Lions’ 2010 NFL Draft Needs: Defensive Tackle

The defensive tackle position has dominated draft discussions in 2010 like never before.  It’s rare to have a defensive tackle heavily considered in the top five, let alone two that were at one point believed to go first and second overall.  However, over the past month the defensive tackle talk has died down some as Sam Bradford and the quarterbacks started capturing the attention again.  Which brings up a draft dynamic that many casual fans overlook.  There is a very well established pecking order for positional value amongst NFL front offices.  This pecking order has come further into focus with the rising cost of rookie contracts at the top of the draft.

The three highest paid positions in the NFL are quarterback, left tackle and defensive end/pass rusher.  The reason they are the highest paid is because they are the hardest positions to fill and three of the biggest impact positions on the field.  The first three picks in the 2009 NFL Draft were a quarterback (Stafford,) left tackle (Jason Smith,) and a defensive end (Tyson Jackson.)  This makes for an interesting dilemma at the top of the 2010 Draft, because three of the highest rated players in the draft are two defensive tackles and a safety.  Teams my be hesitant to commit that type of money to positions that traditionally don’t command it.

Defensive tackles bust more in the top half of the draft than people realize, take a look at these numbers courtesy of www.walterfootball.com:

Defensive Tackles:

There were 33 defensive tackles selected in the top 16 of the NFL Draft since 1993…

Hits: 15
Busts: 15
OK: 2
TBD: 1

Defensive Tackle Hit Rate: 46.9%          Defensive Tackle Bust Rate: 46.9%

It’s a small sample size, but the disparity is even larger in the top five. In that area, only one defensive tackle has panned out of five opportunities…

Defensive tackles tend to be risky picks because they are very difficult to evaluate for a number of reasons:

  • Pass Protection Schemes – College pass protection schemes are significantly less complicated than professional protection schemes.  A typical college offense has eight different pass protections, NFL teams have upwards of 30.  Rookie defensive tackles have to play against protection schemes they have never seen before, let alone played against.
  • Technique – The majority of college interior offensive lineman do not have very good technique, they rely on physical skill and strength.  In fact, that’s one of the reasons the spread offense has become so popular is it gets the ball out of the quarterbacks’ hands faster so the line doesn’t have to block as long.  The lineman that do have good technique are usually moved out to tackle rather than staying inside at guard.
  • Spread Offense – The spread is designed to get the ball out quickly by spreading the field with four or five receivers and running quick routes.  With all the receivers on the field, defensive tackles are usually only blocked by the offensive line.  In the NFL, they will be getting blocked by offensive lineman, fullbacks, running backs and tight ends and more often than not a combination of those guys.  Against the spread, if a tackle beats his man there is only the quarterback left.  In the pros, he beats his man and he has a back cut blocking him or another lineman shifting over to pick him up. 

Defensive tackles are very risky draft picks, but their value to a team can be immeasurable.  Three of the six players to get the franchise tag this offseason were defensive tackles and the highest paid defensive player in the league is Albert Haynesworth.  Tackles generally fall into three categories, run stuffers, pass rushers and guys that can do both. 

The Lions have a solid run stuffer in Sammie Hill and the trade for Corey WIlliams got them a player that can penetrate against the run and rush the passer.  Williams had two down years in Cleveland because they tried converting him to a defensive end in the 3-4, taking away his opportunities to make plays.  Many fans and experts are undervaluing how good a player Williams is because the Lions only gave up a fifth rounder and a seventh rounder for him.  In 2007 and 2008 he had seven sacks each season and was one of the best defensive tackles in the game.  He was also the Packers’ franchise player before he got traded to Cleveland.

The Lions do need to address the defensive tackle position, but there are 10-15 defensive tackles that will be drafted in the top three rounds.  The Lions found a starter in the fourth round last year in Sammie Hill, and last year’s draft was not as deep as this year’s.  I think the Lions would be better served taking a left tackle with the second pick and then addressing defensive tackle in the second or third rounds.

These are my rankings for tackles that I would consider with the second overall pick:

  1. Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska – Suh has all the tools to be a perennial Pro Bowler, but the most intriguing aspects are his character and intangibles.  The Lions are all too familiar with talented defensive tackles with questionable work ethics, having dealt with Shaun Rogers and Coach Schwartz had Haynesworth in Tennessee.  Suh has a non-stop motor and is well respected by teammates, opponents and coaches alike.  There are concerns with Suh’s past knee surgeries which can shorten the career of 300 lb. players.  Some of his best performances also came against spread offenses, which are not representative of what he will face as a pro.
  2. Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma – McCoy is not as powerful as Suh, but he is a little more explosive.  He is a highly intelligent player with great character and intangibles as well.  He has a high motor and a good first step, but like Suh played a lot of games against spread offenses which inflate his stat totals.

