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Draft positional series: Down defensive linemen

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Jerel Worthy didn't have a great combine, but when it counts, he's tough to handle. (US Presswire)  
Jerel Worthy didn't have a great combine, but when it counts, he's tough to handle. (US Presswire)  

While most of the talk and fan attention is focused on quarterbacks, as usual, the most talented part of this year's NFL Draft will be along the defensive line.

According to ratings, as many as six defensive tackles may be selected in the first round and nine in the first two rounds. And after a conspicuous display of athleticism at the scouting combine, some of them are still moving up many draft boards.

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That doesn't include another four defensive ends of the DAD variety -- Down and Dirty -- who seem destined to be selected in the first two rounds. This defensive line list includes only true trenchmen and not those 'tweener, DE/OLB hybrids. We will discuss those edge players in next week's analysis of linebackers.

Although there is plenty of talent at the top of the defensive tackle list, there is no unanimity as to what order these massive men should be selected. At the top of most lists are LSU's Michael Brockers, Memphis' Dontari Poe, Penn State's Devon Still and Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox.

Poe has been the star of the bunch since the February underwear Olympics at Indianapolis known as the combine, where he put on a sensational show. He moved like a man 100 pounds lighter than the 346 he actually weighed. He moved all that 40 yards in only 4.98 seconds. He played both tackle and end in college. He will now surely get a great shot in the NFL.

Here is a closer look at the top defensive linemen in this draft (Player, position rank/overall, school, height, weight, projected round, *-underclassman):

Defensive tackles

1/10 *Michael Brockers, DT, LSU, 6-6, 322, 1
Brockers had sub-par results at the combine that could hurt his draft stock, but when scouts study game tape they will see he is built for games, not underwear Olympics. His combine results included an unofficial 40-yard clocking of 5.36 seconds, a vertical jump of 26.5 inches and only 19 reps of 225 pounds in the bench. His game strength isn't reflected in the bench press because he has long arms that are built for playing leverage, not hoisting dead weight. He did have the luxury of being surrounded by a lot of talent, but pro scouts still noticed that Brockers has the strength, length and motor to play in the NFL. As a third-year sophomore last season, Brockers became a leader by example on one of the most talented defenses in the country. He totaled 54 tackles, 10 for a loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. Brockers played best in big games, evidenced by a career-high seven stops and a blocked field goal against Alabama in the BCS Championship Game. He arrived at LSU as a 250-pound defensive end but by the beginning of last season coach Les Miles predicted the he would be a "bear to handle inside." And since the end of the season he has added more than five pounds of lean muscle.

2/12 *Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis, 6-4, 346, 1-2
Poe ran and jumped like a little man at the combine, but showed the strength of the big guy that he is. He had 44 reps with 225 pounds and ran 40 yards in an unofficial time of 4.98 seconds, which would be acceptable for a linebacker or tight end 100 pounds lighter. Poe is obviously naturally gifted with size and strength, although some scouts are concerned that he doesn't always play up to his ability. "Dontari is a powerful, powerful young man who has the potential to be the best defensive lineman I ever coached," offered Memphis defensive line coach Mike DuBose, who saw some pretty good DLs in his days as head coach at Alabama, where he won an SEC championship in 1999. DuBose says Poe often over-thinks what he is doing rather than just doing it and needs to just rely on his abilities more. That probably accounts for the reason Poe doesn't always explode off the line. But DuBose says Poe is a dedicated athlete in the weight room and on the field, where he will still need to refine some techniques to maximize his God-given abilities at the next level.

3/17 *Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State, 6-4, 298, 1
Cox is naturally big, plays bigger and is expected to grow even more in size and ability. A third-year junior, Cox was the only player from Mississippi State to be named All-SEC first team after he collected 56 tackles and five sacks last season. He works hard from kickoff until the final whistle, setting a pace for teammates and wearing down opponents. He showed very good explosion in combine testing. The light-footed Cox played both defense end and defensive tackle and his versatility will be an asset in the NFL, where scouts think he is similar to San Diego's Corey Liuget, an 18th overall pick out of Illinois last year. Cox was one of five Bulldogs suspended for the 2011 opener against Memphis for breaking team rules, but he returned to the field with vengeance and earned praise from his coaches.

