Drafting defensive tackles can be risky

The struggles of former first-rounders like Chris Hovan and Johnathan Sullivan shows that drafting DTs is risky.

Updated: December 3, 2004, 6:42 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

For a three-year period, the hottest commodity in the NFL draft was defensive tackles. Big bodies who could play the "three technique" or the nose were hotter than quarterbacks.

Who could forget 2002 when the Vikings, juggling trade options or the chance to draft defensive tackle Ryan Sims from North Carolina, let the 15-minute decision period pass and had the Chiefs run to the table to select Sims? Four defensive tackles went in the first 15 picks. In 2003, the Jets and Saints traded up in the first round to get Dewayne Robertson and Johnathan Sullivan respectively. Five defensive tackles were among the first 13 picks. Six defensive tackles went in the first round of the 2001 draft.

But what happened to all of those defensive tackles?

Defensive tackles have been every bit as tricky to draft as quarterbacks in the first round for years. There are about as many failures taking a defensive tackle high as there are quarterbacks, and maybe more. What happens is teams go off workouts or go off flashes that they see instead of going for players at that position who play every play.
Ozzie Newsome, Ravens general manager

Some of the stories are bleak. The Vikings deactivated defensive tackle Chris Hovan, a first-round pick in the 2000 draft Sunday because seven linemen had jumped ahead of him on the depth chart. He's been replaced by unknown Spencer Johnson. Wendell Bryant, the 12th pick in 2002, has been inactive about half the season for the Cardinals and has just one tackle. In St. Louis, undrafted Brian Howard out of Idaho starts while Damione Lewis and Jimmy Kennedy -- each No. 12 overall picks (Lewis in 2001 and Kennedy in 2003) -- come off the bench.

Perhaps the most embarrassing story involves Saints defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan. The Saints were so high on him they traded two first-round picks to move to the sixth spot in the 2003 draft to get him. Three weeks ago, they thought he was so worthless that they deactivated him. Considered too lazy and too out of shape, Sullivan responded to the deactivation while eating nachos in front of the Saints locker room in his street clothes. Last week, Sullivan went up to the Georgia Dome press box, stood in the media food line and grabbed two massive hamburgers.

If that wasn't bad enough, he had undrafted, inactive defensive tackle Shaun Smith in line with him. Sullivan received $11.4 million in guarantees so he was untouchable. Jim Haslett will probably deactivate him again this week. Smith, meanwhile, was released, partially because of the Georgia Dome incident. Not only has Sullivan been disappointing his teammates, but he cost one his job.

"Defensive tackles have been every bit as tricky to draft as quarterbacks in the first round for years," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "There are about as many failures taking a defensive tackle high as there are quarterbacks, and maybe more. What happens is teams go off workouts or go off flashes that they see instead of going for players at that position who play every play."

No team has has done a better job building their defense in the last few years than the Ravens, and one of the reasons is how they scrutinize defensive tackles. They lean toward the overachiever more than the flash of a 320-pound specimen with great quickness. The Ravens won a Super Bowl with Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams. They were hungry big men, but hungry in a good way. They have changed to a 3-4, but they are getting great mileage out of overachievers Kelly Gregg and Marques Douglas.

"Sometimes you are better off taking guys who will hustle more than just the talent," Newsome said. "You want guys at that position who care for the game."

Defensive tackle is a big-man's position. Some are bigger than the offensive linemen trying to contain them. It's not an easy job. Linemen often go for their knees. The good ones get constant double team coverage. Even the top defensive tackles sometimes get criticized for "taking plays off."

"A lot of times, it's not the best looking guys at the position who do the best," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "The position doesn't necessarily ask for a pass-rusher. The player has to go in there and disrupt the plays. You want guys with the mental make-up to do that."

Which is why only about two dozen defensive tackles drafted in the first day are starting for the league's 32 teams. Sometimes, defensive tackles taken in the first three rounds of the draft have to go to other teams to appreciate their jobs. Russell Davis accomplished that in a move from Chicago to Arizona, and Darwin Walker did the same in a move from Arizona to Philadelphia.

The Saints had a good one in Grady Jackson, but like a lot of defensive tackles, he was spotty sometimes in his play. Jackson played well, but he fought injuries. Sometimes, his attitude got to Saints management because he kept missing too many practices.

Finally, the Saints gave up on him last year, and now he's in Green Bay where the Packers defense has been solid with him in the lineup and sieve-like without him. To fill his spot, the Saints signed Brian Young, a well-accomplished overachiever known for his hustle and ability to beat out first-round choices with the Rams. St. Louis drafted three first-rounders to beat out Young, but they never did. When a team drafts three first-rounders, though, at the same position, there is no money to give the overachiever a good contract, so Young left for New Orleans.

Meanwhile, the Rams are struggling with their first rounders. And the Saints, barely able to get Sullivan on the field, have patched the position with Howard Green.

What's scary, though, is the future of the defensive tackle position and how long teams are going to have to patch their lines. Though it may take three or four more years, the contracts of these highly selected first-rounders will come due. Some may get cut before the end, particularly those with big salary cap numbers. Others clearly won't be re-signed.

There is already talk in Cleveland that Gerard Warren (No. 3 overall pick in the 2001 draft) may be in trouble next season now that Butch Davis, the coach who drafted him, is gone. After showing some flash in his first season, Warren has been a disappointment. It will be interesting to see what the Eagles do with Corey Simon (No. 6 overall pick in 2000), who's been to a Pro Bowl but isn't considered a consistent run stopper. Simon is a free agent after the season and the likelihood is the Eagles will slap him with the franchise tag.

Drafting defensive tackles in the first rounds has turned into a crap shoot much like quarterbacks, who have a 50 percent success rate dating back into the 1990s. For every success story like Anthony McFarland (No. 15 overall by the Bucs in 1999) there is a Reggie McGrew (No. 24 overall by the 49ers in 1999). The Jaguars built their defense around two success stories at the position -- Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. Still, it took Henderson into his second year to become a force.

The Jets were patient waiting for Dewayne Robertson to have success, and he has found some this year in his second NFL season. Robertson has drawn enough double-team blocks to make Jason Ferguson a lot of money this offseason as a free agent. Ferguson, primarily a nose tackle, has been putting up Pro Bowl numbers this year and Robertson is a big reason why.

Get used to it. Supposed no-names such as Spencer Johnson, Howard Green, Montae Reagor, Mario Fatafehi, Sam Rayburn and others will keep emerging every time a big-name first-round defensive tackle fails. The Golden Era of defensive tackles hasn't lived up to the hype.

The Saints found that out in the Georgia Dome press box last week watching Sullivan stuffing his face instead of stuffing the run.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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