Many in the media have lauded this year's defensive end class as one of the best in recent years.
While that may be true, I'd argue that the defensive tackle group is not only more talented at the top, it is deeper as well.
Like last year, when attention on the defensive tackles centered around the top two players Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, this crop of run-stuffers is largely described elsewhere as Marcell Dareus, Nick Fairley and a bunch of other guys.
Those other guys may not wind up as top ten picks like Dareus and Fairley, but draft fans may wind up surprised by how high the next three defensive tackles could go.
I've spoken to representatives of teams operating out of the 4-3 and 3-4 that see the next three defensive tackles -- Illinois' Corey Liuget , Baylor's Phil Taylo r and Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson -- as all potential Top 20 picks.
To put that in perspective, the last time there were five defensive tackles drafted within the Top 20 was ten years. Teams can only hope this year's crop winds up as good as 2001, when Richard Seymour (No. 6, Marcus Stroud (No. 13) and Casey Hampton (No. 19) began their standout careers. Unfortunately, the first defensive tackle in 2001 -- Gerard Warren -- was the most disappointing of the group, especially considering his high draft selection. Damione Lewis (No. 12) never panned out for the Rams, either.
I've written before about the raving reviews I've heard of Liuget . As a classic penetrating three-technique defensive tackle, he could hear his name called as early as No. 14 to the St. Louis Rams. I'd be surprised to see him get past the trio of Philadelphia, New Orleans and Seattle with picks No. 23-25.
Unlike Liuget, who could play in the 3-4, but projects best inside in a four-man front, Taylor is more scheme versatile. He's the unquestioned top nose guard prospect in this draft at 6-4, 337 pounds, but has the rare athleticism at that size to also split gaps and remain at defensive tackle. Most teams operating out of the 3-4 alignment will tell you that the toughest part of fielding a 3-4 defense is finding a nose guard. That fact could boost Taylor's stock much higher than most believe. The Washington Redskins at No. 10 and Houston Texans at No. 11 could be intrigued by Taylor's ability to immediately improve their interior run defense. I'd be surprised to see Taylor fall out of the first round with the Jets at No. 30 in need of reinforcements behind oft-injured NG Kris Jenkins.
Like Taylor, Wilkerson is scheme-versatile. He's also position-versatile, having starred at defensive tackle at Temple and having the long frame (6-5, 305) and strength (27 reps) to handle the conversion outside as a five-technique defensive end. Wilkerson had the widest wingspan (85 1/4") of all the defensive tackles measured at the Combine and second among all defensive linemen (Oklahoma State DE Ugo Chinasa measured 86 1/8").
That position and scheme versatility, coupled with his impressive production at Temple (70 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks) could see Wilkerson drafted as high as the Patriots' No. 17 overall pick. The fact that Wilkerson's production came against questionable competition in the MAC could be enough to push him into the mid or late 20s, but I'd be surprised if the Steelers or Packers with the final two picks of the first round, respectively, didn't pounce on his upside should he fall into their laps, respectively.