I wrote earlier this week about how the evolution of the NFL passing game has prompted defensive coordinators to build their units around dynamic edge rushers in an attempt to impact opposing quarterbacks.
Although it is true that the presence of one or two pass rushers is necessary to field a top defense, to have any chance of making a sustained run in the postseason it's important a unit has a dominant interior presence.
A standout defensive tackle is capable of wrecking game plans with his ability to snuff out the run and collapse the pocket from the inside. While most defensive tackles excel in only one aspect, the elite at the position are effective run stoppers with the skills to also register double-digit sacks. Their presence along the frontline instantly upgrades a defense and raises the level of play of the entire front seven.
We saw Ndamukong Suh make an impact for the Lions last season as a first-year starter at left defensive tackle. Suh was selected the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and first-team All-Pro after leading all defensive tackles with 10 sacks. His emergence as a disruptive interior force keyed the team's four-game winning streak near the end of the season and set the table for the team's ascension out of the NFC North basement.
During my time with the Panthers, I watched Kris Jenkins blossom into a dominant defensive tackle, and his emergence (along with the stellar play of Julius Peppers) propelled the defense into the ranks of the elite. As the three-technique tackle, Jenkins single-handedly controlled the line of scrimmage and routinely made plays in the backfield. He also provided consistent inside pocket pressure that allowed Mike Rucker and Peppers to feast off the edge on the way to an improbable run to Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Jenkins also pulled off a similar feat during his time with the Jets. As the zero-technique in the middle of their 3-4 scheme, he pummeled centers and guards at the point of attack. The inability of offenses to move him off the ball helped Gang Green become one of the league's top rush defenses.
Of course, Jenkins was a rare defensive tackle who was capable of thriving as a three-technique in a four-man front before transitioning into a stout nose tackle in a 3-4. His scheme diversity is uncommon among defensive tackles, but it illustrates the impact that a defensive tackle can make within any scheme.
There are a few defensive tackles in this draft with the potential to make immediate contributions. Alabama's Marcell Dareus and Auburn's Nick Fairley rank as the headliners, but Illinois' Corey Liuget, Baylor's Phil Taylor and North Carolina's Marvin Austin also could develop into disruptive interior defenders.
Let's take a look at the top defensive tackles in this year's class, as well as the concerns they must address in the eyes of scouts:
Marcell Dareus, Alabama
Dareus has shot up draft boards across the league after a sensational showing at the NFL Scouting Combine. His combination of size, strength, athleticism and savvy has made him the top choice at the position. His potential has coaches salivating over the possibilities of utilizing him as a versatile defender in a "30" or "40" front.
Dareus shows outstanding strength and power holding the point against the run. He engages blockers quickly after the snap, and his superior hand skills allow him quickly work free to make plays on the ball. Although he is ideally suited to stack runs in his direction, he also shows the athleticism and agility to run plays down from the backside. Dareus showcases his intriguing skill set while rushing the passer. He is capable of winning with finesse or power, and that versatility makes him difficult to handle with single- or double-team blocks in pass protection.
While his overall evaluation rates as one of the cleanest in this year's class, scouts still have to find a comfort level with Dareus' character after his early season NCAA suspension. His transgression doesn't appear to be part of a pattern of suspect behavior, but he must squash all concerns with strong interviews in front of team personnel. Dareus reportedly has knocked those out of the box to date, and it is very likely that he will be one of the top three prospects to come off the board.
Nick Fairley, Auburn
Fairley initially appeared to be the draft's top prospect when he declared his intentions to turn pro after his junior season at Auburn. However, Fairley has since seen his value slip in the eyes of evaluators due to questions about his character and a dramatic surge in production last season.
The game tape suggests that Fairley is arguably the most dominant defender in the draft. He simply takes over games at critical moments, and his ability to disrupt sets the tone for the defense. He finds a way to make an impact against the run or the pass, and his game-changing plays helped spark wins against LSU, South Carolina, Alabama and Oregon.
While Fairley's outstanding production stands out on tape, scouts point to his shoddy technique, inconsistent motor and questionable character as the biggest concerns in his evaluation. Fairley takes too many plays off during the course of a game and scouts worry about his ability to consistently play at a high level despite his exceptional talent. Throw in concerns about a surly attitude and suspect work ethic, and scouts are digging deep into his profile to see if the potential reward is worth the risk. Although those issues raise red flags, Fairley's talent and production will convince a team near the top of the draft to pull the trigger.
Corey Liuget, Illinois.
Liuget might be the most talented player in the group despite the presence of Dareus and Fairley. He is a big, nimble player with an outstanding combination of size, strength and athleticism. Against the run, Liuget flashes the ability to play with force or finesse at the point of attack. He can overpower blockers with his sheer strength, or slip into a crack using his speed and quickness. Liuget uses that same combination of agility and power routinely in the pass rush. He shows good hand skills in one-on-one matchups, and his natural strength helps him collapse the pocket from the middle. While he might never produce double-digit sacks on the next level, Liuget shows the potential to be a three-down player capable of staying on the field in any situation.
Scouts see Liuget's dramatic surge in production as a big concern due to the fear of drafting a "one-year wonder". However, his versatility as a both a zero and three-technique player makes him a valuable asset, and he will certainly go within the top 15 selections due to outstanding talent.
Phil Taylor, Baylor
Taylor cemented his standing among the elite prospects by standing out during Senior Bowl practices. He possesses rare movement skills for a big man (6-foot-3, 334 pounds) and his blend of strength and power makes him a natural fit at nose tackle. Against the run, he shows the ability to jack, stack and shed at the point of attack while quickly flowing to the ball. Opponents have a tough time running up the middle when Taylor is on the field, and his disruptive skills are particularly intriguing to teams looking for an impact in the middle of a 3-4 scheme.
Although Taylor isn't a polished pass rusher, his movement skills and strength allow him to press the pocket up the middle and force quarterbacks from their comfort zone. His ability to create pressure might not show up on the stat sheet, but it stands out on tape.
Taylor was on the fast track to the first round after his pro day performance, but medical issues and character concerns might have damaged his value in the eyes of evaluators. There are serious concerns about a foot injury, and his fluctuating weight could make the injury a long-term issue. Taylor also has some off-field problems that must be addressed with team officials. If he can put an end to those concerns in face-to-face meetings, he might be able to retain his spot among the top 40 picks.
Marvin Austin, North Carolina
Austin was expected to be a bona-fide first-round pick heading into the season, but an NCAA suspension prevented him from getting onto the field. Without a slate of game film to validate his exceptional talent, Austin needed to perform well at all-star games and the combine to salvage his stock. He did just that at both events and has slowly crept back into the conversation as a potential first-round selection.
Austin is a talented interior defender with outstanding strength, power and movement skills. He shows good hand skills engaging blockers after the snap, and his ability to quickly work free is impressive. While he didn't demonstrate that skill consistently in 2009, Austin's solid play at the East-West Shrine Game showcased his hands and escape moves. Austin also flashes rush skills as an interior defender. His first-step quickness and agility make him slippery inside, and he has the strength to burst through gaps when he gains the advantage on blockers.
Scouts certainly respect Austin's talent and skill as an impact defender, but looming questions about his personality and character have kept some teams from assigning him high grades. Austin has seemingly softened some concerns during interviews, and his phenomenal workouts have forced many teams to reconsider their stance on him. If Austin can continue to win over team personnel, he might reclaim a spot in the first round before the draft.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.