Defensive linemen are too expensive at the back end of their careers, so NFL teams are realizing they'd better grab them when they can at the front end.
That entry point is the draft -- and the NFL could be selecting defensive linemen in the first round this April at a record pace.
In 2003, there were a record 11 defensive linemen selected in the opening round of the draft, including Pro Bowlers Kevin Williams of the Minnesota Vikings and Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens.
There are potentially 13 defensive linemen who could become first-rounders in the 2011 NFL draft this April. That's more than 40 percent of the round.
Their draft stock has been driven up for two reasons. First and foremost, the salaries of blue-chip defensive linemen in free agency have been escalating at a staggering rate.
In 2007, the Seattle Seahawks signed end Patrick Kerney to a six-year, $39.5 million contract with $19.5 million of it guaranteed. Just two years later, it cost the Washington Redskins $100 million over seven years for tackle Albert Haynesworth. Then in 2010, the Chicago Bears gave end Julius Peppers $72 million over six years.
The Redskins had to guarantee Haynesworth $41 million of his money, and the Bears had to guarantee Peppers $42 million. So the elite defensive linemen are now commanding quarterback money in the open market.
Second, Ndamukong Suh reminded the NFL the impact a rookie defensive lineman can have. The Detroit Lions drafted the Nebraska All-American with the second overall choice last April, and he led all defensive tackles with 10 sacks on his way to the Pro Bowl.
"Him winning defensive rookie of the year helped out us (defensive tackles) a lot," said Auburn's Lombardi Trophy-winning defensive tackle Nick Fairley. "Him coming out and making a lot of noise in college helped us all. Now all of the D-tackles are starting to make some noise."
So look for defensive linemen to be the default pick of the first round this April. When in doubt on the clock, look for teams to draft big bodies.
There are seven defensive tackles with first-round grades in March: Fairley, Marcell Dareus (Alabama), Corey Liuget (Illinois), Marvin Austin (North Carolina), Kenrick Ellis (Hampton), Phil Taylor (Baylor) and Muhammad Wilkerson (Temple). There have never been more than five tackles selected in the first round of a draft.
There are six ends with first-round grades in March: Da'Quan Bowers (Clemson), Robert Quinn (North Carolina), Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue), J.J. Watt (Wisconsin), Cameron Jordan (Cal) and Aldon Smith (Missouri). Cameron Heyward of Ohio State and Adrian Clayborn of Iowa could be joining them by April 28. The NFL record is seven ends in the first round of the 1994 draft.
The defensive line is easily the strength of this draft. Look for NFL teams to embrace that strength in the first round.
Pro football writer Rick Gosselin ranks the top 10 players on the draft board coming out of the scouting combine:
1. Patrick Peterson
The highest a cornerback has ever been selected since the merger of AFL and NFL drafts in 1967 was third overall. Bruce Pickens (Atlanta, 1991) and Shawn Springs (Seattle, 1997) share that honor. Even Hall of Famer Deion Sanders slid to fifth overall in the 1989 draft. But Peterson may be the most complete prospect in this draft. He has elite size (6-1, 219 pounds) to go with elite speed (4.34-second 40-yard dash). He also is an elite returner with a 29.1-yard average last season on kickoffs and a 16.1-yard average on punts.
2. A.J. Green
Green is another size/speed specimen. He goes 6-36 1/2, 211 pounds, and ran a 4.48 40 at the combine. Want to be even more impressed? Watch his game tape. He caught 166 passes, averaged 15.8 yards per catch and scored 23 touchdowns without even getting to his senior year. He was an early admission to this draft. He also plucks passes with his hands, rather than corralling them in his body.
3a. Marcell Dareus
3b. Nick Fairley
Flip a coin between the SEC's two best defensive tackles, Dareus and Fairley. The play of Ndamukong Suh with the Detroit Lions last season is pushing defensive tackles up this draft board. Suh was the best tackle in the NFL last season as a rookie. Dareus and Fairley also have the ability to dominate. I give the slight edge to Dareus because he's bigger than Fairley by almost 30 pounds. That gives a defensive front more of an anchor against the run.
5. Von Miller
OLB, Texas A&M
Miller was the best linebacker in the NCAA, as evidenced by his Butkus Award. He also was one of the fastest linebackers at the combine with a 4.53 40. There's a sizable gap between Miller and the next linebacker on this draft board.
