2014 NFL Draft: What Level Of Performance Can Be Expected From Rookie Defensive Tackles?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last four years, 27 defensive tackles have been picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. We look at their pro numbers in detail, and wonder what type of first-year performance we could expect if the Cowboys were to pick a DT early in this year's draft.

Despite what our own Tom Ryle would have you believe ("Why Dallas Will Not Draft A Defensive Lineman In The First Round"), a defensive tackle could very well be an early pick for the Cowboys in 2014. Anyway, Tom was careful to limit his statement to the first round of the draft, and given the state of the Cowboys front four, it's likely that the Cowboys will invest a high draft pick in their defensive line.

We recently saw a mock draft from Bill Jones of CBS DFW that had the Cowboys taking six defensive linemen. While the brute force carpet-bombing of one position group has a certain desperate charm to it and may look good in a mock draft contest, it would make you look sillier than Matt Millen in reality, which in itself would be quite an accomplishment.

Of course, there's no denying that the Cowboys have issues along the defensive line, but is it realistic to expect a bunch of rookies to fix what ails the Cowboys' front four? To find out, we take a look at how hard it is for first- and second-round rookie defensive tackles to hit the ground running in the NFL. We'll look at the 27 defensive tackles drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL draft over the last four years and figure out what level of performance you can reasonably expect from rookie DTs.

We'll do that by looking at the number of games started by each player per year, and also look at how they were graded by Profootballfocus.com (PFF). That data is summarized in the tables below, some observations and conclusions follow after the tables.

Year Round Pick Player POS Team Games Started
PFF Grade
2013
2013
2013 1 13 Sheldon Richardson DT NYJ 15 30.4
2013 1 14 Star Lotulelei DT CAR 16 15.1
2013 1 23 Sharrif Floyd DT MIN 1 -1.3
2013 1 28 Sylvester Williams DT DEN 4 -2.2
2013 2 44 Kawann Short DT CAR 0 16.5
2013 2 49 Johnathan Hankins DT NYG 0 8.0

Year Round Pick Player POS Team Games Started

PFF Grade
2012 2013 2012 2013
2012 1 11 Dontari Poe DT KAN 16 15 -7.4 23.5
2012 1 12 Fletcher Cox DT PHI 9 16 7.3 13.4
2012 1 14 Michael Brockers DT STL 12 16 4.1 0.2
2012 2 36 Derek Wolfe DT DEN 16 11 -9.8 -14.1
2012 2 49 Kendall Reyes DT SDG 4 16 3.9 -15.0
2012 2 51 Jerel Worthy DT GNB 4 0 -11.9 - -
2012 2 53 Devon Still DT CIN 0 0 0.6 -0.9

Year Round Pick Player POS Team Games Started
PFF Grade
2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013
2011 1 3 Marcell Dareus DT BUF 15 16 14 13.9 10.0 32.4
2011 1 13 Nick Fairley DT DET 0 7 15 6.3 19.2 5.8
2011 1 18 Corey Liuget DT SDG 13 16 16 -8.3 11.5 -0.9
2011 1 30 Muhammad Wilkerson DT NYJ 16 15 16 4.6 49.1 17.9
2011 1 31 Cameron Heyward DT PIT 0 0 13 - - 7.3 13.4
2011 2 53 Stephen Paea DT CHI 0 14 10 0.2 1.7 -2.5

Year Round Pick Player POS Team Games Started
PFF Grade
2010 2011 2012 2013
2010 2011 2012 2013
2010 1 2 Ndamukong Suh DT DET 16 14 15 16 7.6 3.2 22.6 39.9
2010 1 3 Gerald McCoy DT TAM 13 6 16 16 10.7 5.5 31.7 57.3
2010 1 10 Tyson Alualu DT JAX 16 16 16 16 -5.7 -18.2 -11.9 -15.4
2010 1 26 Dan Williams DT ARI 0 10 11 10 10.9 1.2 6.6 8.4
2010 2 35 Brian Price DT TAM 0 14 0 0 -3.3 -15.5 - - - -
2010 2 41 Torell Troup DT BUF 15 0 0 0 -6.9 -3.6 - - - -
2010 2 46 Linval Joseph DT NYG 0 15 16 15 -1.8 -0.3 6.3 9.9
2010 2 57 Terrence Cody DT BAL 1 16 3 2 -2.8 -8.3 -6.5 -5.0

That's a lot of numbers, so let's summarize that data by aggregating the players into three groups according to where they were picked in the draft:

Rookie-season Starters Positive 1st-year Grade
Top 16 (10) 90% (9) 80% (8)
Picks 17-32 (6) 33% (2) 33% (2)
2nd-round picks (11) 18% (2) 45% (5)

When you draft a defensive tackle in the first two rounds, you are NOT drafting an immediate starter.

