KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Jalen Carter is not much of a talker, but the statement he made last November still echoes all the way from Georgia's Sanford Stadium to Kansas City this week of the NFL Draft. In a showdown against Tennessee, the Dawgs' All-American defensive lineman swung his massive left arm violently enough while rushing the passer to dislodge the ball from Hendon Hooker's throwing hand.
The Tennessee quarterback's fumble in the end zone somehow avoided resulting in a safety. The ball was spotted just outside the Volunteers' end zone. Still, the play set up Georgia for a short-field touchdown that broke open what was eventually a 27-13 victory.
In a flash, Carter had changed the game, his season and maybe his career.
The NFL Draft comes to Kansas City this week itself a changed event. Not so much in the hoopla and hype -- hey, no one ever gets tired of a Mötley Crüe concert -- but in structure.
Carter is the highest-rated defensive lineman in the draft, a possible top-five pick. Pro Football Focus has him as its highest-rated Power Five defender, the best player on the sport's best defense two years in a row. Never mind that Carter made only nine starts in 2022 because of injuries. That sort of designation comes with Pro Bowl projections and expectations of immediate defensive impact.
"I don't know if there is a position I value more than the inside guys on the D-line," Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said. "They give you so much flexibility. Their ability to not only take on blocks but to get off blocks and make tackles [make a difference]."
Carter is not an outlier as a projected high draft pick. Since 2019, 10 interior defensive linemen have been selected among the draft's top 28 picks -- six alone in 2019. That was more than the number of quarterbacks (five) taken in the first three rounds that year.
While the 10 D-linemen selected is not the most among any position across those four years, it is more than all of the running backs, centers and tight ends -- combined.
The position hasn't changed as much as the humans playing it. They've become more valuable because they can simply do more. They're more nimble and more athletic.
Remember, Alabama's Terrence "Mount" Cody? He played on Nick Saban's first national championship team in 2009.
"He could wreck a game," said Ted Lambrinides, a sports science consultant who has worked with the NFL and MLB. "The problem was he couldn't stay on the field."
Not for long enough, at least. Weighing in an oxygen-sucking 345 pounds, Cody's NFL career lasted five years.
Strategically, the inside defensive lineman of today -- those who can occupy two blockers and collapse a pocket -- are considered invaluable. Think of a lither athlete like the 6-foot-4, 313-pound Ndamukong Suh who came out the same year as Cody but lasted NFL 13 seasons.
"You don't win championships getting gashed up the middle," said Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith, a top 50 draft prospect per CBS Sports. "If the middle is weak, it's hard to defend. I'm not saying you rely on one person to stuff the middle, but if you get runs going downhill over and over again, you get those guys in the secondary getting hurt."
From there, a numbers game is set into motion. A dominant interior lineman makes it more likely for an edge rusher to get home. That also relieves pressure on a defensive coordinator who doesn't have to commit an extra body to the box to stop the run.
"We have a saying, 'Two on me, one is free,'" Carter explained. "If I have two guys on me, there's another D-lineman or a linebacker who can come in and make a play."
Still to be determined is whether Carter's legal situation impacts his draft position. He pleaded guilty to reckless driving and racing in March. Police alleged Carter was in an SUV racing a vehicle containing Georgia player Devin Willock and a recruiting staff member. Willock and the staffer died in an accident that night.
The Rams' Aaron Donald is the paradigm for this trend of athletic, impactful defensive linemen. The nine-year veteran is making $28.5 million a year as arguably the top defensive player in the NFL. Still, he has competition. Houston's Ed Oliver has become an established star with the Bills. The same for Chris Jones of the Chiefs. Slowed by injuries as a rookie, Georgia's Jordan Davis still made an NFL.com All-Defensive rookie team.
"What Jordan Davis did for Georgia two years ago, he changed the game. He wrecked the game plan," Lambrinides said.
In 2021, Davis won the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) and Bednarik Award (best defensive player) at 6-foot-6, 340 pounds. He statistics were predictably modest: 32 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks.
"They can make one or two plays a game," said TCU center Steve Avila. "I feel that's what a lot of people look at, when in reality, there have been times when Aaron Donald has been blocked. I give praise to the offensive line. It's not easy at all what we do. It's not easy at all winning a one-on-one."
The physical characteristics of the position have changed so much that impact interior defensive linemen tend to be paid a lot for doing relatively little (statistically speaking). They are no longer 300-pound slugs big enough to take on two blockers. A good day for Carter can include a forced fumble, a pass break up and a few tackles.
They have to be sprightly chess pieces able to rule the A and B gaps. The A gap is the space either side of the center. The outside space of each guard is the B gap.
"If you have good interior defensive linemen, more so than edge rushers, you're going to win in football," Nebraska coach Matt Rhule said. "You can play any defense you want. It's not about sacks. It's about the quarterback having to throw off [schedule] because there is someone at their feet."
"All quarterbacks are affected by what we call the 'pressure-in-the-pain area' right in front of the quarterback," Rhule continued. "We talk about speed rushers and power rushers, but a good quarterback can just step up.
"It's about the ability to have guys on the inside who can win one-on-one or push the pocket."
Five defensive tackles have won the Outland since 2009. They are close to being household names in the NFL. Suh (Nebraska, 2009), Donald (Pittsburgh, 2013), Oliver (Houston, 2017), Quinnen Williams (Alabama, 2018) and Davis all were drafted in the first round. They will make more than $50 million combined next season, not counting Suh, who is a free agent.
"They set the point for the defense. … If you find big, athletic guys who can move like that but also are strong enough, you can't knock them off the ball, it's a unique combination," said Will Rogers, the high school defensive coordinator for Alabama star EDGE rusher Will Anderson Jr.
Anderson is expected to be a top-10 pick this week. He will leave a legacy as one of Alabama's best defenders ... ever. Rogers played him inside briefly in high school.
"They're hard to find in the NFL. They're hard to find in recruiting," Alabama defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said of interior linemen. "High school coaches -- I have tons of friends there -- they're hard to find there."
The best stay home. It's no secret the Southeastern portion of the United States produces defensive tackles like Brazil produces soccer strikers or Bulgaria produces weightlifters. Ten of the last 14 defensive tackles taken among the top 47 picks since 2019 have been from either SEC schools or Clemson. Four of the top eight schools in total defensive tackles drafted are SEC programs: (1) Alabama with 33 all-time, (2) LSU with 30, (T4) Florida with 27 and (8) Texas A&M with 24.
"There's more [quality interior linemen], but it's hard to find people who can play 50-60-70 plays in a game," Steele said. "With 300 pounds on their right ear and 300 pounds on their left ear, that's 600 pounds every play."
Physiology indeed tells you these giants can't play every down. It has become a fine art for coaches figuring out rotations to keep their linemen fresh. The best teams are able to have eight or so quality lineman ready to go.
"The most exerting thing you do as a football player is rush the passer," Georgia co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said. "When big guys, in my experience, run out of gas, they're done. There's nothing left."
That's why Muschamp limits his linemen to no more than six consecutive snaps. The question has to be asked, though: As his best lineman reaches draft day, what exactly is Carter's limit?
"Until Jalen gets tired," Muschamp said.