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17 Feb 2011

Cover-2: DTs of the 2011 Draft, Part 1

by Doug Farrar

The defensive line is the real strength of the 2011 draft class. Based on player performance and team needs, it's possible that up to 10 defensive linemen could be taken in the first round, with seven (in my estimation) as near-certainties. We never know who's going to get injured, arrested, or refuse to work out for whatever reason, but based on game tape alone, this is the year for NFL teams in need of defensive line help.

Because of all the star power among the ends and tackles, I'm doing two Cover-2 pieces on each position. I'll start with two tackles who may be on the fringe of the first round at this time, but who could see decent upswings based on Combine and Pro Day workouts. As usual, more expert analysis than mine is provided by NFLDraftScout.com Senior Editor Rob Rang.

Oregon State Defensive Tackle Stephen Paea

Stephen Paea took an unusual route to become the linchpin of an Oregon State defense that ranked 34th in Defensive S&P+ (29th in run defense). Born in New Zealand and raised in Tonga, the former star rugby player didn't learn English until he came to America at age 16. Once he fell in love with football and learned the game at Snow Junior College after just one year of high school play, Paea chose Oregon State in 2008 because the Polynesian culture on campus made him feel right at home.

Paea made an immediate impression with the Beavers, amassing 41 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2008. By 2010, he had put his game in motion to the point that his collegiate career ended with a Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year award. This was after his Morris Trophy award in 2009 (he won another in 2010) -- that's the award for the conference's top defensive lineman, as voted by the conference's offensive linemen. And who better to know? Paea finished his Oregon State career with 129 tackles (56 solo), 22 solo tackles for loss, and 13 solo sacks in 36 games.

On tape, the first thing that stands out about Paea is that the freakish strength he shows in the weight room (600-pound squat/500-pound bench/44 reps of 225 pounds on bench) transfers very obviously to the field. When we talk about "stack-and-shed" players, we refer to players who can stand blockers up and get by them quickly with their hands. No problem there. Paea's hand use is effectively violent, and he gets off to a good start by consistently using low pad level to win the leverage battle. He's a bit of a fireplug at 6-foot-1 and 295 pounds, but he's pretty quick and agile in short areas. We can also use the proverbial "motor" tag with him because Paea will roll from snap to whistle and do everything in his power to make a play.

From a pass-rush perspective, he's far more effective inside than outside, and he doesn't have an array of loops and stunts (at least that I've seen) to try and confuse blockers. Everything's pretty much head-up or in the gap, though I occasionally saw him use the old Stunt 4-3 that Joe Greene used to devastating effect in the 1970s. Angling in between guard and center, he would shoot through quickly and blow everything up. I've also seen Ndamukong Suh use it (and you can imagine the damage he causes with it), and I'm surprised is isn't implemented more often at the NFL level. In any case, Paea has decent pass pursuit speed for his size, but his ability to blast through to the quarterback is as much about his strength when he builds up a head of steam.

Where I really like him is as a one- or two-gap run defender, and I also think he could be used to slide off center the way the Browns used to do with Shaun Rogers. I know we're losing about 50 pounds with that comparison, but Paea has the skills to do it. He can fill gaps and move quickly from side to side, but his primary attribute above all else is as a pure run-plugger. He'll get knocked off his perch from time to time in the NFL, but he's very hard to move for a guy who weighs less than 300 pounds. I also like that he understands the need to form tackle as opposed to going for the kill shot. He's a complete player, but he provides a slightly unconventional look.

NFLDraftScout.com compares Paea to Atlanta's Peria Jerry. I'm not sure if that's Rob's comparison or Chad Reuter's. While I can see it, I think the team that gets the most out of Paea is the one who can look at the body of work and think outside the box. When I was watching his tape, I kept thinking of how the Cowboys use Jay Ratliff all over the line in their hybrid fronts and how well he can pursue as a one-gap nose tackle. As those hybrid fronts grow in popularity (most supposed 3-4 defenses, especially the new converts, aren't true 3-4 defenses most of the time), versatile defenders like Paea will be great currency for those personnel executives who are looking to find relatively uncharted paths to the top.

Rob Rang: Stephen Paea's lack of prototypical height will force NFL teams to get creative in how they use him. His naturally low center of gravity and excellent upper body strength make him difficult to move and therefore an intriguing option as a run-stuffing nose guard. He's seen time on the nose in the 4-3 and 3-4 alignments while at Oregon State and has shown the ability to anchor against double-team blocks. Paea shows enough burst to take advantage of gaps and make plays in the hole, but he doesn't possess the foot speed to consistently track down ball carriers in pursuit.

