Some defensive tackles are worthy of No. 1 pick

BY JIM THOMAS
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
03/28/2010


After the Rams selected defensive end Chris Long No. 2 overall in the 2008 draft over defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, president of football operations Jay Zygmunt flatly stated that the organization didn't believe in spending big money on the defensive tackle position.

Maybe the rest of the NFL feels the same way. Or maybe those truly special defensive tackles just haven't come around lately.

Because not since Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson in 1994 has a defensive tackle gone No. 1 overall in the NFL draft.

And not since Steve Emtman (No. 1) and Sean Gilbert (No. 3) in 1992 have a pair of defensive tackles gone in the top five of the draft.

Will either scenario happen this year? With the Rams seemingly tilting more toward Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford with each day, the QB option seems more likely. In what is increasingly a passing league, 14 of the past 27 drafts have begun with a quarterback being selected No. 1 overall.

"I think you can justify any position almost any position if you feel like that person is going to be enough of an impact on your team in the first year," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "I do think if the guy's that good, he can merit it."

Maybe so, but history shows it's almost never a defensive tackle. Since the first NFL draft in 1936, only six DTs have been chosen No. 1 overall. And the first of those six, Buck Buchanan, came with an asterisk in 1963 because he was taken by Kansas City in the AFL draft. (From 1960-66, the competing NFL and AFL had separate drafts.)

"I know a lot of stats are thrown out about drafting," Spagnuolo said. "I'm just of the mindset that every draft kind of stands on its own. We're talking about this year's draft, and there's some premier (DTs) that we're talking about."
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So could this be a year where two defensive tackles are simply just THAT good in Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh and Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy?

"Yeah, that could be," Spagnuolo said. "Again, you're talking about impact players. If you feel like the person at any position is an impact player ..."

Then you've got to pull the trigger.

Some excellent defensive tackles over the years have been taken in the top 10, headed by Buchanan, who's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame:

Dan Hampton, No. 4 overall by Chicago in 1979, also is in the Hall of Fame.

The late Jerome Brown, No. 9 overall by Philadelphia in 1987, might be in the Hall had his career not come to a premature end with a fatal car accident.

Cortez Kennedy, No. 3 overall by Seattle in 1990, was an eight-time Pro Bowler who has been on the fringe of the Hall of Fame.

Russell Maryland, No. 1 overall by Dallas in 1991, made a Pro Bowl and played for three Super Bowl championship teams.

Bryant Young, No. 7 overall by San Francisco in 1994, was a beast as an interior pass rusher for years.

More recently, Kevin Willams and Richard Seymour have had strong careers. (Although drafted as a tackle, Seymour has spent most of his career playing end in a 3-4 scheme.)

"You get a great one, they change the way you have to coach offensively against a team," San Diego coach Norv Turner said. "The ones that are that elite, it's a handful to handle and prepare for them, game plan, all those things."

For a while, the University of Miami was a defensive tackle factory, producing Brown, Kennedy, Maryland, and Warren Sapp from 1987 to 1995. (Sapp fell to 12th overall in '95 because of reports of alleged drug use.)

For Turner's money, Brown may have been the best of them all.

"It was really tough when he was playing at his best to handle him," Turner said. "And he was certainly a guy that you would take and say, 'Hey, we're going to build our defense around this guy.' "

But for every Hampton, Brown, Buchanan, etc., there seems to be a Dewayne Robinson, Ryan Sims, Darrell Russell or Emtman defensive tackles who never lived up to their draft status.

And sometimes, even when a defensive tackle is playing well, it's hard for the average fan or media observer to take notice. Take Ryan Pickett, for example, a late first-round pick by the Rams in 2001. Pickett was a strong, active run defender for most of his time in St. Louis, and has continued to blossom after signing with Green Bay in 2006.

But for years, Pickett was unfairly lumped in with Jimmy Kennedy, Damione Lewis and more recently, some would say, Adam Carriker as a first-round draft bust for St. Louis. The Packers thought enough of Pickett this offseason to name him their franchise player, and then signed him to a contract extension a couple of weeks later.

Speaking to the value of the position, four of the six players given franchise tag designations this year were defensive tackles (or in Seymour's case, a 3-4 end). Another defensive tackle, Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton, was headed toward franchise player status until signing a three-year contract extension worth a reported $7 million a year.

A year ago, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth became the answer to this playful question: How much is a Haynes-worth? $100 million.

That's how much he signed for with Washington as an unrestricted free agent.

"If it was (Haynesworth's) second or third year, you wouldn't mention him with the great defensive tackles," Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. "But after his fourth or fifth year, you did. You could say the same thing about quarterbacks. A lot of quarterbacks aren't successful right away. ... I think just players in general, people get too impatient.

"When you draft somebody high, the expectations are that they are a finished product and they are ready to play right away, and that's not always the case. ... Generally when you pick at the top of the draft you don't have a very strong team and you're going to rely on those players right away, and it's easy to be disappointed with them."

So how important is a good defensive tackle?

"In certain schemes they're the engine that drives the car," said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, whose Steelers play a 3-4.

And as with many other positions, Schwartz says you just can't have enough of them.

"It's a little bit like good running teams are always adding good running backs," Schwartz said. "Teams that want to play good defense need to keep on adding defensive linemen, and keep on rolling those guys through."

Of course, that's easy for Schwartz to say. He has a quarterback. The Lions picked Matthew Stafford No. 1 overall last season.

The Rams are looking.