NFL Draft: Is This the Year of the Defensive Tackle?


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Decades ago, defensive tackles were the stars of the NFL. In the 1960s and '70s, household names like Bob Lilly and "Mean" Joe Greene led their teams to Super Bowl victories on their way to the Hall of Fame. In 1990, the Seattle Seahawks drafted an explosive defensive tackle from the University of Miami named Cortez Kennedy with the third overall pick in the NFL Draft. Kennedy became one of the league's best tackles and finished his career with 58 sacks and eight Pro Bowl appearances. The following year, the Dallas Cowboys selected Kennedy's former college teammate and fellow defensive tackle Russell Maryland with the first pick; Maryland made the 1993 Pro Bowl and played for two Super Bowl-winning teams.

Since then, the handful of defensive tackles drafted in the first five overall picks have fallen short of expectations while the position itself has become less and less important. The tackle, who plays in the middle of the defensive line and is the closest to the football before it is snapped, has regressed from a multi-dimensional athlete to an oversized run-stopper designed to force the offensive line backwards. In this year's NFL draft—which starts today at 7:30 pm—a pair of All-Americans has a chance to reverse the trend and redefine the defensive tackle position.

Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh and Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy are widely expected to be among the first five picks the draft this year, the first time in decades two defensive tackles are projected so highly. ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both predict Suh will be drafted second by the Detroit Lions and McCoy third by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

These high expectations for Suh and McCoy fly in the face of 18 years of futility for highly touted defensive tackles. Since Maryland was picked No. 1, the six defensive tackles drafted in the top five have combined for as many indefinite suspensions from the NFL (two) as Pro Bowl appearances. Among the lowlights were Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson, who is most famous for calling Cincinnati a "racist" city, and Darrell Russell, who died in a car crash two years after his suspension for repeated substance abuse violations.

Though all six players could legitimately be termed "draft busts," their underwhelming careers have paralleled the decline of the defensive tackle as a game-changing position. Lilly, Greene, and other high-profile defensive tackles were valuable because they anchored the traditional 4-3 defense, made up of four defensive linemen (including two tackles) and three linebackers. But the rise of the 3-4 scheme—which has only three linemen and one tackle—and hybrid defensive ends like Lawrence Taylor engendered a football culture that valued lithe defensive ends over bruising defensive tackles.

In the past decade, the tackle position has reached its nadir. Size is increasingly valued over pass-rushing abilities, leading to an assembly line of 350-pound behemoths whose job is to clog up the line of scrimmage and let the rest of the defense chase the quarterback. Of the 1,045 total sacks in the NFL last season, just 141 came from defensive tackles.

As the position has lost value on the field, the men who play defensive tackle have become more comical than charismatic. Consider: The most famous defensive tackle of all time, Greene, is known by the general public for his iconic Coke commercial. The most famous defensive tackle of the last decade, Warren Sapp, is otherwise best known for his recent appearance on Dancing With the Stars.

Entering the void of transcendent interior linemen are Suh and McCoy, two tackles who specialize in attacking the quarterback. McCoy anchored the vaunted Oklahoma defense for the past two years, finishing with at least six sacks each season while starting 38 consecutive games.

Those numbers pale in comparison to Suh, the athletic wunderkind with the tongue-twisting first name who racked up 12 sacks in 2009. Long a terror to Big 12 offenses, Suh burst onto the national scene with an epic performance in a 13-12 loss to Texas. Behind 12 tackles and an eye-popping 4.5 sacks, Suh won game MVP honors in defeat and finished fourth place in the Heisman Trophy voting, the best result for a defensive tackle since 1972.

Suh's standout season won over St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell, who in no uncertain terms advised his hometown Rams to draft Suh with the first pick. "The name is Ndamukong Suh. And just so there are no mistakes, folks. Repeat after me: N-dom-AH-ken .... SUH. Write it down. Memorize it. Teach it to your kids with flash cards if necessary."

The Rams will most likely ignore Burwell's urgings and select Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford with the No. 1 pick. But wherever Suh and McCoy end up, they will have an immediate opportunity to showcase their throwback aggressive style. If they can live up to their draft stock and become stars in the NFL, they could spawn a resurgence of interior defensive linemen who are as dangerous against the pass as they are against the run.

And "N-dom-AH-ken SUH" would be the newest household name.