By Len Pasquarelli
In the end, the final body count was close, with the defensive prospects holding a slim 17-15 edge over their offensive counterparts at the conclusion of Thursday night's first round. But even in a league increasingly skewed toward the offensive side, defense more than held its own.
And that's despite the first round commencing with five straight offensive selections and ending with a run of three consecutive offensive players.
"(Defense) is still the way to win," Alabama safety Mark Barron, the second player on the defensive side to go off the board, told The Sports Xchange late Thursday night. "Even with the way the league is going now, everybody throwing the ball all over the place, I still feel it's about the defense."
Barron, of course, acknowledges he is a bit prejudiced. Ironically, one element that made him such a hot commodity in the first round, with his stock skyrocketing in the past week up to the No. 7 spot overall (to Tampa Bay), was the desire of many defensive coaches to counter the trend of tight ends as upfield receivers. But as Barron noted, emphasizing the Crimson Tide's shutout victory over LSU in the BCS national championship matchup, defense is a constant.
He won't get much argument from the 16 other defensive players tabbed in the first round, or from the team executives who maneuvered up and down the board to land them. There were eight trades in the first round - the 10th straight draft with fewer than 10 first-round deals - and in five of the deals the franchises that moved up to a higher slot chose defensive players.
That's hardly, though, how the first round began. For only the third time since the common draft was implemented in 1967, the first round started with five straight offensive selections. The only time a first round began with more was in 1999, a draft that kicked off with six straight offensive selections.
But after the initial offensive flurry, there were only three instances in which at least two consecutive offenses prospects were chosen. The longest "run" of the evening was on the defensive end, with six straight picks in the slots No. 14 through No. 19. New England, one of five franchises to exercise a pair of first-round choices, grabbed a pair of defenders, defensive end/linebacker Chandler Jones of Syracuse (No. 21) and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower (No. 25).
The Patriots, who advanced to the Super Bowl despite a defense that statistically ranked just 31st in the league became only the second team in the past six drafts to take a pair of defensive players in the first round.
Counting Thursday night, there have now been 21 franchises that used multiple first-round choices, and Green Bay in 2009 (nose tackle B.J. Raji and linebacker Clay Matthews) is the only other club to select two defenders.
"You still have to get after people," Hightower told The Sports Xchange. "I think (Bill Belichick) knows that. You get (defenders) upfront who will win battles."
Sure enough, seven of the defensive players chosen on Thursday were linemen, four ends and three tackles. Five more were either linebackers or hybrid rush players.
"Really, I'm not all that surprised," said defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, for whom the always active Philadelphia Eagles moved up. "It's still a game for the trenches. So it's not all that shocking that teams have (opted) to try to combat the offenses by getting stronger upfront."
Speaking of upfront, among the several surprises on Thursday was that only four offensive linemen, two tackles and guards apiece, were chosen. It marked the first year since 2007 that fewer than three tackles went in the first round. Highly regarded tackles such as Jonathan Martin of Stanford and Georgia's Cordy Glenn (who some projected better as a guard) went unclaimed in the first round. So did Wisconsin center Peter Konz, viewed as the top snapper.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the round was the choice of West Virginia hybrid end/linebacker Bruce Irvin by Seattle with the 15th slot. Most projections had the former Mountaineers' speed-rusher as a second-rounder.
"But you've got to get to the passer," said Seattle coach Pete Carroll, "and we feel this guy can do it. I mean, you have to stop people once in a while, you know?"