Sixth in a series.
GREEN BAY – Being a defensive lineman in a 3-4 scheme can be a thankless endeavor. But for the defense to work, you’d better have some effective big guys up front.
The Green Bay Packers lacked that in 2011, and that’s one of the reasons why, despite their gaudy 15-1 regular-season record, they finished with the league’s worst-ranked defense and were bounced in the NFC Divisional Playoff round by the eventual Super Bowl-champion New York Giants, despite the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the postseason.
So while finding a running mate for Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews might be the most obvious need to some, finding a quality defensive tackle or end to tilt the field up front is something the Packers will be looking for when the 2012 NFL Draft kicks off Thursday.
Them, and just about every other NFL team.
While several personnel people said it’s a down year for true defensive ends, the defensive tackle class very deep. At the top, as many as 10 defensive tackles could go in the first two rounds.
“I'm excited about this defensive tackle class,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “And it doesn't matter if you're a 3-4 team or a 4-3 team. There's a bunch.”
While 3-4 teams must project whether some college defensive ends will be stand-up outside linebackers in their defense in the pros, there’s no such issue with defensive tackles. Whether it’s Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox or Memphis’ Dontari Poe or LSU’s Michael Brockers, teams using either scheme can use a quality interior defensive lineman.
In the Packers’ defense as well as in other 3-4 outfits, generating a pass rush from the linemen isn’t the No. 1 priority. Rather, linemen who can stuff the run, fill gaps and keep the linebackers clean to make plays are at a premium.
“Usually, you’re not going to get your pass-rush in a 3-4 defense from a down lineman. If you do, it’s really a bonus,” said Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, whose team’s 3-4 defense has been among the game’s most dominant over the years. “Usually, that pressure comes from your linebackers or a combination of your linebackers and defensive linemen.”
At end, finding players athletic enough to create different looks is at a premium.
“Versatility is huge,” Colbert said. “You have to be able to play in a base defense first. But if there’s other things they can do from an athletic standpoint, that’s obviously a boon. Brett Keisel, who is our right defensive end, is a good player in our base defense. But he can also stand up and give some looks as an outside linebacker or even stand up and rush from the inside. It gives the coaches a lot more flexibility in what they can do. Is it necessary? No. Is it a bonus? Yes.”
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi state (6-foot-4, 298 pounds, 4.81 seconds in the 40-yard dash): Junior who saw action in 12 games as a true freshman in 2009, registering three tackles for loss and one sack. … Played 12 games as a sophomore, again with less-than impressive numbers (29 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks) before breakout junior season last year (56 tackles, 14.5 TFLs, five sacks). … Fast, strong player with intriguing size and room for growth.
BEST OF THE REST
2. Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina (6-1 1/2, 264, 4.71): Began college career as linebacker. … Sidelined as a sophomore by a broken foot, then returned after redshirt season and converted to defensive lineman. … Suffered a broken hand during junior season but played through it and had nine sacks. … Led team in sacks with 10 last season. … Scored three touchdowns last season. … Versatile ‘tweener who could play linebacker in a 3-4 scheme but
3. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina (6-5 3/4, 284, 4.71): Saw action in 12 games as a true freshman in 2008 and played in 13 games with one start in 2009 before breakthrough 2010 season, in which he had 59 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks while playing defensive tackle. … Moved back to his primary position of defensive end last season and notched 55 tackles, 15 TFLs and 7.5 sacks. … Athletic, versatile player with plenty of talent but raises red flags about his effort level and competitive fire.
4. Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis (6-3 1/2, 346, 4.91): Stunning athletic ability for such an enormous human being. … Played in 11 games (six starts) at nose tackle as a true freshman in 2009. … Started 12 games in 2010 and had 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. .. Started all 12 games at nose tackle last season as a junior, finishing with 33 tackles, eight TFLs and one sack. … Agile, athletic player who didn’t play against ultra-high competition but has lots of upside and could make the perfect nose tackle for a 3-4 defense.
5. Michael Brockers, DT, LSU (6-5, 322, 5.34): Third-year sophomore who redshirted in 2009, then saw action in 13 games in 2010 before starting 14 games last season, when he registered 54 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and two sacks. … Physical specimen with ideal nose tackle size and very good power but played just two college seasons before declaring for draft. … Will need time to grow at the next level but has remarkable potential.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse; Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State; Courtney Upshaw, DE, Alabama; Andre Branch, DE, Clemson; Nick Perry, DE, USC; Kendall Reyes, DT, Connecticut; Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois; Devon Still, DT, Penn State; Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson; Alameda Ta’amu, DT, Washington; Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall.
