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Careful consideration when drafting DT

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Listening to GMs, scouts and couch potato pundits during this time of year, you hear the same axiom over and over again when it comes to building an NFL roster: You build from the inside out. In other words, get your big boys in order first, establish your defensive and offensive lines, and the rest will fall into place.

You can’t get much more inside than the defensive tackle position. Coming off the rookie campaign Ndamukong Suh had in Detroit last year — Suh was the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year and a first-team All-Pro in his first season — it’s easy to assume that the axiom holds true. Taking a quarterback in the top five — hello Alex Smith, Tim Couch, David Carr and JaMarcus Russell — might be considered a risk, based on recent history. But defensive tackle? Well, that’s the "safe" move. Those space eaters in the middle always deliver.

But do they?

As Marcell Dareus and Nick Fairley — the top defensive tackles in this year’s draft — are widely considered the “safe” options for Carolina, Denver, Buffalo, Cincinnati and Arizona in this April's draft, I’d like to pour some water on the myth of the defensive tackle. Guess what? Rationally speaking, there have been far more top-five draft busts at defensive tackle than there have been at the offensive skill positions over the past 20 years.

Let’s take a look at all the defensive tackles drafted in the top five since 1992:

1992: Steve Emtman, No. 1 overall, Indianapolis Colts
1994: Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson, No. 1 overall, Cincinnati Bengals
1997: Darrell Russell, No. 2 overall, Oakland Raiders
1999: Gerard Warren, No. 3 overall, Cleveland Browns
2003: DeWayne Robertson, No. 4 overall, New York Jets
2008: Glenn Dorsey, No. 5 overall, Kansas City Chiefs
2010: Ndamukong Suh, No. 2 overall, Detroit Lions; Gerald McCoy, No. 3 overall, Tampa Bay Bucaneers

Of those eight top-five picks, only Russell and Suh were selected to Pro Bowls in their NFL careers. And though the jury is obviously still out on McCoy (he showed promise before getting injured and missing much of the second half of the season), it’s rather safe to label Emtman, Wilkinson, Warren, Robertson and even Dorsey (though he improved a bit in 2010) colossal draft busts.

In that same time period (1992-2010), there were a combined 46 quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers taken with top-five picks. Twenty-four of those 46 top-five selections — just over 50 percent — went on to make at least one Pro Bowl during their NFL careers.

So, why the spotty track record for top-five defensive tackles?

Because it’s one thing for Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson to dominate under-sized interior linemen in the Big Ten during the early '90s. It was an entirely different thing for him to manhandle NFL-caliber centers and guards on a weekly basis. A college defensive tackle can jump out on film by over-powering his opponent. No defensive tackle — not Suh, not Warren Sapp, not Gilbert Brown, not Kevin Williams — has ever dominated in the NFL by just using brute strength.

Front offices have to determine whether the dominant college defensive tackle controlled the line of scrimmage because of skill and technique, or if he overwhelmed his opponents simply because he was a man playing amongst boys. Because rest assured, there are no “boys” starting on any NFL offensive lines.

And then there’s the work ethic, the high frequency of injuries and eating habits to consider. Defensive tackles are not wide receivers or cornerbacks. A defensive tackle — no matter how good he might be — is always a few meals away from eating himself out of the league. Defensive tackles are also far more likely to get injured engaging at the line of scrimmage with a guard or tackle on each play than a wideout or cornerback. You also must consider whether your big fella is going to stay committed to a diet that keeps him at playing weight, both during the season and in the spring and summer months. There's nothing worse than handing $30 million guaranteed to a young man who can't guarantee he'll lay off the Twinkies and the Buffalo wings.

Though Dareus has avoided any such "dedication" concerns, there are several questions surrounding Fairley right now. Sure, he had a dominant 2010 campaign ... no one doubts that, but he was non-existent in 2009. Why was he invisible on the field? Why wasn’t he motivated to play every down? Those are the questions he’ll be answering in the coming weeks. And those are the questions NFL coaches and GMs must go to sleep with at night when considering him top-five money next month.

As former Raiders and Browns general manager Michael Lombardi told me earlier this week, “The most critical aspect of a drafting defensive tackle in the top five is making sure they can dominate on not only first and second down, but also on third down and non-passing downs.”

Can Fairley and Dareus do that? Are they sure things?

