In our weekly break down of the NFC West, we open the defensive side of the ball with the biggest of the big uglies (check out previous positions here). The nose tackle or defensive tackle, depending on scheme, rarely get much national attention nor are they showered with glamorous awards, but they are certainly an integral part of any successful defense. The Arizona Cardinals nose tackles are in a state of flux with one hopeful starter trying to recover from another surgery, one veteran hoping for another successful season in his mid-30's and one early round draft pick trying to shake the 'bust' label, but how do they compare with their counterparts of the NFC West?
The Arizona Cardinals are one of the many teams who have jumped on the 3-4 band wagon and even though they've been some form of mixed/hybrid defense for a couple of seasons, they are expected to look and function much more like a conventional 3-4 defense this season. With that being said, the rock of any respectable 3-4 defense is a huge immovable rock in the middle of the defensive line. For the Cardinals defense to be successful in 2009, they need that immovable force to be Gabe Watson. Watson (6'3, 332) as a fourth round pick in 2006, showed some promise during his first two seasons and looked to be in store for a big season heading into 2008 but an off season treadmill accident left him with a fractured knee cap. He'd end up missing the first four games entirely and wouldn't start a game until the Super Bowl. After the season we learned that he played with pain for most of the season and he had a second operation shortly after the season ended. Watson is expected to be ready for training camp and should regain the starting job by the season opener. If he can return to health and play as well as he did in 2007, the nose tackle position has the potential to be above average and the Cardinals' front seven could be very successful against opposing running games.
The dark lining to that silver cloud is that we basically heard the same news last year about Gabe Watson. He was supposed to be ready sometime during training camp and then he was supposed to be ready by opening day, but in the end a veteran journeyman ended up starting 19 games. Bryan Robinson (6'4, 304) performed admirably last season as he played out of position and over his head for entire season, but the Cardinals are hoping that he can return to his backup role at both nose tackle and defensive end. He's no spring chicken (35 years old) and the Cardinals would most likely have to stick with some kind of hybrid front if Robinson is in the full time starting lineup. Somewhere behind Watson and Robinson bust-in-the-making Alan Branch. It almost seems like a decade ago that the Cardinals traded a fourth round pick in order to move up five spots in the second round to select Branch. In reality though that move in the 2007 draft has resulted in just 15 tackles in 15 games over the course of two seasons. He's been criticized for showing up to training camp and OTA's overweight and out of shape, as well as displaying a general lack of motivation. There are times when Branch still displays the ability to shoot gaps and withstand double teams without giving ground but those flashes are too often followed by long period of lackluster, uninspired football (hence the "flickering light bulb" analogy that Whisenhunt used last year).
Finally, from the "I have no idea what the expect" department is Rodney Leisle, a former fifth round pick of the Saints in 2004. He played in 17 games over his first three seasons before being cut in the training camp of 2007. He resurfaced with the Giants during their training camp last year but a rib injury ended his season before it even got started. He spent some time in Canadian football with the Saskatchewan Roughriders during their 2008 season. He's reportedly an undersized defender who makes up for athletic shortcomings by playing with tremendous desire and aggression. The short of it though, is that he hasn't played a down in a NFL regular season game since 2006 so it seems almost foolish to expect him to anything other than training camp fodder, although there is a throng (read: hevchv) of Cardinals' fans who hope he pushes Branch out the door.
Overall I expect the production of this group to hinge entirely on the health of Gabe Watson. If he's healthy, he should be a force on first and second down with Robinson coming in on passing downs. Both guys should stay reasonably fresh the middle of the Cardinals defense should be tough to run against, but this position takes a major hit if Watson is sidelined for any or all of the regular season. I tend to think a best case scenario would grade out as a B and the worst case scenario would fall somewhere in the D range. With that in mind, I'll take the easy way out and say C.
As the 49ers have slowly transitioned from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, a sticking point has been the nose tackle. Aubrayo Franklin will never be confused with Vince Wilfork or Casey Hampton. At the same time, Franklin did an admirable job last season in the nose tackle role. He made plays, penetrated the offensive line and showed dramatic improvement from his first season with the 49ers. The 49ers simplified things for him and utilized in more of a one-gap sort of technique. Takeo Spikes was quoted as saying he was in the same class as Hampton and San Diego's Jamal Williams. I won't go that far, but I was pleasantly surprised with his performance in 2008. The big question for him is if he can show some consistency there.The big question for the NT/DT as a whole is the depth. Franklin does not seem like a guy who will be in every play whistle to whistle. To make up for that, the 49ers have been getting Isaac Sopoaga and 2nd year man Kentwan Balmer reps in OTAs at nose tackle. Sopoaga seems to be built to be a nose tackle, but he's tended to perform better in a 4-3 type of role. While I won't call him a failure as a 49er, I do think he's really struggled to meet the potential he seems to have. As for Balmer, he didn't do much of anything as a rookie and will hopefully be able to concentrate more on his defensive end duties this year.The team still mix in a 4 down linemen defense on 3rd down and I'd imagine we'll see a guy like Justin Smith moving inside to defensive tackle. However, given his normal role as a defensive end and the primary use of the 3-4, I won't use him to beef up the 49ers grade.
Overall, I think Franklin will be solid for the 49ers at nose tackle this season. They certainly will need it if they're going to improve that defense. At the same time, the lack of significant depth at nose tackle lead me to a grade of C.
The Rams are doing things a little different at DT this season, with Steve Spagnuolo at the helm. Rather than the traditional roles of NT and UT in the 4-3 defense, Spags and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole will use a left and right DT, making things thoroughly confusing for those of you keeping score at home, but hopefully allowing the DTs to better utilize their strengths.
