Defensive tackles are at or near the top of this year's draft board, and that makes sense. If you're drafting high you should play it safe, and recent history tells us defensive tackles are low-risk choices in the first round.
So are offensive tackles. In fact, they're almost bulletproof. But I'll tell you who's not -- defensive ends, that's who, and don't ask me why.
All I know is that in the last four years there were 17 chosen in the first round, with four sticking as full-time starters. That would be Chris Long of St. Louis, Washington's Brian Orakpo, Denver's Robert Ayers and Anthony Spencer of Dallas, though Spencer and Orakpo are outside linebackers in 3-4 defenses.
|North Carolina's Robert Quinn (42) is expected to be one of the first defensive ends off the draft board. (Getty Images)|
Of course, that's not what someone like Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers wants to hear now. Bowers is the best pass rusher in this year's draft. He was also the top defensive end in the draft, a sure top-five choice until concern started to spread about a post-operative knee that some clubs think could be an issue.
Bowers had the knee re-tested, and it reportedly checked out fine. But that might not pacify nervous suitors. As one pro scout told me, while the knee won't prevent him from playing it will probably be an issue throughout his pro career and could, in fact, shorten it.
Bowers and Robert Quinn are at the top of a position that lately has been as reliable as the Dallas Cowboys in December. And the roll call, please. Gaines Adams was the first defensive end off the board in the 2007 draft, and he was such a disappointment Tampa Bay traded him to Chicago, where he fizzled before his unexpected death in 2010.
Jamaal Anderson was the second defensive end taken that year, and Atlanta has gotten so little out of the guy it's looking for a replacement in this year's draft. The same goes for Jarvis Moss, whom Denver made the third defensive end taken in 2007, then released last season.
Fast forward to 2008, and it's more of the same. Vernon Gholston. Derrick Harvey. Lawrence Jackson. I think you get the idea.
"The problem there is like it is with quarterbacks," said Vinny Cerrato, former executive vice president of football operations for Washington. "They get over drafted. Players get elevated because people see pass-rush ability, but then there's the question: Are they 4-3 defensive ends or 3-4 linebackers? Conversion guys? Linebackers or ends?"
I'll tell you what they're not: Reliable draft picks.
Compare the first-round results the past four years at defensive end with, say, those at defensive tackle, and you'll see what I mean. Inside, there is success almost everywhere -- including guys like B.J. Raji, Sedrick Ellis, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy. Even Kentwan Balmer, a bust in San Francisco, found a starting spot in Seattle -- albeit as a defensive end -- and Tyson Alualu, considered a reach last year when Jacksonville made him the 10th pick, started all 16 games as a rookie.
In the past four years there's only been one clunker at defensive tackle, and that's Green Bay's injury prone Justin Harrell.
Now let's move to the offensive line where the success for tackles has been better there that it is on defense ... or anywhere. There have been 18 offensive tackles in the first rounds of the last four drafts, and all of them stuck. OK, OK, so Cincinnati's Andre Smith has been hobbled by foot injuries the past two seasons. But he's a starter who -- when he plays -- has been decent. The only question is: When will he play?
But Smith is the lone hiccup on the board. Cleveland's Joe Thomas is a four-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro. Denver's Ryan Clady is an All-Pro, too, and you make the call: Either he or Thomas is considered the best left tackle in the game, while Miami's Jake Long, the first pick of the 2008 draft, is right behind.
A year ago, Washington used its first pick -- the fourth overall -- on left tackle Trent Williams, and he worked out so well that coach Mike Shanahan now calls him "probably the most talented offensive lineman I've ever been around." Keep in mind that this is the guy who drafted Clady.
Better yet, keep this in mind: The path to bad drafts is paved with good intentions and bad defensive ends. First-round choices should be difference makers, and make no mistake: Houston's Mario Williams -- the top pick in 2006 -- and Kansas City's Tamba Hali are, and they're defensive ends. They were also chosen in the first round of the 2006 draft.
Since then, the first round hasn't been kind to defensive ends, and maybe Cerrato is right; maybe clubs are over drafting at the position. All I know is that if I'm looking for a safe choice, defensive end isn't it. Not in the first round it isn't.