NFL Draft Preview: Defensive Tackles

Posted Apr 12, 2013

Florida's Sharrif Floyd is one of three defensive tackles jockeying for position to be the first taken in this year's NFL Draft. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Heading into the 2012 NFL Draft, the Rams had already signed free agent defensive tackle Kendall Langford to a lucrative contract but they were far from satisfied with what the depth chart looked like at the position.

In what would become something of a trend, Rams general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher proved that they were unafraid to spend valuable resources to turn a single position from weakness to strength in the same offseason.

So after adding Langford, the Rams went into the first night of the draft with an eye toward bringing on additional re-inforcements for the middle of the defensive line. At a pre-draft event with fans, Snead was discussing the possible scenarios for the draft and how he and his staff would handle the different options those situations can bring.

When the subject of a potential trade down came up, Snead asked one of his lieutenants which player the Rams would draft if they didn’t hold on to the No. 6 pick. The answer came back: Michael Brockers, defensive tackle, LSU.

A few days later, with Alabama running back Trent Richardson long gone – he went third to Cleveland – and receiver Justin Blackmon scooped up by Jacksonville at No. 5, the Rams quickly explored trade options.

When Dallas agreed to send the Rams another second round pick in exchange for moving up from No. 14 to No. 6, that left the Rams waiting patiently to see if they could get Brockers, whom they had clearly targeted.

As pick after pick went off the board and Brockers remained available, the excitement in the Rams draft room built to a crescendo. They wasted little time turning in the card with Brockers’ name on it.

Suddenly, the Rams had spent major free agent dollars and valuable draft capital to turn a soft middle of the defensive line into one of the team’s biggest strengths.

The results were mostly positive and, at worst, offered quite a bit of hope for the future of the position as the Rams made great strides against the run and finished 15th in the league, allowing 117.5 yards per game on the ground.

Brockers performed well as he is only scratching the surface on his immense potential by posting 63 tackles, four sacks, 13 quarterback pressures and four quarterback hits on his way to All Rookie honors for his position.

With Brockers and Langford in place for the long term, the Rams spent a little money to ensure that they could retain some of the promising depth in the middle earlier this offseason.
After signing Jermelle Cudjo to a two-year extension, the Rams made versatile lineman William Hayes – who provides pass rush punch from the inside on passing downs – a priority free agent and inked him to a three-year deal.

Promising young defensive tackle Matt Conrath, whom the team brought in as an undrafted free agent last year, is also still in the plans to compete for a spot going into 2013 as well.

As we steam toward this year’s NFL Draft, which is less than two weeks from today, the Rams seem to be pretty well set at defensive tackle with the five players mentioned above and Eugene Sims, another end who like Hayes has the ability to move inside in certain situations.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Rams will eschew the position altogether in this year’s draft, a draft that features depth and talent all over the place at defensive tackle.

Headlining the class is a trio of players with varying fits in NFL defenses. St. Louis native Sheldon Richardson could be the top defensive tackle prospect in the draft after a solid two seasons at Missouri.

Richardson is a good enough athlete that he actually returned kicks and punts at Gateway High in St. Louis. He combines that with a relentless playing style that sees him chasing down ball carriers 30 yards down field as much as he’s stuffing them in the backfield.

Florida’s Sharrif Floyd is another highly regarded defensive tackle prospect who bears a resemblance to Richardson in terms of build but not necessarily in playing style. While Richardson figures to fit best as a 3-technique in a 4-3 defense, Floyd’s best fit might be as a 5-technique in a 3-4.

Utah’s Star Lotulelei would likely be slightly ahead of Richardson and Floyd were it not for a bit of a health concern that popped up at the Scouting Combine. Those concerns have since been alleviated a bit and Lotulelei is back in the discussion to be the first defensive tackle taken. He’s a big, physical mauler, who has drawn comparisons to Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata with his combination of power and athleticism.

Those three all figure to land somewhere in the top 15 of the draft but if they did fall to the Rams’ spot at No. 16, it would figure to at least give the Rams some pause and lead them to consider making a move.

Snead said at the combine that he wouldn’t entirely rule out taking a defensive tackle in the first round again if the fit was right.

Beyond that big three, there are plenty of other intriguing options throughout the draft and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Rams did look to land one somewhere in the middle rounds.
While players like North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams, Georgia’s John Jenkins, Alabama’s Jesse Williams, Purdue’s Kawann Short and Ohio State’s Johnathan Hankins figure to be the next off the board and go in the latter part of the first round and early in the second, there are plenty of third round and beyond options that could be possibilities for the Rams to bolster their depth.

LSU’s Bennie Logan, Missouri Southern’s Brandon Williams, Illinois’ Akeem Spence, Penn State’s Jordan Hill, Mississippi State’s Josh Boyd, Tennessee Martin’s Montori Hughes and Georgia Tech’s TJ Barnes could be mid to late round options that might make sense for the Rams should they opt to add to the position in this draft.

Top 5 Defensive Tackles

1. Sheldon Richardson, Missouri – Blessed with a non stop motor and top notch athleticism, he projects as the ideal three-technique defensive tackle at the NFL level.
2. Sharrif Floyd, Florida – Similar physical attributes to Richardson though his motor doesn’t quite rev at the same level. More scheme versatility, though. 
3. Star Lotulelei, Utah – A big, punishing physical presence with surprising speed and burst, he’d be one of the top players in the draft were it not for some health concerns centering on his heart.
4. Sylvester Williams, North Carolina – One of the most improved players in the country in 2012, he made a strong impression at the Senior Bowl and his combination of pass rush and run stopping skills make him one of the most rounded prospects in this year’s draft.
5. Kawann Short, Purdue – Incredibly productive and durable for the Boilermakers, Short is very quick for his size. His motivation is the only thing keeping him from being a top prospect.

Sleeper: Brandon Williams, Missouri Southern – Essentially an immovable object, the 340-pounder is an ideal nose tackle to help plug the run. Some pass rush ability but if he can refine that area, he could be a steal for any team in the middle rounds.