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.