How important are defensive linemen? In the 2003 NFL Draft, 11 were selected in the first round, the most ever. In 2004, 23 defensive linemen were selected in the first four rounds.
To win games, teams must be able to stop the run and pressure the passer, which helps defensive backs play well. Defensive ends who approach the quarterback's blind side are especially important (Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney and Arizona's Bertrand Berry, who led their respective conferences in sacks last season, line up at this spot).
The two teams that played in Super Bowl XXXIX were considered to be very good defensive teams during the regular season. New England and Philadelphia allowed only 260 points in regular-season games. Only Pittsburgh (251) allowed fewer, and it finished 15-1. Atlanta (48), Philadelphia (47) and New England (45) had the most sacks in the league last season and all reached a conference championship game.
Thirteen of the 15 teams that had at least two more sacks than they gave up over the course of the 2004 season finished .500 or better.
Click here to see my rankings for defensive tackles.
1. Demarcus Ware, Troy (6-4, 251)
He had a complete workout at the combine. He ran two 40s in 4.56 and 4.57. He also ran the short shuttle in 4.07 seconds, the three-cone drill in 6.83 and the long shuttle in 10.93. He had a 381/2-inch vertical jump, a 10-foot-2 broad jump and 27 reps. He went to high school in Auburn, Ala., but weighed only 170 pounds. In high school, he played linebacker and wide receiver. He also was on the track, basketball and baseball teams. As a true freshman at Troy, he played but did not start. He started 11 games at left end in 2002, and started all games in 2003 and 2004. He was the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in 2004, when he had 11 sacks. He had 28 sacks in his career. He is very raw in his pass-rush technique; he has the ability and will get better. He has a great upside -- a raw, explosive athlete with all the tools and skills you look for in an end. The only question is his weight potential. He has great character and works hard in the weight room (8 percent body fat). He could also be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense; of course, one must wonder how well he will play against the run at his weight. He could be a Dwight Freeney type of player.
2. Shawne Merriman, Maryland (6-4 3/8, 272)
All he did at the combine was bench press 225 pounds 25 times. At Maryland's Pro Day on March 16, he ran two 40s in 4.72 and 4.75, and the short shuttle in 4.25 seconds. He had a 40-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot broad jump. In high school, he played linebacker, then defensive end. He was the Maryland Player of the Year his senior season. He also was a three-year starter in basketball. At Maryland, he started one game and played in all 14 as a true freshman in 2002. He started five games in 2003 and every game in 2004. He had 81/2 sacks last season in 22 in his career. He is an outstanding competitor and very intense. He has the speed to make plays rushing the passer or playing against the run. He was 20 pounds heavier in 2004 than he was in 2003. This player might best be used as a rush linebacker in a 3-4 defense. If he can't adjust to that position, he still can play defensive end in a 4-3 defense. To play linebacker, he has to be able to play in space and be able to cover pass receivers, which sometimes is hard to do at this weight. (He worked out at linebacker for NFL people after regular drills on Pro Day.) He had the best vertical jump by a defensive lineman at Maryland. He will not turn 21 until May 25.
3. Erasmus James, Wisconsin (6-4 1/8, 266)
He had a complete workout at the combine, but did not lift. He ran two 40s in 4.81 and 4.84. He also ran the short shuttle in 4.37 seconds, the three-cone drill in 7.56 and the long shuttle in 12.22. He had a 371/2-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot-2 broad jump. He ran again March 9 at Wisconsin's Pro Day and ran two 40s in 4.74 and 4.78 on a very fast Astro strip track. In high school, he played only one year of football. Basketball was his sport until he started playing football his senior year; he had 14 sacks. He entered Wisconsin in 2000, but did not play. He missed the 2003 season with a hip injury he suffered in preseason workouts. He was having an outstanding 2004 until he injured his ankle in the seventh game of the year (Purdue). He missed the next two games, then returned, but didn't play as well. He had eight sacks last season and 18 in his career. He has natural pass-rush ability. He plays with good body control and has good quickness. He needs to get stronger against the run.
4. David Pollack, Georgia (6-2 1/8, 265)
He had a complete workout at the combine. He did position drills as a defensive lineman and linebacker. He ran two 40s in 4.75 and 4.80. He also ran the short shuttle in 3.90 seconds, the three-cone drill in 6.86 and the long shuttle in 10.91. He also had a 37-inch vertical jump, a 10-foot broad jump and 25 reps. He performed position drills at Georgia's Pro Day. In high school, he played defensive line and fullback; he also lettered in basketball and wrestling. At Georgia, he played as a true freshman in 2001 and started four games. He started the past three seasons and was named SEC Player of the Year in 2002. He broke Reggie White's SEC record with 36 career sacks. He's an outstanding competitor with great work habits. He has a great first step and is very strong with great body control. His arms are only 311/2 inches long. NFL teams are looking at Pollack as a 3-4 outside linebacker; you would like your defensive ends to be a little taller. He's an outstanding person who will play in the NFL for a long time at a high level.
