Rating the defensive tackles

Rating the defensive tackles
By John Murphy, Yahoo Sports
February 26, 2007

John Murphy
Yahoo Sports
As always, teams could have the choice of two types of defensive tackles to mend the interior of their front line. The quicker and sometimes undersized prospects can attack the line of scrimmage and create havoc while a handful of oversized space eaters can fill up the middle and allow others to make the play. The job description of the latter group does not sound exciting, but two such players (Haloti Ngata and Gabe Watson) came off the board before the end of the fourth round of last year's NFL draft.

The larger space eaters are wanted by teams playing either a 3-4 that are hopeful of finding the next inside plug along the lines of Casey Hampton or Jamal Williams or in a 4-3 scheme that is hopeful of locating a prospect similar to Ted Washington or Sam Adams.

A total of five interior defenders were taken within the first three rounds of last year's draft, while the majority of the players selected at this position came off the board between rounds 4-6.

This year's talented group of prospects includes three potential first-rounders, including two that could be taken in the Top 10. Overall, the position is also deeper than last year's draft and productive roles players will still be available through the mid-to-late rounds. One name to keep an eye on is Walter Thomas, the former NW Mississippi JC/Oklahoma State product that opened eyes at the Texas vs. the Nation game thanks to his size (6-foot-3, 370 pounds) and impressive quickness off the ball.

DT SLEEPERS
Walter Thomas, NW Mississippi JC/Oklahoma State
Trey Lewis, Washburn (Kansas)
Mike DeVito, Maine

TOP DEFENSIVE TACKLES
1. Amobi Okoye, Louisville. A 19-year old prodigy that has opened the eyes of evaluators with his great combination of size (6-foot-2, 302 pounds), speed, power and maturity for someone who could just as easily be entering college as he is headed to the NFL. He did very well at the Senior Bowl practices and no one questioned seems to have any fears about him adjusting to the off-field lifestyle of the NFL.

He comes out of the blocks full speed on most downs, showing ideal quickness, power and the upside to become a feared interior defender at the next level. He has long arms (33½") for a player with his average height and his intelligence and attacking style make him an ideal fit for many roles, but Cover-2 type squads paid closer attention to him than others during Senior Bowl week.

Okoye usually makes very good use of his hands, stays low and fires off the snap with aggression. However, he will over-pursue and can also get tall when called upon to blitz if stationed head up with a larger defender. He still needs to develop more of a variety of pass rush moves. Louisville used him as a nose guard when it went to a modified version of the 3-4, but most evaluators think he lacks a big enough physique to handle the pounding of that spot in the NFL.

Okoye's age, ability and upside will allow him the chance to penetrate the Top-10 picks of the draft, but his long-range potential is what puts him ahead of Branch in my book.

2. Alan Branch, Michigan. A big-bodied defender, Branch is being viewed by several 3-4 teams as possibly converting to defensive end like Ty Warren has done in New England, while others see him being slotted over the center similar to players like Sam Adams or Ted Washington.

Branch has rare strength for a player that can run right at or around 5.00 in the 40 at nearly 330 pounds. He is better at controlling the line of scrimmage and allowing others to make the actual play. He takes up two gaps and can face and defeat double teams, but more importantly can sustain his ground and drive past blockers thanks to his size and power.

Branch shows a short-area burst to the ball carrier and is strong enough to drag him down although he is not a great form tackler. He will need to develop some better pass rush moves in order to become more of a presence against the pass. Right now he is purely a bull rusher, but does not always play with technique and balance when rushing the passer. However, Branch does have long arms and can bat down a few balls or block the vision of the quarterback.

There is no doubt that a player with his type of size and skill level will go early in the first round and depending on how free agency plays out, he could very well be taken as high as the Top 5.

3. DeMarcus Tyler, N.C. State. He was able to get out from underneath the shadow of a defensive unit that featured three first-round picks (Mario Williams, John McCargo and converted outside linebacker Manny Lawson) just a year ago.

Tyler is very active off the snap and prefers to attack rather than sitting back and reading the blocker. He made much better use of his hands this past season, so that along with his impressive lower-body strength helped make him one of the most aggressive run stuffers in the nation. He is able to locate the ball as fast as any interior lineman on the board and more importantly gets into the opposing blocker off the snap more times than he allows them to make the first move on him.

His play level soared over the final year and a half of college football as his production nearly doubled during that period of time. His ability to help collapse the pocket and do so from any number of defensive alignments should bolster his final grade towards that of being a mid-to-late first round pick.

4. Marcus Thomas, Florida. Yes, off-field issues cost him the chance to complete his senior campaign, but he has the talent to wreak havoc for an opposing offense when he is on the field.

A player that will really gets after it when he keeps his pads low and fires off the snap, Thomas shows decent pass rush moves for an interior defender. He has a quick first step and uses his hands well to get off initial blocks. However, he needs to make better account of himself against cut blocks; too easily taken off his feet for such an athletic player.

He can get a bit high off the ball at times and provides an ideal target for blockers. He fits best in a two-gap scheme, but may need to bulk up some in order to handle the pounding of the NFL game. Thomas has first-round ability and started to revive his character during the Texas vs. the Nation practices as he spoke openly with scouts and agreed to play a week after the same evaluators had seen the other top-rated interior defenders at the Senior Bowl.

5. Ryan McBean, Oklahoma State. He passes the eye-test with rave reviews and even cut out some of the extra bulk and body fat leading up to the Senior Bowl. He has a long upper body frame that if he desires could easily carry 290-plus pounds. In spite of being tall and lean, he is not stiff and very athletic both off the snap and in pursuit.

McBean is still learning both technique wise and overall in the way that he goes about his business as the two-year stint at junior college kept him from having a set schedule for training, eating habits and fundamental skills. He flashed an impressive blend of quickness, power and raw skill level in 1-on-1 drills during the Senior Bowl practices. He can come off high at times and gives away too much of his body to blockers, but uses his long arms and athleticism to work back into the play and hardly ever stayed blocked this past season.

Many evaluators believe that he can become a force at DE in a 3-4 as well as provide very good push up the middle or on the outside if selected by a 4-3 squad. The teams that like him are really excited about his upside, but other franchises feel that he will be a perennial tease.

John Murphy is Yahoo! Sports' NFL personnel and college prospect evaluator. Murphy's seventh annual NFL Draft Bible package for the upcoming 2008 NFL Draft coverage is now available. Learn more at www.nfldraftbible.blogspot.com.

Updated on Monday, Feb 26, 2007 8:53 pm, EST

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