Defensive ends and outside linebackers are often given the most credit for rattling opposing quarterbacks, but impact defensive tackles play a large part in pass defense, as well as bolster a team's run D.
Scouts often talk about a passer's ability -- or lack thereof -- to handle interior pressure because seeing a rush directly in the line of vision downfield can cause problems. Not being able to step up into the pocket to avoid those outside rushers due to penetrating defensive tackles also creates issues for any QB.
Many of the impact defenders listed below are not sack masters, but even with the increased importance of pass defense, defensive coaches still require big bodies in the middle to eat space and lock up running backs trying to control the clock or pick up that crucial yard.
But there might be a couple second/third-day tackle prospects in this year's draft who become bargain-priced impact rushers like Geno Atkins (a fourth-round pick for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2010 who had 7.5 sacks last year) or unheralded pocket-pushers who make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks (and easier for defensive teammates chasing those quarterbacks from the edge).
Here are seven defensive tackles in different tiers of this year's draft class who could make an impact at the next level.
Impact first-round defensive tackles must provide a strong interior presence against the run and consistently attack the pocket as a penetrator or with brute strength, depending on their size.
Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State: Cox has risen from a relatively unknown underclassman at Mississippi State to a possible top-10 pick, due to his ability to force his way into the backfield (14.5 tackles for loss in 2011). His total of five sacks last season is not exceptional, but scouts feel he has the best chance of any elite tackle to be a factor as a pass rusher with the obvious quickness he showcased on the field and during NFL Scouting Combine workouts (led all tackles with his 4.79 40 and 7.07 three-cone drill in Indy).
Dontari Poe, Memphis: Despite the phenomenal athleticism Poe displayed at this year's combine, his critics point to a lack of production against Conference USA competition (eight tackles for loss, one sack in 2011) as a clue he may be a "workout warrior." But not many 346-pound defensive linemen are asked to rush the passer from outside the shoulder of the right tackle as well as stand up against double-teams at nose tackle. No prospect in this (or any) draft is a sure thing, but Poe's flashes of strength and quickness on tape give him as good a chance as anyone else to become an impact performer inside.
Friday night lights
Impact defensive tackles from the second and third rounds are starting three-techniques who harass quarterbacks with quickness or run-stuffers that offensive linemen find difficult to move off the line of scrimmage.
Brandon Thompson, Clemson: Thompson does not fill up the stat sheet (8.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks last season), but can be a difficult task for interior lineman with his hustle and strength. If he doesn't make the first round, look for him to be a strong starter who can shore up a run defense and make some plays outside the box that you wouldn't expect from a 314-pound nose tackle.
Alameda Ta'amu, Washington: Scouts have not regarded Ta'amu as a consistent enough player to consider him an elite prospect. At the Senior Bowl, however, teams were glad to see him present his "A" game, anchoring and moving quickly to close gaps against the run. In Day 2, he provides great value as a strong 3-4 nose tackle with enough agility to be more than just a statue inside -- assuming he continues to meet his conditioning and film-room responsibilities.
Impact defensive tackles picked in Rounds 4-7 may take a year or two to break into the starting lineup, but eventually their quickness and/or strength will force coaches to give them a consistent role on defense.
Jaye Howard, Florida: Strong depth at defensive tackle this year might force talented players like Howard to wait until Saturday to hear their names called from the Radio City Music Hall lectern. He played multiple spots along the Florida line and used a quick first step to be a persistent irritant to opposing offenses. Teams might not rate him as a full-time starter right now due to his average functional strength, but improvement in the weight room and concentration on one position will maximize his talent.
Mike Daniels, Iowa: Some teams will push the second-team All-Big Ten pick down their boards due to his relatively small frame (6-0 1/2, 291 pounds). Teams will regret passing on him, though, while watching him get into the backfield with regularity as a starter in the right system or at least a prime rotational contributor.
Akiem Hicks, Regina: His transfer from Sacramento City College to LSU was derailed by an NCAA investigation into his recruitment to Baton Rouge, so he went to Canada to complete his eligibility. Despite measuring at 6-5, 318, Hicks was used at defensive end and stand-up rusher for the Regina Rams because of rare agility for his size. At the East-West Shrine Game, he looked more comfortable playing inside against better talent as the week wore on, portending a climb into an NFL starting lineup if he takes to coaching.
Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter