|David J. Phillip/Associated Press|
|Texans owner Bob McNair on Mario Williams: "How often do you see a physical specimen like him?"|
Fundamental football logic tells you a behemoth tackle controlling the middle of the line is important to a defense.
Coaches, personnel folks and players around the league, however, tell you he is not as important as a pass-rushing defensive end.
"Two positions you don't pass in the draft when you have a chance to get one: A quarterback who can win in the league and a pass-rusher who can win in the league," Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said.
The quarterback is a given. His singular importance to an offense and a team's success is indisputable.
However, the defensive side of the ball does create some room for discussion as to which pieces are more critical than others in the building process.
An argument can be made for the wide-body tackle. The Cleveland Browns traded for two of them (Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams) in the offseason. Two others (Glenn Dorsey and Sedrick Ellis) were selected in the top seven of last April's draft. An argument can be made for a middle linebacker. The NFL took a revolutionary step this year by having a defensive player wear an electronic receiver in his helmet to hear signals from a coach on the sideline, and that player usually is a middle linebacker.
An argument can be made for a shutdown cornerback. The Philadelphia Eagles gave up a king's ransom to grab one (former Patriot Asante Samuel) in free agency a year after the San Francisco 49ers did the same with Nate Clements. An argument can be made for a safety. Besides being a ball hawker, he also brings versatility and can be as effective stopping the run as he is covering the pass.
But a better argument can be made for a defensive end.
» A dominant defensive tackle can have an enormous impact stuffing the run. Yet, the major part of his contribution is to tie up inside blockers so they can't lend a hand blocking ends rushing from the outside.
The Buffalo Bills clearly had that in mind when they acquired Marcus Stroud in a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Last season, the Bills ranked 29th in the NFL in sacks, a huge drop from 2006, when they were tied for eighth. "If you can get push inside, it will help the edge," Bills coach Dick Jauron said, fully expecting star ends Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay to thrive.
"Our base philosophy is that we'd like to get (to the quarterback) with four," Buffalo defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "That's why defensive ends are really important. That's why we base a lot of our personnel decisions on speed, agility, and quickness."
» A middle linebacker tends to have more room to operate if he's working behind an exceptional defensive end drawing blocking to the outside.
» A cornerback and a safety can suddenly become more effective in coverage if he has the help of a defensive end applying strong pressure on the passer.
» The Houston Texans used the top overall pick in 2006 on an end, Mario Williams. They were criticized for passing on the consensus top choice that year, running back Reggie Bush, who wound up with the New Orleans Saints. They took even more criticism in the '06 season when Bush ended up helping the Saints reach the NFC Championship while Williams, slowed by a foot injury, had only 4½ sacks.
Williams was better last season, rebounding with 14 sacks and clearly outperforming Bush, who struggled along with the Saints. "How often do you see a physical specimen like him?" McNair said of Williams. "He's 6-7, 290 pounds, and he can run and jump like a running back. He's phenomenal."
» The franchise tag for a defensive end is worth a one-year tender offer of $8.879 million, the average of the top-five paid players at the position and more than any other spot on defense.
» After quarterback, the position regarded as the second-most important on offense is left tackle. Why? Because he usually lines up across from the opponent's best pass-rusher, who usually lines up at right end. That's what the Miami Dolphins had in mind when they made Jake Long the top overall pick of this year's draft.
» One of the biggest deals of the offseason was the Minnesota Vikings' acquisition of end Jared Allen, who led the NFL with 15½ sacks in 2007, from the Kansas City Chiefs. And the Vikings proceeded to make an even larger deal by giving Allen a six-year, $74.5 million contract, the richest contract in franchise history. It includes $31 million in guaranteed money, the fourth-highest such total in league history.
"That's my goal every year," Allen said of leading the league in sacks. "Whatever it takes to do that and whatever it takes to win games is what I'm all about."
And that's a large part of what makes it the most important position on defense.
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