Compare and contrast: The defensive tackles

Auburn's Nick Fairley(AP /Dave Martin, File)

NFL Scouting's Michael DiJulio assesses the top defensive tackles in the draft, listing their strengths and weaknesses. Who has the size, who has the speed and who has the intangibles?

The only position that can rival the strength of the defensive ends group just so happens to be the guys lining up right next to them. Never has there been more than five defensive tackles selected in the first round of the draft, but this year's class is so talented it could set the standard. The league is nearly divided down the middle between teams running the 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. Different players fit different alignments like pieces to a puzzle, but the 2011 crop has enough depth to fill spots in any scheme.

Two elite players sit head and shoulders above the rest of the class, and they know each other very well from opposite sides of the Iron Bowl. Alabama's Marcell Dareus and Auburn's Nick Fairley ruled the trenches of the SEC and emerged as two of the nation's most dominant defenders. Dareus has all but assured himself a top-three selection and is versatile enough to fit into any scheme. Fairley on the other hand is the prototype three-technique defensive tackle (4-3) – a disruptive interior player that can penetrate and wreak havoc in the backfield. Although he's seen his stock suffer due to questions about his work ethic, he's may be too talented to slip out of the top 10 picks.

Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson and Illinois' Corey Liuget are two fast-rising prospects and may find themselves chosen as high as the middle of the first round. While the two aren't familiar with each other on the battlefield, they offer contrasting styles similar to Dareus and Fairley. Wilkerson likens to Dareus, as he fits into either defense. He's talented enough to play defensive end in a 3-4 scheme and defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment. In fact, he's played both spots during his college career. Liuget meanwhile is a "shoot the gap" defensive tackle who will excel at getting up field in a four-man front, similar to Fairley.

The class contains two more fringe first-round prospect that could be selected late on day one if the right team values their skill sets. North Carolina's Marvin Austin is another gap-penetrating three-technique with outstanding athleticism for his size. Although he owns first-round talent, he was one of many Tar Heels defenders suspended for the entire 2010 season. Baylor's Phil Taylor is a truly massive prospect that moves quite well for his size. He's the perfect fit at nose tackle and teams running the 3-4 will covet his skill set.

POSITION REPORT CARD: Aside from the six potential first-round players, there are plenty of other quality interior defensive linemen available. They may not all be the most well-rounded, but teams running either defense can certainly find players to contribute in specific roles. This group is loaded in talent – both in elite prospects and later round depth – and receives an A grade.

Marcell Dareus, Alabama
6:03.1-319-4.95


Good News: Exceptional quickness off the snap to gain penetration…Excellent strength at the point of attack…Possesses a wide base and can anchor against the run…Plays with good leverage…Strong initial punch to rock defenders back on their heels…Can bull rush defenders into the backfield…Sheds blocks with strong hands and keeps them working…Does a good job of keeping his head up and eyes in the backfield to locate the football.

Bad News: Lacks the speed and burst to offer much of a pass rush off the edge (if he remains at the five-technique)…Suspended for the first two games of the 2010 season…Fairly average production.

2010 Statistics: First-team All-SEC and third-team AP All-American…Registered 33 total tackles with 11 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks…Added 10 quarterback hurries and four pass deflections.

Prediction: One look at the bad news for Dareus, and you can tell it's hard to find a lot of flaws in this guy's game. He's strong, quick and uses his hands extremely well. Dareus played end in the Tide's 3-4 defense, but his best pro position is along the interior of a 4-3 scheme. At this point, he appears to be a virtual lock as a top-five pick.

Nick Fairley, Auburn
6:03.7-291-4.89


Good News: Extremely disruptive…Elite quickness off the snap to penetrate…Explodes off the ball and is simply too fast for guards at times…Keeps hands active…Owns an array of pass-rush moves, including a terrific swim…Punishing tackler with good short-area burst…Displays a strong initial punch to rock defenders on their heels…Possesses exceptional natural strength and can bull rush through blockers…Good overall awareness and effort…Sniffs out screens and works hard to get to the play…Elite production.

Bad News: Character concerns regarding work ethic and effort…Owns a "soft" frame…Can play too high at times…Not really a plugger against the run, but is still very effective as he gets penetration and often forces the play out wide.

