In a hotel lobby packed with coaches, agents and draft prospects in town for the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last Thursday night, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy craned his neck to see Carolina coach John Fox, then San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, then Seattle coach Pete Carroll.... "It's like it's not real," said McCoy. "All the people here, all the attention. When you're a defensive tackle, you're not used to attention like this."
The scouting combine is usually an occasion to fawn over the latest laser-armed quarterback or the next athletic freak, but at the weeklong NFL job fair this year the glamour position was defensive tackle. The spotlight focused on McCoy and Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska, who on April 22 could become the first DTs chosen first and second in the NFL draft.
In fact, the golden age for the grunts of a defense has already dawned. A year ago the Redskins gave free-agent All-Pro tackle Albert Haynesworth a seven-year, $100 million contract—the biggest ever for a defensive player. Last week Casey Hampton, a 32-year-old tackle with a history of weight problems who is on the field for less than half of the plays, re-signed with the Steelers for three years and $21 million. And when teams tagged franchise players last Thursday, there were more defensive tackles—New England's Vince Wilfork, Green Bay's Ryan Pickett and San Francisco's Aubrayo Franklin, as well as tackle-end hybrid Richard Seymour of Oakland—than any other position on the list.
Playing the run with an interior space eater is suddenly the rage; 14 teams expect to use a 3--4 defense in 2010, which is more than double the number from five years ago. Of the defenses that ranked in the top five in highest percentage of second-and-eight plays or longer, two were in conference title games (the Jets and the Vikings), one was a wild-card team (the Packers) and the two others (the 8--8 49ers and the 9--7 Steelers) were in the playoff hunt. All five had preeminent run stoppers in Kris Jenkins, Pat Williams, Pickett, Franklin and Hampton, respectively.
The prospect of landing a combination run stuffer and pass rusher such as McCoy or Suh forces even a club like St. Louis, in obvious need of a quarterback and owner of the No. 1 pick, to pause and reconsider choosing Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, the 2008 Heisman winner and highest-rated passer in this draft.
What's so attractive about Suh, who is nimble enough to have played as much soccer as football growing up, and McCoy, a defensive tackle since he was seven, is their versatility. At 6'4", 307 pounds Suh could play nosetackle in a pinch, but he's better suited as a 3--4 end or a 4--3 tackle who can shed blocks with strength and quickness. Suh could not have been more impressive in his 41/2-sack performance in the Big 12 championship game in December, once flinging Texas quarterback Colt McCoy to the ground as if he weighed 16 pounds, not 216.
Gerald McCoy is even quicker than Suh. At 6'4", 295, he has the interior burst reminiscent of John Randle's, the Vikings' great who last month became just the third pure three-technique defensive tackle (a position specializing in shooting the gap between the offensive guard and tackle) to be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame—another sign that defensive tackles are red hot at the moment. "I love Randle," McCoy says, "because he was a madman."
The buzz at the combine last weekend was that McCoy's quickness could move him ahead of Suh on draft boards. "They're the two best players in the draft, by far," said respected NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "I love Suh, but this has become a pass-first league, and I think McCoy's the better NFL player."
Suh or McCoy? McCoy or Suh?
"We love them both," Rams general manager Billy Devaney said last week.