If the Lions were able to trade into the middle portion of the first round, here is how I rank the players available at that stage:

  1. Dan Williams, Tennessee – Williams is more of a run stuffer, but has some pass rush ability.  He blossomed under the coaching of former NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.  Another intelligent player which helps him diagnose blocking schemes, he uses his strength to clog running lanes and collapse the pocket in the passing game.  Is somewhat of a one year wonder.
  2. Jared Odrick, Penn St – Odrick is a versatile player able to play a number of different techniques.  He is an upfield pentrator that tackles running backs on his way to the quarterback.  He has long arms and good strength to stack and shed blocks.  Another player that wasn’t very consistent until his senior year.

This group could start coming off the board in the late first and continue all the way through the third round:

  1. Tyson Alualu, Cal – I have him higher ranked than most because of his high motor and the production he had playing in a defense that wasn’t designed for him to make plays.  He played end in a 3-4, so his primary responsibility was to eat up blocks.  Instead he was relentless not only eating blocks, but then hustling to make plays that most players wouldn’t have gotten to.  He had an impressive Senior Bowl and he fits the Lions scheme perfectly as a high motor tackle in the 4-3.
  2. Brian Price, UCLA – I was higher on him before his pro day when he looked out of shape and struggled with drills.  That brings his work ethic into question since it’s basically going into a job interview unprepared.  On the field he was a monster with great burst and strength.  He is difficult to move and can rush the passer with quickness or power.
  3. Cam Thomas, North Carolina – Thomas will be the first of many highly drafted Tar Heels in the next two years.  Thomas is a run stuffer that reminds me a little of Sammie Hill.  He is a big strong kid with potential to develop his pass rush more.  Most teams view him as a nose tackle in the 3-4, but he would give the Lions another 330 lb tackle in the middle on running downs.
  4. Terrence Cody, Alabama – Cody is far better suited for a 3-4 than the 4-3, but he could excel in either.  Biggest issue is lazyness and weight problems.  Has been over 400 lbs in his career, but when he has his weight under control and he’s in shape he just simply cannot be blocked.  He’s very comparable to Pat Williams of the Vikings.
  5. Lamarr Houston, Texas – Agile and quick in the middle with excellent strength.  He’s another high motor guy that has the ability to become a better pass rusher.  Understands leverage and combines it with his
  6. Torrell Troup, UCF – Troup is another nose tackle run stuffing type, but he has good quickness and power.  He won’t generate many sacks but he will collapse the pocket allowing the ends to collect the sacks.  Needs to get in better shape to avoid fatigue late in games.
  7. Linval Joseph, East Carolina – Freakishly strong and athletic for his size, he’s a raw prospect that will need technique work, but he’s another player that reminds me of Sammie Hill.
  8. Geno Atkins, Georgia – Quick penetrating player with above average athleticism.  Needs technique work and struggles with motivation at times.  Lions defensive line coach Kris Kocurek is an unbelievable motivator.
  9. Arthur Jones, Syracuse – Uses hands well and has a variety of ways to attack blocks and get after the quarterback.  Good quickness, strength and technique.  Lengthly injury history knocks him into the third or fourth round.
  10. Vince Oghobaase, Duke – Has nice burst and strength to attack blocks, but needs to work on hands and technique.  Streaky productivity mostly due to nagging injuries.  Has potential.
  11. Al Woods, LSU – Used in heavy rotation at LSU so his evaluation is more difficult.  Heavily hyped recruit that never quite lived up to expectations, but he is stout against the run and with better technique could develop into a well rounded player.
  12. D’Anthony Smith, Louisiana Tech – Raw prospect that has talent to contribute early, but has potential that can be harnessed with better technique and learning more pass rush moves.

I view the defensive tackle position as a group that has a lot of downside with limited upside.  If you don’t get production from the defensive tackles it weakens all other areas of the defense.  However, there is only so much iimpact that you can expect from the position.  They are typically the biggest guys on the field with one of the more strenuous jobs, which is why they rotate so often.  I would rather have four above average players rather than one stud and three ok players.  For every Kevin Williams there are five or six Dewayne Robertsons, so it becomes a question of value.  Can the Lions afford to take the gamble that Suh or McCoy will become the next Albert Haynesworth?  Do the Lions want to tie up over $100 million in the defensive tackle position when you combine the contracts of Suh/McCoy, Corey Williams and Sammie Hill? 

The Lions have two solid starters at tackle, they really need to add some more depth behind them, not necessarily find another starter.  They did a great job finding Sammie Hill and coaching him up last season, I’m more comfortable going that route again this year and using the second pick on a left tackle.  I wasn’t really a fan of rolling the dice on Stafford last year, but Mayhew and Schwartz seem to have made the right choice.  I am not opposed to drafting Suh or McCoy, I’m just not sure that either can fulfill the lofty expectations that come with being the second pick.


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