Tank Tyler and the Needle's Eye

Believe it or not, the Monsters of the Midway are taking a look at another defensive tackle prospect nicknamed Tank. Despite the fact the Tank Johnson currently resides behind bars in a Cook County correctional facility, Tank Tyler could be in the team's crosshairs come draft day. Nobody doubts Tyler's talent, but will his checkered past keep the Bears at bay?

Character Study

Two franchises in NFL history have won three Super Bowls in four-year spans, and they couldn’t have done it any more differently. From 1992 through the end of the 1995, the Dallas Cowboys became the team of the decade with a great deal of individual talent. But that talent proved to be less disciplined and more problematic in every season of the magic ride. After 1995, only the fumes of Jimmy Johnson’s amazing reclamation project remained, and Barry Switzer proved to be a less than ideal caretaker. In history’s pages, the primary image of those Cowboys is what happened off the field – the multiple arrests and fractious infighting. By 1997, the efforts of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin were no longer enough, and a 6-10 finish pointed to a rebuild that is still in progress ten years later.

A decade after Dallas’ ascent, the New England Patriots came out of nowhere, with 17 veteran free agents on their 2001 roster, and beat the more talented St. Louis Rams in the last seconds of Super Bowl XXXVI. It was the only upset Super Bowl win of New England’s three. After another year in transition, the Pats came back and beat the Panthers and Eagles to match Dallas’ feat. Individual talent was not the primary focus, though the team-first ideal had most observers underrating the actual skill levels of the players. Above all, it was about who fit, how they fit, and for how long. Intangibles, in the salary cap era which began after those Cowboys had been built, were more important than ever. The Patriots took elements of the Moneyball theorem and applied them to the NFL’s financial and competitive structure. It proved to be a perfect match.

For a few years, character was a principal buzzword among football people, and it was thought that the Patriot Way might blaze a new trail toward an NFL filled with the maximum daily allotment of moral fiber. But the copycatting that so often takes place in this league didn’t catch – the escapades of Pacman Jones, the miniseries that the Cincinnati Bengals have become, and the similar travails of an ever-increasing host of accomplices have the NFL right back where it doesn’t want to be – in the wrong sections of all the newspapers.

With Commissioner Roger Goodell doing everything in his power to put a new and more stringent personal conduct policy in place before the draft in late April, the question of character turns to the collegiate ranks, and those players who have run afoul of the law on one or more occasions. Free agents are known quantities, and a value can be more easily placed on their ratio of talent to potential trouble. Draft prospects, however, could see their value plummet before it’s ever really established. NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Rob Rang, who talks to scouts and personnel directors on a regular basis, believes that the vetting process is on the upswing.

“Certainly the recent crackdown on player behavior will have an effect on the grading and ultimate drafting of prospects,” Rang said. “There will always be teams more willing to take gambles on players with checkered pasts. The number of these teams, however, seems to be on the decline. With speculation that the league may enforce penalties on the teams themselves, and not just individual players, I expect that teams will be even more cognizant of prospects' on and off-field decisions.”

An Expensive Lesson

One prospect that has been there and back with issues both on and off the field is North Carolina State defensive tackle DeMarcus “Tank” Tyler. With the draft quickly approaching, Tyler is aware that two incidents may mark him no matter what amends he has made.

North Carolina State's DeMarcus "Tank" Tyler (72) sacks Boston College's quarterback Matt Ryan as teammate Josh Beekman watches at right, during the fourth quarter of their college football game Saturday, Sep. 23, 2006 in Raleigh, N.C. N.C. State won, 17-15. (AP Photo/Stan Gilliland)

Tyler allegedly spit at or near an official in the Wolfpack’s third game of the 2006 season, a contest at Southern Miss. He was ejected from the game, and suspended by the team for the first quarter of the following game against Boston College. In July of 2005, he was arrested for assaulting a Raleigh police officer as police were trying to break up a fight in a nightclub, a charge which he later pled down to disorderly conduct. And now, while defensive tackle Tank Johnson of the Chicago Bears is serving four months in a Cook County jail for misdemeanor weapons which violated his probation, Tyler hopes that his spotless record since the spitting incident will have personnel people avoiding the easy comparisons.

In a recent interview, Tyler was forthright about both occurrences. “Me and the opposing player from Southern Mississippi, we were jawing back and forth because we were in the heat of the game and he was playing me a little dirty,” Tyler said about the alleged expectorate missile. “I got heated at him and we got in each other’s faces. We were yelling and screaming and everything and the referee kicked me out of the game because he said I spit at the other guy, but I didn’t spit at him. I shouldn’t have ever been in his face yelling and hollering at him, but that’s basically what happened.”