5. Marcus Spears, LSU (6-4, 307)
He did not work out at the combine or at LSU's Pro Day on March 9. He had a knee 'scoped after the season and was not cleared to work out until March 31, when he ran two 40s in 5.10 and 5.10. He also ran the short shuttle in 4.48 seconds and the three-cone drill in 7.75. He had a 31-inch vertical jump and lifted the bar 23 times. In high school, he was an outstanding basketball player who could have gone anywhere in the country. He was the first football player since 1991 to be named first-team all-state in offense and defense. At LSU, he played as a true freshman at tight end, fullback and defensive end. He had nine sacks in 2004 and 19 in his career. He's very athletic with size and speed, but he needs to keep his weight around 285 pounds to play his best. He can explode off the edge, but he needs to use his hands better when rushing the passer. He has long arms with good strength and big, thick legs. He's a good person with no off-the-field problems. He turned 21 in March.
6. Dan Cody, Oklahoma (6-51/2, 254)
Did not work out at the combine. He had a complete workout March 9 at Oklahoma's Pro Day. He ran two 40s in 4.75 and 4.69 indoors on a fast AstroTurf surface. He also ran the short shuttle in 4.37 seconds and the three-cone drill in 7.02. He had a 33-inch vertical jump, a 10-foot broad jump and 17 bench presses. In high school, he played quarterback and seven other positions. At Oklahoma, he played in nine games as a true freshman in 2000. He started the first game of 2001, then left the team for medical reasons. He started the past two seasons at defensive end. He had 10 sacks last season and 25 in his career. He's a very competitive player who plays hard every play. He has a nose for the ball. He pushes himself and his teammates. Slim and thin-hipped, he will need to improve his playing strength. He is a top-flight person and will be a reliable starter.
7. Matt Roth, Iowa (6-33/4, 278)
Had a complete workout at the combine. He ran two 40s in 4.81 and 4.82. He also ran the short shuttle in 4.36 seconds, the three-cone drill in 7.65 and the long shuttle in 12.08. He had a 32-inch vertical jump, a 9-foot-4 broad jump and 26 strength lifts. Played fullback and linebacker in high school. He blocked 12 kicks. In his senior year, he went 31-0 and won a state title in wrestling. At Iowa, he played as a true freshman in 2001 -- the only one to do so. He moved from linebacker to defensive end in 2002. He started one game in '02 and started all games in 2003 and 2004. Played mostly left defensive end at Iowa. He makes a lot of plays with his effort and is very productive (32 sacks over three years). He should be a very solid, productive starter. He uses his hands well, but needs to improve his pass rush. He's a very good person with very good work habits.
8. Chris Canty, Virginia (6-71/4, 279)
An injury prevented him from working out at the combine and at Virginia's Pro Day on March 23. He will try to work out April 14 in Charlotte, N.C. He did not play football in his first two years of high school, but wound up being all-state at tight end and defensive end. He was a top player in basketball, too. At Virginia, he redshirted in 2000 and started one game in 2001. He started all games the next three years -- when healthy. He played only four games last season; he had 30 tackles, including seven for a loss. He is a very good athlete for his size. He played tight end in short-yardage and goal-line situations. His best position is left defensive end. He has been very good against the run, but not as effective as a pass rusher as you would like at right end. He plays too high; he needs to correct this. He works hard on and off the field; he weighed 220 pounds when he came to Virginia. He needs to improve his upper-body strength. He will be 23 years old in November. He's a very good person who should be a solid player.
9. Justin Tuck, Notre Dame (6-5, 258)
He did not work out at the combine. He had a complete workout March 16 at Notre Dame's Pro Day. He ran two 40s in 4.72 and 4.74. He also ran the short shuttle in 4.50 seconds and the three-cone drill in 7.40. He had a 37-inch vertical jump, a 9-foot-10 broad jump and 24 bench presses. In high school, he played tight end and linebacker. He also played baseball and basketball. At first, Notre Dame put him at linebacker, but he did not play in any games in 2001. He started one game in 2002 and became a full-time starter in 2003. He had 131/2 sacks in 2003, six last season, and wound up with a school-record 241/2 in his career. He's a very good pass rusher from the edge with a very good first step. He's athletic and aggressive, but he has trouble with big tackles like Khalif Barnes of Washington. He needs to get stronger. He turned 22 on March 29.
