As the stock of Michigan DT Alan Branch seems to drop further and further in the upcoming NFL draft (having two broken legs generally doesn't help), he's being pushed below fast-rising Amobi Okoye on most draft boards. Indeed, NFLDraftScout.com's defensive tackle rankings list Okoye above Branch. Listed below them is Tennessee's Justin Harrell, who's seen as a notch below the other two first round-graded tackles.
Allow me to hazard a prediction, right now, that Harrell will end up being the best of the three.
Why? Because, simply put, highly-regarded SEC defensive tackles are as much of a lock as any other position and conference in the draft.
Since 1995, 11 defensive tackles from the SEC have been selected in the top two rounds of the draft. They include:
- James Manley
- Booger McFarland
- Reggie McGrew
- Cornelius Griffin
- Gerard Warren
- Richard Seymour
- Marcus Stroud
- John Henderson
- Albert Haynesworth
- DeWayne Robertson
- Johnathan Sullivan
Of the 11, only three were busts: Manley (who never played an NFL down), McGrew, and Sullivan, who ate his way out of the league. The other eight are all starters and considered top-tier NFL defensive tackles.
In addition, many SEC defensive tackles that were drafted in the later rounds made it to the NFL, including Shane Burton, Jason Ferguson, Michael Myers, Darwin Walker, Kendrick Clancy, Ian Scott, Kenny King, and Chad Lavalais.
The Big 10, on the other hand, enjoys no such regard. Since Dan Wilkinson went first overall in 1994, they have struggled to put out quality defensive tackles. Second-rounder Nathan Davis played two games with the Falcons before they cut him. Wendell Bryant was drafted 12th overall in 2002 by the Cardinals and is now out of football.
Even the success stories aren't that successful. Jimmy Kennedy has matured into a NFL starter, albeit not a very good one; Anthony Adams still has a job but hasn't broken through, and was let go by the 49ers after three seasons, and Jonathan Babineaux is still behind Rod Coleman and Grady Jackson in Atlanta. The only Big 10 tackle to be a real success since Wilkinson is Chargers DT Luis Castillo, who made it to the Pro Bowl in his second season.
The highest-drafted defensive tackle in Conference USA (Okoye's home conference for the majority of his college career) history is former UAB DT Eddie Freeman, who was out of the league after 20 games.
Does this mean that making a move for Okoye or Branch is an obvious mistake? Not really. Okoye has that massive upside, and Branch is the only legit nose tackle that's Day 1-caliber. Picking Harrell, though, sure would look like a nice move for a team looking for defensive line depth. Don't be surprised if one of the "smarter" organizations in the league grab him at the end of the first round.
Note: Originally ran on the FOX Football Outsiders blog.