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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Marvin Austin, North Carolina
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
Jurrell Casey, Southern California
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
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
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
BEST OF THE REST
Christian Ballard, Iowa
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
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
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
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
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
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