New Breed Of Defensive Tackles Bursts Onto The Scene
Throughout the past few decades, sack production in the NFL has mainly come from the outside edge rushers. With the advent of the 3-4 defense, athletic 250-pound outside linebackers have been able to breeze past the mammoth tackles that they face.
As of late, however, we are seeing the emergence of interior pass rushers who are putting up great stats despite rushing up the middle. The defensive tackle position used to be focused more on stuffing the run and freeing up blockers for the linebackers, but lately we have seen a surge of athletic giants who can get to the quarterback just as quickly as their 250-pound teammates on the edge.
These defensive tackles still are portly and have higher body fat percentages than their comrades on the outside, but they have been getting significantly faster. In 2012, Dontari Poe, a 350-pound nose tackle from Memphis, ran a 4.98 40 time. Poe was then selected 11th overall by the Chiefs and has quickly become one of the better nose tackles in the league.
Poe isn’t an anomaly. There are a handful of athletic defensive tackles who are taking the league by storm. Muhammad Wilkerson, the 300-pound defensive tackle for the Jets, ran a 4.96 40 at the 2011 Combine. Wilkerson is surprisingly quick off the ball and collected 10.5 sacks this past season due to his burst as well as freakishly long wingspan. Wilkerson’s teammate, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, ran a 4.81 40 last year and was the 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft. The 295-pound Richardson, a former punt returner in high school, used his ridiculous athleticism to become one of the league's best run stuffers as he was able to penetrate off the snap much quicker than his opponents. Richardson won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, and the success that he and Wilkerson share is one of the bright spots of the Jets' future.
This draft features two defensive tackles who boast the explosiveness that matches the players who are succeeding nowadays. Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan, like Richardson, is extremely nimble for a player of his 300-pound statue. Jernigan was the best defender on a defense that featured at least three other players who will be drafted. Jernigan would excel in a 4-3 defense at the next level and surely would be a disurptive force in the backfield.
The other tackle, Aaron Donald from Pittsburgh, is one of the most athletic interior linemen I have ever seen. The 285-pound Donald ran a 4.68 40 -- which is faster than what most tight ends ran. He also benched 225 pounds 35 times, making him the fastest and strongest tackle according to the Combine measurables. Donald’s tape shows how quick he is off of the snap; you can see him piercing through offensive lines and getting in the backfield before the guards and centers are even in their stances. Despite being shorter than most defensive tackles, Donald (6-1), like Cincinnati's Geno Atkins, uses his smaller size to gain leverage and get underneath the blockers. Donald and Jernigan both likely will be first round picks, and I expect both to make immediate impacts in the NFL.
Part of the reason that teams like the Seahawks and Giants were able to win their respective Super Bowls against legendary quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady was their ability to rush the passer from the inside. Manning and Brady have incredible pocket awareness and seem to have almost a sixth sense about pressure from the outside; they know when and how to step up in the pocket while still being able to look at their reads. However, when pressure comes up the middle, even these quarterbacks have nowhere to hide and are left vulnerable.
The league has taken notice of this formula, which is why teams like the Ravens, Jets, Chiefs and Giants have invested heavily on their defensive line in recent drafts. The trend will undoubtedly continue especially as players of Jernigan and Donald’s ilk enter the league.