Big Board: Defensive Tackles
By Patrik Nohe
Two years ago the Buccaneers spent the third overall pick in the draft on Gerald McCoy. They followed that up by taking Brian Price the next round and now, as both enter their second coaching regime the center of the defensive line seems as uncertain as ever. Conventional wisdom has the Bucs going after a corner (or maybe a tailback) early, but on day two in rounds two and three there is a possibility the Bucs could be looking for a guy to plug the middle.
While there are arguably five guys at defensive tackle deserving of first round grades, only two really blow me away and neither would be a wise pick for Tampa at five.
As I said, it’s likely the Buccaneers will look to address the D-Line on day two, or possibly even three of the draft. Making some of the smaller school guys and the project guys a bit more appealing, but most of the top-tier prospects will be off the board before the Bucs even start looking.
1.) Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State, Jr.
Fletcher Cox is the top prospect in this class at D-Tackle, but that comes with the caveat that as far as top DT’s go recently, he’s not amongst the strongest. Cox would have gone in the middle to late part of the first round last season, but this year find himself slotted more towards the top half of round one. I like Cox, he has a big physical frame and he’s got the versatility to play outside on the end in a 3-4 defensive scheme. He’s a high IQ, high effort kid who goes full speed from opening snap to closing whistle. What he isn’t, yet, is dominant. Cox needs to improve his lower body strength and thickness in order to really reach his potential, right now he struggles to fight off double teams and stronger linemen because he doesn’t have enough explosiveness off the line. He’s going to develop into an extremely gifted tackle, he’s just not there quite yet. He’s still largely a developmental guy, he’s frankly been a little overrated early on.
2.) Dontari Poe, Memphis, Jr.
Poe is another guy that gets a little more early credit than maybe he deserves based on his game tape. With Poe it’s almost all focused on the upside, the potential to add strength to an already massive frame and become a stalwart NFL nose tackle. At 6-4, 340, you can imagine why Poe has made the eyes of so many NFL defensive coordinators light up. Those kind of measurables just don’t come along often. Paul Soliai of the Dolphins is another guy like that, he just got a huge contract, but it also took him four years to actually become a good pro. I feel like Poe is going to follow a similar career arc. Poe has tremendous athleticism, not just for a man his size but in general. He has a good work ethic, a high football IQ, good burst off the snap, above average technique and a good mean streak. I’m just a little bit concerned because he tends to disappear from time to time on the actual film. Memphis is not in a good college conference, they don’t play elite competition and Poe still wasn’t ever dominant. Typically from a small school guy you want to see him absolutely abuse inferior competition, Poe doesn’t show up that way as much as you’d like to see. On paper he’s perfect. On film, there are concerns.
3.) Michael Brockers, LSU, So.
I have no idea what possessed Brockers to come out of school early. Whereas with Poe he didn’t want to go through another coaching change, Brockers was in the middle of an elite defense this year and Les Miles and much of that unit will be back again next season. But that being said, despite not being as refined in his technique as some of the other guys on this list Brockers is here for his raw athleticism and potential. Of all the guys in this class, it’s Brockers who has the highest ceiling of anyone. At 6-6 and about 330, Brockers is massive and has surprising athleticism to boot. His burst out of his stance and overall strength is amongst the best in the draft and he will be able to wreak havoc on NFL defenses for years to come. His 2011 season was fairly unexpected to those outside of Baton Rouge, though Les Miles was on record before the season even started calling the DT a load to handle inside. As Brockers continues to develop in the NFL and add strength and technique, it’s possible he turns into an elite defensive lineman. He lined up in a three technique most of the time in college but has the versatility to play other spots on the line and will likely see plenty of playing time right out the gate, even if he hasn’t developed as much as you’d typically like to see at this stage. Brockers would be a top five pick with another year in college, as it stands he’s a raw prospect with huge upside.
4.) Devon Still, Penn State, Sr.
