|Lisa Blumenfeld / Getty Images|
|A three-year starter for USC, Sedrick Ellis finished with 17½ sacks and 28½ tackles for loss.|
As my draft board begins to take shape, and the many experts and prognosticators begin to release their own mock drafts, it looks like there is the potential for three defensive tackles to be taken in the first round of this year's draft, and as many as six on Day 1 (which now only includes two rounds).
That's about par for the course. There have been at least three first-round defensive tackles in three of the last four years. What is a little different about this group is that two players, LSU's Glenn Dorsey and USC's Sedrick Ellis, are slated as top-10 picks. Two defensive tackles haven't been taken that high since 2003, when Dewayne Robertson went fourth overall and Johnathan Sullivan was taken two picks later.
In the first 10 picks of the draft there are some real impact players who will make an immediate contribution in many cases -- players who can be productive right away if your team is in a 4-3 defense. Dorsey and Ellis stand out among this year's prospects. A quick look at the numbers shows that their production in college has been impressive in some ways, such as penetrating gaps, being disruptive and making tackles.
Both men had more than 140 tackles and more than 28 tackles for loss. But can they rush the passer well enough at where they stand in the draft to be considered every-down players? These two men can, but the same cannot definitively be said for the rest of the draft class.
When I think of impact defensive tackles, I think of guys who can penetrate in a one-gap system and get to the quarterback using quickness and burst, or big-bodied guys who can collapse the pocket from the interior and run a blocker back into his passer. Guys such as Warren Sapp, Russell Maryland, Jerome Brown, Cortez Kennedy, Bryant Young, and even Tommie Harris in more recent years, are examples of top level defensive tackles. These are players who could stand up to the run and fill gaps, but could also make the big play on third down and put the quarterback on his back.
My broadcast partner on Sirius radio, Tim Ryan, was a defensive tackle taken out of USC in the third round of the 1990 draft. He entered the NFL with 34 career sacks and 59 tackles for loss. Dorsey (13 sacks, 27 tackles for loss) and Ellis (17½, 28½) don't have that many career sacks or tackles for loss combined. The top defensive linemen in this year's draft don't have as many sacks as some third-round defensive tackles will.
Lionel Dotson of Arizona and Maryland's Dre Moore recorded 10½ sacks in their college careers, and after watching the Senior Bowl practices, I like Notre Dame's Trevor Laws and his uncanny ability to make plays, which led to 12 career sacks. Frank Okam of Texas and Keilen Dykes of West Virginia have 10 each to their credit, but they both needed over 38 career starts to do it.
Obviously, I'm aware that sacks is not the only statistic used to measure success for defensive linemen, and it's not even the most important stat for defensive tackles. However, in today's NFL, where the spread offense and the read-and-react nature of the passing game has become the standard, teams have to be thinking about more ways to get to the quarterback.
For example, the Colts rush the passer on every play. Dwight Freeney once said to me, "We tackle the run on the way to the quarterback." That means putting more than one pass rusher on the field on third downs and in obvious passing situations.
Look at what the New York Giants did to the vaunted Patriots air attack in the Super Bowl. They were able to put Tom Brady on the ground with an inside rush from Justin Tuck. New England players admitted after the game that their first order of business on the offensive line was to slow Tuck, which left Matt Light to deal with Osi Umenyiora on his own, and gave Michael Strahan the opportunity to rush against single blocks all day. The presence of that inside rush is what opened up the floodgates for the Giants defense.
Now here's the twist on this whole thing. Tuck's natural position is defensive end. His size and strength, and his versatility as a pass rusher, make him a viable option inside.
So the question for NFL teams is, do you spend the high draft pick on a top-10 DT like Dorsey or Ellis, or do you try to drop down in the first round and take a player like Florida DE Derrick Harvey (20½ sacks), who weighed in at the combine in the 275-pound range, and build a front like the Giants or Colts? Harvey compares favorably to Tuck, with good size and the frame to add more bulk without sacrificing the initial burst and quickness that has been the key to his pass-rushing success.
In Round 2, a team could pick up a player like Lawrence Jackson, who recorded 30½ sacks at USC, but uses his hands well and has shown an ability to get inside penetration and stack and control the isolated blocker. He has the frame to add bulk, and could be a situational pass rusher inside for a 4-3 team.
Before taking a big chunk of that rookie cap for a big-name defensive tackle, teams will have to be aware of what it is they are really looking for. Atlanta, Cincinnati, Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans all need inside help on the defensive line, but there are only two elite tackles.
Getting a big run stuffer in the later rounds so your defense can get to passing situations and have your hybrid tackle ready to play may be the way to go.