Analysis of the 2012 Defensive Tackle Class

A deep defensive tackle class features some that have put up big stats that might not translate to the NFL and others that simply do the dirty work really well. The advantage this year, however, appears to go to the 4-3 defensive team.

For teams utilizing the 3-4 alignment that are looking for quality and experienced nose guards to plug in the middle of the line, they might have to resort to playing a child's game – Go Fish. With more and more teams converting to a three-linemen front wall, most of those searching for depth will either wait until the third day of the draft or be forced to convert collegiate "nose tackles" (actually an under-tackle aligned in a 4-3 front).

Teams still incorporating the standard 4-3 front will have a nice array of talent to choose from, especially if they are looking for athletically gifted interior linemen. Rapidly moving up draft boards, Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox appears to be well on his way to becoming a top-10 choice.

Carolina could be his likely destination to take the Bulldog lineman with the ninth overall pick, but Philadelphia, rumored to be on the move in order to take Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill, really covets Cox and is trying to leap-frog the Panthers in talks with Cleveland (fourth pick) and Jacksonville (seventh), as both of those teams are "open for business" in regards to trying to trade down.

Many scouts feel that Cox is just scratching the surface with his football skills, wowing all in attendance at the NFL Scouting Combine with his blazing 4.77 40-yard dash, the best in the defensive tackle group. He further impressed in the weight room, putting up 225 pounds 30 times. Coming off the snap, Cox simply explodes through the gaps, and for a 300-pounder he has a very good feel for blocking schemes, as he can either use a nifty spin move to escape or a punishing club move to rock the offensive linemen back on their heels.

Cox's speed constantly posed problems for Southeastern Conference blockers, especially vs. South Carolina, where three of his five pressures led to turnovers, as he also had four stops behind the line of scrimmage. His speed is valid enough to see him line up in the five-technique in a 3-4 alignment or the conventional end slot in a 4-3 system. He is much better attacking the pocket through the gaps than when playing off the edge, though.

Still, there is no better bull rusher in this draft than Cox, as he also has valid lateral agility to work down the line or take the blocker off-balance en route to disrupting the pocket. He has to maintain consistency with his pad level, though, as he can get upright in his stance and this allows double teams to neutralize him, as he might be strong in the weight room, but his lower body lacks the ideal power to anchor.

Cox is not the type that can deliver on long pursuits to take down the ball carrier, but he is alert to backfield activity and like the 2011 South Carolina game showed, applying pressure and penetrating the line of scrimmage is his forte'. The junior is still a "puppy" who has yet to learn how to harness his power, but throughout 2011, he had very good success attacking blockers and escaping them once he found a path into the backfield.

Louisiana State's Michael Brockers is a classic example of what I preach to young scouts when evaluating interior defensive linemen – never put a strong emphasis on individual statistics. Most defensive tackles are "garbage men," with the daunting task of stacking and shedding, or taking on multiple blockers in order to free up a teammate to make the play.

The junior recorded just 54 tackles last season, his only one as a starter, but made 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Further supporting my teaching of not "judging a book by its cover," those individual stats are pedestrian, but thanks to his ability to clog the middle, LSU went from ranking 42nd in the nation vs. the run in 2010 (137.91 ypg), with Brockers in a reserve role, to fifth nationally in 2011 (90.07 ypg, one of four teams from 1119 major colleges to hold the opponent under 100 yards rushing) with him in the lineup.

Yes, Brockers' numbers from the NFL Scouting Combine were nowhere as impressive as Memphis' Dontari Poe, but this is a special prospect folks, a junior who competed at nose tackle, in addition to shifting outside to end in passing situations. LSU head coach Les Miles called Brockers "a bear to handle inside."

Do not be fooled by him recording only two sacks last season, as Brockers was very nimble for a player his size, keeping his pads down and hands active to keep blockers at arm's length. His specialty in escaping blockers was his sudden arm-over move, as his condor-like 84-inch wing span made that move successful, as he was able to keep blockers at a distance.

Brockers' lateral agility and hip snap allowed him to bend and split double teams, as he consistently gained leverage and demonstrated a strong anchor to hold ground firmly. For a 322-pounder, he showed very good agility and suddenness moving down the line and once he located the rush lane, he was quick to step up and clog the running avenues, making him, at least in my books, a prospect with better three-technique ability that even Cox.

If the Tiger happens to be around later in round one, general managers need to have their heads examined. If the Chiefs fail to move up on draft day and the "big three" at quarter-back are gone, he's an ideal fit to build the line around. If the Eagles also fail in their quest to trade up for Cox, Brockers is not exactly a "consolation" prize with the 14th pick.

