Some defensive tackles are about to make a lot of money.
Two tackles (Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh and Oklahoma’s Gerald McCoy) are projected to be taken 1-2 in the draft, and as many as four NFL DTs (San Francisco’s Aubrayo Franklin, Pittsburgh’s Casey Hampton, Green Bay’s Ryan Pickett and New England’s Vince Wilfork) could receive the franchise tag by the Feb. 25 deadline.
Whether a team plays a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, a defensive tackle who can stop the run and supply an inside pass rush is a valuable commodity. Suh and McCoy are so talented and versatile that it would be surprising to see one still on the board after the Rams (first overall pick) and Lions (No. 2) make their selections.
"I would not argue with either one going with the first pick overall," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said during a Wednesday conference call. "McCoy would have been a top-five pick had he come out last year. (General manager) Billy Devaney in St. Louis is going to have a tough call. Both these kids are outstanding. I give Suh the slightest of edges."
At least four other defensive tackles have the potential to be first-round picks: UCLA’s Brian Price, Tennessee’s Dan Williams, Penn State’s Jared Odrick and Alabama’s Terrence Cody. Weight issues have hurt Cody’s first-round chances, and he needs to be in shape at the Combine to improve his status.
Here are three assets that top tackles bring to defenses:
1. They give linebackers the freedom to roam. A tackle who requires double-team attention allows linebackers to make plays. Ravens tackle Haloti Ngata gives inside linebacker Ray Lewis the space to roam sideline to sideline. Franklin does the same for 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis.
"A lot of my plays come from him (Franklin) holding double-teams and playing the way that he does," Willis said at the Pro Bowl. "When you have a guy like Aubrayo, whenever you try to block him one-on-one, nobody can do that. They have to double-team him, and when they double-team, that kind of leaves me to just play ball. We need him back."
2. They provide pressure up the middle. All defenses want to do two things—stop the run and pressure the quarterback. Space-eating defensive tackles, like the Vikings’ Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, make it difficult to run inside. Meanwhile, defensive tackles who get pressure up the middle, like the Cowboys’ Jay Ratliff, prevent quarterbacks from stepping up in the pocket.
Tackles do not always get the glory of ringing up sacks. But Ratliff helps DeMarcus Ware generate sacks, just as the Vikings’ two Williams create sack opportunities for Jared Allen.
Some tackles are strictly run-stopping specialists, but Suh and McCoy are also athletic enough to rush the passer. That should make them every-down players in the NFL, with the ability to play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme.
According to Kiper, it would be a reach for the Rams or Lions to pick anyone but Suh or McCoy. "Look at the needs of the Lions," Kiper said. "Could they take a Joe Haden (Florida cornerback) at No 2? A little high for a corner even though Joe Haden’s an outstanding player. To take him ahead of Suh or McCoy? I don’t think so.
"Everybody always says McCoy’s a better pass rusher. I agree to a certain extent. But it’s not like Suh doesn’t get after the quarterback. He’s an outstanding bull rusher. He has improved his technique. He will set the tempo up front. McCoy gives you a little more versatility. Suh is a strong, powerful, outstanding bull rusher. I think he’s a better pass rusher in general than people give him credit for. McCoy is a little bit more explosive.
"Either one of those players, for either one of those teams, would be a good fit. They both give you consistent productivity."
3. They tend to have longevity. It is not unusual to see defensive tackles play at a high level past the age of 30. Investing long term in a proven tackle is safer than investing in a running back. Even an aging defensive tackle who has lost some of his pass-rushing ability still has value if he plays the run well.
"Look at the career Ted Washington had in the NFL, or Sam Adams," Kiper said. "These massive defensive tackles are key elements."
And more good ones are about to enter the NFL.
Six defensive tackles who will go early in the draft:
Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska. If the Rams don’t take him No. 1, the Lions should grab him at No. 2.
Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma. With his talent, entering the draft early was a no-brainer.
Brian Price, UCLA. He should be the first Bruin taken in the first round since Jacksonville tight end Marcedes Lewis (2006).
Dan Williams, Tennessee. He is best-suited to play nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme.
Jared Odrick, Penn State. A strong Senior Bowl moved him solidly into the first-round conversation.
Terrence Cody, Alabama. He needs to watch his weight and come to the Combine in shape.
Clifton Brown covers the NFL for Sporting News. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story appears in Feb. 18’s edition of Sporting News Today. If you are not receiving Sporting News Today, the only daily digital sports newspaper, sign up today for free.