Davis Tull didn’t belong in the Southern Conference.
Plenty of quality football players pass through that conference, and some even succeed in the NFL. But watching Tull, who starred for Tennessee-Chattanooga, play against that level of competition, it almost seemed unfair.
It became worse in nonconference games, when Tennessee-Chattanooga played the likes of Tennessee Tech. In those games, Tull, who was picked by the Saints in the fifth-round of the NFL draft, almost made a mockery of the proceedings.
Down after down, play after player, he was in the backfield, creating pressure or making life miserable for the quarterback. There’s one play against Tennessee Tech from last season when Tull trucked not one, but two running backs serving in protection and had the quarterback dead-to-rights. The only person who could stop him was a teammate, who tripped and took out his legs.
The performance was stunning. From start to finish, he was in the backfield, making the other players on the field look like props and standees. No one could stop him.
That’s what makes it somewhat difficult to get a full read on Tull. Only three of his games are available online; and in those games, you see qualities that make Tull, who is recovering from labrum surgery, appear to be a potential steal.
But the sample size and quality of opponents make it dangerous to make sweeping statements. However, Saints coach Sean Payton, who certainly has better information on Tull than what’s available to the rest of us, gave him a strong endorsement after the draft.
“That’s probably fair to say,” Payton said when asked if Tull would have gone higher in the draft if not for his shoulder injury. “Man, he has real good measurables when you look at his jumps, his speed, his height (and) weight, all of those things. It’s just a matter of how teams had him graded.”
There are traits that, no matter the competition, translate into positives for Tull. He plays with a relentless motor, has good hands, and often has a plan to get after the quarterback. This was most evident against Tennessee, when Tull was up against a freshman tackle.
In what might have been his best play in any of the three games reviewed, Tull put together an impressive sack by approaching the tackle, putting his hands into his chest, and then spinning into the backfield to bring down the quarterback. On the next play, he used a nice inside move to pressure the quarterback.
In New Orleans, the 6-foot-2, 246-pound Tull will likely compete for snaps at outside linebacker and could be used in some pass-rushing situations. One thing he has going for him that some of the other pass rushers on the roster do not is that Tull appears to have the potential to become passable against the run.
He also does a good job setting the edge, and he fills gaps against the run. He displays more patience in this regard than some of the other players on the roster.
The big question, though, is if Tull will be able to perform at this level. He’ll be facing bigger, faster, stronger, and more athletic players. He’ll no longer be able to succeed by being the most athletic player in the trenches. If there are flaws in his technique, he’ll be exposed. And before Tull can be considered an option to play every down, he’ll need to show he can handle NFL tackles, shed blocks to get after runners, and that he has the ability to play in space. As a down lineman in college, he typically did not have to worry the latter point.
But for now, if Tull can add a few pounds to his frame, there are enough positive things on film to think the Saints might have gotten a steal with one of their fifth-round picks. Regardless of who he is up against, there’s no faking his explosive first step, which routinely allows him to bend the edge and push the quarterback up in the pocket.
As long as he keeps doing that, the Saints will be satisfied with their pick.