6. Da'Quan Bowers
Every NFL offense looks for a franchise quarterback. Every NFL defense looks for an elite pass rusher to tackle those franchise quarterbacks. Bowers is the best pass rusher in this draft, with 156 1/2 sacks last season.
7. Cam Newton
In the last five years, we've seen two great spread quarterbacks come out of college in Vince Young and Tim Tebow. Newton is the best prospect of the three. But he has only one year of college ball under his belt. The team that drafts him must have patience -- and a willingness to incorporate elements of the spread into the offense.
8. Prince Amukamara
Cornerback is one of the deepest positions on this draft board. Amukamara is a tad smaller than Peterson (6-0, 206), a tad slower (4.43 40) and lacks the return skills. But there's little difference in their cover skills. In a passing league, you need a shutdown corner like the Jets have in Darrelle Revis.
9. Mark Ingram
The best running back in the draft. A 5.7-yard career average and 42 touchdowns in just three seasons should keep him in the top 10.
10. Nate Solder
In the last four drafts, the top tackle has been selected first (Jake Long, 2008), second (Jason Smith, 2009), third (Joe Thomas, 2007) and fourth (Trent Williams, 2010) overall. Solder is the best tackle in this draft -- and these protectors of franchise quarterbacks never slide very far.
Five whose stock is rising coming out of the combine:
1. Dontay Moch
Moch set a combine record for down linemen with a 4.44 40-yard dash. He also soared with the vertical jump at 42 inches -- seven more than any other lineman. He's fast and athletic in addition to productive, having been named the WAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 with a school-record 20 tackles for loss. He topped that mark with 22 tackles for loss in 2010. He'll be a 3-4 linebacker on Sundays.
2. Julio Jones
Jones ran a 4.39 40 with a stress fracture in his foot. He looked like a locomotive at 6-26 1/2, 220 pounds but moved like a bullet train. Can he be even faster if he isn't running in pain?
3. Small-school receivers
Stand up and be counted, Abilene Christian, Fort Valley State and Walsh University. Edmund Gates (Abilene) and Ricardo Lockette (Fort Valley) both ran 4.37 40s, and Joe Morgan (Walsh) ran a 4.44 at the combine. Speed puts you on the draft board regardless where you played your college ball.
4. Christian Ponder
QB, Florida State
Ponder started building his draft stock at the Senior Bowl, where he was the most impressive passer, then followed with some impressive combine interviews at Indianapolis. In a lackluster quarterback class, Ponder is starting to shine.
5. North Carolina
Defensive linemen Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin and wide receiver Greg Little sat out the 2010 season because of NCAA suspensions for improper benefits. But out of sight was not out of mind. The three were invited by the NFL to the combine, and all looked the part as premium draft picks.
Five whose stock is falling coming out of the combine:
1. Cam Newton
When you win a national title and the Heisman Trophy and enter the process as the most scrutinized prospect on the draft board, there's only one direction you can go: down. Newton lacks polish and accuracy as a passer and had some trying moments in team interviews. Don't look for him to slide too far, though.
2. Matt Herzlich
OLB, Boston College
Herzlich is one of the best human-interest stories in this draft, having overcome bone cancer in 2009 to re-establish himself as a pro draft prospect in 2010. But his 4.90 combine speed in the 40 could doom him to third-day draft status.
3. Maurice Hurt
You need size and strength to play inside in the NFL. Hurt has the size to become a roadblock for inside pass rushers at 6-26 1/2, 318 pounds. But with only 18 repetitions of 225 pounds in the bench press, Hurt may not be ready to deal with Pro Bowl power players such as Haloti Ngatas and Vince Wilfork.
4. Guards in general
There were only 14 of them invited to the combine. The emerging scouting philosophy is to draft tackles, and if they can't survive on the edge, slide them inside to guard. That's what happened to Robert Gallery, the second overall pick of the 2004 draft, and Chris Williams, the 14th overall pick in 2008. There probably will not be a guard selected in the first round of this draft.
5. Akeem Ayers
A weak linebacker crop was weakened further by lackluster combine performances by some expected stars of this class, such as Ayers and Herzlich. Ayers was a team captain and MVP who elected to skip his senior season. Then he ran his 40s in the 4.8s at Indianapolis. He's still a good player, but the draft is about measurables, and that speed will hurt him.