4/23 Devon Still, DT, Penn State, 6-5, 303, 1
After overcoming injuries to play in all 26 of Penn State's games the last two years, Still remains a bit of a work in progress. He missed 2007 because of a torn left ACL and most of 2008 with a broken ankle. He still caught the attention of pro scouts with 3 ½ tackles for loss in the Outback Bowl after the 2010 season. He lacks an explosive first step and barges rather than bursts into the passing pocket. He is a persistent pest who demands attention at all times, although he lacks that closing speed to actually make the play. He needs to focus on staying low so as not to be moved back, but otherwise uses his wide base and long arms effectively. Still logs ample time in the weight room to build strength, but may need to work on cardio because he often seems gassed in the second half. Family includes cousins Art Still (defensive end, Kansas City Chiefs 1978-87, Buffalo Bills 1988-89) and Levon Kirkland (linebacker Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks, 1992-2002).

5/27 *Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State, 6-2, 308, 1-2
He didn't do himself any favors with a mediocre performance at a combine filled with talented defensive tackles. But in games, where it counts, Worthy is the definition of the word "load." He demands immediate and constant attention by blockers or he can ruin an offense, and pretty much did exactly that as he earned All-American honors last season. Worthy anchored a Spartans defense that led the Big Ten in rushing defense (100 ½ yards per game), total defense (277.4 ypg) and sacks (45). Worthy explodes off the line at the snap and quickly uses his strong hands and unusual overall power to maintain an advantage. Little wonder he had at least one tackle for a loss in nine of 14 games last season. He said his decision to enter the draft as an underclassman was partly because his father suffered a stroke in 2010 and he wants to offer financial support for the family.

6/30 Kendall Reyes, DT, Connecticut, 6-4, 299, 1-2
Reyes played both end and tackle in college and didn't impress scouts as a pass-rush threat until he outplayed some of the best offensive linemen in the country at the Senior Bowl. He has good short-area quickness and will win most fights in a phone booth. This ability was demonstrated at the combine, where he hoisted 225 pounds 36 times and surprised scouts with an unofficial 40 time of 4.79. Teams still appreciate his consistency against the run more than his threat as a pass rusher, however. Reyes arrived at Connecticut as a 245-pound, three-sport prep star (including basketball and track) and developed into a big body without losing his quickness and agility. He started 42 games at UConn and finished with 31 ½ tackles for a loss, 10th in school history.

7/44 Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson, 6-2, 314, 1-2
Thompson was a classroom and weight-room fanatic since high school, which earned him Academic Honor Roll recognition in 2010 and the weight-lifting statistics of a tractor -- 450-pound single bench press, 36 reps with 225 pounds (34 at the combine), 615-pound squat lift and 370-pound power clean. On the field that translates to somebody smart enough to know what to do and strong enough to get it done. He explodes off the line with tremendous force and uses his wicked strong hands to gain an advantage. This helps him as a dangerous bull rusher, but he is not really a pass-rush threat. Nicknamed "Yams" in recognition of the huge thighs that help him clog the middle of Clemson's defense, Thompson is an immovable object willing and able to crush anything that tries to get past him. His college statistics may not be relevant because offenses tried to stay out of his way, even if it took two men to do so. Thompson may be NFL ready right now, but he is already maximizing his physical ability and may have marginal upside.