The middle of the line will feature a heavy rotation of four true DTs and the occasional look with two DEs replacing them in some pass rush situations. The ostensible starters at DT for the Rams are Adam Carriker and Clifton Ryan. Carriker, a first round pick in 2007, has been a disappointment in the eyes of some and merely under performing according to others. His second season in the league was marred in part by a shoulder injury suffered at the end of his rookie year. Carriker has been miscast in St. Louis, lined up directly over opposing guards or between the guard and center, sometimes being employed even as a NT. Carriker, a former Nebraska DE, is a 3-technique tackle, and the new defensive scheme will keep in in place between the guard and tackle where he'll be expected to use his ability to attack through the line. The Rams, and their fans, are anxious to start getting a better return on Carriker.
Drafted in the 5th round of 2007, Ryan became a pleasant surprise in his rookie season. Though he's not really a prototype NT (just doesn't have the bulk), that's where the Rams, starved for bodies in that role in the past, have employed him. That won't be the case anymore, as Ryan becomes the starting right defensive tackle. Ryan is strong and quick. He can play well laterally, and should get help in the run stopping department with upgrades at MLB and SS, but should do well in the new defense with it's emphasis on forward movement.
Third on the depth chart is Darell Scott, a fourth round pick from Clemson who comes to the team with nice athletic ability...and in need of getting "coached up." He can play inside or outside, but the Rams reportedly want him to add another 10-15 lbs to his frame in order to utilize his ability to clog up running lanes and tie up blockers, making him something more akin to the true NT the team has lacked for a long time.
Behind Scott, the picture isn't quite as a clear, though the odds on favorite to get the fourth DT spot is Orien Harris, acquired from the Bengals in a trade for FB/RB Brian Leonard. Harris is kind of like a poor man's Clifton Ryan. Harris will have some competition at camp.
The Rams have upgraded their group of DTs to handle the run better, and if Adam Carriker plays closer to expectation this could be a good group. I'm optimistic given the addition of Scott and the changing role for Carriker, but it's just too hard to give them anything but a D grade right now. I suspect that will change early in the season though.
This grade should be higher. It frustrates me a bit that it isn’t. Seattle struck gold in 2007 drafting Brandon Mebane in the third round. Mebane has been the best defensive tackle taken in his class, leading it in sacks, starts, tackles for a loss, tackles and forced fumbles. He holds, walks back and often splits double teams making him the rare defensive tackle that is stout against the run and dangerous rushing the passer. He’s also one of the youngest members of his class, having excelled in the league at 22 and 23. Mebane is the kind of talent that should make filling out a good tackle rotation easy, but Seattle hasn’t.
Seattle looked to have struck gold in 2008 drafting Red Bryant in the fourth round. Everyone loves Bryant’s talent. 320 lb men should not move like Bryant. His mix of size, power and moves should make him the perfect fit for what Seattle is doing defensively and the perfect pairing for Mebane. But Bryant is unbelievably raw. For all his talent, Bryant was alternately great and awful with the awful too often overshadowing the great and the awful dictating his draft position. Coach Fran’s antiquated option stopping system didn’t help. Bryant needs time to adjust to the NFL. He missed three-quarters of his rookie season because of injury. At 25 and rawer than walking cattle, there’s real bust potential for Bryant.
Seattle insured itself against that possibility by signing Colin Cole to a five-year, $21.4 million contract. The soon to be 29 year old defensive tackle has eight starts in a six-year career. He’s 330 and chiseled, so people reflexively say he’s a run stuffer, but in truth he was one of the weak links on a ruinously bad Packers’ run defense. The guy gets pushed around. He handles single blocks, but doesn’t generate much pass rush. His skill set isn’t well fit for the NFL: not fast enough to rush and not stout enough to stuff. Cole would need a Pat Williams-like career renaissance to justify his contract, and much to my frustration, his contract will keep in him in Blue and keep him starting for at least two seasons.
Besides Bryant, the team has newly minted utility defensive lineman Cory Redding to pop into the three tech on obvious passing downs and holdover Craig Terrill to provide situational pass rush. Terrill is the other half of a longstanding weakness for Seattle, but he’s not a bad player. Just a one-dimensional player that’s bad, bad, bad against the run. Matched with Howard Green, the two made an agonizingly flimsy second unit. Redding is slimming down to play defensive end and murmurs suggest last season's knee injury is career altering, but he's a high motor type that finds action. As a third down defensive tackle, he will give Seattle good burst and steady disruption in the interior.
The best case scenario is somehow Bryant wins out over Cole and Seattle starts Bryant at nose tackle and Mebane at under tackle. That gives Seattle two nose tackle types that can also rush the passer. Redding and Cole could then form a good second unit. Or, should Seattle use situational substitutions, the team could be as beefy as Cole and Bryant in the middle and as fast and light as Redding and Terrill.
So you see, it frustrates me to give Seattle a "C", because there’s some good talent and some great depth, but I’m not so sure the talent develops and right now the depth, Redding and Cole, are being slotted to start—Redding at defensive end. Training camp could change that. Football should be meritocratic, but contracts and politics and seniority and schemes often push superior talent towards the fringe.
The rankings were relatively tight considering that we've got three teams with a "C" grade and one "D" so the top three are very close and, at least in my mind, virtually interchangeable:
So overall the NFC West doesn't boast the league's best nose/defensive tackles but there does seem to be some promise with just about every team. Which team has the best group and highest ceiling? How would you rank the four?