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Wednesday, April 2, 2003
Updated: April 24, 5:34 PM ET
 
Several DLs among first-round options
By Eric Edholm
Pro Football Weekly

Twenty years ago, they called the draft the year of the quarterback, and why not? With future Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly joining Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien in the 1983 first-round class, it was deep and plentiful.

They say it takes three years to assess a draft, and when they look back at 2003, they might call it the year of the defensive lineman.

What makes this class so special?

Jimmy Kennedy
Penn State's Jimmy Kennedy drops Wisconsin quarterback Brooks Bollinger for a loss.
Take a look at the position's big meal ticket: Penn State defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy -- a hulking, 330-pound run stuffer supreme who also had a four-sack game last season. Any other year, Kennedy would be one of the top three or four picks, but he actually might find himself outside the top 10. Don't blame anything Kennedy did; blame the depth at the position.

"It's extremely deep," Bills general manager Tom Donahoe said. "In the years we've been doing this, this is one of the deepest drafts -- numbers-wise -- for defensive linemen that we've seen. We talked about the defensive line (in team meetings before the Combine) for a long time. It's usually a short list. But this year there are a lot of names."

Another potential slider is Miami (Fla.) defensive tackle William Joseph, but you'd think there's little not to like about him either. Joseph was an anchor in the middle of the Hurricanes' defense, leading his team to two national title games. He was a preseason top 10 pick, a sexy choice on most draftniks' boards. But now he looks like a possible late first-rounder.

It's just one of those years, the men doing the drafting say. In the past two years there have been eight and nine defensive linemen drafted in the first round -- this year that number could be as high as a dozen.

"It's a strong group this year again," Texans general manager Charlie Casserly said. "There is good depth and talent there."

The Buccaneers produced a clear blueprint to winning when they used a dominant front to create pressure and wreak havoc on the Raiders' explosive offense in the Super Bowl. With a lethal one-two punch of defensive tackle Warren Sapp and defensive end Simeon Rice, teams are forced to keep more blockers home and constantly run more quick-hitting plays.

Linebackers and defensive backs are usually the beneficiaries. Think Derrick Brooks would have had the year he did without Sapp and Rice up front? Does Dexter Jackson walk away with the Super Bowl MVP without them? Rich Gannon doesn't throw five interceptions too often.

In recent years teams have been making defensive linemen, especially big tackles and lightning-in-a-bottle ends, a priority at the top of the draft. Previously, teams stocked up on serviceable tackles via free agency. But now the big men up front are the linchpins -- the players for whom teams are licking their chops to trade up and get.

In a perfect demonstration of how important the position is viewed, Donahoe's Bills -- who lacked a first-round pick after trading it for Drew Bledsoe last year -- traded Peerless Price, a key offensive weapon who caught 94 passes for 1,252 yards and nine touchdowns in Buffalo's explosive offense last season. He was sent to the Falcons for a lower-end first-round pick (23rd overall). Donahoe is infatuated with the depth of the defensive line class, so much that he could land a stud lineman with the pick obtained in the Price trade.

Skill players still will get paid, but watch out for defensive linemen. Offense, as they say, wins games -- but defense wins championships.

And the trend is relegated not only to the draft -- or big, hulking tackles for that matter. Packers defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, a 25-year-old pass-rush specialist, recently visited the Eagles as a restricted free agent and requested a signing bonus of $14 million -- a figure usually reserved for skill-position players or only the most elite of defenders. He re-signed with the Packers and got a deal reportedly worth $37 million over seven years.

Outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, who is essentially a down linebacker, and defensive end Hugh Douglas were two of the most coveted free agents on the market this offseason. The need for speed off the edge has never been higher.

Last year defensive end Dwight Freeney saw his stock skyrocket when he ran a scalding 4.38 40-yard dash at his Pro Day workout -- a time many receivers dream about running. But some teams still viewed Freeney as a backer-end tweener: too small to play rush end every down and not experienced to be anything but a situational linebacker. When the Colts took Freeney with the 11th pick, many observers were shocked, but the gamble more than paid off, as Freeney had 13 sacks. Now every team wants to unearth the next Freeney.