The arrest was another story – Tyler admitted that it was a case of “wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. One of my younger friends, he was a little intoxicated, and he got into an altercation with another guy and they got into a little fight. Some security guards got involved and a police officer - he was never inside the club - he charged me with assault and the whole thing just got ugly.

“I just wanted to get everything over with, court-wise, so I pleaded down to disorderly conduct to get everything out of the way and not have a record or anything like that.”

Unlike the spitting incident, the arrest was not deemed to be cause for action or suspension by the team. “The coaches had my side because they know the story sounded fake, and I really appreciated them for doing that,” Tyler said.

However, the NFL might not be as forgiving. With millions of dollars at stake in every high-profile pick, and the embarrassment that will invariably follow if a franchise ignores character concerns in the interest of blindly following talent, due diligence becomes a major concern. Tyler said that he has been asked about his past in explicit detail. “Yeah - on the phone, at the Combine and a little at the Senior Bowl. I’ve been anxious to tell the whole story, because the coaches told me to not say anything to the media.

“I thought, ‘Man, they are making a bunch of stuff up and I gotta tell my side of things and stress my point’ and I had been anxious to do that,” he continued. “Even if a coach didn’t ask me (during interviews), I came out and told them about it anyway.”

Tyler has apologized profusely to his coaches, and has spoken to the official on more than one occasion since. Respectable gestures, but will they be enough to save him from the “dings” that may come from those ancillary concerns?

Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren spoke at the recent owner’s meetings about the Commissioner’s focused emphasis on the character issue, and how people are responding. The answer, for Tyler and others who have crossed the line only to come back, seems to be inconclusive. For those who don’t learn from their mistakes, the window is closing very quickly.

”There was a wonderful meeting with a lot of owners talking and coaches and a lot of the GMs talking about this issue,” Holmgren said. “And what we can do, maybe, to help head things off at the pass. I think a lot of good stuff came out of it. And a lot of people said, well, we're going to do it this way, we're going to do it that way.

”Starting with the draft. Because if you have real stringent requirements, you're not going to take a chance on somebody. Some teams already do that. And when you look at the kid, all his records and everything, he has a problem and boom, he's off the board or he drops or whatever. My own feeling is that unless it's something pretty serious, I just don't see the draft being affected that much. There are a couple owners that got up and said, look, we might not take him in the first round, but if he drops maybe to a third-round pick ... and then you always have the (idea) that when I get him, we'll fix it. And I think it's a very honest feeling most of the time.”

The Last in Line

In Tyler’s case, whatever needs “fixing” is worth the effort. And he’s aware that the repair work has to start from within. Born on Valentine’s Day 1985, he grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina. His parents split when Tyler was ten years old, and his mother raised two sons with the help of his uncle, Jay Giron. While mom Kathy has been his educational conscience during Tyler’s time at NC State (he graduated high school early and majored in sociology), Giron was the reason he joined the Wolfpack in the first place.

Tank Tyler, defensive tackle, North Carolina State, during workouts at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 26, 2007. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

I had a number of colleges recruiting me,” Tyler said. “My top colleges were Ohio State, Maryland, N.C. State and Tennessee, but I had an uncle that basically raised me from the age of ten on up and he ‘coached’ ROTC up at N.C. State. That was motivation to go there because I knew he would continue to train me and guide me. He had to go off to war (Giron has been deployed to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Tyler still talks to his uncle whenever possible), but when I came to visit N.C. State with the team and the players I liked them from the get-go. It was more than likely that I would have gone there anyway.”

An offensive tackle and defensive end at E.E. Smith High School, Tyler began his collegiate career in 2003 as a backup left defensive tackle. His sophomore season saw him starting on the right side. However, weight fluctuation caused him to lose that starting job at the start of the 2005 season, and he played behind Demario Pressley until John McCargo was hurt. This injury allowed Tyler to start the final six games as a part of one amazing line – in addition to McCargo, Mario Williams was a featured part of a defense that also boasted the talents of pro linebacker/college defensive end Manny Lawson. McCargo, Lawson and Williams were selected in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft, and Williams went first overall. That line ran a defense that finished eighth in the nation in total defense (298.67 ypg), sixth in sacks recorded (3.5 sacks per game) and second in tackles behind the line of scrimmage (9.92 per game) in 2005.

“It was a great experience,” Tyler said of playing with so much talent. “It was great working with them, being their friend, being their teammate and sharing the same goals. It was a great experience to see those guys move on to the next level, especially in the first round. That motivated me a lot to work hard and continue to stay focused because I knew that we had been through some of the same things, so I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t do the same thing.”