Dontari Poe of Memphis, meet Mike Mamula, former Combine sensation and an instant Philadelphia Eagles first-round bust. Scouts and coaches were like giddy little school girls after Poe put on an athletic performance and a half at the Combine. Those same execs went back, popped in a few tapes and saw a player with little conception of what he was doing on the football field. That's what makes it a head scratcher that teams like Kansas City, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Chicago are all ready to pounce on the Tiger.

Some might look at his athletic ability and feel he can be an explosive nose guard, but I seriously doubt if he can play there, especially with his short arms (32 inches). Yes, he has an explosive first step off the ball that lets him glide through the gaps, but he's just a bull rusher who seems to lack ball recognition once he gets into the backfield. Five sacks in 35 games and just eight quarterback pressures are not going to have me running out and buying a ticket to see him play.

For a player with his size, strength and speed, I can't be impressed by a "one-move pony," and if blockers can manage to neutralize his first step, Poe is stuck at the line of scrimmage. The thing that disturbs me when watching film on him is that he constantly gets upright after the snap and a grizzled NFL offensive lineman is going to have a field day taking away his leverage and keeping Poe off balance.

While reviewing my ratings, I am sure my next pick is going to cause you to grab the "Head and Shoulders" bottle. My case for making Derek Wolfe my next "flavor of the month" is simple – the kid has finally put it all together on the field, in life, in the locker room and, more importantly, in the eyes of NFL teams. He has that burst off the snap and versatility that brings back memories of Luis Castillo in his prime.

Twice named to the All-American Strength and Conditioning team, he was named the Athlete of the Year by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) in 2011, and he showed off that power at the Combine with 33 reps. He has very good initial quickness, along with the ability to play either at the three- or five-technique slot.

Wolfe is a well-proportioned athlete with more than enough hand power and arm length (33¼-inches) to keep blockers off his body and push the pocket, evident by his 9.5 sacks and 25 tackles (assists/solos) behind the line of scrimmage as a senior. He has the strong anchor to handle combo blocks and has made marked improvement with his hand usage last season (see Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Vanderbilt games).

When people use the phrase, "tough as nails," they might be referring to Josh Chapman (Alabama), who simply refused to leave the field last season, playing in eight games with torn knee ligaments before finally going under the knife after he secured the national title for the Crimson Tide. Though not the "wide body" that former Alabama and present Raven Terrence Cody is, even with a "bum wheel," he is the best pure nose guard in this draft.

Typical of most nose guards, Chapman has had conditioning issues in the past, but much like the Steelers' Casey Hampton, he does not have the lateral agility and sudden burst to be a pass-rush threat (2.5 sacks in 54 games), but he is a load to handle in the trenches, as he excels at stacking and shedding. His linebackers had great success making plays with Chapman taking on two and three blockers at a time.

Chapman might look like he belongs on a beer league softball team rather than on the gridiron, but he is very quick using his hands and staves off lots of blocks with his swim and club moves. No nose guard in this draft can win the leverage battle better than the Tide fireplug. He is simply impossible to root out once he anchors and has very good peripheral vision, as it is rare to see him neutralized by double teams or trap blockers.

The Tide nose guard uses his hands with force and has a violent punch. He is strictly an inside-the-box tackler, but has demonstrated adequate lateral agility to give chase vs. ball carriers on the move. Two critical factors in his draft stock will be concerns about his recovery from knee surgery and if he will become more dedicated to better conditioning.

If you look at his career at Connecticut, Kendall Reyes was really nothing much to "write home to mother about." But, in all-star games, the Combine and Pro Day workouts, the once mid-to-late-round prospect has elevated his draft stock into the late first round/early second round area. Minnesota and Dallas are both strong possibilities for the Husky during the draft's second day.

If either of those teams are looking for Reyes to generate a decent pass rush, they are better off looking elsewhere, as he only got to the quarterback 11 times in 49 games, but did so vs. teams like Buffalo, Western Michigan, Syracuse and Vanderbilt, none known for protecting their passer.

What Reyes is better suited for is applying interior line pressure, as he is more suited for bull-rushing than playing off the edge. He is very savvy using his hands to take blockers off-balance and while he might lack great foot speed, he is capable of at least flushing the quarterback out of the pocket when he penetrates the backfield.

The senior captain is much more effective moving down the line and chasing ball carriers.
He has good lateral agility and balance moving in either direction, and thanks to his ability to stay low in his pads, he has had good success taking down offensive linemen, making 10 of his 48 tackles on goal-line stands last season.

The Big Ten Conference boasted two of the elite defensive tackles in college entering the 2011 season. While Michigan State's Jerel Worthy and Penn State's Devon Still had their moments, there was enough inconsistency throughout the year that if I was a general manager I would look elsewhere in the early rounds for defensive tackle help.

