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Digging Deeper: No Defensive Tackles?

Leading up to the draft, conventional wisdom said that the Denver Broncos would select a defensive tackle early in the draft. I'll admit, I was even sold on the idea that taking a talented defensive tackle was the number one priority. I fell in love with Marcell Dareus and thought he'd be a lock for our #2 pick. Whenever I read a mock draft that didn't include a defensive tackle early, I usually had a compelling response to the effect of "LOL? No DT? WTF?"

But I think we had it all wrong and we should have seen it coming.

I'm not going to try and defend the logic of seemingly ignoring our greatest weakness on defense. But if we dig deeper into the new style of defense that Fox is bringing to the Broncos, should we be surprised that a premium was not paid to defensive tackle?

One of the first spots we should have looked to predict our draft picks was Carolina's draft history while John Fox was head coach. Even if Fox didn't have much freedom in the Panther's war room to pick the players he wanted, we have to think Carolina's FO sought to add players that would fit Fox's scheme.

Between 2002 and 2010, the Carolina Panthers only selected three defensive tackles in the Draft. In 2005, the Panthers selected Atiyyah Ellison in the third round. In 2008, they selected Nick Hayden in the sixth round. In 2009, they selected Corvey Irvin in the third round. Elllison and Hayden were both cut from the roster before the season openers of their respective rookie seasons. Irvin has zero career starts but he has played in two games for the Panthers recording a total of four tackles.

So if the Panthers didn't build at defensive tackle through the draft, where did they build from? One of my favorite offseason posts on MHR was written by Rodney A where he broke down the starting defensive tackles during Fox's Carolina era. Kris Jenkins, who the Panthers drafted before Fox arrived in Carolina, was undoubtedly the rock to their front four. But the other starting tackles that started for Fox in this time period didn't reach Charlotte via the draft.

Brenston Buckner, Ma'ake Kemoeatu, and Daimone Lewis were all free agent accquistions. Hollis Thomas was a waiver wire pickup and Jordan Castens was an undrafted free agent. The final player, Kindal Moorehead, was a converted defensive end, who started at tackle as the result of an injury to Kris Jenkins.

I wouldn't be surprised to see the Broncos add a defensive tackle via free agency. As Bronco fans, we may have grown tired of trying to patch the middle of our defense with free agent signings, but Fox has had good success in adding DT talent from the market. I also wouldn't be surprised if we look to add a very specific type of defensive tackle.

Back to Rodney A's post, Fox's prototype defensive tackle has always been larger than most 4-3 tackles. As Rodney A writes:

 Coach Fox likes his starting front to be big, really big.  It seems logical to expect tor that trend to continue here.

Brian Xanders said the same thing at his Combine press conference:

"Play speed is a big thing with the John Fox model of the linebackers and DBs--their speed. The whole front seven, we want them to be disruptive playmakers that create negative plays--run and pass. The front four are probably bigger than some other 4-3 teams, but we will get to a point where it is really specific."

We should expect to see bigger defensive tackles in Denver. The only years Fox didn't use a defensive tackle over 340 pounds, was in 2004 and 2005--both times due to injury. In fact, in 2006 and 2007, Fox started two tackles that weighed over 340 pounds on his defensive line.

Its not surprising then, that the Broncos were linked to some of the bigger defensive tackles in this year's draft. Reportedly we were very interested in Jarvis Jenkins (6'4 310 lbs), until he was selected by the Washington Redskins four picks before us. It, therefore, shouldn't be that surprising that we passed on prospects like Stephen Paea (6'1 303lbs) or Jurrell Casey (6'1 305 lbs) or even Sione Fua(6'1 308 lbs). These players have maxed out their frames and they barely weigh over 300. Marvin Austin (6'2 309 lbs) may have been a better scheme fit, but it is apparent that the Broncos put importance on character, drafting three team captains in Miller, Moore, and Irving.

There are still some defensive tackles on the board that fit the Fox mold. Ian Williams, Lawrence Guy, and Jerell Powe, could all be great late round pickups.

But Bronco fans should be ecstatic at the defensive talent that is coming to Denver next year. Our linebacker coach, Richard Smith, developed Demeco Ryans into a Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2006 when he was the DC for the Houston Texans. He could be the perfect coach to develop Von Miller and Nate Irving. We should also hope that a ball-hawk like Rahim Moore can have a Darren Sharper impact on our defense under the tutelage of our DC Dennis Allen.

Not drafting a defensive tackle early may be disheartening to fans, but Fox has never been known to draft defensive tackles early. He also has a very specfic desire for his tackles, and early in the draft there was better value at other positions. Outside of the first round, it would have been very difficult to find a DT who could come in and start for the Broncos on day one. Defensive tackle may have been our biggest need, but drafting for need is a losing strategy. Drafting a player like Stephen Paea, who wouldn't be able to fill the ideal role for a Fox DT, could have hurt more than helped. Our rebuilding defense needed new players at almost every position, and it may take more than one year before our run defense is solidified. Ultimately, drafting the best player available is a smarter long term strategy, even if it means Darren McFadden will continue to run all over us in the short term. 

Yikes, did I really just write that? Maybe we should have drafted Paea.