jayden Daniels.

conclusion

Dallas Turner checks a lot of boxes that you want to see in a first-round pick. He’s a young, productive player with a great athletic profile, and Turner backs that profile up on tape.

Turner has heavy hands to create initial knockback and squeeze lanes as a run defender. He can read the RB well and has active hands to disengage from blocks and get in on plays. While he often wins initial contact, he lacks the functional strength to consistently hold his ground against stronger tackles and will get driven off of double teams. Hopefully, his strength will improve as he fills out his frame. Turner also has rare athleticism to make plays most edges can’t on outside runs.

As a pass rusher, Turner’s bread and butter is speed-to-power. His great burst off the line of scrimmage will lead to oversets, which he punishes with good leverage from his long arms and quickness with an inside move. In rare instances, opposing tackles with great technique can anchor and shut him down, which may happen more at the pro level than it does in college. When cornering the edge, he shows a variety of moves to disengage from blockers with good but not elite bend. Turner also effectively runs stunts and should be able to be used inside to terrorize guards on rush downs.

In coverage, Turner shows nice movement skills for an edge rusher and the ability to process reads in front of him at a high level, given his position. While no one will mistake him for Fred Warner, Turner is an adequate player for zone drops and some man coverage on RBs during exotic pressures. Turner also plays with a high motor that will serve him well when chasing down and making plays. He doesn’t loaf.

In all, Turner is a very good prospect who should have a Day 1 impact against both the run and pass as part of Minnesota’s edge-rush rotation.

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