2007 NFL draft/Positional analysis: DTs

49ers must consider risk/reward factor with Branch

When asked this week if the 49ers would take Michigan stud Alan Branch with the No. 11 overall pick if he's available, team personnel chief Scot McCloughan replied, "Maybe we will. Why not?" Even if the Niners don't take Branch, they appear likely to grab a DT somewhere in this year's college lottery. Here, we analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the draft's top 10 interior defensive linemen.

POSITION ANALYSIS: After acquiring Aubrayo Franklin in free agency, the 49ers have three players that can play on the nose in their 3-4 system in Franklin, Isaac Sopoaga and Ronnie Fields, who also can slide out to end in that scheme. The roster also includes Damane Duckett and Marques Douglas, who played as an undersized 285-pound tackle in the team's 4-3 set last year but is well-suited to play end in the 3-4, as he did during his days in Baltimore. The 49ers will look for another big body to compete for playing time inside, but if they don't end up with a true nose tackle, they'll look for a college DT type who also has the ability to slide out and play end in a three-man line. This year's draft crop isn't being viewed as one of the better classes for DTs. There is some talent near the top with 19-year-old Amobi Okoye and Branch, but the talent level drops off quickly and there could be several less than the 23 defensive tackles that went off the board last year getting their names called this time around. That's saying something, considering that there were only a few DTs taken in the first two rounds of the 2006 draft. While that number should be up, the talent pool will get cleaned out early on Day Two.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Amobi Okoye, Louisville, 6-2, 301: Fourth-year senior…One of the best stories of this year's draft—he moved from Nigeria to Alabama and tested out of the ninth-grade level at just 12 years of age and is only 19 years old as a college senior…Won't turn 20 until June…A two-year starter who had 90 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, five sacks and one forced fumble during that span…Excellent upper body strength…Good burst off the snap to clog running plays and collapse the pocket on pass plays…Has good closing speed on the ballcarrier…Very hard to block one-on-one…Uses his hands very well…Has the speed to chase down plays that are strung out and make tackles from sideline to sideline. Looked very good during Senior Bowl week…Still maturing and will have to prepare himself for the violence of the pro game…Doesn't have polished moves as a pass rusher…Doesn't always wrap up and finish plays…Isn't known for playing through injuries…Has seen his weight go up and down as much as 20 pounds during a season…Ran the third-best 40 time (4.85 seconds) among DTs at the Combine, along with 29 reps of 225 pounds, a 30-inch vertical jump and a second-best DT broad jump of 9-2.
Projection: Okoye has as much untapped potential as any player in the draft. Even if he signs a six-year rookie contract, he will become a free agent at the age of 25. He would be an ideal player in a Tampa-2 defense, but may be a reach for the 49ers at No. 11 because of the time it will take to bring him along. And, the team doesn't appear to have any interest in him that high in the draft. That said, he could be a great pick anywhere between picks No. 8-13.

Alan Branch, Michigan, 6-5¾, 324: Third-year junior…Gatorade Player of the Year in New Mexico as a high school senior…Two-year starter who had 56 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, seven sacks, two passes batted down, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in that span…Dominant run defender in the middle who makes a joke out of one-on-one coverage…Impressive combination of size, speed and strength…Can collapse the pocket when pass rushing…Consistently holds his ground vs. double teams in the running game…Quick to read and react and get to the ball…Chases down plays to the sideline…Has the skills to work in a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense…Doesn't always give top effort and will take plays off…Doesn't have a variety of pass-rush moves—tends to bull-rush on almost every play…Needs to improve hand use…When wearing down, will come out of his stance and let linemen get a grip on him…Has seen his weight blow up to close to 340 at times…Ran a 5.07 40 at the Combine, with 29 reps (second-most among DTs that lifted), a 28-inch vertical jump and a 8-11 broad jump.
Projection: Was used as an every-down lineman in college and, while he won't be asked to do that right away in the pros, has the potential to do it. He could end up being one of the best players taken in this year's draft, but it likely won't happen until the middle of the first round. The Niners seem scared away by the risk-reward factor of taking Branch with their top pick, but they are intrigued with his potential.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Justin Harrell, Tennessee, 6-4½, 314: Fifth-year senior…Full-time starter in 2004-05 when he amassed 65 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss, four sacks, nine passes deflected, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries…Missed all but three games in 2006 with a ruptured biceps tendon that required surgery…Has very long arms and got his hands on a lot of passes for a DT when healthy…Has a motor that always runs and rarely if ever gives up on a play…Can handle double teams in the running game and holds his ground well…Can collapse the pocket on passing downs with a bull rush…Has the ability and experience as both a nose tackle and an end in the 3-4 alignment…Is a one-trick pony in pass rushing, using the bull rush almost exclusively…Doesn't have good burst off the snap…When he's locked up, doesn't have a great awareness of where the ball carrier is at…Misses too many tackles…Injuries need to be something of a concern, because he had several minor dings before the biceps injury…Didn't show any ill-effects of his injury at the Combine with 31 reps of 225 pounds to go along with a 5.05 40, a 30½ inch vertical jump and a 9-0 broad jump.
Projection: His injury history may be his biggest hurdle to overcome and teams will be unlikely to take too big a risk if they're not convinced he can stay healthy, which should likely drop him into the early part of the second round. He had an official visit with the 49ers this week and the team definitely is interested.