Of the 27 defensive linemen in the tables above, only 13 (48%) started the majority of games for their teams in their rookie season. If you want a first-year starter at DT, you'll probably have to draft that player in the top 16. That is, if the last four years are anything to go by. Outside of Detroit's Nick Fairley, every single defensive tackle drafted in the top half of the first round over the last four years started in his rookie season.

Outside of the top 16 though, the chances of drafting an immediate starter go down significantly. Only four of the 17 players drafted outside of the Top 16 started in their rookie seasons. But that may not necessarily be an issue. Because the D-line, unlike the O-line, frequently rotates players in and out to keep the line fresh over the course of a game. So even if a player did not get to start, he may still have had a positive impact in his rookie season.

Look no further than Carolina rookie Kawaan Short, who played in about half of his team's snaps and didn't get a start, but was key to the performance of the Panthers defensive line (along with Star Lotulelei). If I can get that type of performance from a rookie, I don't really care whether he starts or not.

Defensive tackles drafted in the first two rounds CAN have an immediate impact.

A surprisingly high 15 out of 27 (56%) defensive tackles in this analysis delivered an above average performance (marked in green in the table above) in their rookie seasons, as graded by PFF. Keep in mind that a positive PFF grade means that a given player played better than the NFL average player at his specific position. A below average grade doesn't mean that a rookie necessarily played badly. In fact, a very strong argument could be made that most of these guys actually played quite well, for a rookie.

So when you're drafting a defensive tackle in the first two rounds, you have a 56% chance of drafting a player who will deliver an above average performance. And that's above league average. Considering the state of the Cowboys D-line heading into next year it's not a stretch to believe that almost any defensive tackle taken could be an upgrade over what the Cowboys currently have.

The Marcus Spears conundrum.

The Cowboys picked Marcus Spears with the 20th overall pick in the 2005 draft. At the time, Spears was a highly touted prospect, and the story goes that Bill Parcells wanted to pick him with the 11th pick of that draft, but was overruled by Jerry Jones, who picked DeMarcus Ware in that spot.

And here's why Parcells liked Spears: At his pro day, Spears ran a 5.05 forty, had a 31 inch vertical jump and a 4.44 20-yard shuttle, all at 307 pounds. Additionally, Spears had a 1.60 production ratio (28 games, 15 sacks, 30 TFLs) over his final two seasons at LSU. In his last college year, Spears earned First-team All-America honors from the Walter Camp Foundation, American Football Coaches Association, and AP, and second-team All-America honors from Sports Illustrated, first-team All-SEC honors and was a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award and Lombardi Award.

That's the guy Parcells wanted as a key building block for the new 3-4 scheme. Yet Spears, who would end up starting 89 games over eight years for the Cowboys, never became the dominant defensive lineman his college- and draft pedigree suggested he would become.

And ultimately, that is the question with this year's crop of defensive tackles. Will they be better than Marcus Spears? If you're just going to draft a big guy who can sit down on two offensive linemen, you may get a guy like that on the third day of the draft, or you can get a cheap, proven veteran in free agency to do just that job. But if you're going to invest a high draft pick in a defensive tackle, you'd better make sure the guy you pick is going to be a difference maker.

The Cowboys call that type of difference maker a "quick twitch" guy. Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com explains:

What I have learned from these Cowboys defensive coaches is that with the defensive line, it’s all about the quick twitch more so than the overall size. Kiffin told me that it was rare this season to have a guy like Jason Hatcher with his height to play as a one technique in this scheme.

The player that has that Hatcher-like size would be Hageman but on tape, I don’t believe that he has that quick twitch that Kiffin would be looking for. Aaron Donald will be measured Monday morning as will Will Sutton, who both would be perfect three techniques. What is interesting about Donald and Sutton is that they both are right at 6 foot tall and that is not a problem for Kiffin, as long as they both have that quick twitch that we have talked about.

Keep that in mind as you scan the top prospects for suitable DT targets: many people fall in love with a prospect's measurables, and will tout this guy for his benchpressing prowess, that guy for his height and weight, and yet another guy for his arm length. All nice and good, but at the end of the day, if a prospect is not a "quick twitch" guy, the Cowboys probably won't spend a high pick on him.

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