Best of the Bunch
Alan Branch, Michigan (6-5, 325)
Strengths:** Branch is the epitome of strength and power. He tosses 300-pound linemen around like they're rag dolls. Branch has a huge frame but his cat-like quickness makes him extremely difficult to block. He does an excellent job of battling multiple blockers, discarding them and making the play. Branch was the driving force behind a dominating Michigan defensive last year. He consistently collapses the pocket on passing downs and clogs up the middle against the run. Branch made a ton of plays in the backfield during his college career. An absolute beast who commands double teams on practically every play can be used at different positions along the defensive front.
Weaknesses: Branch doesn't record a lot of sacks but that number is a bit deceiving. Even when he doesn't get credit for a sack, he's usually bearing down on the quarterback. Branch has had problems keeping his weight in check and some have accused him of taking plays off. However, that's common for 21-year old college kids who weigh 325 pounds. Sometimes guys that big take a breather every now and then when their team is beating the snot out of Indiana late in the third quarter. Ask Notre Dame and Wisconsin how many plays Branch takes off.
Overall: One of two things is going on with Branch. Either reports of him slipping in the draft are false or he's an absolute jerk. That's the only way he can be sliding down draft boards because on the football field, Branch is a monster. There were games last year – not plays, entire game – where Branch couldn't be blocked. He was seriously in the opposing backfield on virtually every play. Plus, since he went to Michigan, we know he was poorly coached, so he has a lot of upside. I don't get to have private interviews with these guys but if you're talking about Branch purely in a football sense, he's one of the top defensive players in this draft. I would be shocked if he made it out of the top 10. The Dolphins would have a steal on their hands if Branch were still on the board at pick No. 9.
Draft Projection: High-first round
Amobi Okoye, Louisville (6-2, 302)
Strengths:** Okoye is a physical marvel. Despite being just 19-years-old, Okoye has a scary combination of speed, quickness and strength. The thing that's even scarier is he has yet to reach his full potential, which is why Okoye has NFL teams drooling over him. Okoye has a great feel for the game and a quick initial burst off the ball. He was extremely productive at Louisville, recording 23.0 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks over his career. Okoye isn't as big as some tackles but he holds up well against the run and displays good pass rushing skills from the inside.
Weaknesses: Obviously when a team drafts someone who won't be able to legally buy alcohol for two more years, there's a risk involved. Okoye is a smart guy who everyone says is mature beyond his years but the bottom line is he will be a 20-year old rookie. He's still raw and far from a finished product. Okoye wasn't as dominant as Branch was in college and probably will take a little longer to contribute at the pro level while he continues to develop. The question for teams selecting in the top 10 will be whether or not they think Okoye is worth the wait. My guess is the answer to that question will be yes.
Overall: Okoye is one of the more intriguing players to ever enter the draft because he's so young. He blew NFL scouts away at the Senior Bowl and Combine with his maturity and most people don't believe his age will be an issue. He's already a good player but it's scary to think how good Okoye can be in the future after he gets more coaching and stronger under an NFL weight program. Okoye has all the physical tools and the right mindset to be a special player in the NFL. A team may just have to wait a year or two before they see a huge payoff on its investment.
Draft Projection: High-first round
Quinn Pitcock, Ohio State (6-2, 300)
Strengths: Pitcock plays with high intensity and really sheds blocks well. He's stout against the run and gets good penetration into the backfield. Pitcock is quick off the ball and a good pass rusher for a tackle. He's a technically sound player who really uses his hands well to discard offensive linemen. Pitcock was very productive at Ohio State, ending his career with 133 tackles, 27.5 tackles for a loss and 14 sacks. He's a versatile player who does a lot of things well.
Weaknesses: Pitcock isn't built like a prototypical NFL tackle and may be a better fit as a 3-4 defensive end in the pros. He has a good initial burst off the ball but lacks quickness in space. Pitcock relies more on technique than brute strength but he still needs to get stronger if he wants to hold up against the larger interior linemen he'll be facing at the next level.
Overall: Pitcock is a player I really like and a guy who would be a perfect fit in New England because of his toughness and versatility, if the Patriots were targeting a defensive lineman high in the draft. Pitcock isn't as physically gifted as Branch or Okoye but he works extremely hard and gets the most out of his God-given ability. He may not be a perennial Pro Bowler but Pitcock should be a productive defensive lineman in the NFL for many years to come, especially with his ability to play both tackle and end.
