INDIANAPOLIS – Last season, Richard Seymourwas traded to Oakland. This offseason, Jarvis Greenis headed to unrestricted free agency and likely will shop around. Nose tackle Vince Wilforkhas received the Patriots' franchise tag, but his long-term future with the team remains uncertain.
Taking all those facts into consideration, New England could be planning for the future of its defensive line. The team hasn't been shy about drafting d-linemen in the first round under the direction of head coach Bill Belichick(Seymour, Wilfork, Ty Warren); they've gotten production from players in later rounds (2009 rookie sixth-rounder Myron Pryorcomes to mind); even undrafted free agents like Mike Wrighthave made significant contributions.
So, it's safe to say the Patriots are taking a good, long look at this year's draft class at defensive line. There's plenty from which to choose, no matter where they decide to make a selection.
* = underclassman
(Expected selection: Rounds 1-2)
Ndamukong Suh**, Nebraska (6-4, 302)
It's easy to see why this guy is considered the potential number-one overall pick. The ease with which Ndamukong Suh (pronounced En-dom-ah-ken Soo) handled reporters' questions at the Combine mirrored the way he handled opposing offensive lines over the past couple of seasons.
Suh's on-field production, he said, could be traced back to his youth days playing soccer. That background helped with his footwork and stamina. After overcoming injuries early in his Cornhusker career, Suh, in 2008, became an All-Big 12 pick, leading Nebraska with 76 tackles, including 16 for loss, and 7.5 sacks … not to mention a pair of interceptions and two blocked kicks.
Last season, he made even greater strides as Suh finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting, but took home lots of other hardware (the Nagurski, Outland, Bednarik, and Lombardi awards, plus consensus All-American and Big 12 Player of the Year honors).
He's been as heavy as 330, but indicated that he'd prefer to play at his current weight, where he's had the most success in his career. The articulate Suh surely won't be around when the Patriots pick at 22, but he's no doubt the standard by which all other d-linemen in this draft will be judged.
- Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma (6-4, 298)
Suh's Big 12 rival had bigger numbers as a pass rusher, which could be due in part to the scheme in which McCoy played. A former USA Today National Defensive Player of the Year in high school, McCoy was a Freshman All-American and Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year for the Sooners. The past two years, McCoy continued to develop, registering 26.5 tackles for losses and 12.5 sacks. Scouts may be attracted to this underclassman's versatility as well.
Jared Odrick**, Penn State (6-5, 301)
A dead-ringer for Shawne Merriman, Odrick compared himself to Seymour when asked by Combine reporters to describe his game.
"I think I bring a lot of versatility at multiple positions that I've played before and am capable of playing in the future," he added. "I like to think I'm a high-character guy. I get along with everybody on the team. Somebody who's going to work hard. You're gonna get a hard worker out of me. Somebody who is going to fight for a starting spot and earn respect. That's what you're going to get when you're dealing with Jared Odrick."
Odrick's an interesting prospect because of his athleticism and versatility. Though he's played little nose, he nonetheless wouldn't have a problem if a 3-4 team drafted him and asked him to play there.
"I would feel comfortable, yeah. I'm not sure that most teams are looking at me in that role. But if they are, I'd play it … I've heard 5 technique in a 3-4. I've heard 1 technique in a 3-4. I've heard 3 technique in a 4-3. I've heard 5 technique and 7 technique in a 4-3. I'm hearing a lot right now. I've been playing 3 technique the most in a 4-3 defense the past 3-4 years. So I feel most comfortable at that. But I think I can find success at multiple positions. I'm just excited to see what's coming."
Terrence Cody, Alabama (6-4, 370)
Remember Ted Washington? That's the kind of player "Mount Cody," as he's known, promises to be. His enormous body makes him the ideal 3-4 nose tackle, which is what he played for Nick Saban's national champions. Double teams are a must against a player of Cody's size, which forces offenses to account for him on every play. As a result, his stats may not be eye-popping, but it's clear he's a force that could anchor any 3-4. With Cody in the middle, no running back gained 100 yards on the ground against the Crimson Tide.
- Derrick Morgan, Georgia Tech (6-4, 272)
Continuing a trend of gifted Yellow Jacket d-linemen (Michael Johnson, Vance Walker, Daryl Richard), Morgan has quietly made himself into an impact player, starting in his true freshman year. He can stop the run and get to the quarterback as a 4-3 end, which should be attractive to scouts in a draft that's heavy on big interior linemen and so-called "tweener" OLB/Des.
