INDIANAPOLIS - The guys on the edge - the outside linebackers and defensive ends - may get most of the press clippings and accolades, but it's the interior players - inside 'backers and d-tackles - who do much of the grunt work in the front seven.
Those edge guys most often get to the quarterback and get the glory as a result, while the inside guys are often reduced to stuffing the run or flushing the quarterback out of the pocket. The latter isn't the most glamorous work, but it's vital nonetheless to the success of any defense.
Thing is, these days in the NFL, more and more teams are employing both the 3-4 and 4-3 fronts in their defensive schemes, meaning front-seven players must possess the skills to line up in various spots.
If teams are looking for those kinds of players, particularly at defensive tackle, they're in luck in this year's draft. Tackles, which once were simply the fattest guys on the field, have evolved into taller, leaner (in many cases), more athletic players.
There's no better example of this than Mississippi State underclassman Fletcher Cox (6-4, 300), a former high school basketball player and sprinter on his track team. Cox, then weighing just 240 pounds, ran the 4x100 relay.
"We were pretty decent. We made it to the North State [championship]. I was the second leg and sometimes I ran the anchor," recalled Cox, easily the largest member of his squad.
However, he couldn't remember his fastest time, saying it was so long ago and he's now focused exclusively on football. But his track skills have translated well to the gridiron. Cox, in fact, initially started as a high-jumper, but soon gave that up. Yet, while at Mississippi State, he put that experience to good use as he blocked four kicks in his college career.
"I blocked a lot of kicks in practice and coach always told me it would carry over into the game. Blocking a kick changed the whole momentum of the game," Cox added. "Coaches get excited in practice when I do it. You get the whole team going."
That kind of enthusiasm for special teams, combined with his position versatility, make Cox an attractive prospect for teams like the Patriots.
"I started at 3-technique every game and when coach needed me to move outside and play 5-technique. We had some packages where I played 5-technique," Cox explained.
Memphis junior Dontari Poe (6-4, 346) plays the same position as Cox, but has 50 pounds on him and would appear to be a different type of d-tackle. Yet, Poe maintains that he's just as adept at playing on the edge, if called upon, as he is in the interior.
"Really I'm used to both. We played both in college. Either or would probably be good for me. I'm comfortable playing either or. It's really not a big deal.
"I see myself as someone who can rush the passer a lot more than people think," added Poe. "I am used to playing nose tackle and the 3-technique and I've played some 5-technique. I'm pretty comfortable anywhere on the defensive line.
"I think I'm explosive, very explosive. That's probably my biggest strength. Most people think just because I'm big I do nothing but … I try to use my quickness to my advantage."
With the NFL now a pass-first league and defenses doing a lot more substituting to adjust, Poe realizes that he'll need to be the kind of player who can stay on the field for every down.
"Yeah. It's become more important because the NFL is becoming a passing league.
But if you can't stop the run you're in a pretty bad situation. You have to be able to do both."
Poe admitted that he needs to be a more consistent player at the next level, even if that means shedding some of his considerable pounds, if the team that drafts him requires it.
Both Cox and Poe could be off the board, though, by the time the Patriots select in the first round at 27 and 31. Luckily, there are still more versatile, athletic players at this position, should they elect to take one there or in the second round, where New England also has a pair of picks.
UConn's Kendall Reyes (6-4, 300), a Nashua, N.H. native, is another such player who qualifies.
"I played receiver, tight end, and linebacker in high school. It sets you with a good base. If you have the type of frame that can put on weight, you can have certain
advantages over some guys who weren't," Reyes observed.
"But then again, some people are just naturally gifted, so definitely playing different positions helped with my versatility. We played the 4-3 and the 3-4 [at UConn], so I played a lot of positions in college. We'd do a lot of running things out of the 4-3 and on third down we'd blitz out of the 3-4 package. I was kind of all over the field. I played a lot of positions on the defensive line."
You have to be able to be versatile at the next level and I think that's one of the things I bring to the table. I had a decent week at the Senior Bowl and I just want to build on that and have a good week at the combine. Things are going well so far. I have interviews tonight [Saturday] and the next couple of days, then we get on the field."
Michigan's Mike Martin (6-1, 306) could be a consideration in the middle of the draft, given his shorter-than-normal height for the position. But Martin believes that size motivates him and gives him a leverage advantage over taller opponents.
"I love being called 'small.' I love it," stressed Martin. "I have a chip on my shoulder, and I've been called 'undersized' my whole life really when it comes to playing the position. My leverage and everything that goes into playing nose, I'm just really good at."
A reason for that could be Martin's background as a wrestler - another attractive quality for the Patriots, who've recruited former wrestlers in the past (most notably, guard Stephen Neal).
"It helps me a lot," said Martin of his wrestling training and how it applies to football. "I'm still working with it. I like to roll around on the mat a little bit. It's a little bit of unorthodox training, I'd guess you'd say, but it helps me. It's something I try not to lose."
Martin's strength, however, is unquestioned. Martin said he was hoping to break the Combine record for 225-pound bench press reps (49) - a realistic goal, as Martin's career best is 42.
New England currently doesn't own any picks in rounds 5, 6, or 7, where someone like Derek Wolfe (6-5, 290) of Cincinnati is expected to hear his name called.
Wolfe's size, versatility, and relative obscurity draw instant comparisons to Mike Wright, a former Bearcat who was just released by the Patriots a few days ago after several productive seasons.
"Everything I've heard [about Wright] is good," said Wolfe. "He's a hard worker. He's just the type of guy you want to model your play after."
Wolfe's self-described "motor" make him a "relentless pass rusher" who produced 9.5 sacks for Cincinnati in 2011, with four, five, and one the previous three seasons.
"I'll play it all … wherever they want me to play. I feel most comfortable at the 3-technique and the 3-4 defensive end. Those are the two positions I like the most," admitted Wolfe. "I played both in college. We were a 3-4 and a 4-3 … on third downs a lot of times, I'd be on the edge. On first and second, I was inside."
In 2011, the fulcrum of the Patriots defense was right where you'd expect it to be - right up the middle. Defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love were arguably the most consistent Patriots defenders last season.
But New England now has some critical decisions to make in that area. Do they try to retain some of the older players they've signed recently (e.g., Gerard Warren) or continue developing players they've already drafted who've shown flashes but been injury-prone - the likes of Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, and Myron Pryor?
If they choose option three - the draft - they'll find plenty of intriguing prospects from which to choose.