2010 Statistics: Consensus All-American and winner of the Rotary Lombardi Award…Registered 60 total tackles with 24 tackles-for-loss and 11.5 sacks…Added 21 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception.

Prediction: Last season, Fairley emerged as one of the most dominant and feared defensive players in the country. He's extremely disruptive from the interior and has the ability to be an elite player as a three-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme. His only question is off-field related, as many question his work ethic. Fairley transferred from a junior college in 2008 and failed to make much of an impact in 2009. His "soft" build at the combine also raised some red flags. Fairley is a top-five pick based on talent alone, but his character concerns will likely keep him from being drafted that high. Still, the Auburn standout won't have to wait much longer to hear his name called.

Corey Liuget, Illinois
6:02.1-298-5.00


Good News: Good strength and anchors well due to squatty build and low center of gravity…Strong initial punch to get a nice push on blockers and keeps his hands actively working…Sheds blocks well…Good quickness off the snap…Consistently gains penetration to pressure the quarterback or force the run outside.

Bad News: Quickness off the ball is good, but not elite…Can wear down towards the end of games and needs to be sure stamina is in check.

2010 Statistics: All-Big Ten Conference second-team selection…Registered 63 total tackles with 12.5 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks…Added 10 quarterback hurries and three pass deflections.

Prediction: Liuget is a perfect fit as a "shoot-the-gap" three-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense. Some also think he has enough talent to play in the 3-4 defense, but I believe he will do the most damage in a four-man front. He can penetrate with quickness and also possesses the strength to hold up against the run. Liuget is one of the fast-rising prospects and should be chosen within the second half of the first round.

Muhammad Wilkerson, Temple
6:04.1-315-5.05


Good News: Prototypical height, build and length…Good strength at the point of attack and anchors well…Does an excellent job of working down the line and shows fantastic range against the run…Stacks and sheds with strong hands and length…Strong initial explosion and fires into blockers with leverage…Possesses quick hands and keeps them active…Uses a strong swipe to take advantage of reach blocks…Good awareness to locate the football.

Bad News: Lacks elite quickness off the snap…Doesn't have the burst or speed to turn the corner as a five-technique…Can get stood up by stronger blockers on occasion…Flashes the ability to split double teams but can also be driven back.

2010 Statistics: All-Mid-American Conference first-team selection…Registered 70 total tackles with 13 tackles-for-loss and 9.5 sacks…Added three pass deflections, two forced fumbles and two quarterback hurries.

Prediction: Wilkerson is a versatile player that can fit in either defensive scheme. He can play the five-technique defensive end for teams employing a 3-4 defense and also fits as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment. Wilkerson won't escape the late first round, but don't be surprised if he goes higher than expected and gets snatched up in the teens.

Stephen Paea, Oregon State
6:01.2-303


Good News: Elite strength and power…Anchors at the point of attack with a thick, squatty build…Possesses great strength and plays with terrific natural leverage…Rocks defenders on their heels with a powerful initial punch…Can drive blockers into the backfield with bull rush…Underrated quickness and burst off the snap.

Bad News: Plays like a nose tackle but doesn't have the size to play in a 3-4…Lacks great pass-rushing skills and relies on raw power…Needs to use hands better to disengage…Shorter player and can struggle to locate the football…Short arms and can have a hard time wrapping up ball carriers in the backfield…Doesn't have the lateral agility to tackle in space.

2010 Statistics: Winner of the Morris Trophy as the Pac-10's top defensive lineman…Registered 45 total tackles with 10 tackles-for-loss and six sacks…Added four forced fumbles, two pass deflections and a quarterback hurry.

Prediction: Paea blew everyone away at the combine when he set a record by bench pressing 225 pounds an astonishing 49 times. The good news is that unlike previous workout warriors, Paea's strength translates to the field. The former Oregon State standout is an absolutel bull with incredible natural strength. He lacks the size of a 3-4 nose tackle but could be an excellent run plugger inside a 4-3 alignment. He shouldn't last past the second round.

Phil Taylor, Baylor
6:03.2-334-5.21


Good News: Outstanding size with exceptional upper-body strength…Effective run defender…Extremely powerful hands and can control blockers…Packs a jolting initial punch that knocks blockers back…Generally has good hand usage…Strong anchor to take on double teams and clog the middle…Sucks up blocks along the interior…Exceptionally powerful bull rush and can drive linemen into the backfield...Good quickness for his massive size…Flashes the ability to spin off blocks and into the lane to make stops.