You’d like to think so. If not, the “safer” bet may be going elsewhere on the board.

Sure, building from the inside out sounds great in theory. But the numbers? They don’t quite add up. And finding that defensive tackle to build your defense around isn't as easy as it sounds.

REMEMBER WHEN: FORGETTABLE MOMENTS IN NFL DRAFT HISTORY:

It’s a clip someone digs up every year—Mel Kiper, Jr. at the 1994 NFL Draft, trashing the Indianapolis Colts’ decision to select Trev Alberts over Trent Dilfer.

Though that one’s always good for a chuckle and is a fixture for the “Kiper’s Greatest Hits” highlight reel, then-Colts GM Bill Tobin’s bizarre formal response to Kiper the next day — something I'd never seen before now — is far more amazing. Tobin’s amazing reaction has been lost in time and all but forgotten … until now. Thanks to the glorious wonder that is YouTube and some guy with the handle “JordiScrubbings”, I’ve come across this amazing piece of five-minute footage.

First, let me properly set the stage for the clip. This was 1994, when the media’s coverage of the draft wasn’t quite what it was now. There was no Internet, no 24/7 sports news coverage, no NFL Network and no draft pundits crowding the marketplace. Todd McShay was a high school kid likely spending weekends at the mall in suburban Massachusetts. 17 years ago, it was Kiper and Kiper alone. He was the only show in town.

At the same time, the NFL was very different, too. Old school guys will cringe at this assessment, but the league was a glorified “Ol’ Boys Club” back then. Everyone was a lifer. There were no GMs under the age of 40, no Ivy League guys running statistical analysis on each prospect’s third down value, and there certainly was no respect for what was said by some big-haired draft guru from Baltimore.

Trent Dilfer, a quarterback Kiper rated very highly on his board, slipped to No. 5 that year, but instead the Colts drafted Nebraska linebacker Trev Alberts. Kiper reacted by insisting that the Colts had made a mistake. Tobin responded, immediately that day, with this zinger:

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“Who in the hell is Mel Kiper, anyway? I mean, here's a guy who criticizes everybody, whoever they take. In my knowledge of him, he's never even put on a jockstrap, he's never been a player, he's never been a coach, he's never been a scout, he's never been an administrator, and all of a sudden, he's an expert. Mel Kiper has no more credentials to do what he's doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor's a postman and he doesn't even have season tickets to the NFL."

I mean, wow.

Only, Tobin wasn’t done.

The next morning, at the Colts’ facilities in Indy, Tobin OPENED his press conference by addressing Kiper. Again, watch the clip. Some choice excerpts from Tobin’s press conference:

--“Mel Kiper lives in Baltimore. He tried to hang around the practices around there. He always wanted to work in the NFL, but he has no credentials in the NFL. He always just hung around. Nobody ever hired him. He’s never been hired by anyone. When the Colts moved here, he was very very upset. So every chance that Mel Kiper gets to shoot at the Colts and Indianapolis, he’s going to do it. I happen to have three minutes to take a shot back at him.”

--“There’s others he’s hurt. Listen to him trash people. This guy can’t do this, this guy’s dumb. This guy’s dumb. Unfortunately, some of the college coaches out there think that Mel Kiper is part of the National Football League inner circle. And he isn’t!”

--“We will win, regardless of what Mel Kiper says.”

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Then, there’s Buddy Ryan, who just slays it, here. The Cardinals’ GM at the time, Ryan drafted Jamir Miller out of UCLA in ‘94 — Kiper loved the pick. When asked whom he sided with (Tobin or Kiper) Rex Ryan’s dad responde, “Well, I’ve got to go with Kiper. His track record is better than Tobin.” Awesome.

The kicker? A mustachioed Keith Olbermann, hosting “Sports Center” alongside Dan Patrick, ending the segment with, “There’s nobody who could do more damage to the Colts than Bill Tobin just did in those two minutes, no matter what Mel says. Goodness. Get a life, sir.”

Jeesh.

Amazing stuff all around.

