Quarterback has been the most talked about position of the 2011 NFL draft, with Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert both expected to go in the top 10 and Ryan Mallett, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton projected to go late in the first round or early in the second.
But the position with the most depth this year is filled with players who will make their money getting after the quarterback: defensive ends.
With NFL offenses increasingly reliant on passing attacks that flood secondaries with wide receivers and tight ends who command the attention of defensive backs and linebackers, the need for dominant pass rushers is at an all-time high.
In 2003, a record 11 defensive linemen (six tackles, five ends) had their names called in the first round of the draft. This year, as many as 13 defensive linemen could be taken in the opening round.
“There is a premium on pass rush,” says former NFL coach Jon Gruden. “You don’t want to have to blitz five, six, seven guys to get there. You want to be able to get there with four, if you can for sure, and use seven men in coverage.”
Texas A&M’s Von Miller is regarded as the premier pass rusher in the draft. He split time last year between defensive end and linebacker and was dominant at both positions, winning the Butkus Award, which goes to the top college linebacker, as a senior. He was named a semifinalist for both the Hendricks Award (top defensive end) and Butkus Award as a junior.
Traditional ends J.J. Watt of Wisconsin, North Carolina’s Robert Quinn and Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers all could go in the top 15. And Cal’s Cameron Jordan, Missouri’s Aldon Smith, Temple’s Muhammad Wilkerson, Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn, Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward and Arizona’s Brooks Reed are some of the others expected to follow.
“Being in any draft, there’s a plethora of talent. This one is more focused on the D-line,” Jordan said. “Luckily, I think I’m one of the guys who is pretty good.”
Said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay: “I don’t think there is a position with more quality depth. Different teams will rank the defensive ends slightly different depending on if they’re looking for a traditional right end in a 4-3, a pass rusher, or a power end who can play that left defensive end position, or a defensive end/outside linebacker tweener type to play a 3-4 outside linebacker spot. I’d be surprised if we don’t set the record for most defensive linemen taken in the first round.”
Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said this year’s draft features “more players at the defensive line position than I’ve seen in a long time.”
But while there is plenty of talent for teams to pick from, the challenge is projecting which player best fits a particular system.
At 237 pounds, Miller is too small to play defensive end in the NFL and is expected to be used at outside linebacker. Quinn played end in college but is believed to have the ability to play end in a 4-3 defense or linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
Watt is more powerful than he is fast, so his skills are better suited for the role of an end in the 3-4 defense, where the front three are asked to move laterally and open gaps for linebackers. And some players such as Jordan or Smith have good speed but may lack the versatility to switch to linebacker.
“It all has to do with speed, pass-rush ability and the ability to drop into coverage as well,” Shanahan said.
The possibility of being selected by one of the 14 NFL teams that runs the 3-4 and required to learn a new position doesn’t faze most of the prospects in this year’s draft. When asked at the NFL Combine about their preferences, most said they would be willing to play at any spot.
Kerrigan said he had begun working to grow more accustomed to rushing out of a two-point stance so he would be attractive to teams that use either scheme.
“Most of the time in a 4-3, you’re going forward, which is what I’ve done all my college career,” Kerrigan said in New York on the eve of the draft. “Put your hand in the dirt and go forward. Whereas as a 3-4 outside linebacker, you’re going backwards, you’re dropping in coverage, occasionally you’re rushing the passer, occasionally you’re doing all sorts of different things. . . . If I get that opportunity to play 3-4 linebacker, I’ll embrace it and do the best I can at it.”
Said Quinn, “If they want me at free safety, I’m going to go play it for you. I really think I can.”