Gazing Into Crystal Ball: Defensive Tackles

NFL Draft Report's Dave-Te' Thomas provides the Cream of the Crop, Best of the Rest, Most Overrated and Underrated, and Super Sleeper among the defensive tackles. Fletcher Cox is the best player in this group, but which player has earned comparisons to Cullen Jenkins?

Cream of the Crop

Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State

Cox joins Michael Brockers of Louisiana State and Dontari Poe of Memphis as underclassmen that give the defensive tackle class the desired elite performers and depth the unit was lacking from the senior eligibles.

Fletcher Cox
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Compared favorably to San Diego's Corey Luiget for his quickness and ability to play a variety of roles in the trenches, he appears to be a perfect fit for a 3-4 alignment. That's especially true in the scheme made popular by the New England Patriots when they interchanged two players similar to Cox's playing style: Richard Seymour and Ty Warren.

The only Bulldog to earn All-Southeastern Conference first-team honors in 2011, Cox is a natural athlete with the quickness of a linebacker and the power of a nose guard — especially with his skill-set in defeating double teams, along with the burst and slanting skills to create havoc attacking the pocket from the edge. While his frame might look a bit lean, he generates power with his leg drive and keeps his hands inside his frame to deliver a strong punch to put offensive linemen back on their heels.

With his agility and lateral-movement skills, along with the ease that he fluidly changes direction, Cox is equally effective in long pursuit to seal off the outside running game or powering through the gaps to disrupt the pocket. He plays with a strong base and utilizes his long arms to stave off low blocks at his feet. He is smart enough to grasp a complicated playbook and play in a diverse defensive scheme.

Cox is ideally suited to play the three-technique, and with his talent dropping back in coverage, he has no problems challenging the tight ends, whether in mirroring them underneath or jamming them to prevent his opponent from getting into the route's progression. When asked to work in-line, he is a physical bull rusher to penetrate the gaps, showing the vision and instincts to locate the ball quickly.

Cox led his team in sacks (five), tackles for losses (14.5) and quarterback pressures (eight) in 2011. He made 24.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage while starting 26 of 37 games in his three seasons.

Compares to: San Diego's Corey Luiget — Cox is cat-quick off the snap and a disruptive run stuffer. He plays at a low pad level and uses his hands like weapons, especially when trying to stack and shed. He has the lateral agility to chase down ball-carriers along the sidelines and excels at taking away the cutback lanes.

Best of the Rest

Michael Brockers, LSU

With his impressive 35-inch arms, 83 7/8-inch wingspan and work ethic, the product of the Tigers' renowned training program has developed from a 250-pound freshman defensive end into a physically imposing and powerful nose guard candidate who has shown the lateral agility to dominate working off the edge in a 3-4 defensive alignment.

Crystal Logiudice/US Presswire

Brockers quickly adapted to any role the LSU coaches asked from him. Playing mostly as a three-technique, he was an immovable object when shifting to nose guard, and as a junior, he was a load to handle for combo blockers when operating in the five-technique as a defensive end.

Despite registering only two sacks during his career, Brockers has shown marked improvement and a strong concept for using his strong hands to defeat blocks and take shorter angles in his pursuit to the quarterback. Where the junior truly stands out is in run force, as he is surprisingly agile moving laterally, displaying proper knee bend, balance and a powerful anchor to gain leverage.

Do not be unimpressed by Brockers' adequate performance in the bench press tests at the Combine (19 repetitions). This is an athlete with impressive upper-body strength, evident by his ability to quickly defeat combo blocks and shed linemen in attempts to collapse the pocket or enter the gaps to prevent fullbacks from widening the rush lanes.

Brockers knows how to maintain proper pad level coming off the snap, as he generates the knee bend and explosion to flash off the snap and clog the gaps when utilized in the three-tech, as he has that strong punch and lower-body power to drive through blocks and consistently walk the offensive linemen back into the pocket. As he gained experience, he showed better knowledge when recognizing he can be slanting rather than trying to get into long one-on-one battles with offensive tackles when working off the edge.

Compares to: Pat Williams, ex-Minnesota — The success others had on the Vikings' defensive line was the result of Williams doing the dirty work in the trenches. Brockers is that type of player, as seen by the team's success stuffing the run in his only season as a starter. With Brockers occupying multiple blockers, the Tigers ranked second in the nation in total defense, allowing just 261.5 yards per game (just three of 119 major colleges held opponents to less than 270 yards per game).

Most Overrated

Dontari Poe, Memphis

For all of his athletic ability, the production has been lacking throughout Poe's career. If he was not being considered an early first-round pick, he could have been replaced in this category by Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, Penn State's Devon Still or Alameda Ta'amu of Washington, but because of that lofty draft projection, I just can't jump on the kid's bandwagon.