A Guy You've Never Heard of That You Should Probably Get To Know

Week 1’s Subject: Greg Salas, WR, Hawaii:

Week 2’s Subject: Blaine Sumner, DT, Colorado School of Mines:

Week 3’s Subject: Isa Abdul-Quddus, Safety, Fordham:

Not quite a household name on the college football scene during his time playing for the Fordham Rams in the Bronx, Isa Abdul-Quddus is quietly, but quickly, rising up draft boards across the league. A Union, New Jersey native, the Fordham defensive back opened eyes at his Pro Day earlier this month, showing off a 35-5 vertical and a broad jump distance of 10-5. He then ran a 4.4 40-yard-dash. At 6-0, 200 pounds, Abdul-Quddus has the size, speed and athletic ability to play safety at the next level.

He’s also whip smart. He’ll graduate Fordham this spring with a degree in business administration. Abdul-Quddus tied for the Patriot League lead in forced fumbles per game and was eleventh in the conference in tackles per game, with 7.1, this season. Just a two-year starter, he managed to accumulate 193 career tackles and set a school record for interceptions in a game with three against Cornell in 2009.

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This is a particularly weak draft year for the safety position. The highest rated prospect — UCLA’s Rahim Moore — may not even be selected in the first round. The lack of depth at the position opens the door for guys that otherwise might not get a look. Insert Abdul-Quddus, a converted corner looking to play strong safety at the next level.

The more you watch Abdul-Quddus on film, the more you realize he’s still a work in progress. A running back in high school, he hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface as to what he can do in the defensive backfield.

Another draft year, I’d slate him as a project and consider him worthy of an invite to a training camp as an undrafted rookie free agent. This year? With the safeties available? I can see him going in the sixth or seventh round.

And if this NFL stuff doesn’t work out? I’m sure plenty of investment banks in Manhattan would be more than happy to have a business administration major from Fordham working on their trading desk.

Schrager Draft Projection: Seventh Round

“On the Clock” Trivia Question of the Week

Four of the first five selections in the 1989 NFL Draft went on to have Hall of Fame NFL careers. Can you name those four players — and for an extra bonus — the fifth player, the second overall pick of the 1989 NFL Draft, who was drafted by the Green Bay Packers and did not have a Hall of Fame career?

Answer below.

Reader e-mail of the week:

Peter,

I’m tired of hearing reporters and bloggers salivate over Pro Days this year. I feel like there's more analysis on Pro Days this year than ever before. You said it yourself a few weeks ago—they’re only a small piece of the NFL Draft pie. So, why the fascination? I still remember Kyle Boller’s Pro Day and the hubbub that caused. Ooooooooh, he could throw a football from his knees. But could he walk and chew gum at the time? No! WE KNOW HOW BOLLER'S CAREER TURNED OUT. Enough with the Pro Day chatter, please.

Eli
Ellicott City, Maryland

Eli,

Solid use of the word “hubbub”, my man. That’s a word that’s just not used enough. As for Pro Days, you’re absolutely right, and you’ve revealed the dirtiest little secret of the NFL Draft: Pro Days play a very small part in the NFL Draft process. Actual game film, player visits, campus visits, one-on-one interviews, and the way a guy carries himself off the field when in the company of a team’s front office personnel plays far more of a role in a player’s eventual draft slot than how he performs for an hour on his Pro Day.

That said, Pro Days are the only actual glimpse of real life football that we have right now. And as fans of actual football — not legal debates, courtroom drama, and the union-league daily slap fights over Twitter — you take what you can get. If there’s no free agency to follow in March, Pro Days become the main attraction. You savor whatever bites you can get your hands on when you’re starving. And Pro Days — even if they're just a bunch of guys working out on their own college campuses in front of a bunch of half-interested scouts — provide us with some rare nibbles of actual football action this offseason.

As for Kyle Boller’s Pro Day? Well, it was incredible. But not nearly as incredible as Vernon Gholston’s and JaMarcus Russell’s. Those, Eli, were truly awesome.

“On the Clock” Trivia Answer of the Week

1989 NFL Draft:
No. 1 overall-Dallas Cowboys: Troy Aikman, QB, UCLA
No. 3 overall-Detroit Lions: Barry Sanders, RB, Oklahoma State
No. 4 overall-Kansas City Chiefs: Derrick Thomas, LB, Alabama
No. 5 overall-Atlanta Falcons: Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State

Bonus:
No. 2 overall-Green Bay Packers: Tony Mandarich, OT, MSU

Tagged: Browns, Lions, Chiefs, Raiders, 49ers, Kyle Boller, JaMarcus Russell, Ndamukong Suh

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