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Monday, April 14, 2003
 
DTs remain hot commodity in draft
By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Curious over the king-sized 12-year-old all of the other neighborhood kids kept telling him about, Tim Thompson, the football coach at Melrose High School in Memphis, Tenn., jumped into his car and drove around town until he finally located the man-child who, literally and figuratively, seemed to be burgeoning into an urban legend.

Dewayne Robertson
Dewayne Robertson could be a top five pick in the upcoming draft.
Thompson discovered Dewayne Robertson sitting on the front porch of his parents' home, cajoled him into taking a ride to the school's weight room, watched him pump iron for perhaps 15 minutes, and then broke out his best recruiting pitch to convince the reluctant youngster to sign up for the squad.

Nearly 10 years later, no one has to go scouring for Robertson, a University of Kentucky product who figures to be the first defensive tackle selected in the 2003 draft. And in a continuing trend, scouts don't have to dig nearly as deep anymore for defensive tackle prospects in general, either.

Once regarded as the most difficult position to fill, one where teams were known to "reach" for boom-or-bust prospects, the last three lotteries have represented a virtual mother lode at the defensive tackle spot. And the 2003 draft could be even more golden than the three that preceded it.

"Given the history (of the position), you'd expect the well would run dry at some point soon, but it certainly won't be this year," said Arizona Cardinals defensive line coach and Hall of Fame tackle Joe Greene. "It's another solid year for tackles. You'll see a lot of them go off (the board) early."

That certainly has been the case the past few years, when franchises have been able to just strip-mine tackles instead of having to plumb the depths of the lottery for viable interior line prospects. The pendulum has gone away from defensive ends, toward the tackles, and has shown no discernible signs of swinging back toward the "edge" players.

Every team, of course, still covets the upfield pass rusher capable of posting double-digit sacks. But with recent drafts having been so flush at the tackle position, players at the interior line perch have been too difficult to ignore, and personnel directors know they had better grab them now before the rare stretch of tackle depth is dissipated.

There were 10 tackles selected in the first round of the last two drafts and only seven ends. Over the last three drafts, first-round tackles outnumbered ends 12-11. That hasn't happened in a three-year stretch since the 1976-78 lotteries. The six tackles chosen in the first round in 2001, when Cleveland started a spree by choosing Gerard Warren with the third overall selection, tied the opening stanza of the 1977 draft for most ever.

Since the 1970 merger, there have been 117 ends selected in the first round, and just 75 tackles. But the worm has definitely turned, and the arc figures to continue in the first round on April 26.

In fact, most pundits feel there could be as many as 10-12 defensive linemen chosen in the first round, perhaps 16-20 in the first two stanzas. Since 1970, there have never been more than nine defensive linemen chosen in the first round of a draft.

And while there could be a run on ends at about the midpoint of the first round, tackles probably will dominate the early defensive selections.

Robertson, who bypassed his final season of college eligibility to enter the draft, was virtually unknown to the public, at least the segment that lies outside of SEC territory, a few months ago. But he has skyrocketed up draft boards, is being compared by some scouts to Warren Sapp, and could be selected as early as the fourth overall pick.

At least five tackle prospects -- Robertson, Jimmy Kennedy (Penn State), Kevin Williams (Oklahoma State), William Joseph (Miami) and Johnathan Sullivan (Georgia) -- are certain first-round picks. Two more tackles, Kenny Peterson of Ohio State and Texas A&M's Ty Warren, could be selected in the first round as well.

"Not all that long ago," said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, "everyone was desperate for tackles. They were like looking for hen's teeth. You'd cut off your arm to get a quality (tackle) prospect. The last few years, the way the tackles have come out, really has been unusual. You can't really point to one reason why it's happened this way. But I know this much: Teams are going to ride out the wave for as long as it lasts."

The irony in the recent tackle shopping spree is that, despite the windfall of quality players at the position, the 10 first-rounders in the last two lotteries produced just one Pro Bowl performer, Richard Seymour of New England. There have been some notable underachievers, like Warren, who has yet to become the dominant force Browns coach Butch Davis envisioned when he chose the former University of Florida star.

Not all that long ago everyone was desperate for tackles. They were like looking for hen's teeth. You'd cut off your arm to get a quality (tackle) prospect. The last few years, the way the tackles have come out, really has been unusual. You can't really point to one reason why it's happened this way. But I know this much: Teams are going to ride out the wave for as long as it lasts.
Ozzie Newsome, Ravens general manager

That said, the batting average is still an improvement over past years, when desperate personnel directors gambled far too often on tackle prospects and, instead of landing a sterling player, typically wound up with just fool's gold. Some of the more notable first-round "busts" in the past 15-20 draft classes have been defensive tackles who went off the board long before they should have, but who were elevated by team needs and also the dearth of legitimate prospects at the interior position.

The times, though, are a-changing. And even though the rookie linemen who made the most immediate impacts in 2002 were pass-rush ends, Julius Peppers of Carolina and Dwight Freeney of Indianapolis, the recent track record on tackles has been better. They may not have made it to Pro Bowl games, but tackles have been the more solid choices, and owners love to get consistency when they are doling out eight-figure signing bonuses.

At first blush, the fixation with tackles might seem strange, especially given the way in which offenses have skewed toward the passing game. The safety position, for instance, has evolved to where the "in the box" defender is now becoming extinct. Everyone wants safeties who have cover skills.

But one truism that will never change, Cleveland coach Butch Davis noted, is that you can't win in the NFL unless you stop the run. And Davis pointed out that, until you force an opponent to throw the ball, it doesn't matter if you have Reggie White and Bruce Smith, the two most prolific sack men in league history, starting for you at end.

"If you're building a skyscraper," said an AFC head coach desperate to have one of this year's top tackle prospects slide to his team, "you need to have a solid foundation. (It's the) same thing constructing a defense. You put that big cornerstone in there at tackle and a lot of other stuff falls into place."

Such rhetoric is sweet music, more appropriately the cha-ching of a big payday, for Robertson and the other premier tackle prospects. The game has come their direction, with teams building from the inside out. If tackle isn't yet a glamour position, it is on the cusp.

The 2003 draft is certain to further enhance the tackle spot's profile.

"Hey, it's a big man's game, you know?" Robertson said at the combine two months ago. "Time for the big men to get some big-time attention."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.