Draft Projection: Second round
*Note: For some reason we didn't receive film on Tennessee's Justin Harrell and I don't think it's fair to compare him with other players that we've seen extensive footage on, so I didn't include him in this list. However, he's right there in that late-first/early-second round area as well. *
Brandon Mebane, Cal (6-1, 309) – At PFW we call Mebane "Baby Sapp" because watching him on film, he looked like Warren Sapp in a Cal uniform. Mebane does a very good job of shedding blockers and sliding down the line to make plays in the backfield. He's a quick and active tackle who really shoots the gap well. A good pass rusher from the inside, Mebane had 14.5 sacks during his time at Cal. He does a good job of collapsing the pocket on passing plays and penetrating into the backfield against the run.
Mebane is a one-gap tackle. That means he would be a good fit for a team that runs a Tampa 2 defense where it likes its tackles to shoot through the gap and disrupt plays in the backfield. In that scheme, Mebane wouldn't have to worry about getting swallowed up by bigger blockers and he could use his speed and quickness to make plays. Mebane is a player who doesn't get talked about much but he would be an excellent mid-round selection for a team like the Colts or the Bears.
Keith Jackson, Arkansas (6-1, 305) – Jackson doesn't have the size teams usually look for in a defensive tackle but he plays with a high motor and is stout against the run. Jackson does a good job of taking on double teams and holding his own at the point of attack. He's very quick for a 300-pounder and Jackson is good at chasing down ball carriers in pursuit. He really clogged up the middle against the run in college and could be a solid run-stuffing nose tackle at the pro level.
Because of his size, Jackson isn't a good fit for every system. That will cause him to slip into the later rounds of the draft. I think he's best suited to play nose tackle in the NFL and with the way the Patriots like to stockpile defensive linemen, don't be surprised if they grab Jackson with one of their four sixth round picks. He'll probably never be a starter in the NFL but Jackson could become a productive backup nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme.
Pitcock – You never want to say never with the Patriots but it's doubtful they'll take a defensive tackle high in the draft. However, if they do, Pitcock would be a perfect fit because he can play tackle or end and he's a guy who gives his all on every play.
Tank Tyler, N.C. State (6-2, 306) – Tyler was by far the most physically imposing player at the Combine. His traps were bigger than my entire head. Maybe the strongest player at any position in this draft, Tyler uses that strength to cause havoc on the field. He's stout against the run and is hard to block because he's so powerful. Tyler had a breakout senior season at N.C. State and some people believe he's just reaching his potential. He still needs to work on becoming a better pass rusher but with his overall strength and ability to stop the run, Tyler could excel in a 3-4 defense.
Antonio Johnson, Mississippi State (6-3, 310) – Johnson is a raw prospect who has potential, although he's not ready to come in and contribute right away for an NFL team. A junior college transfer, Johnson only started one year at Mississippi State. He has a ton of physical ability, now he just needs a coach to hone his skills and turn Johnson into a complete player. He's strong and quick off the ball but Johnson needs a lot of work on his technique. At 6-3, Johnson plays too tall at times and can get eaten up by stronger linemen. There's no question that Johnson is a raw, developmental-type player but his potential and upside makes him an interesting late-round prospect.
Jackson– I think Jackson is an intriguing player. He doesn't have the ideal size or impressive physical skills that some of the other tackles in this draft do. However, Jackson plays the game with passion and leaves everything on the field. Considering Jackson's strengths are taking on blockers and stopping the run, he would be a nice late-round selection for the Patriots to provide depth at nose tackle.
Overall Position Analysis
This is a thin crop of tackles. Branch and Okoye are studs. Both players should get selected high in the first round. After those two, Pitcock, Tyler and Justin Harrell (Tennessee) could all go in Round 2. Mebane, Ryan McBean (Oklahoma State), Marcus Thomas (Florida), Turk McBride (Tennessee) and Kareem Brown (Miami) are solid mid-round prospects, although they all fit into a particular type of defensive scheme. Jackson, Johnson, Jay Alford (Penn State), Joe Cohen (Florida), Paul Soliai (Utah) and Derek Landri (Notre Dame) are mid-to-late round players who have a chance to be successful in the NFL down the road. Normally this would be considered a terrible draft for tackles but with Branch and Okoye both possibly going in the top ten, it helps strengthen the group overall. However, there are usually four or five defensive tackles that go in Round 1 and this year there may only be two. Plus, there isn't much depth in the middle rounds at the position like there is at receiver, cornerback and safety. Looking at this tackle class as a whole, it isn't overly impressive.
Note: PFW will be doing a draft blog, starting on Wednesday, April 25. On the days leading up to the draft we'll have updated rankings and mock drafts in the blog. On draft day, we'll be posting our thoughts on everything draft related, including all the bad picks made by the Oakland Raiders. Fans are welcome to participate by posting their opinions as well. The blog will be updated non-stop during the draft, so be sure to check it out. A link to the blog will be on Patriots.com, so everyone will be able to access it easily.