A highly coveted recruit that former coach Tommy West was able to lure to the Tigers in an attempt to rebuild the program, Poe's athleticism shined as he worked to develop consistency, maturity and technique. There is no question that this raw talent needs patient coaching to further his development, but no talent evaluator can deny that he is perhaps the best physical specimen among this draft's defensive linemen.

While he has a massive frame, Poe is an athlete first, possessing outstanding raw power and incredible quickness for a player his size. He patterns his style of play after Steelers nose guard Casey Hampton, but with his surprisingly nimble feet and impressive lateral agility, there is no question he could be a dominant force manhandling double teams inside as a nose guard. But that's only if he applies himself on every down, a huge problem when watching game film of his 35 games of inconsistent performances.

Poe has the athletic ability to power his way into the backfield on the bull rush from the classic defensive tackle position, or use his explosive quickness and size to defeat offensive tackles as an edge rusher. However, he needs to eliminate the false steps and wasted motion he demonstrates when coming off the snap.

He seems to lack field awareness and is slow to locate the ball. For a player with his size and power, too often he "short arms" when taking on contact. It is unacceptable for this weight room monster to get stonewalled by smaller offensive linemen as often as he does.

Compares to: Mike Mamula, ex-Philadelphia — Yes, they are two different players, but they share the same reputation – built by their outstanding Combine performances. While he might look the part, too often Poe gets rocked back by blockers when they attack his chest. He has great timed speed, but those false steps force him to look sluggish coming off the snap when he fails to keep his pad level down.

Most Underrated

Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati

One of the strongest interior defensive linemen in college, Wolfe has really come into his own, growing from a 250-pound prep linebacker/tight end into a physical, aggressive 303-pound versatile performer with the pass rushing promise teams look for in a quality edge performer for a 3-4 alignment, along with the sudden quickness and power to split double teams to neutralize the inside running game.

For a player of his size, Wolfe is agile and nimble on the way to wreaking havoc in the opponents' backfields. He is one of the quicker interior linemen in the collegiate ranks, recently clocking 4.9 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He is a force to be reckoned with in the trenches, thanks to his impressive wingspan (79 1/2-inch width), massive hands (10 1/2-inch width) and outstanding core strength, having been named the All-American Strength and Conditioning Athlete of the Year by the National Strength and Conditioning Association in April 2011.

Relentless in pursuit, Wolfe registered 35 quarterback pressures, with 25 coming on third-down snaps and two others that ended a drive on fourth-down plays. In addition to sacking the quarterback 17 times, three of his hurries caused interceptions and another resulted in a sack that led to a fumble, as he registered turnovers on four other plays via fumbles. Those passers attempted 38 tosses into his territory but completed just one toss for a 2-yard gain (2.63 pass completion percentage vs. Wolfe).

That raw power has seen the player recruited by the Bearcats to be an offensive tackle go on to terrorize those lineman that have found it near futile in attempts to keep him out of the backfield. He recorded 141 plays vs. the ground game, limiting those ball-carriers to a miniscule 32 yards, an average of 0.226 yards per carry during his 34 games in the starting lineup. During that span, the rest of the Bearcats' defensive unit yielded an average of 3.65 yards per rushing attempt (1,141 carries for 4,163 yards).

Compares to: Luis Castillo, San Diego — Wolfe is not going to be a flashy playmaker, but when the game is over, you realize that he's always chalking up a handful of impact plays. Humble in nature off the field, he combines speed, strength and aggression, along with versatility, to fill any role the coaches need from him on the front wall.

Super Sleeper

Akiem Hicks, Regina (Canada)

Akiem Hicks
Brian Spurlock/US Presswire
Hicks is an imposing figure, strong and wide enough to manhandle double teams as a potential nose guard, quick enough to impact the pocket coming off the edge, and flexible enough to string plays wide or simply shoot the gaps as a bull rushing defensive tackle.

With his long arms (84-inch wingspan), Hicks makes it difficult for an opposing quarterback to just lob the ball over the line of scrimmage without fearing the lineman will just reach up and bat the pass away. With those massive hands, he's had great success in shedding blocks, using them effectively at keeping blockers away from his feet. He is surprisingly agile for a big man, and some team could find him quite effective as a possible fullback in short-yardage situations.

While he is learning the nuances of the game, Hicks' athleticism shines like a lighthouse on a stormy night. He is an explosive open-field tackler who does a nice job of staying low in his pads and using his long reach to latch on to and wrap up the ball carrier.

He also is effective at running offensive linemen up on their heels and back into the pocket, thanks to his impressive upper-body strength.

By the numbers, he's started all 35 games during his Sacramento City College and Regina career. Among his 141 tackles are 11 sacks, 25 pressures, 33.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage and six forced fumbles.

Compares to: Red Bryant, Seattle — The thing I like about Hicks is his versatility, as he can play inside in a 4-3 alignment or at the five-tech spot in a 3-4 grouping. He's a raw talent, for sure, but scouts love his work ethic and with patient coaching, comparing him to Bryant or Philadelphia's Cullen Jenkins.

Dave-Te Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.

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