Does he still talk to his old friends? What do they tell him about the NFL life? “I talk to them all the time,” he said. “From the beginning, they were telling me, ‘camp is camp’. Whether it’s college or high school or the NFL, it’s going to be tough wherever you go. The season is a little bit longer, but as long as you stay focused you’ll be alright. Those guys were pretty successful their first year – you know John got injured but he’s healing up well and he’ll be great this upcoming year - so I’m looking forward to getting up there and joining them.”

But after his teammates moved on to the next level, Tyler became the pointman in a defense which suffered from the inevitable talent drop. The Wolfpack defense ranked 97th in yards allowed (302.0 ypg) after their high finish the year before. The coaches asked Tyler to assume more of a leadership role and he responded with a career-high 49 tackles. This despite the fact that he became the lightning rod for blockers in the nose position, while the three-technique tackle and other defenders flowed around him.

For Tyler, the role had been long in coming. “I had been waiting to take the position since my freshman year. Not necessarily waiting, but I was playing my role because I was around a bunch of great players when I got there as a freshman. I played my role and put my input in when I felt like I needed to, but when those older guys left I felt like it was my time to step up. The things I was holding back I could let it all out and I helped my team through a tough season.”

Tyler was a consensus All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-team selection, a team captain and the recipient of the Carl Brebaker Award, given to the team's Most Valuable Defensive Lineman. He did everything possible to cement his reputation as a player in his senior season.

Now, it’s time to find out what the pros think.

Standing at the Crossroads … Tryin’ to Flag a Ride

According to Rang, he won’t necessarily match the first-round designation received by his college teammates. “Tyler is a short, squat interior run-plugger who has the ability to be successful in both the one-gap and two-gap schemes,” Rang said. “His straight-ahead burst off the snap allows him to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, but he isn't truly explosive and his quickness should not be mistaken for speed. Most of the plays he makes are within a few yards of where he began the play. Tyler has good strength and has improved his hand usage at the point to handle the one-on-one blocking that comes with the two-gap scheme. He can control his man and limit an offense's ability to run in either of his gap responsibilities.

Tank Tyler, defensive tackle, North Carolina State, during workouts at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 26, 2007. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

“Tyler's lack of pure athleticism was apparent in many of the one-on-one drills performed during the Senior Bowl practices. That said, once the game began, Tyler's ability to clog the middle and provide occasional disruption to the quarterback from the interior re-surfaced. Scouts will have to take into account questions about his character, but Tyler is among the better defensive tackles in a shallow class. He likely will be drafted in the second or third round.”

Tyler explained his slow go at the Senior Bowl, and put in a good word for USC’s center. “Ryan Kalil,” he said, when asked which offensive lineman he faced proved to be most impressive through his career. “I played against him at the Senior Bowl. I won’t say he’s my biggest challenge, but he helped me out a lot. My technique, the San Francisco 49ers coach was trying to teach me to (use the) swim (move) and use my hands a little bit more to get around the block, and he had great hands. He made it a little bit more difficult in what I was trying to do, but by the third day I improved a whole lot and he helped me out on that.”

What will the team who drafts him get in Tank Tyler, and what does he say to those teams who see the red flags and will hesitate? “I’m a good person and a motivator. I feel that I’m a great defensive tackle now, but my best football is in front of me. What you see on the film is good, but there’s even better to come. Teams need a run-stopper and a pass-rusher and I feel like I fit that position well. I can help any team that I go to.

“One aspect I need to work on is my technique - getting better at things that will help me to be better at stopping the run, or shedding a blocker and getting to the quarterback. Because everyone at the next level are great players and they’ve been doing it for a while. They’re the best of the best, so any coach that can help me out with technique overall is what I’m looking for.”

At least two teams have received the signals – Tyler’s scheduled to meet with the Rams on April 2nd, and the Chiefs on the 17th. The latter franchise took a particular interest in Tyler during his Pro Day on March 20. He enjoyed talking to the Kansas City brass, especially defensive line coach Tim Krumrie, who Tyler called “a real passionate guy. He helped me a lot on my Pro Day by talking me through some techniques before we even got out on the field. Then, on the field, he was teaching me some hand placement, and we all shared a couple of laughs. It was a really good experience.”

The judgment comes on April 28th, when a team in need of Tyler’s specific (and considerable) skills weighs the pros and cons and votes him into the NFL. Then, it will be up to him to make the naysayers eat their words. He has the talent to do so, and the need to learn from his mistakes appears to be a prime motivator.

The mystery, for Tank Tyler and any other prospect that strays from the path in the future, is how much of his past he’ll be able to shake.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and a contributor to FoxSports.com. Feel free to contact him here.

Special thanks to Randi Chapman, Rob Rang and Scott Eklund for their assistance.

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