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Monday, Sept. 22, 9:11 a.m.
Sports

Defensive line focus of 2011 NFL draft

NFL Draft — the most of any position.

This trend reflects a shift in emphasis and the growing importance of being able to throw the football. Also reflective of that trend is the fact that the second most frequently drafted position in the top-five since 2000 is defensive linemen with 12.

For every time a young quarterback with unlimited potential and the expectations of carrying a franchise enters the league, an equally promising d-lineman, hailed and glorified as the next great pass rusher neutralizes that advantage — and the chess match between offensive and defensive minded coaches rages on.

What all of these defensive linemen — with maybe the exception of Tyson Jackson, 2009 Kansas City Chiefs No. 3 overall — have in common is that they possessed elite pass rushing skills coming out of college. Being able to pressure the quarterback is the prerequisite for a big body on defense to be taken that high.

Of those 12 defensive linemen, seven played defensive end in the NFL. Only two of those ends — Chicago Bears’ Julius Peppers, 2002 Carolina Panthers No. 2 overall, and Mario Williams, 2006 Houston Texans No. 1 overall — have truly lived up to their draft status and become dominant, game-changing players.

The one glaring bust of that group is Courtney Brown, selected No. 1 overall by Cleveland in 2000, who had significant trouble staying healthy throughout his career.

Justin Smith, 2001 Cincinnati Bengals No. 4 overall, has had a very good professional career with the Bengals and 49ers, but hasn’t turned out to be a superstar. Gaines Adams, 2007 Tampa Bay Buccaneers No. 4 overall, tragically passed away last year after only a few seasons in the league, and Chris Long, 2008 St. Louis Rams No. 2 overall, is looking more like Smith rather than fellow No. 2 overall pick Peppers. Jackson is still trying to find his way as a starter in the league — but he is still young.

The defensive tackles have had less success than the ends. Blatant top-five busts were Gerard Warren, 2001 Cleveland Browns No. 3 overall, who managed to salvage his career late but was never anything more than a rotational player and DeWayne Robertson, 2003 New York Jets No. 4 overall.

Kansas City went along the defensive line with a top five pick two years in a row and nearly missed on both, drafting Jackson, No. 3 overall in 2009, and Louisiana State University defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, No. 5 overall in 2008. The strategy was to cement a young line for the 3-4 scheme, but neither player has yet lived up to their billing.

Dorsey now plays both positions on the line and had a solid 2010 campaign that lends hope to his future, and like Jackson, he is very raw and it is too early to tell if he was worthy of the pick. Last year’s draft saw Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy go No. 2 and No. 3 overall, respectively. Suh is already an All-Pro and one of the best tackles in the league and McCoy showed promise before suffering a season ending injury.

The hit-and-miss rate for defensive lineman in the top-five is around 50 percent, which is fairly standard among any position. The evolving trend has general managers and scouts analyzing and redefining what it takes to develop from a raw collegiate prospect to a quarterback’s worst nightmare.

This year, four defensive linemen are projected as potential top-five draft picks. Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers, Alabama’s Marcell Dareus, North Carolina’s Robert Quinn and Auburn’s Nick Fairley are all options for draft slots one through five this year. Fairley and Bowers are projected as most likely to be the Panthers’ choice at No. 1 in most mock drafts.

Only time will tell how and where their careers will unfold, but one thing is certain, they’re all going to get their shot to offset the newest crop of quarterbacks.