(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, set for April 26-28.)
Two years ago, it was Ndamukong Suh from Nebraska. No question about it as the 2010 NFL Draft began, and really there had been little to no debate about it in the weeks leading up to it. Suh clearly was the best defensive tackle prospect in that class, and the Detroit Lions made him the second overall selection. As a rookie, Suh posted 9.5 sacks and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year while making 16 starts for the Lions.
Last year, it was Marcell Darius from Alabama. There was a little more debate this time, primarily because of the frightening ability Nick Fairley had shown at times for Auburn, but where there were plenty of character concerns about Fairley there were none with Darius. In the 2009 national championship game, Darius first knocked Texas quarterback Colt McCoy out of the game and then he helped cement Alabama's win by returning an interception for a touchdown. The Buffalo Bills made Darius the third overall pick of the 2011 draft, and they are happy they did.
This year? There is no consensus when it comes to the best defensive tackle prospect in the 2012 draft. Some like LSU's Michael Brockers, while others prefer either Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox or Michigan State's Jerel Worthy. And for those whose method of scouting involves ignoring game tapes in favor of combine workout numbers, there is Memphis' Dontari Poe.
Brockers (6-foot-6, 320 pounds) arrived at LSU as a 250-pound defensive end, but he grew into a run-stuffer who had seven tackles and blocked a field goal against Alabama in the BCS Championship Game. Brockers seemed to play at his best in big games, with four tackles (including three for loss) and a sack against Mississippi State, three tackles and a tackle for loss against Florida, five tackles against Arkansas, six tackles, including two for loss as well as a forced fumble and a pass defensed, in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia. Brockers won't turn 22 until Dec. 21, but that also means he only had one season in college as a full-time starter.
On the other hand, Cox (6-4, 300) was a three-year starter at Mississippi State, but he won't be 22 until Dec. 13. A third-year junior, Cox was the only player from Mississippi State to earn first-team All-SEC honors in 2011, and he finished the season with 56 tackles and five sacks. He played both defensive end and defensive tackle and this versatility will be an asset in the NFL, where scouts see him as being similar to San Diego's Corey Luiget, an 18th overall pick from Illinois last year.
Worthy (6-2, 310) started 37 games for the Spartans, and he finished his career there with 25.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks to go along with 102 tackles and three blocked kicks. Worthy did not distinguish himself at the combine, but he is more about playing the game than looking good in speed/agility drills. Worthy became the first Michigan State defensive lineman to earn first-team Associated Press All-America honors since Bubba Smith in 1966. He said his decision to enter the draft early was partly because his father suffered a stroke in 2010 and he wants to offer financial support for the family.
While Worthy will rest his reputation on his game tapes, Poe (6-4, 345) would much prefer to be judged on his combine workout. Poe posted a 4.98 in the 40-yard dash, and he did 44 repetitions with 225 pounds on the bench press. In his 30 career starts in college, Poe recorded 101 tackles (57 unassisted), 21.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, four passes defensed and four forced fumbles, but those numbers weren't enough for some NFL coaches and scouts. Mike DuBose, Poe's position coach at Memphis, said Poe often over-thinks things and needs to rely on his abilities more.
Two other players here with first-round potential are Penn State's Devon Still (6-5, 305) and Connecticut's Kendall Reyes (6-4, 300).
There are some impressive bloodlines in Still's family, with former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Art Still and former Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland both being cousins. Having to overcome an ACL injury and a broken ankle during his first two years at Penn State, Still had become a dominant interior presence by the end of a 2011 season in which he had 55 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks on the way to earning a spot on 10 different All-America teams. He had 10 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010.
Reyes is a two-time team captain who has been praised for his work ethic and dedication. He started 42 games for UConn and had 31.5 tackles for loss during his career, and while he didn't record many sacks Reyes did help the defense with the kind of pressure up the middle that makes quarterbacks uncomfortable.
THE 2011 NFL DRAFT, DT STATISTICS
Number drafted: 22
Picks by round: 5 in the first; 3 in the second; 5 in the third; 1 in the fourth; 1 in the fifth; 2 in the sixth; 5 in the seventh
Highest pick: Marcell Darius, Alabama, Round 1, 3rd overall, by Buffalo
Biggest impact: Phil Taylor was drafted in the first round by Cleveland (21st overall) and he started all 16 games and contributed four sacks.