Commentary

Drafting DTs is risky proposition

Hit-or-miss track record in top 10 could push Rams toward QB Bradford at No. 1

Originally Published: March 30, 2010
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

The recent history of the NFL draft is littered with first-round defensive tackles who never lived up to their press clippings.

Top-10 selections such as Glenn Dorsey (Kansas City, 2008), Sedrick Ellis (New Orleans, 2008), Amobi Okoye (Houston, 2007), Dewayne Robertson (New York Jets, 2003), Johnathan Sullivan (New Orleans, 2003) and Ryan Sims (Kansas City, 2002) have never played in a Pro Bowl and probably won't. Two of the six, in fact, are no longer in the league.

Defensive tackle isn't the ultimate hit-or-miss position, but it is pretty close.

"Because it's so hard to find [tackles], teams probably take more gambles at the position than at just about any other spot," said Carolina coach John Fox. "You tend to reach a little bit … and, let's face it, sometimes you get burned."

And that likely goes a long way toward explaining why the St. Louis Rams will probably tab Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford with the top overall selection in next month's draft and pass on the two standout defensive tackles available.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireNdamukong Suh is a big-time talent, but his position (defensive tackle) is a hindrance.

Granted, quarterbacks have proved to be as risky a boom-or-bust choice as tackles at the top of the draft. Maybe even more so. But the Rams, who have taken defensive linemen in the first round in two of the past three drafts, sorely need a quarterback. And while Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh and Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy are highly regarded by most scouts, defensive tackles don't win Super Bowl titles.

Indeed, the last franchise to win a championship with a first-round 4-3 tackle who was a Pro Bowl performer was Tampa Bay with Warren Sapp in 2002.

Not since 1994, when the Cincinnati Bengals grabbed Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson, has a defensive tackle been the top choice in a draft. Two tackles haven't been selected in the top five of any draft since 1992, when Indianapolis chose Steve Emtman (No. 1) and St. Louis took Sean Gilbert (No. 3). The first of those long droughts isn't likely to end this year, but the second one could.

Still, that isn't apt to end the innate skepticism that seems to exist regarding the tackle position.

"You get a great [tackle]," San Diego coach Norv Turner acknowledged at the annual NFL meeting last week, "and it changes the way that you have to plan offensively. But there aren't that many great ones to go around. [Those guys] are scarce."

Coach Jim Schwartz of Detroit, who probably will jump on Suh with the second overall pick, invoked the "planet theory" espoused by late New York Giants general manager George Young to justify taking a tackle. In its simplest form, the planet theory holds that there are a finite number of 300-pounders on Earth, and that you've got to consider one if he is available to you.

Said Schwartz: "You start with the size, the girth, and that's the first [prerequisite] to play the position. That alone makes it hard to locate guys. Then you throw in all the other stuff -- strength, quickness, the ability to anchor [versus the run] -- and it gets even harder."

Every indication is that Suh and McCoy are special players and sterling characters. It's still difficult, though, to overcome the pock-marked history of tackles as No. 1 choices. Since 1967, only five tackles -- Bubba Smith ('67), Kenneth Sims ('82), Russell Maryland ('91), Emtman ('92) and Wilkinson ('94) -- were chosen with the top pick. Three tackles were picked No. 1 in a four-year span from 1991-94, and none since.

In the 30 drafts from 1980 to 2009, 14 quarterbacks were chosen with the top pick (including 14 of the last 27) and only four defensive tackles. But as shaky as quarterbacks can be at times, eight of the 14 were chosen for at least one Pro Bowl game.

"If you're the best guy, then you're the best guy," said Suh, arguably the best tackle prospect in the past 20 years. "It really shouldn't matter [what position you play]."

But it does.

Part of it is economics, with franchises reluctant to invest tens of millions of dollars in players who aren't, by definition, true difference-makers. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out on Monday that, after choosing end Chris Long over Dorsey with the No. 2 overall pick in 2008, Rams president of football operations Jay Zygmunt justified the choice by announcing St. Louis didn't believe in spending exorbitant money on tackles.

That in part points to Bradford, who on Monday demonstrated no ill effects from his surgically repaired right arm, and who has been granted total clearance by noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews. The uneven track record of tackles with the first pick, and in the first round, also points to Bradford.

As evidenced by the fact that three of this offseason's six franchise free agents were tackles -- not including Oakland's Richard Seymour, who has played both inside and outside -- tackles are at a premium. But only if a team is certain it possesses a premium guy.

Not counting defenders who were labeled as tackles in the draft, but who ended up at end in 3-4 fronts, 32 tackles were chosen in the first round the past 10 years. Nine of them played in at least one Pro Bowl, for a total of 24 appearances. Only two of the last 15 tackles chosen played on top-10 rush defenses their rookie years.

"In certain schemes, [tackles] are the engine that drives the car," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin told the Post-Dispatch last week.

Just as often, however, they end up on the scrap heap. And that's a high-reward, high-risk gamble on which some franchises are loathe to roll the dice.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.