This year's model appears to be Arizona State defensive end Terrell Suggs, who notched 24 sacks as a junior and has a bigger frame than Freeney at 6-3 and 262 pounds.

There's usually one good year of defensive linemen and then you might skip three or four years. This is the third year in a row that I really believe that defensive linemen are going to be a dominant part of the draft.
Butch Davis, Browns coach

Some scouts also feel that Suggs, with his ability to also drop back into coverage, can be a more complete player right away than Freeney was as a rookie, though he is still somewhat undersized.

There has been speculation that the Bengals, sitting at No. 1, are so intrigued with Suggs that they have considered passing up a potential franchise quarterback (Carson Palmer) or a No. 1 receiver (Charles Rogers) to get him. Suggs and holdover Justin Smith would have new defensive-oriented head coach Marvin Lewis envisioning a Kevin Carter-Jevon Kearse type of combo -- a potentially dominant pair that would give the Bengals' shaky secondary a leg up in coverage. But a less-than-stellar campus workout by Suggs seriously wounded his chances of coming off the board first overall.

After Suggs, there's not much dropoff to Kennedy and Kentucky defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson. And here's where more debate crops up. Some teams have moved Robertson, a 6-2, 311-pound line plugger, ahead of Kennedy after a few strong workouts by Robertson, including his Pro Day where he ran a 4.84 40. Robertson and Kennedy are similar players, both strong against the run and occasional pass rushers. These players should perform well on defenses where the linemen's job is to tie up blockers, allowing linebackers to roam free and make plays, such as Chicago's and Buffalo's.

Robertson and Kennedy could be top 10 picks, and teams such as the Cowboys and Vikings need help inside.

Teams with multiple first-round picks -- the Patriots, Jets, Saints and Raiders -- each could take a defensive lineman this year, and they should get excellent value. The Patriots, picking 14th and 19th in Round 1, are almost a lock to take a lineman, probably a tackle, with one of those picks. One player they likely have their eyes on is Oklahoma State defensive lineman Kevin Williams.

Williams, 6-5 and 304 pounds, is a tackle-end tweener who really vaulted his stock with a great Combine. He ran a 4.83 40 -- rare speed for a 300-pounder -- but did only 23 reps of the 225-pound bench press, a so-so number. Fighting Williams for position in the draft is Joseph's college teammate, Jerome McDougle.

Either McDougle or Nebraska's Chris Kelsay -- a fast riser -- likely will be the next end off the board. McDougle has seen his stock seesaw while others have put up better workouts or stumbled. As a natural but undersized pass rusher, McDougle reminds some scouts of a poor man's Douglas. Kelsay is reminiscent of former Huskers and current Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom. Kelsay's workouts likely have pushed him into the first round.

This bumper crop will allow those teams picking in the late first or early second round to get mid-first-round talent.

Another half-dozen players -- Penn State defensive end Michael Haynes, Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, Ohio State end-tackle Kenny Peterson, Louisville defensive end Dewayne White, Cincinnati defensive end Antwan Peek and Washington State defensive tackle Rien Long -- could be drafted early. Several more sleepers, including California defensive end Tully Banta-Cain, Texas defensive end Cory Redding, Colorado tackle-end Tyler Brayton and Clemson defensive tackle Nick Eason, could make some teams very happy in the second and third rounds.

Not all of these guys will be NFL stars, of course. But if there's any more proof needed that it's a banner year, take a look at Long. The Outland Trophy Award winner as a junior, Long was one of the final underclassmen to declare for the draft and was pegged as high as the No. 7 pick to Minnesota -- perhaps because of comparisons to former Viking Keith Millard. But following a so-so Combine and intense study of game film, Long actually might fall out of the first round. His workouts weren't so bad, per se, but when you have a class this deep and strong, someone is going to lose out. Long could be this year's big slider.

"There's usually one good year of defensive linemen and then you might skip three or four years," Browns head coach Butch Davis said. "This is the third year in a row that I really believe that defensive linemen are going to be a dominant part of the draft."

Eric Edholm is an Associate Editor for Pro Football Weekly