Steelers Draft Prospectus: Defensive Line

In the second installment of our position-by-position Steelers Draft Series, Frank Tursic provides a needs analysis of the Steelers' defensive line and the draft's potential answers.

While the Steelers defensive line continues to play at a high level, age and injuries are becoming a cause for concern. The starters have all missed considerable playing time over the past two years, and every key defensive lineman, except Nick Eason, is on the wrong side of 30.

Pittsburgh also managed to miss drafting a prospect in 2008, not because it wanted to, but because of the way the draft unfolded. A premium pick has not been used on DL since 2003 with the selection of Alonzo Jackson in round 2. In between, day 2 selections have been made every year with nothing to show for it. No late round defensive lineman in that timeframe remains on the roster.

As a result, defensive line becomes a draft priority for 2009, second only to offensive line in terms of overall need.

Most importantly, defensive lineman must possess explosive ability, and the NFL Combine provides the perfect venue to identify that talent. Explosive ability can be defined as the aggregate of a player's vertical jump, broad jump and bench press. More commonly referred to as KEI, defensive linemen who exceed an aggregate of 70 with an emphasis on the vertical jump can attain high levels of NFL success.

The following table examines the top rookie sack artists over the last 7 years.

Year Player Sacks KEI VJ
2008 Cliff Avril 5 72.8 36.5
2007 Gaines Adams 6 66 35
2006 Mark Anderson 12 72.6 42
2005 Shawn Merriman 10 75.1 40
2004 Jared Allen 9 56 33
2003 Terrell Suggs 12 DNP DNP
2002 Dwight Freeney 13 75 37

*Note: DNP - Did Not Participate in all events, VJ = Vertical Jump

If we exclude Jared Allen as a statistical anomaly, KEI and vertical jump performance correlates very closely with sacking the quarterback.

Since explosive ability matters when evaluating defensive line prospects, it's now a simple check to compare one draft class to another.

Comparing this year's crop to previous draft classes using KEI as the measure yields the following:

Year Defensive End Defensive Tackle
2009 7 5
2008 2 0
2007 1 6
2006 8 10
5-year Avg. 4 5

*Note: Number of NFL combine prospects with KEI > 70.
Low 2008 combine results due to inaccuracies in measuring vertical jump.

As the table shows, 2009 is shaping up as an above average year for defensive line talent, especially at defensive end. However, six of the prospects weigh less than 270 pounds, meaning the talent really is not so deep for 34 DE.

Conversely at defensive tackle, you can find athletic prospects that fit Steelers needs, even into the later rounds.

Breaking the prospects down into further groupings, and eliminating players who don't pass the Steelers stringent character, medical, and performance filters produces the table below:

Position Player Proj. Rd Hgt/Wgt KEI VJ 10-yd SS 3-cone
Nosetackle Ron Brace 2 6-3/330 68.3 28 1.88 4.73 8.16
Terrance Taylor 5 6-0/306 75.7 30 1.78 5.06 7.78
Roy Miller 6 6-1/301 76.6 32 1.68 4.74 8.01
Terrance Knighton 7 6-3/321 DNP 28 1.76 4.78 7.90
4-3 DT Ziggy Hood 1 or 2 6-3/300 76 33 1.62 4.56 7.50
Alex Magee 3 or 4 6-3/298 68.1 29.5 1.72 4.55 7.52
Corey Irvin 4 6-3/301 57 24.5 1.71 4.73 7.44
3-4 DE
(Standard)
Tyson Jackson 1 6-4/296 DNP 28.5 1.68 4.80 7.64
Fili Moala 2 6-4/305 63.8 30.5 1.71 DNP DNP
Dorell Scott 3 6-3/312 68.4 30.5 1.68 4.84 8.28
Sammie Lee Hill 5 6-4/329 64.1 28 1.72 4.97 7.89
Khalif Mitchell 7 6-5/318 69.1 30 1.72 4.71 7.45
3-4 DE
(LeBeau)
Jarron Gilbert 2 6-5/288 73.4 35.5 1.68 4.58 7.70
Kyle Moore 3 or 4 6-5/272 61.3 30.5 1.62 4.47 7.40
Zach Potter 5 or 6 6-6/279 59.8 31 1.61 4.48 7.76
Rulon Davis 7 6-5/281 59.3 30 1.72 DNP DNP

*Note: Data compiled primarily from NFLDraftScout

NOSETACKLE

Casey Hampton is still playing at a fairly high level, and he has a capable backup in Chris Hoke. In LeBeau's scheme, he's strictly a two down player, barley seeing the field 50% of the time. It will be interesting to see what direction the organization decides to go after his contract expires after the 2009 season.