Mercilus. The son of Haitian immigrants, Mercilus (pronounced MER-sill-us) redshirted in 2008, played sparingly in 2009 (one sack) and started just two games in 2010 (one sack) before a breakout 2011, when he led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles and the Big Ten in tackles for loss, registering 57 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks while forcing an eye-popping nine fumbles.
A phenomenal athlete and excellent team leader – he was voted team captain and was very well respected by his teammates – the biggest question about the 6-foot-3 5/8, 254-pound Mercilus, and the question that could keep him out of the first round, is that he could be a one-year wonder.
But according to Mercilus, that productivity last season was a harbinger of things to come, not some sort of fluke.
“I think it’s a negative label because once you have it, you have it. Once you’re able to produce like that and you put it all together, in your mind, you know you’re able to repeat that success,” Mercilus said. “I just was able to put everything together. I was still learning the game as a redshirt sophomore and a redshirt freshman. Just last year, studying myself more, seeing what I do best and just put it all together for the 2011 season. I broke out. (Before that), I was still learning the game. I was still young. I was still a raw talent. I showed signs of life. Showed flashes in games at times, and I just finally was able to put it all together.”
One person who’s sold? ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. He expects Mercilus to be mid-first round pick.
“Bottom line with Mercilus, if you can get him at 23, you've got yourself value,” Kiper said. “I don't think he'll be there.”
DID YOU KNOW?
When Jerel Worthy was good, he was really good. The question about him entering the draft is whether the good Worthy is the real Worthy – and what round he’s worthy of being selected in.
“I think Worthy is probably an early two,” Kiper said. “Worthy's production overall from game to game (is inconsistent), and he's another guy who (you ask), ‘How does he fit into a defensive scheme up front?’ I think (that) will push him into the second round.”
At 6-foot-2 3/8 and 308 pounds, Worthy has excellent size for a defensive tackle and has good quickness and power. He was a first-team all-American last season, when he had 30 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, and he was nearly unblockable in some of the Spartans’ biggest games. He’s also said he’s motivated for NFL success and came out early because his father suffered a stroke in 2010 and he wants to financially support his family.
Asked whether criticism of him for being inconsistent with his effort is fair, Worthy replied: “To an extent, but at the same time it's just something that you have to work through. It's something I've grown and gotten better at, from the beginning of my season last year to the end of my season. I showed up in a lot of marquee games and laid my imprint on the game, and it was something that I wanted to work at. Getting better at playing against high level competition -- Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State -- with great offensive lines, I wanted to be dominant the whole game. That will only come with hard work in practice, and off the field growing in maturity and getting better."
“I'm from Memphis. Born and raised in Memphis. I kind of felt like it would be the best decision for me at that time to stay at home and go to that school. For my family to be able to see me play each and every Saturday I thought it was a blessing. And it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I got offers from the big schools, but some things happened and I chose to go to Memphis. People say you have to go to a big school to get noticed, but the NFL is a broad league so they'll find talent wherever it is. I didn't think that was a big problem.” – Poe, on the idea that playing inferior opposition at Memphis might hurt his draft stock.
Position analysis: While the team’s defensive struggles can’t simply be traced to one transaction last season, it’s hard not to look at the club’s decision not to re-sign veteran defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins as the beginning of the end for what had been a top-5 defense in 2009 and 2010. Allowing Jenkins to walk – he signed a very affordable deal with Philadelphia and gave the Eagles’ Jason Babin the same kind of pressure-relieving help he’d given the Packers’ Clay Matthews the previous two seasons – proved catastrophic. The guy who was supposed to step up in his place – 2010 second-round pick Mike Neal – suffered a training-camp knee injury and was nothing more than a placeholder when he did play. Meanwhile, 2009 first-round pick B.J. Raji was unable to replicate his impressive 2010 season, so the unit suffered there, too. C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn were “just guys” last year, prompting the free-agent signing of Anthony Hargrove and street free agent Daniel Muir. While outside linebacker may be a more glaring need, the team needs an infusion of talent on the line.
Draft strategy: Is there a position littered with more disappointing draft picks for the Packers over the last 15 years or so than the defensive line? Since 1997, the team has taken 22 defensive linemen, and while Raji (No. 9 overall, 2009) and Vonnie Holliday (No. 19 overall, 1998) proved to be sound first-round selections, Jamal Reynolds (No. 10 overall, 2001) and Justin Harrell (No. 16 overall, 2007) were unmitigated disasters. For every Aaron Kampman (fifth round, No. 156 overall, 2002) hit, there have been high-pick misses, from Kenny Peterson (third round, 2003) to Donnell Washington (third round, 2004) to, possibly, Neal (second round, 2010). Given the team’s need at the position entering 2012, GM Ted Thompson can ill afford to whiff on any defensive line picks. Whether it’s an early selection or a late-round gem, he has to get help up front – and plenty of it.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.