* Carlos Dunlap, Florida (6-6, 290)
On the field, Dunlap has been compared to former top picks Julius Peppers and Mario Williams. His 19.5 career sacks (in just 15 starts) rank 10th in Gator history. However, character issues could hinder him – he was arrested on a DUI charge just days before the SEC Championship Game.
* Everson Griffen, USC (6-3, 278)
Griffen started as a true freshman for the Trojans, but eventually lost the job before gaining it back. He's one of those aforementioned "tweeners."
* Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida (6-6, 265)
A former high school basketball player, Pierre-Paul is clearly athletic – some say freakishly so for his size – which makes him a sought-after pass rusher, most likely in the early rounds. He's a potential project with a lot of "upside."
MIDDLE OF THE PACK
(Expected selection: Rounds 3-5)
Cam Thomas, North Carolina (6-4, 330)
This affable big man is clearly built to be a nose tackle, and he relishes the role.
"I can anchor that thing, you know," he declared at the Combine. "I earned my stripes. Everybody can't play that position. You've got to earn your stripes, and I've got those.
"You've got to stay low [to play nose]," he continued to explain, "and I love it. That's my duty. That's my job. Most teams say I'm athletic and versatile like that [to play anywhere on the line]."
It's evident why Thomas' draft stock continues to rise.
Torell Troup, Central Florida (6-3, 310)
Troup has played almost exclusively in the 4-3, but he acknowledged at the Combine that he's a born nose tackle. That doesn't mean, however, that he's satisfied with his game at this point.
"I'm pretty much a nose tackle. I played a little bit of 3- and 5-technique, but not much.
My strength would be my great pad leverage, I have a good first step, and I can penetrate into the backfield and hold the point. What I need to work on is my pass rush, my hands, separating from a man."
Troup also said he enjoys film study, which should endear him to teams like the Patriots who would want him to adjust to the 3-4.
"I don't think it's going to be that hard. I know it's different. I can hold the point of attack, I'm used to being double-teamed, I have good feet, so I can stay with the center.
I don't think it's gonna be a problem at all."
Lamarr Houston, Texas (6-3, 302)
Given Belichick's well documented respect for Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, Houston is undoubtedly on the Patriots' radar.
"Coach Muschamp, he's the type of person that turns a lot of guys into students of the game," said Houston. "Not just football. You have to play at a certain level, he wants consistency.''
Though a bit undersized for a nose, Houston feels he can play the position in the NFL.
"There's plenty of guys who are playing nose tackle who aren't the beefy guys in the middle. I'm 305 right now, I'm feeling good, I feel comfortable, I feel athletic, right now that's all I need.''
George Selvie, South Florida (6-4, 252)
A perfect complement to Pierre-Paul, Selvie could be another of those "tweeners" who started out as a center before switching to defensive line.
Jermaine Cunningham, Florida (6-3, 252)
Cunningham, like Selvie, played in the shadow of a more high-profile teammate at the same position. But he was quite productive, and, given the Belichick connection to Gainesville, could be a "value pick" for the Patriots.
Alex Carrington, Arkansas State (6-5, 284)
Carrington played mostly in a 4-3 at left end, and in that role, watched a lot of film of DeMarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora, John Abraham, and Julius Peppers. But his coaches also put Carrington in some packages in the 3-4, where he played nose, which he said he truly enjoyed.
"Oh, it was fun, man. Things happen a lot quicker inside. But I got some reps in practice and also a sack in a game [from that spot] a couple of times, so that was nice."
If a 3-4 team drafted him and asked to play nose, Carrington said he would do so without hesitation. Such versatility makes him an attractive prospect to teams like New England that like to vary their defensive schemes from game to game.
(Expected selection: Rounds 6-7; undrafted rookie free agents)
Nate Collins, Virginia (6-2, 279)
Had a breakout senior season for Al Groh's Cavaliers. His familiarity with Belichick's defense (Groh is part of the BB coaching tree) might be enough to warrant a look from New England.
Corey Peters, Kentucky (6-3, 295)
New England had such success with Pryor a year ago, perhaps they'll be interested in his Wildcat teammate. Peters was a four-year starter and All-SEC first-teamer.
Lindsey Witten, UConn (6-5, 248)
Witten was coached by Ted Ginn, Sr. (father of the Dolphins star) in high school, and his older brother is Bills safety Donte Whitner. He was mostly a reserve in Storrs, so he needs work at the next level to become an effective pass rusher.
George Johnson, Rutgers (6-4, 265)
Injuries were an early obstacle in Johnson's college career. In 2009, he was at full speed and posted decent numbers (6.5 sacks, 13.5tackles). A "tweener," most likely, at the NFL level, he has some experience playing inside and dropping into coverage.