Of the talent available this year, Ron Brace would most likely be gone by the time Pittsburgh selects at the end of round 2, requiring a trade-up to get him. While he's a good player, I think there is better value available later with the likes of Roy Miller and Terrance Taylor.

Both are more explosive, with better short area quickness and agility, as well as providing decent pass rushing skills. Either could be used on passing downs, if needed. Taylor will have to answer questions as to the drop in production during his senior season, but he is a legitimate NT candidate. Miller, on the other hand, will project to NT, but comes from the same mold as Hampton. He's very much an underrated athlete who could surprise at the next level.

4-3 TACKLES

These players are viewed as better fits for 43 defenses, but could project as 34 ends. Ziggy Hood is the top-rated prospect, and may be available with Pittsburgh's first round selection. However, I don't see the team pulling the trigger on a player who is not a great schematic fit, especially when some top-rated offensive lineman will be available as well. Instead, they could find better value in mid-round prospects such as Alex Magee and Corey Irvin. Both played well at the Senior Bowl, displaying a variety of pass rush moves, and are athletic for their size. Either could be targets in rounds 3 or 4.

3-4 ENDS (Standard)

These players have the size to play in any 34 scheme, with the more athletic ones representing better fits for the Steelers. Tyson Jackson would be a certain target, but will probably get drafted well before pick 32. He's a very good player, with prototypical size, that will be over-drafted, because his on field performance didn't always measure up to his athletic ability. Instead, Fili Moala, might be the player to target as part of a trade up in round 2. He's an intriguing player with size, athletic ability, and could project to NT having played the position at times in college. His game is not about creating stats, but making everyone else around him better. It's not just a coincidence USC will have three linebackers selected in the early rounds of this draft. Of the remaining prospects, I like Khalif Mitchell as a late round value selection. He's an athletic player, who transferred to ECU from North Carolina that had his season cut short by injury. Dorell Scott for all his physical talents was never much of a factor on the field, and Sammie Lee Hill is a very raw player, who will have a steep learning curve in the NFL.

3-4 ENDS (LeBeau)

34 Ends in LeBeau's scheme tend to be smaller and more agile players because of the unique requirements they must fulfill. They must be strong against the run and able to slide inside to rush the passer or drop back in coverage in passing situations.

From a baseline perspective, Steelers 34 DEs have the following physical characteristics:

Baseline
3-4
Height Weight KEI VJ 10-yard SS 3-cone
6.5 278 63.4 30 1.73 4.45 7.48

*Note: Average of Smith, Keisel, McBean, Nua

Representing this year's crop, Jarron Gilbert is the top-rated prospect. His abilities surpass the baseline by a significant margin, and he was very disruptive during his senior season, finishing with 22 TFL and 9.5 sacks. However, while he's a first round talent athletically, and a perfect schematic fit, he played against lower levels of competition, and did not put up similar numbers during his previous college seasons. The prospect Gilbert most closely resembles is Jason Hatcher, who was a third round pick by Dallas. Since then, the playing field has changed, and a minimum 2nd round pick will be required to draft him due to the proliferation of 34 defenses.

Of the remaining prospects, the player representing the best value is Zach Potter. He's a near clone of Brett Keisel, and is a very good athlete. Potter recorded 16 TFL, 5.5 sacks, as well as displaying the ability to bat down passes (6 passes defended) and block kicks. Pittsburgh will probably need to use a 5th rounder on him as he continues to rise up the draft boards.

In summary, setting a preliminary draft value board would look something like this:

Round Player(s)
1 Tyson Jackson
2 Fili Maola (w/ Trade-up)
Jarron Gilbert (w/ Trade-up)
3 Alex Magee
4 Corey Irvin
5 Zach Potter
Terrance Taylor
6 Roy Miller
7 Khalif Mitchell

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