Alabama's Josh Chapman is a beast against the run and played most of the season with a torn ACL. (Getty Images)  
Alabama's Josh Chapman is a beast against the run and played most of the season with a torn ACL. (Getty Images)  
8/76 Josh Chapman, DT, Alabama, 6-1, 316, 2-3
Chapman certainly would be higher on everybody's list, but he had surgery on Jan. 17 to repair a torn ACL. The injury actually occurred in an Oct. 1 game against Florida. But he played through the season before getting the surgery. Ironically, the importance and ability of this stout nose tackle was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated in Alabama's Nov. 19 game, the only one he sat out, when Georgia Southern took advantage of his absence and rushed for 302 yards. Although Chapman did seem less than 100 percent during most of the 2011 season, scouts took special note that he played injured. Previously, one of the questions about him was whether he had the dedication to be the best he could be. And when he is healthy, his best is impressive. Chapman is a short, stout, strongman who is especially good against the run. He plays with a powerful base and uses his strong arms and hands to discard blockers.

9/78 Mike Martin, Michigan, DT, 6-1, 306, 2-3
After watching him at the combine, some scouts certainly repeated this big boy's initials a few times, as in MMMMM, good! He validated his impressive play on the field with tangible data: A 33.5-inch vertical jump to quantify his explosion; 36 reps with 225 pounds on the bench to demonstrate his arm strength; and an unofficial 40 time of 4.88 seconds, meaning it will be difficult to escape being mauled by all that power. Martin showed his competitive intensity at Detroit Catholic Central High School when he won the state wrestling championship as a junior, his first year in wrestling, and then broke T.J. Duckett's shot putt record while winning another state championship. Martin is short, thick, compact and plays like a high-rev tank. He explodes off the line like, ah, a shot-putter who can vertical jump 33½ inches, which means instant trouble for blockers. He then uses those strong hands (see bench press) and quick feet (see 40 time) to make life miserable for an offense until the whistle. Even at the next level he will be a load to handle one-on-one.

10/97 Alameda Ta'amu, Washington, DT, 6-3, 348, 2-3
Some scouts watched what Ta'mmu's weight was at the combine to get an indication of how dedicated he is to become a top NFL player. At 348 pounds, he still has them wondering. Ta'amu can be one of the best run stoppers on anybody's team if he keeps himself in shape. At times in college he tipped the scales at more than 390 pounds and wasn't that effective on the field. He finally dedicated himself to controlling his weight, and possibly his professional future, by excluding rice, a Samoan dietary staple, from his meals. That helped get him down to 337 pounds when he checked in for the 2011 Holiday Bowl. His strength is obvious in games and showed up at the combine when he had 35 reps with 225 pounds in the bench press. That and his sheer bulk make him a force coming off the line. But if he doesn't win that battle immediately, he's not going to dazzle a blocker with footwork (5.37 in 40 yards) so he remains more of a plugger than a rusher.

11/104 Kheeston Randall, Texas, DT, 6-5, 293, 3
Randall is a model citizen in the classroom and off the field, where he dedicates appreciable time and energy to community needs. But dress him in a uniform and put him on the football field and he becomes a troublemaker the very instant the ball is snapped. Randall fires off the line like a rocket, a trait reflected in his explosive vertical jump of 34 inches at the combine, where he was listed as a nose tackle. He shows excellent traits to man that position. He has the an exceptional ability to own that precious real estate in the middle of the line of scrimmage, often holding off multiple blockers intent on evicting him. He uses long arms well for leverage and for snagging any runners who get within his ample reach. He is admired by college coaches and teammates as one who can quietly lead by example or command attention with a sharp wit that is as quick as his first step. Wherever he goes, watch for him to fit in quickly both on the team and in the community.

