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2015 NFL Draft: What Can You Expect From A Rookie Defensive Tackle?

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Over the last five years, 32 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.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday this week, we looked at where the top four draft picks at each position were picked over the last five years. We saw that defensive tackle is one of the more coveted positions in the NFL draft, and that the top three draft prospects over the last five years were all gone after the 20th pick.

The Cowboys looked very hard at Aaron Donald in the draft last year, but Donald ended up being taken with the 13th pick by the Rams. This year, the Cowboys have the 27th pick, and barring a very costly trade-up, they will likely miss out on the top defensive tackles prospects in the draft. Despite that, a defensive tackle could very well be an early pick for the Cowboys in 2015.

Earlier today, Dave Halprin reviewed Mel Kiper's latest mock draft, which has the Cowboys taking defensive tackle Jordan Phillips out of Oklahoma. Kiper is right when he writes that the Cowboys' defensive line "isn't going to simply get better unless it adds more talent," and there's no denying that the Cowboys have issues along the defensive line, but how realistic is it to expect a first- or second-round rookie to fix what's ailing the Cowboys' front four?

To find out, we need to understand how easy or hard it is for first- and second-round rookie defensive tackles to hit the ground running in the NFL. Which is why we'll look at the 32 defensive tackles drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL draft over the last five years and figure out what level of performance you can reasonably expect from rookie DTs.

We'll do that by looking at how quickly these 32 draft picks became starters and also look at how they were graded by ProFootballFocus.com (PFF). That data is summarized in the table below, some observations and conclusions follow after the table.

Player Information Games Started
PFF Grade
Year
Round
Pick
Player
POS
Team
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
2014 1 13 Aaron Donald DT STL 12 34.4
2014 1 29 Dominique Easley DT NWE 2 -4.6
2014 2 37 Ra'Shede Hageman DT ATL 0 -3.4
2014 2 48 Timmy Jernigan DT BAL 3 11.1
2014 2 51 Ego Ferguson DT CHI 0 -4.8
Year
Round
Pick
Player
POS
Team
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
2013 1 13 Sheldon Richardson DT NYJ 15 16 21.3 39.9
2013 1 14 Star Lotulelei DT CAR 16 12 9.6 6.9
2013 1 23 Sharrif Floyd DT MIN 1 11 -5.9 22.1
2013 1 28 Sylvester Williams DT DEN 4 13 -4.8 -7.6
2013 2 44 Kawann Short DT CAR 0 9 11.9 18.2
2013 2 49 Johnathan Hankins DT NYG 0 16 5.6 20.2
Year
Round
Pick
Player
POS
Team
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
2012 1 11 Dontari Poe DT KAN 16 15 16 -14.5 15.4 0.3
2012 1 12 Fletcher Cox DT PHI 9 16 16 2.5 8.0 30.5
2012 1 14 Michael Brockers DT STL 12 16 16 -1.5 -7.1 -4.7
2012 2 36 Derek Wolfe DT DEN 16 11 16 -15.3 -15.0 -1.5
2012 2 49 Kendall Reyes DT SDG 4 16 15 -0.8 -22.3 -21.3
2012 2 51 Jerel Worthy DT GNB/KC 4 0 0 -14.8 -0.5 - -
2012 2 53 Devon Still DT CIN 0 0 0 -1.1 -2.5 -7.4
Year
Round
Pick
Player
POS
Team
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
2011 1 3 Marcell Dareus DT BUF 15 16 14 15 7.0 3.9 25.0 25.6
2011 1 13 Nick Fairley DT DET 0 7 15 8 4.5 15.1 0.4 9.8
2011 1 18 Corey Liuget DT SDG 13 16 16 16 -15.3 4.0 -8.0 1.0
2011 1 30 Muhammad Wilkerson DT NYJ 16 15 16 13 -3.5 37.2 7.5 33.7
2011 1 31 Cameron Heyward DT PIT 0 0 13 16 -3.6 3.7 4.4 24.6
2011 2 53 Stephen Paea DT CHI 0 14 10 16 -2.4 -3.4 -7 14.4
Year
Round
Pick
Player
POS
Team
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
2010 1 2 Ndamukong Suh DT DET 16 14 16 16 16 -0.7 -6 15.2 32.8 31.4
2010 1 3 Gerald McCoy DT TAM 13 6 16 16 13 4.6 3.4 24.2 48.8 29.7
2010 1 10 Tyson Alualu DT JAX 16 16 16 16 0 -13 -25.8 -18.7 -20.2 -11.6
2010 1 26 Dan Williams DT ARI 0 10 11 10 9 6.3 -1.4 1.3 5.3 14.4
2010 2 35 Brian Price DT TAM/- 0 14 0 0 0 -4.3 -20.7 - - - -
2010 2 41 Torell Troup DT BUF/- 2 0 0 0 0 -11.1 -5.0 - - - - - -
2010 2 46 Linval Joseph DT NYG 0 15 16 15 16 -2.5 -0.1 -0.7 3.7 1.2
2010 2 57 Terrence Cody DT BAL 0 2 0 0 0 -4.8 -14.1 -11.9 -7.4 -0.4