Illinois Defensive Tackle Corey Liuget

A bit taller (6-foot-3) and heavier (300 pounds) than Paea, Liuget looks more like the traditional three-technique tackle, but he shares Paea's ability to be versatile. If there's one story I'll be following when I'm at the Combine next week, it's what I perceive as a need for defensive tackles to avoid being defined by one static position more than ever before. He can blow stuff up between guard and center and guard and tackle, but a team in need of a run-stopping five-technique would find Liuget just as interesting. Last season was the junior's finest (63 tackles/29 solo/5 sacks/12.5 tackles for loss), but he finished his time with the Illini with good overall stats -- 120 tackles (55 solo), eight sacks, 17 solo tackles for loss, seven passes defenses, three forced fumbles, and 13 quarterback hurries.

Off the snap and at the line, I like Liuget best over guard in a 40 front or other two-gap set, or looping in to take a center head-on. He's got impressive upper-body strength when going man-on-man, but there's smoothness to his motion through gaps that I'm not too sure about. I'd like to see more pure disruption when he's trying to fit between spaces and blow clusters of blockers up. When he's got his hands inside a blocker's pads, he's very good at shaking that blocker off and getting quickly to the ball carrier. He'll also use an array of hand moves to get off a blocker in a hurry. I like the way he uses his hands in power situations, especially the way he comes off the snap with a swim move and sets the tone.

But one thing I see less with Liuget than with Paea is the ability to consistently get under the pads of a blocker. That has something to do with his height, but he needs to explode out of his stance under pads more often. When he loses battles at the line, that's generally where it comes from. When he does get under, he's a hard guy to move. Liuget does have excellent agility; it's more obvious than Paea's, and it tends to last longer in the play. In space, it shows when he's chasing down running backs. In short areas, you see it when he splits a double-team with a hand swipe and a quick angle inside.

Liuget's not a pure pass-rusher as an end in a five-man front, but he impresses with his ability to keep his head on a swivel, depending on the situation. Neither one of these players is going to be caught out of position all that often, and both are very sure tacklers. When you can start with physical gifts and proper fundamentals, the next step is to get the right NFL team around you.

For Liuget, I think that right team is one that prefers a more typical nose-and-three interior line. As nice as it is that he can play all over the place, I think playing over guard or in the gap outside guard is his future. Giving him a Darnell Dockett comparison is a bit over the top, but I think Liuget could wind up looking a bit like Atlanta's Jonathan Babineaux, a recent FO binky.

Rob Rang: Corey Liuget is a classic penetrating three-technique defensive tackle. Like Paea, he has a short, wide body with a natural low center of gravity that helps him absorb punishment and maintain his ground against run blocking. Liuget more quickly penetrates through gaps than Paea and locates the football as well, putting him in position to make more plays behind the line of scrimmage. Unlike Paea, who relies on his bullish strength to be effective, Liuget can win the interior battles by alternating with quickness, power and technique. His greater upside should result in the higher selection come draft day despite the fact that the Illinois junior doesn't have nearly the national reputation as his Oregon State counterpart.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 17 Feb 2011

21 comments, Last at 21 Feb 2011, 12:00pm by rk

Comments

1
by Michael LaRocca (not verified) :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 11:28am

I'm only saying the obvious before someone else does, since it's so obvious. Why even enter the draft when there won't be NFL football this year? Do like Leinert and take a year of ballroom dancing instead?

2
by Dean :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 11:48am

Because there will be football. We might not get a full season, but as soon as they start missing game checks, the players will fold. They always do.

17
by JonC :: Fri, 02/18/2011 - 12:01pm

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. This will be the first work stoppage initiated by the owners (the 1968 lockout was a response to a strike threat, and the union won that one) for the sole purpose of taking money back from the players.

18
by Dean :: Fri, 02/18/2011 - 5:04pm

Then call it a prediction instead of a guarantee. This isn't Wall Street.

At the end of the day, which sounds more likely? Solidarity amongst 32 guys who got a raw deal last time around? Or solidarity amongst 2000 or so largely undereducated guys whose day to day living will be affected by missing game checks?

4
by Sjt (not verified) :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 12:31pm

Because there will be a draft, many of these guys are seniors already so they don't have a choice in the matter, and there's the possibility of a rookie wage scale getting implemented for future seasons. There may yet be a season this year, so it would be pretty silly to just assume that there won't be one and pass on the draft.

Also, Leinert isn't really the best example, seeing how he probably cost himself 8 figures worth of income by playing his final year in college instead of entering the draft.

21
by rk (not verified) :: Mon, 02/21/2011 - 12:00pm

Plus the deadline for underclassmen to declare eligibility was quite a while ago when there was generally more hope of a deal getting done.

3
by Drunkmonkey :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 12:30pm

For Corey Liuget's stats, you have him getting 5 sacks, and then 4.5 sacks in the same line. Maybe the 4.5 were meant to be solo tackles for loss?