In scouting Devon Still I saw him compared to N’Damakong Suh, but nicer. Whereas in polite society that would be a good thing, that’s not a good thing to say about a defensive tackle. At 6-5, 310, Still is a physical specimen that easily passes the eye test. He’s tall and strong with good explosiveness off the line and a good football IQ. He just lacks the nastiness you really want to see in the trenches. Still has the strength and power to dominate opposing linemen but rarely does on a consistent basis. Something Still does do extremely well, that will continue to work to his benefit in the NFL, is he takes advantage of any opening the lineman in front of him gives him. A weak first step off the the line or the slightest loss of balance will be exploited by Still, but he doesn’t force those errors as much as you want to see as much as reacts when they occur. That’s all coachable though and quite frankly it’s downright nit-picky. Still doesn’t have the high-end potential of a couple of the other guys on the list but he may be amongst the safest picks in this group. He grades out as a first rounder, no problems, and comes from a program with a proven track record with making good pros. I like Still, I just want to see him play a lot meaner.
5.) Jerel Worthy, Michigan State, Jr.
Worthy has seen his draft stock drop recently after a poor performance at the combine and the emergence of several other top-end DT’s in the class. Worthy is extremely strong, but his functional strength as far as being an NFL defensive tackle could definitely improve. He sometimes struggles to anchor at the point of attack and has a difficult time fighting off double teams. He has the size to fit better into a 4-3 scheme than to be a nose in a 3-4. The other concern about Worthy is his hand usage, he has good strength but doesn’t utilize the hands will to when fighting off blocks. In the NFL a lot of that will get ironed out, if Worthy can handle the conditioning and put in the work the hands and strength will improve year one. Worthy is never going to be a big sack guy but he does have a knack for pressuring quarterbacks and hailing from the run-happy Big Ten, he’s more than proficient against the run. I like Worthy at the top half off round two, probably first 10 picks of round two actually. He’ll eventually develop into a solid NFL DT, though I’m not sure he’s ever going to be elite.
Best of the Rest
6.) Brandon Thompson, Clemson, Sr.
Thompson may be the best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the group, but that’s not going to translate well into the NFL. Thompson has great initial explosion, but lacks the strength to take advantage of that against pro linemen. That will change, he’ll develop strength and technique to match his burst and quickness, but that’s down the line. I really like Thompson, but he’s a bit of a project who will get selected on day two.
7.) Kendall Reyes, Connecticut, Sr.
Reyes is another good DT in that second tier of players that have great potential but are lacking one or two key components needed to be NFL-ready. In Reyes’ case it is strength, At 6-4, 300, Reyes has a fantastic frame to build on and he comes with a very good work ethic, but he’s not quite developed enough yet to warrant a top pick, look for him to go in the back half of round two.
8.) Josh Chapman, Alabama, Sr.
Josh Chapman will be the steal of the draft, mark my words. He should be a first-rounder but he played on a torn ACL and meniscus in 2011 and will take time to recover. That will drop you down a draft board, but keep in mind he anchored the middle of the nation’s top defense last year, played through pain to win a national title and oh yeah, was never at full strength despite dominating in the SEC all year. You can’t spend a first rounder on a guy who might not play his first year, but you can spend a two or a three and some team will be very happy they did.
9.) Mike Martin, Michigan, Sr.
Mike Martin is a guy I flip-flop on a lot. I love his motor and what he brings to the field, but his lack of ideal size, strength and athleticism are all kind of a big deal when you’re talking pro football. Martin is likely a day two guy, maybe early in round four on day three, but he’s got limitations as far as his potential. He could be a very solid guy in a 4-3 scheme, but he’s not likely to be elite.
10.) Marcus Forston, Miami (FL), Jr.
Forston strikes me as more of a tweener because he can bring a pretty good pass-rushing component while struggling to anchor against the run in some instances. None of that screams defensive tackle. But I do really like Forston’s upside and lately Miami has had a knack for turning out good pros that never looked the part in college. Forston was solid in college, but never elite.