DeMarcus Tyler ("Tank"), North Carolina State, 6-2¼, 306: Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who made starts in 28 of his final 35 games, notching 123 tackles, 19 tackles for a loss, five sacks and two forced fumbles…Tremendous upper-body strength (see below)…Good burst off the snap…Rarely gets moved in run defense when he isn't double-teamed…Makes a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage…Had a good week of practice at the Senior Bowl against top competition…Reads plays quickly and adapts accordingly…Doesn't have a consistent motor and will take plays off…Seems to tire out late in many games…Will take himself out of plays by taking bad angles…Is not overly enthused about practicing…Doesn't have great lower-body strength to match his upper-body strength…Has gotten as far as he did in college because he could maul inferior competition, which will have to change in the NFL…Doesn't have a good physique and looks like he doesn't condition himself…Ran one of the slowest 40 times for all DTs at the Combine (5.34 seconds), but did a whopping 42 reps of 225 pounds—nine more than any other defensive tackle that lifted—and a 28-inch vertical jump.
Projection: Perhaps there is no bigger boom-bust player than Tyler. A huge season and solid performances at the Senior Bowl and Combine will have teams looking long and hard at him. But, unless he changes his work ethic and gets in top condition, he could be just another Jimmy Kennedy type that has coaches scratching their heads as to what they loved about him. The jury likely won't be in on him for a year or two, but he would look good as a 3-4 nose tackle that could utilize his upper body strength. Teams that have those needs are clumped late in the first round, which someone may use to reach on a second-round talent. Tyler is another player in which the 49ers have indicated true interest.

Brandon Mebane, California, 6-1½, 309: Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 106 tackles, 24.5 tackles for a loss, 13.5 sacks…two passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery…Has good burst off the snap…Very light on his feet for a big man and has good footwork…Will chase down plays to the outside and break up dump-off screens…Rarely gets knocked to the ground…Hard to beat in run defense when single-teamed…Can collapse the pocket almost immediately when he gets a jump off the snap…Has a solid clubbing uppercut move to knock guards and centers off of him…Is a straight-line rusher who doesn't slide well when first hole is plugged…Too short by NFL measurable standards…Needs to improve his hand fighting technique…Will never be much of a pass rusher…Ran a 5.17 40 at the Combine with 24 reps, a position-worst 24-inch vertical jump and a 8-9 broad jump.
Projection: A lot of scouts get worried when a linemen suddenly emerges as a senior after being pedestrian in previous years as a starter, but Mebane made himself some money at the Senior Bowl with a solid week. His detriments, however, are killers—lack of size and pass-rushing ability. He will be a hard player to project—he'll likely get drafted after a couple of players we rate below him—but as a situational run-stopper, he could make an immediate impact and be attractive to a team in need late in the second or early in the third round.

Paul Soliai, Utah, 6-4, 344: Fifth-year senior…Attended Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College, where he was an honorable mention All-America in 2002 and a First-Team All-America in 2003 as an offensive tackle…Transferred to Utah as a offensive tackle, but, after redshirting in 2004, move to defensive tackle…A one-year starter who had 35 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks, four batted balls, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 2006…Very good size and strength…Tends to dominate when single-blocked in the running game…Can handle double-teams and still make tackles…Can collapse the pocket with vicious hand punch…Only two years of Division I experience and just one as a starter…Needs to work a lot on technique as a pass rusher…Doesn't have great initial burst…Will force plays away from the middle but rarely tracks them down once they're out of the short-area patrol zone…Has trouble making his way through the garbage…Didn't lift at the Combine, but ran a 5.12 40 with a 29-inch vertical jump and a 8-7 broad jump.
Projection: An extremely raw prospect with limited experience at nose tackle, but his size is difficult to find. He likely will be viewed by many teams as a long-term project, but his upside and strength are such that someone will likely make a run at him in the third round.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Marcus Thomas, Florida, 6-2¾, 314: Fourth-year senior…Had 30 sacks as a high school senior, just two short of the all-time single-season high school record in Florida…A two-year full-time starter in 2004-05 when he had 84 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, one pass batted down and two forced fumbles…Had back surgery after the 2005 season…Was suspended for five games in '06 for testing positive for marijuana and, after returning for five games, was kicked off the team for failing to meet the standards set forth by the coaching staff when he was reinstated…Very good quickness of the snap…Has an excellent blend of speed and brute strength…Has good bull-rush ability to collapse the pocket…Has a mean streak and plays an intelligent game…Can stand tall against double teams and still make plays…Will chase runs to the sidelines…Character is a huge issue since he was a three-strikes case with the Gators and didn't seem willing to prioritize his football future at a critical time in his career…Isn't as thickly built as most NFL nose tackle types…Doesn't have any other pass moves other than the bull rush…Gets chop-blocked too often because he gets lazy with his hand protection…Ran a 5.23 40 at the Combine with 27 reps of 225 pounds, but his 26½-inch vertical jump was third-worst among all DTs and his 8-5 broad jump tied for worst.
Projection: If not for his suspension, we would be talking about Thomas as a second-round guy. But taking a gamble too high on a player who gets high can be an issue. While he might go in the third round, more likely he'll be a hot prospect when the second day of the draft begins.