Bad News: Can play a little high at times and needs to keep his pad level down…Can get turned out of the hole if he plays too high and can be moved when blockers get on his side...Lacks the ability to stop and make tackles in space once he gets moving…Can wear down and doesn't have great stamina…Transferred from Penn State due to off-field issues.

2010 Statistics: All-Big 12 Conference second-team selection…Registered 62 tackles with seven tackles-for-loss and two sacks…Added three quarterback hurries, two pass deflections and a forced fumble.

Prediction: Taylor is a huge prospect with outstanding strength and run-stuffing ability. He also moves pretty well for a guy with his kind of size and is ideal as a nose guard. Teams employing the 3-4 alignment will covet his skill set, which could lead to him getting selected late on day one. If not, he won't last past the second round.

Marvin Austin, North Carolina
6:01.5-309-4.85/

Good News: Good burst off the ball…Uses hands very well to shed blocks and get up field…Possesses exceptional quickness and speed and is amazingly nimble on his feet…Displays the ability to spin off blocks to make tackles up field…Good effort and gives chase even when play is going outside…Plays with a real mean streak…Explosive tackler.

Bad News: Plays too high and needs to lower his pad level…Lacks a great anchor and can be stood up and moved off the ball…Can be blown off the ball by a good double-team on occasion…Decent strength but far from elite…Character concerns – suspended for the 2010 season.

2010 Statistics: Suspended

Prediction: Austin has first-round talent and there's an outside shot he sneaks into day one despite being suspended for the entire 2010 season. It's more likely that he'll be selected in the second round, but strong performances in the pre-draft process have his stock on the rise. Austin has rare athletic ability for his size and will be a great fit as a three-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme.

Jurrell Casey, Southern California
6:00.5-300-5.15


Good News: Good burst off the ball…Possesses a strong enough punch and quick hands to disengage…Displays nice pass-rushing moves, most often an effective swim, and can counter once initial rush is stopped…Plays with natural leverage and can bull rush…Excellent athletic ability for his size – solid speed and lateral agility…Good short-area burst to finish plays…Good range against the run and can get to the outside.

Bad News: Holds a lot of weight in his midsection…Often looks to get up field and fails to maintain gap discipline in the process…Lacks an elite anchor and can be moved off the ball by double teams…Owns good strength but plays more with finesse (for lack of a better term).

2010 Statistics: All-Pac-10 Conference first-team selection…Registered 67 total tackles with 11 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks…Added two pass deflections, an interception and a fumble recovery.

Prediction: Casey is very similar to former UCLA standout Brian Price, as both possess a thick, squatty frame but rely more on quickness to get up field. Casey doesn't have the same kind of get-off as Price, but he moves very well for his size and has quick hands. I believe he can play either defensive tackle spot inside a 4-3 scheme and expect him to come off the board at some point during the second day.

BEST OF THE REST

Christian Ballard, Iowa
6:03.6-283-4.76

Notes: Great size and athleticism, but is a bit of a ‘tweener who fits as a 3-4 defensive end or 4-3 defensive tackle.
Prediction: 2nd-3rd round

Drake Nevis, Louisiana State
6:00.5-294-5.06

Notes: Disruptive "shoot-the-gap" player that's an ideal fit as a three-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment.
Prediction: 3rd round

Kenrick Ellis, Hampton
6:04.7-346-5.27

Notes: South Carolina transfer with numerous character concerns, but possesses outstanding talent and could be a steal at nose tackle for a 3-4 team.
Prediction: 3rd round

Jerrell Powe, Mississippi
6:01.6-335

Notes: Stout, run-clogging 3-4 nose tackle prospect with a massive frame, but play is inconsistent and runs out of steam during games.
Prediction: 3rd-4th round

Terrell McClain, South Florida
6:01.5-297-5.06

Notes: Extremely quick with active hands and a high motor and could potentially fit as a tackle in a 4-3 or end in a 3-4.
Prediction: 4th round

Ian Williams, Notre Dame
6:01.2-319

Notes: One-dimensional run stuffer who fits as a two-gap defensive tackle in a 4-3 and may be able to play the nose in a 3-4.
Prediction: 4th-5th round

Nick Fairley

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