Tuesday, February 18, 2003
Updated: March 4, 4:43 PM ET
Suggs expected to have immediate impact
By Len Pasquarelli
INDIANAPOLIS -- Nearly halfway through an advanced computer class early last November, as Terrell Suggs struggled to fortell the solution to a boggling series of programming permutations, the deep concentration of the Arizona State defensive end was shaken by the jingling of his cell phone.
On the other end of the line, to the amazement of Suggs, was Indianapolis Colts rookie defensive end Dwight Freeney, calling to laud the Sun Devils star for having broken his NCAA single-season sack mark. At that point, computers definitely became secondary to congratulations, as Freeney urged Suggs to put the record out of sight.
"He basically said, 'Hey, you've beat my record, so now keep going, move that thing into the 20-22 (sack) range' and that sounded pretty good to me," recalled Suggs, one of the premier defensive players attending the league's annual predraft combine sessions here. "So I went out and moved the record about as high as I could. You know how it is with sacks. The more you get, the more you want, right?"
Little wonder then that Suggs, who won't turn 21 until midway through his NFL rookie season, is a lead-pipe lock to be among the top 10 players selected in the '03 draft. The man known to friends as "T-Sizzles" has become one of the draft's hottest commodities. He is probably one of just three players -- Penn State tackle Jimmy Kennedy and corner Terence Newman of Kansas State are the others -- legitimately vying to be the first defensive player selected.
In an era when the emphasis on defensive line play seemed to be turning to the tackles, with 10 interior players chosen in the first rounds of the last two drafts, the pendulum is swinging back to the ends. And it is pointing right at Suggs, who had 44 sacks in only three seasons at Arizona State. He also holds the school record (65½) for tackles for a loss, and he had a couple of outings in 2002 in which he notched four or more sacks.
The man who hit the postseason awards trifecta -- capturing the Lombardi Award, the Ted Hendricks Award and the Bronko Nagurski Award -- is a guy with whom all NFL head coaches and personnel directors want to meet during their four days here.
Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of a player who always seems to take a pound of flesh out of opposition quarterbacks.
"We're really familiar with him because he plays at ASU," said Arizona Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis, whose team has recorded just 65 sacks in the past three seasons, and who could desperately use Suggs in his lineup. "He's just one of those natural rush guys. Quick. Explosive. Tenacious. You name it. Sure, there have been a lot of tackles taken the last couple years, but everyone is looking for the 'edge' rusher who can chase the passer."
Ironically, because of geography, Suggs has suggested he would like to play for the Cardinals and help cure their pass-rush anemia. But with the sixth overall choice in the draft, the Cardinals probably won't get a shot at him.
The re-emergence of the upfield pass rusher, with players such as Freeney (13 sacks in 2002) and Julius Peppers (12 sacks despite missing the final four games of the '02 for violating the league's banned substance policy) of Carolina making their marks as rookies, will further enhance the pursuit of such edge players.
Freeney, represented by Gary Wichard, who will also negotiate Suggs' first contract, finished second in the AFC in sacks. Peppers tied for third in the NFC. Both rookies ranked in the top 10 leaguewide. Notable was that there was but one defensive tackle, Rod Coleman of Oakland, in the top 10, and he was the only tackle to record double-digit sacks in 2002.
In fact, despite all the attention the tackles have garnered in recent years, just six have been among the top 10 pass-rushers every year since 1998. La'Roi Glover led the NFL in sacks in 2000, and Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp was second, but that season now appears to be an aberration.
Over the last seven seasons, nearly two-thirds of the aggregate sacks posted in the league have been by outside rushers, ends or linebackers. Only two tackles, Glover of New Orleans in 2000 and Minnesota's John Randle in '97, have led the league in sacks in the past 15 years.
"It's hard to pass on a guy who can bring the heat from the outside," said Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe. "Those guys are a premium. Even if it means overlooking some size limitations at times, like with some of the players here, you always look hard at a guy with pass-rush skills. You tend, subconsciously sometimes, to move them up your board a little."
As has been the case in most recent years, the current pool of defensive ends again skews toward the long and lean side, and there will be concerns over the ability to anchor against the run. But to get a player of Suggs' pedigree, teams will have to make a tradeoff.
There is also this factor: In a notoriously copycat league, teams will study the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Bucs, see that they line up with a pair of undersized ends and surmise they can do the same. It was, after all, the pincer outside pass rush of ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires that created much of the early momentum in the Bucs' title-game win.
"Not everybody can play it the way we do, with the smaller ends, but I'm sure a lot of teams will try to," said Bucs coordinator Monte Kiffin. "We're going to make some of those (smaller) ends very wealthy."