10. George Gause, South Carolina (6-4 7/8, 268)
He did not work out at the combine. He worked out March 16 at USC's Pro Day. He ran two 40s in 4.69 and 4.69. He also ran the short shuttle in 4.62 seconds and the three-cone drill in 7.26. He had a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-foot-5 broad jump. He did not lift. In high school, he played defensive end and was one of the top-rated seniors in the country. At South Carolina, he played as a true freshman in 2001 and started against Ohio State in the Outback Bowl. He played linebacker and defensive end in 2002 and started 11 games. He played end in 2003 and 2004 with 19 starts. He had five sacks in 2004 and wound up with 181/2 in his career. He has the height and speed for his position. He has good quickness and looks strong in his upper body. He needs to work on his pass-rush moves. He has very good athletic ability, but he's not real consistent in his play. He should be better than he shows.
11. Bill Swancutt, Oregon State (6-4, 270)
He had a complete workout at the combine. He ran two 40s in 5.00 and 5.01. He also ran the short shuttle in 4.20 seconds and the three-cone drill in 7.36. He had a 34-inch vertical jump, a 9-foot-5 broad jump and 23 bench presses. He played defensive line and tight end in high school. He was a standout basketball player who also played baseball. At Oregon State, he played as a true freshman and started the next three years. Holds school record with 37 sacks during his career. He has natural ability as a pass rusher and very good use of his hands. A self-motivated player who is loved by his teammates, who elected him captain. He lacks the top speed for the position. In the NFL, he needs to be better at the point of attack. He makes up for his lack of size and speed with great determination. He is a workaholic.
12. Jovan Haye, Vanderbilt (6-2, 284)
He had a complete workout at the combine. He ran two 40s in 4.74 and 4.75. He also ran the short shuttle in 4.36 seconds and the three-cone drill in 7.38. He had a 34-inch vertical jump, a 9-foot-2 broad jump and 33 bench presses. He had eight sacks in 2003, but only one in 2004. He looked good in the combine workouts but does not always play hard. He was born in Jamaica. His family moved to the United States when he was 6.
13. Eric Moore, Florida State (6-41/4, 268)
He had a complete workout at the combine. He ran two 40s in 4.84 and 4.87 (ran better electric times in 4.76 and 4.80). He also ran the short shuttle in 4.50 seconds, the three-cone drill in 7.62 and the long shuttle in 12.64. He had a 291/2-inch vertical jump, a 9-foot broad jump and 22 bench presses. In high school, he played linebacker and also played basketball. At FSU, he played as a true freshman in 2001. He missed three games in 2002 (medical) but started in 2003 and 2004. He played with a bad ankle last season; he didn't play as well as he did in 2003. He has athletic ability, and the quickness and speed to rush the passer. He's a tough player who need to a better job protecting his legs. A possible 3-4 rush linebacker.
14. Trent Cole, Cincinnati (6-21/4, 236)
He did not work out at the combine for medical reasons. He had a complete workout March 10 at Cincinnati's Pro Day. He ran the 40 in 4.93. He also ran the short shuttle in 4.25 seconds, the three-cone drill in 7.03 and the long shuttle in 11.89. He had a 37-inch vertical jump, a 10-foot-4 broad jump and 14 bench presses. In high school, he played running back and on the defensive line. He also ran track and played basketball. At Cincinnati, he had to sit out the 2001 season to meet NCAA eligibility standards. He started nine games in 2002, and every game in 2003 and 2004. He had 81/2 sacks last season and 181/2 for his career. Cole was good in college, but lacks the size to play defensive end in the NFL and the speed to play linebacker. He needs more strength and bulk. (His weight was 247 at Pro Day.) He has good quickness and will compete. He can rush the passer. The question is: What position does he play?
Brady Poppinga, BYU (6-3 1/8, 259)
There are always a few players in every draft you have a feel about. Poppinga is one of them. He comes from a family of athletes -- his father, brother and sister played college sports. He was an outstanding high school athlete in Wyoming. He plays with a great motor and has a love for the game. He was asked to do a lot in BYU's 3-3-5 defense and did everything well. He can rush or drop into space.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Other defensive ends who will be taken later in the draft and could surprise some people (alphabetical order):
Chauncey Davis, Florida State (6-1 7/8, 273)
He had a complete workout at the combine. He ran two 40s in 4.80 and 4.84. He also ran the short shuttle in 4.44 seconds and the three-cone drill in 7.66. He had a 37-inch vertical jump, a 9-foot-10 broad jump and 22 bench presses. He played at Jones Junior College before entering FSU. He has the speed for the position plus good athletic ability. He lacks the instincts for the game. He might be better suited as a linebacker; he has the speed and size.
Jim Davis, Virginia Tech (6-31/2, 277)
He did not work out at the combine and was injured on his school's Pro Day.
Simon Fraser, Ohio State (6-5 5/8, 288)
A two-year starter with a great motor.
Jonathan Goddard, Marshall (6-01/4, 238)
He had 16 sacks in 2004. Possible linebacker; outstanding rusher.
David McMillan, Kansas (6-3, 262)
He has the speed to rush the passer, but he needs to play hard every down.
Jonathan Welsh, Wisconsin (6-31/4, 244)
A good athlete with speed. He played only one year of high school football.