For the first time in many years, the Indianapolis Colts have reason to be excited about their defensive tackle rotation. No, the group is certainly not one of the highest rated units in the league, but it is filled with players who more adequately play the role Indy’s defensive scheme requires than any group since the team had Anthony “Booger” McFarland in 2006. Gone are the days of sub-300 pound players trying to stop the run. The unit is bigger and many of its members are improving.
Consider that 2009 second round draft pick Fili Moala started every game in 2010. More importantly, he improved significantly from a disappointing rookie campaign. Veteran Eric Foster has moved into a situational pass rushing role and that he has improved each year he has been with the team. Even rookie Ricardo Mathews showed signs of real potential in limited action.
The only real doubt for Indianapolis as they head into 2011 is who will play the one-technique — nose tackle — role. The team has historically struggled against the run, and those struggles continued in 2010 when Daniel Muir was forced to start in place of Antonio “Mookie” Johnson — who missed significant time due to nagging injuries. When Johnson returned late in the season, the run defense improved significantly. Whether the team will be able to re-sign Johnson, once a new CBA is instituted and the lockout is lifted for good, is an unknown and could have a significant impact on how tempted the team will be to invest an early pick on the interior of the defensive line.
Prior to the lockout, Indianapolis placed tender offers on only Muir and Foster. This could mean the team will place a high value on finding a starting nose tackle in the early rounds. If the front office has plans to retain Johnson once negotiations resume, a rotational player with high value in the late rounds could make more sense. In the midst of these possibilities, a rumor has circulated that the Colts may have expressed interest in signing former Bears tackle Tommie Harris. If Harris can return to form, after suffering injuries of his own and a drop in production, it would certainly be a boost. Even if he does sign and has an impact, he thrives in the 3-technique role and would likely not have a significant impact in the run-stuffing role at the nose.
First Round – Pick 22
Corey Liuget - Illinois – Liuget is a popular mock draft selection for the Colts, and for good reason. He has the size, strength, and speed to hold up against the run and penetrate. This skill set is very similar to former Colts tackle Booger McFarland. While it will take Liuget some time to develop to McFarland’s level of production, he projects to be a big part of the defensive tackle rotation as a rookie — and could even start. High value.
Muhammed Wilkerson - Temple – Wilkerson is a very athletic defensive tackle and seems capable of filling the nose tackle role in a 4-3 defensive scheme. His size and skills project positively for 3-4 defensive lines though and it is rather likely that a team picking before the Colts will grab him. Moderate value.
Marcell Dareus - Alabama – Dareus is a consensus top 5 pick. The Colts will not trade into the top 10. Low value.
Nick Fairley - Auburn – Fairley is a consensus top 10 pick. The Colts will not trade into the top 10. Low value.
Second Round – Pick 53
Phil Taylor - Baylor – Taylor is a monstrous defensive tackle — 6-foot 3-inches tall and 334 pounds — with outstanding athletic ability. The Colts have already showed interest in Taylor and if he falls into the second round, there is a chance the Colts will pick him up. Need a nose tackle who can generate push and collapse the pocket? Check. High value.
Stephen Paea - Oregon State – Paea shocked NFL analysts and a lot of teams when he broke the NFL Combine bench press record by putting up 49 reps of 225 pounds. There is no doubt that his strength should be handy in a one-technique role. With all of the other defensive linemen projected ahead of him he could drop all the way to the Colts pick at 53. If so, he would be a solid prospect. High value.
Marvin Austin - North Carolina – Austin is an athletic freak of nature. He would be in contention for the top defensive tackle talent in the entire class if not for character concerns. The Colts are not prone to taking players with character concerns this early in the draft. Moderate to high value.
Jurrell Casey - USC – Casey projects as a 4-3 under tackle in the NFL. With former USC under tackle Fili Moala already on the roster, it seems unlikely that Casey will end up with the Colts. Low value.
Jarvis Jenkins - Clemson – Jenkins projects as a 5-technique lineman for teams with 3-4 defensive schemes. Low value.
Third Round – Pick 87
Kenrick Ellis - Hampton – Ellis is another massive nose tackle prospect who has the strength and athleticism to take on double teams and collapse the pocket. Adding a player his size would certainly help against the run and could free up the Colts pass rushers on passing downs. The issue regarding Ellis is whether he has the drive to work as hard as he will have to work to be dominant in the NFL and some drug related character concerns from his past. This is why he could slip to the third round and be solid pick for Indianapolis. High value.
Drake Nevis - LSU – Nevis is a really difficult tackle to value properly. His college production was excellent, and his technique is impressive. He has the size and leverage to hold up against the run and the speed to penetrate the pocket and create a pass rush from the interior of the defensive line. If he falls to the third round, he would be a solid selection. High value.
Fourth Round – Pick 119
Sione Fua - Stanford – At 6-foot 2-inches tall and 310 pounds, Fua has the build and college playing resumé to be a high value mid round nose tackle prospect. Although Indianapolis has not officially expressed a lot of interest in Fua, Bill Polian’s son Brian is the special teams coach for the Cardinals and certainly can give the Colts scouting staff a lot of insight. Do not be surprised if the Colts go for late round value, one of Bill Polian’s favorite moves, with a player like Fua. High value.
Terrell McClain - South Florida – McClain is another pure under tackle prospect. In the fourth round he would have good value but again, the Colts seem to have a stable full of under tackle strong players already on the roster. Low value.
Fifth Round – Pick 153
Ian Williams - Notre Dame – Williams is another player who projects to offer rotational depth for the Colts nose tackle position. If he falls into the fifth, or even sixth, round he could pique Indy’s interest. Moderate to high value.
Sixth Round – Pick 188
Jerrell Powe - Ole Miss – Powe followed up an outstanding junior season with a disappointing senior season. This could push him far down draft boards and into the late rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft. If he is still on the board in the sixth round and the Colts have not addressed defensive tackle, he would have high value. High value.
Zach Clayton - Auburn – The Colts have shown interest in Clayton but at 6-foot 2-inches tall and right at 300 pounds he would be a consolation prize from the other linemen earlier in the draft. The team could hope to see him go undrafted and then pursue him in free agency. Moderate value.
Frank Kearse - Alabama A&M – Kearse is a 6-foot 4-inch, 315 pound monster defensive tackle who excelled with Alabama A&M. His draft stock has improved enough that he could be selected in the sixth round, but he could also fall into free agency. Moderate value.
One thing is certain when the defensive tackle class is examined closely — the Colts will have a lot of different options available at different times in the draft to address the team’s weaknesses. Additionally, Indianapolis has spent a lot of time scouting and meeting with a number of tackle prospects. If the team’s efforts are any indication, there is a strong likelihood that a defensive tackle will find his way onto the Colts roster via the draft. Any defensive tackles that should be included in discussions that are not a part of this list should be indicated in the comments below.