7
by Doug Farrar :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 12:41pm

Whoops -- corrected. It's five sacks.

11
by Drunkmonkey :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 3:23pm

Alright, that makes sense.

I'm nitpicking because once again I don't have anything to do before class, and because I hold FO in the highest of regards and want their articles to appear as professional as any other website:

When you took out the '4.5 sacks,' you left in the last backslash. I think that should probably be taken out.

5
by JonFrum :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 12:36pm

There seem to be a lot of 'too short, but' and 'too light, but' guys in the draft this year. I have no idea how they project to my team.

6
by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 12:41pm

I'm loving these articles, Doug. I don't have much to say about them, but they're so much fun to read, and you can write about these guys without all the scout-speak used by otherwise good sites like National Football Post. That kind of jargon always gives the impression there's not much thought behind the words (even if there might be). Your articles seem so much more trustworthy.

Here's a request: I can't recall a year in which there was such a solid crop of round 2-3 quarterbacks. Ponder, Kaepernick, and Stanzi particularly, but mention those guys and Dalton, McElroy, and Devlin always come up right away. I'm wondering if you could look at some of those guys?

8
by Shattenjager :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 12:49pm

If I understood correctly (I always worry I don't with college football-related things like the draft.), defensive line was supposed to be very strong in last year's draft as well. If we really have two drafts in a row with lots of good DL, could that drive a reversal of the recent 3-4 trend?

9
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 1:19pm

Great stuff. More please.

10
by Jimmy :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 1:27pm

As a Bears fan I am pleased to see a plethora of undersized gap shooting DTs who are a bit light to be of much use to most NFL teams but are perfect for the Tampa2. Paea, Luiget, Atkins, Nevis etc. 285-300lbs three techniques lasting until maybe the third round, even with the Bears picking 29, most teams just don't have all that much use for these guys.

12
by JonFrum :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 7:12pm

The one problem I have with Belichick's 3-4 is that it's hard to get four of the positions. The ends need to be bigger than most - think Seymour - and the OLBs need to be big and also be able to cover. Colleges just don't produce many such players, and now that more teams have gone to the 3-4, there are fewer veterans to pick up. I don't know of a single player in this year's draft who really fits the mold for either position and also rate high. Some come close, but they're usually a few inches short and short in the arms for end, or light for linebacker.

13
by Jimmy :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 7:37pm

Traditionally the hardest spot to fill in a 3-4 was the nose tackle. Players coming out of college seem to be getting bigger but there are still aren't enough tackles who can consistently take up two blockers on their own on every down they play. You are right however that with half the teams in the league playing a 30 front (or a slanted variant of it) finding the five technique players with the length to hold up on the edge and gifted pass rushers who can cover is rather tricky.

FWIW I think Belichick is likely to move back to a 40 front either this season or next.

15
by JonFrum :: Fri, 02/18/2011 - 12:37am

The Patriots were only in standard 3-4 about a third of the time last season. But that was partly because they were playing from ahead and they needed extra defensive backs to make up for lack of talent. They still need an end for the times they play in their base.

There does seem to be more big fat guys to slot into NT. And each team only needs one of them.

16
by drobviousso :: Fri, 02/18/2011 - 10:45am

I think it's kind of telling that all three of the Pats, GB, and Steelers like to go with 2 DL as often as possible (I assume this is true for the Pats from your post, don't know for sure).

I don't know what it tells, only that I think those are 3 of the best schemed 3-4 teams.

19
by db :: Fri, 02/18/2011 - 11:14pm

For OLB think Miller (Tex. A&M), Ayers (UCLA) and Houston (Georgia). For 5 technique there are 6 highly rated players who have the length and bulk to warrant top 2 rounds consideration. I never trust the Pats to actually use their picks as they never have the roster spots for all their picks but if they concur with your estimation of needs this is their year.

20
by JayT (not verified) :: Sat, 02/19/2011 - 8:41am

Most years it's hard to find the 3-4 DE. They're just aren't many 6'4-6'6 285 plus pounds guys in the draft every year who can stack and control, maintain edge discipline and also rush the passer a bit. This year, though, there are three: Cameron Jordan, JJ Watts and Cameron Heyward. They're all tall and weighty. It might be possible for the Pats to get two of them. I would be happy if they do. Without Warren for the whole season and then losing Mike Wright for the second half, they just didn't field a very talented DL. They need a DL talent infusion. Ideally, they would also get an outside rush linebacker but I would be okay with taking two DEs.

14
by prophetik (not verified) :: Thu, 02/17/2011 - 8:26pm

looking forward to seeing a 3-4 DE section of this. as a bills fan, with so many people projecting DEs to us, it'd be nice to hear what FO says about their potential.

and please, god, no newton.