Turk McBride, Tennessee, 6-2½, 288: Fourth-year senior…Didn't become a full-time starter until 2006 when he had 68 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, one sack and a forced fumble…Played in a rotation system at tackle in 2004-05, but was scheduled to play his senior year at end before teammate and fellow DT draft prospect Justin Harrell was lost for the season with a torn biceps tendon and McBride was moved inside…Has very good speed that he showed at the Combine (see below)…Has a very good hand punch…Is a coach's dream who gives everything on every play…Played every position on the line during his college career…Good closing speed and makes jarring tackles…Is undersized in terms of bulk…Very inexperienced with just one full season as a starter…Doesn't have great lower-body strength…Has suffered several minor injuries that consistently had him dinged up…Will stand up off the snap too often and allow bigger offensive linemen to neutralize and engulf him…Ran a 4.83 40 at the Combine (second best among all DTs that tested) with 30 reps, a 31-inch vertical jump and a 8-11 broad jump.
Projection: A ‘tweener who brings versatility at both spots, but is limited to being a 4-3 lineman only because of his lack of bulk. A mid-round player who likely won't make a big impact initially, but in the right system could be something special over time.

Ryan McBean, Oklahoma State, 6-4½, 280: Fourth-year senior…Spent his first two years at Hinds Community College in Mississippi…Two-year starter who started 23 of the 24 games he played, recording 62 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries…Has good upper body with long arms and oversized hands…Has agility and speed to make plays from sideline to sideline…Gets a pass rush thanks to quick first step and ability to hit gaps with authority…A good finisher that has closing speed and rarely misses tackles…A ‘tweener that doesn't appear to have the pass-rush skills to play outside every down in the NFL or the bulk or strength to play inside effectively at the next level…Gets chopped down too often…Effort is inconsistent from game to game…Gets stymied if he doesn't make penetration early and will come up out of his stance, plays too high and gets taken backwards…Had an impressive showing at the Combine, running the 40 in 4.96 seconds with 27 reps of 225 pounds, a 28½ inch vertical jump and a 9-0 broad jump.
Projection: A player who is likely best suited to play base left end in a 3-4 defense, he has all the tools and looks the part, but likely will be a mid-round pick ideally suited to be in the back half of a D-line rotation.

Quinn Pitcock, Ohio State, 6-2½, 299: Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who made 34 starts in his final 36 games, including playing virtually the entire 2005 season with a shoulder injury…Experienced at a big-time program…Willing to play through injury…A blue-collar player who gives his all on every play and plays until the whistle…Good run-pass recognition skills…Good at throwing linemen out of the way and making tackles on running plays…Doesn't have explosive pass-rush skills…Gets cut blocked a lot…Has a body that looks like it should be carrying about 25 pounds less and looks sloppy…Will disappear when facing double-teams…Doesn't have ideal size for a NFL defensive tackle and could be better suited to drop weight and try to be a specialist…Ran a 4.94 40 at the Combine with 23 reps, a 34-inch vertical jump and a 9-4 broad jump.
Projection: With his measurable Combine numbers, it's clear that, despite looking a little flabby, Pitcock has a lot of athleticism. That, combined with being a three-year starter at Ohio State, makes him a prospect that will get a lot of consideration in the middle rounds. Probably a Day Two prospect who may never pan out to be anything more than a platoon or emergency stop-gap player.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Matt Toeaina, Oregon, 6-2, 307
Kareem Brown, Miami, 6-4, 290
Derek Landri, Notre Dame, 6-2½, 288
Keith Jackson, Arkansas, 6-0¼, 305
David Patterson, Ohio State, 6-2¼, 294
Antonio Johnson, Mississippi State, 6-3, 310

NinersDigest.com Recommended Stories