12/117 *Marcus Forston, Miami, DT, 6-1, 301, 3
Forston has exceptional, natural athletic ability that thus far has been offset by his equally natural ability to have something go wrong, one way or the other. His career has been scarred, quite literally, with a number of injuries that limited his time on the playing field. As a promising freshman, Forston played eight games, including one start. The next year he was in only three games before being redshirting after injuring an ankle. He then missed spring practice in 2010 with a shoulder injury, but looked good in 12 starts that season. In 2011 he was suspended from the season opener by the NCAA for taking impermissible benefits while being recruited. Forston returned to start the next three games before a knee injury ended his season and, when he declared for the draft, his college career. NFL scouts are left to evaluate an injury-plagued, strong, gifted athlete who has been a work in progress, albeit with little progress. He demonstrated his natural strength at the combine by benching 225 pounds 35 times and although his speed and agility results were mediocre, he was at least healthy enough to take part.

Defensive ends

1/7 Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina, 6-6, 284, 1
Coples turned adversity into opportunity when he was cleared of any wrongdoing in the same UNC agent scandal that resulted in star defensive tackle Marvin Austin being suspended in September of 2010. Austin opted for the draft (Giants second-round pick 2011). Coples, considered a natural defensive end, moved inside in 2010 to help the team and in so doing helped himself. He showed pro scouts he had the toughness and tenacity to get the job done at either position and finished with 59 tackles, including 15.5 for a loss and 10 sacks. He then played defensive end in the controversial 2011 Music City Bowl victory over Tennessee and dominated with six tackles, two QB hurries, 1½ sacks and a forced fumble. Back at defensive end last season, Coples collected 51 tackles, 13 for a loss and 7 ½ sacks and was a standout in the Senior Bowl. At the combine, he looked good running 40 yards in an unofficial time of 4.78 seconds. Coples seems best suited for a 4-3, every-down LDE in the NFL rather than a pass-rush specialist.

2/54 Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska, 6-4, 279, 2
Crick decided to return to Nebraska rather than join last year's draft, but his senior season was literally painful. He sprained a knee in spring practice and had a series of injuries during the season until he was sidelined for good in October because of a torn pectoral muscle. He was still not mended enough to do the bench press at the combine. Crick finished his career No. 8 on the school's sack list with 20, including 9 ½ each in 2009 and 2010. A former Nebraska prep track (shot put) and football sensation, Crick ignored offers from all over the country when he considered only Nebraska. Pro scouts do not see him as a pure pass rusher, but rather as a 3-4 end and he was invited to the combine as a defensive end. He plays with excellent technique and wins most hand fights, but lacks the foot speed to be a real pass-rush threat.

3/60 *Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse, 6-5, 266, 2
His siblings already made names for themselves, now it is Chandler's turn. He is a strong, fast, long-armed, raw talent who can play LDE right now, but might have upside as a decent pass rusher. His draft projection might be more impressive if he didn't have a knee injury in the season opener last year that caused him to miss five games. Medics at the combine apparently deemed him fit for duty and his workouts were impressive -- an unofficial 40-yard time of 4.78 seconds and the vertical jump of 35 inches. Jones is an extremely hard worker, respected by teammates and coaches, and has interesting bloodlines. One brother is Jonny "Bones" Jones, the UFC light heavyweight champion, and another brother, Arthur, was a former All-Conference DT at Syracuse and is now with the Baltimore Ravens (fifth-round selection, 2010). Despite missing those games last year, Chandler was named All Big-East first team and finished his career with 147 tackles, 27 for a loss, and 10 sacks.

4/66 Billy Winn, Boise State, DE, 6-4, 294, 2-3
This former high school wrestler and powerlifter looks and plays the role of a big, tough defensive lineman who has enough finesse to play outside and enough grit to get the job done inside. His athleticism and versatility helped Boise's State's 2010 defense earn the No. 2 ranking in the nation. He flashes a powerful, quick initial burst, and is beginning to show a repertoire of additional moves that make him difficult to deal with. A second team All-Mountain West Conference selection in 2011, Winn had two sacks for the Broncos in their 52-24 MAACO Bowl victory over Arizona State in December. He finished the season with 34 total tackles and eight tackles for loss. For his career, he has 36.5 tackles for loss, which ranks ninth best in school history. He leaves Boise State with 133 total tackles and 16 sacks.


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