Likely to join Suggs in the first round on April 26 are Jerome McDougle of Miami and Penn State's Michael Haynes. Both are in the 260- to 270-pound range. Haynes had 14½ sacks in 2002 and jumped out at scouts during the practices for the Senior Bowl all-star game. McDougle slumped early in his final year with the Hurricanes, after a stellar junior season, then came on at the end of the campaign.
"I know I'm better than my numbers," said McDougle, who registered just 6½ sacks as a senior. "Probably the lesson I'm learning is, at this level, I just can't feel like I can turn it on when I want to play hard. I've got to be going (all-out) on every snap."
Other potential high-round choices at the end position include Chris Kelsay of Nebraska, Cory Redding of Texas, Oklahoma State's Kevin Williams, Jarret Johnson of Alabama and DeWayne White of Louisville. The scouts will work Ohio State tackle Kenny Peterson and perhaps Washington State star Rien Long at end as well, to see if they are fluid enough to play there.
As is always the case, teams are looking for the diamond-in-the-rough pass rusher. So guys such as Calvin Pace of Wake Forest, Alonzo Johnson of Florida State and San Diego State's Akbar Gbaja-Biamila will be scrutinized.
None of the end prospects, though, will even remotely approximate all of the attention being afforded Suggs, who will take the physical examination and meet with team representatives but won't perform on-field drills until his March 26 audition back on campus.
About the only question surrounding Suggs is his weight, and he checked in at the combine at 6-3 and 262 pounds. A junk-food fanatic, his personal trainer in Los Angeles has had Suggs on a strict dietary regimen meant to bulk him up and increase lean muscle mass. The rigid routine, which includes lots of steaks, has added 12-15 pounds to Suggs' frame but has left him miserable at times.
"The first couple times I drove past the Jack in the Box near where I lived, I about broke down in tears," said Suggs, who can probably add another 10 pounds without negatively affecting his quickness. "I wanted to run right in and order my usual (for inquiring minds: the No. 5 combo meal), so bad, but I know I can't afford to get that fix. Even the smell of grease on me and my (trainer) would go off on me. But that's OK, I'll get through it, and keep eating the right stuff."
Suggs will likely keep chewing up quarterbacks as well. A former tailback who rushed for 2,300 yards and 26 touchdowns his senior year at Chandler (Ariz.) Hamilton High School, he is having more fun now chasing the guys with the football. The only similarity is that he is in the backfield nearly as much as the opposition players are.
Against the University of Arizona, he told an offensive lineman who had grown tired of trying to block him: "You know what? I've been back there so much today, I'm the best player on your team, too."
Such bon mots are characteristic of Suggs' game. He is a motor mouth in a sport where cornerbacks do most of the filibustering, a non-stop talker who isn't timid about telling opponents what he intends to do to them. Indeed, he referred to himself as suffering from "diarrhea of the mouth." Fortunately for him, he can back up his rhetoric with a reckless bent. Watch tape of him, in fact, and you can often see his head bobbing as he lectures an opposition blocker.
His girlfriend, Jamie Byers, has termed him "obnoxious" and cautioned that she might be the only one capable of ignoring him. "I can shut him out," she said. "I've reached the point where it just goes right past me most times. But if you don't know him, well, you better find the mute button. He will keep on talking even if he knows you're not listening. He's relentless like that."
The motor-mouth approach transforms into simply a big motor on the field, where Suggs isn't the kind of player who takes a down off, then gears up on third-and-long to chase the quarterback. Last season, he improved markedly in using his hands to grab and throw blockers, anchored far better against the run, and added some important counter moves on his inside rush.
While he shares the same kind of explosiveness in his first step that Freeney possesses, he might actually be a bit more polished overall in his rush skills, and perhaps turns the corner toward the quarterback a little bit quicker. One AFC scout noted that he is simply drawn toward the quarterback and that if a passer is in the pocket it's like chum in the water for Suggs.
There was a time when Suggs thought hoops was his game. Then he pulled on his first set of pads, at age 10, and tossed his sneakers in the closet. His father, who tells Terrell, "You are my personal 401-K, son," won't so much as allow his son near a court now.
Still a huge Allen Iverson fan, he finds himself more often now watching tapes of vintage pass rushers like Lawrence Taylor and Chris Doleman. Lately, he has taken to studying Jevon Kearse, Jason Taylor and Freeney. The Titans' Kearse might own "The Freak" nickname for now, but most personnel guys view Suggs in the same class, and feel he can record double-digit sacks in his rookie year.
"I know from meeting him that he's a big movie buff," noted one college scouting director whose team has a top-10 choice. "That's appropriate. Because when you put in a tape of the guy, it's like watching a pass-rushing highlight reel, let me tell you."Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.