Worthy is an impressive physical specimen, but look at his body of work, especially last season. Only once did he post more than four tackles in a game and he "produced" just one stop in each of the Florida Atlantic, Central Michigan games and was completely shut out vs. the Iowa Hawkeyes' dominant offensive line. He has a very impressive hand punch, but more often than not, he's short-arming when trying to generate a bull rush.

Attack him low or ask him to split double teams and he will have problems. He is tough to move out when he anchors, but whether it is a lack of lateral agility or lack of effort, he's not going to give pursuit chasing down ball carriers along the sidelines. He has good foot speed, but running backs, especially cat-quick ones, had a field day running away from this guy (see Notre Dame, both Wisconsin games and Georgia).

As for Still, he's had knee issues in the past, but the school which touted him and Jordan Hill as the best defensive tackle tandem in college football was left eating crow after the season. If those two were the "best" in the collegiate game, please explain why Penn State ranked 74th (165.62 ypg in 2010) and 42nd (133.31 ypg in 2011) vs. the running game the two years Still was a starter?

He has an adequate swim move, but a lot of his missed chances at getting to the quarterback are the result of the lineman not showing the vision to locate the quarterback once he gets into the backfield (sacks last year came vs. struggling offensive lines like Temple, Northwestern and Illinois).

Still is much more effective vs. plays right in front of him, as he is very stout with his anchor, but he gets knocked on his rump more often, thanks to his inability to stay low in his pads. He also needs to be more conscious of protecting his feet by using his hands to stave off low blocks.

Another fine athlete with inconsistent football skills is Washington's Alameda Ta'amu. Some have compared him to Baltimore's Haloti Ngata, but outside of them having a similar size and from the Pacific Islands, that assessment is almost laughable. He's averaged just two tackles per game during his career and in 50 contests has just one quarterback pressure to show for his efforts. Runners also averaged 5.48 yards per carry on the plays he made tackles on.

Stamina has been an issue in the past, and even though he dedicated himself to a better diet this year, his weight has reached 390 pounds during his Washington career. Ta'amu is a load to handle and requires double teaming early in the game, but his lack of stamina allows those blockers to give him little attention later in games. He has no pass-rush moves to rely upon, and while he is effective at collapsing the pocket, he does not have the foot speed or balance to give chase.

Ta'amu has short legs and a stout frame, which help him occupy and anchor in front of rush lanes. He's just too inconsistent when having to move laterally to be relied upon to string out plays and his less-than-ideal arm length is going to create huge problems for him vs. savvy NFL linemen that like to get into a defender's jersey.

One second-round candidate that has impressed is Clemson's Brandon Thompson. He's not going to dazzle you with his adequate foot speed, but nicknamed "yams" for his extremely thick thighs and calves, he's a load for combo blockers to handle. He can instantly explode into the backfield and while he might not always "seal the deal" (3.5 sacks in his last 26 games), he can easily flush out the quarterback when shooting the gaps, posting 33 pressures since moving into the lineup as a junior.
Thompson has the upper-body strength to defeat blocks on the bull rush and, while he needs to be more consistent shooting his hands (struggles to disengage), he has very good lateral agility. For a big man, you have to marvel at his ability to slip through the gaps as often as he does. He also knows how to anchor vs. running plays directed at him, and as a senior he did a very good job in attempts to separate from blocks.

Third-day draft talent that should hear their names called in the third- to fifth-round area are Michigan's Mike Martin, versatile Boise State lineman Billy Winn (could also play end), Brigham Young nose guard Hebron Fangupo, Thompson's rising teammate from Clemson, Rennie Moore, who is also being viewed as a 3-4 inside linebacker, Florida's Jaye Howard and Iowa's Mike Daniels.

DeJohn Harris of Southern California remains a mid-round possibility, but at the Combine, medical red flags were raised over a potential heart condition. Harris' teammate, Armond Armstead, was forced to sit out the 2011 season after he was hospitalized with chest pains prior to the season opener.

After flirting with the idea to transfer to another school with one year of eligibility left, he decided to make the move to jump to the NFL. Doctors have cleared Armstead from any heart condition and maintain that his health is a non-issue. Miami's Marcus Forston was another potential mid-rounder whose knee injury, among other issues, sidelined the Hurricane for a bulk of his final season.

Later-round "sleepers" who could surprise are Akiem Hicks (Regina), who was originally scheduled to suit up for Louisiana State, but a recruiting screw-up saw him lose eligibility and the four-star prep prospect headed north of the border after two years on the U.S. junior college circuit, Vaughn Meatoga (Hawaii nose guard), Texas nose guard Kheeston Randall and for those old Giants' fans that remember Jim Burt – meet his clone – Brett Roy-Nevada.

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