That's obviously a lot of data to sort through, but it gets a lot clearer when we aggregate the data into three tiers by draft position.

Tier 1: These are DT's picked within the first 20 picks. With the Cowboys holding the 27th pick, these prospects are likely out of reach of the Cowboys.

Tier 2: DT prospects picked between the 21st and 40th spot. This tier is within reach of the Cowboys' first-round pick - in both directions.

Tier 3: The DTs here are picked from pick 41 through the end of the second round at pick 64. The Cowboys hold the 59th pick, so these would be players that could be targeted with the Cowboys' second-round pick.

The next table shows those three tiers as well as how many players in each tier were starters in their rookie season, and how many had a positive grade in their rookie season.

No. of Players Rookie-season Starters Positive 1st-year Grade
Tier 1: Picks 1-20 12 92% (11) 58% (7)
Tier 2: Picks 21-40 9 22% (2) 22% (2)
Tier 3: Picks 41-64 11 0% (0) 27% (3)

Observation # 1: When you draft a defensive tackle in the first two rounds, you are NOT drafting an immediate starter.

Of the 32 defensive linemen in the tables above, only 12 (38%) 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 20, at least if the last five years are anything to go by. Outside of Detroit's Nick Fairley, every single defensive tackle drafted in the top 20 over the last five years started in his rookie season.

Outside of the top 20 though, the chances of drafting an immediate starter go down significantly. Only two of the 20 players drafted outside of the Top 20 started in their rookie seasons. At first glance, that looks like a bleak situation for the Cowboys. But that may not necessarily be the case. 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.

But investing a high draft pick into a part-time player comes with its own set of issues, as BTB-member ScarletO writes:

None of the Cowboys' defensive linemen averaged 40 plays per game this season. Paying a large salary to [or investing a high draft pick in] someone playing around half of the total snaps does not make financial sense. Contrast the snaps of Tyrone Crawford and Jeremy Mincey (the two defensive linemen that played the most snaps) with the snaps logged by Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick. The offensive linemen are playing almost twice as many snaps.

Observation # 2: Defensive tackles drafted in the first two rounds CAN have an immediate impact.

12 out of 32 (38%) 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.

Obviously the chance of drafting a player who'll deliver an above average performance in his rookie season drops the further down you go in the draft.

And quite frankly, I'd take Ndamukong Suh's -0.7 rookie season grade, Michael Brockers' -1.5, or Muhammad Wilkerson's -3.5 any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Observation # 3: The elusive three-technique

Traditionally, DTs are big-bodied, 300+ pound players whose primary focus is stopping the run and keeping multiple blockers tied up so that they cannot release upfield to take on a LB or DB. This means that most DT's don't show up on the stat sheet with a lot of tackles or sacks, and are often derisively called "run-stuffers".

There are probably many defensive tackles in this draft that can stop the run, take on double teams and have the anchor to hold their ground. But that's not what the Cowboys are looking for, and anyway, investing a high draft pick for a run-defender in a pass-first league the kind of stupid idea that gets GMs fired.

What the Cowboys are looking for in a defensive tackle is a "quick-twitch" guy who can collapse the pocket and rush the passer. He can do this with brute strength and explosion to overpower opponents or he can do it using his quickness - both lateral and vertical - to get off the snap and squeeze through gaps.

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 bench-pressing 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.

And ultimately, that's the defensive tackle conundrum in this draft. If you want a big guy who can sit down on two offensive linemen, you can 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. And the last five years show that those guys are hard to come by.