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Defensive Outlook -- The D-line

January 08, 2001 by Steel Phantom

The Defensive line

The Defensive Line:

There is little doubt that this is the weakest unit on the team. Small wonder since, according to salary information posted in By the Numbers, the 2000 Stillers DL had a combined cap hit of only $4.62 M. There are 63 players tabulated for all positions; the cap total was about $61M. 8 of those 63 were D-linemen; an equal distribution by position would have allocated $7.74 M to the D-line. 4.62 is about 60% of 7.74; the Stillers scrimped on this unit with telling results.

Back in the early 90�s, the Stillers had an excellent secondary and a set of talented LB. However, the D-line at that time was both undersized and not exceptionally gifted. Aaron Jones, Donald Evans, Kenny Davidson, Craig Veasey; remember? The Stillers addressed this by drafting Steed (3/92), Henry (4/93), Buckner (2/94) and Gibson (4/95). FA Ray Seals and Bill Johnson were added for the �94-95 campaigns and, by �95, the Stillers could field (5) 300# D-linemen. These were the Blitzburgh years; though Seals was the only DL with sack numbers, those other men did have the bulk to play a two-gap and so allowed Dom Capers to bring pressure with Green, Lloyd, Brown, Woodson and Lake.

Seals, Johnson and Buckner were out after �96; by �98 Steed�s knees were shot and, within the year, the Stillers, either unable or unwilling to extend Roye prior to his RFA season, would be left with DL personnel very similar to what they had as the 90s began. Things had changed since that time; when the 3-4 was young, 300# OL were rare. Now, 300# OL are just a little undersized. Leaving aside whether the 3-4 has gone the way of the Wishbone, let�s consider what some of the League�s top defensive teams have in place.

State of the Art: It all begins up front. Generally, the formula is speed on the edges and bulk in the middle. Here�s an outline of a few top defensive teams:

1. Ravens: Siragusa, at 340#, stays home; Adams, at 335#, can both penetrate and stuff the run. Burnett, at 280#, is a classic strongside DE; McCrary, at 270#, is a combo-type RDE, big enough to play the run and quick enough to pressure. The Raven DT create mismatches with their bulk; these DE are good but don�t overmatch their opponents.

2. Fins: Bowen is a runstuffer, Gardener gets upfield. Both of these men are +315#. The reserve DT, Haley and Grant, are equally huge. Jason Taylor is tall, about 260# and very fast; a Jevon Kearse type. Mixon is about McCrary�s size but younger and faster. With the venerable Trace Armstrong as a third down rusher, Mixon moves inside with Bromell and the Fins can get pressure rushing four. In sum, the Fin DT overmatch with their bulk and these DE do the same with speed.

3. Titans: DT go about 290-300, smaller than both teams listed previously. Holmes is okay, similar to the RDE above but Kearse makes this team go. Kearse creates mismatches all over the field; otherwise, this DL unit relies on quality depth to maintain an aggregate speed overmatch.

4. Giants: Three man DT rotation similar to Titans; again, not jumbo but big enough. DE Strahan and Jones are both 270# bull rushers but, really, don�t have great strength. The Giants are not physically dominate; they don�t overmatch many teams but are very disciplined.

5. Saints: Norman Hand stays at home while Glover, Howard and Johnson go for the QB. Hand is immense, Glover is small by NFL DT standards. The DE are in the Strahan mold but with better speed. Hand lines up on the nose; in this respect, the Saints 4-3 is a lot like the Bills 3-4. Both depend on a jumbo solo DT to free up their pass rush personnel.

In sum, run-stuffing DT go 315-340#; if you don�t have one, then you better have a DT trio at about 295-305#. Better to have two jumbo DT starters, like the Ravens and Fins; better still to have four on the roster, like the Fins. Pass rushers come in all sizes; the best, Kearse, Taylor and Glover, create overmatches with speed. Kearse and Taylor have the frame (6�-5", 6�-6"), or freakish reach, to keep from getting handled by OT; Glover stays low and has Hand at his side. Turning to the matter at hand:

2000 Stillers: Generally, lacked both bulk and speed. The 2000 team was 12th against the run and the DL sack total was 5. Poor production despite what was, undoubtedly, top effort. Considering the individuals, ranked by tenure with the team:

#76 Kevin Henry: Henry is part of the leadership cadre. In 2000, he returned from knee surgery to start 15/16 games. He plays hard, he plays within the scheme, he is a professional. However, AFC Central LOT like Boselli, Ogden and Hopkins absolutely overwhelm him. Useful as part of a rotation, Kevin is miscast as a starter. Henry is a stopgap which the Stillers have used for far too long. I believe he will be done when his contract is up in 2001; the FO needs to draft his replacement this spring, or go FA earlier.

#94 Jeremy Staat: Various idiocies marred Staat�s rookie year. His choice in hair color evolved during his second season but his play did not. He was hurt or inactive most of last year. Drafted 2/98, the Stillers swapped spots in that round and gave a third and fifth for this man. Staat has given no sign, either on or off the field, which could suggest he was draftable, let alone worth three picks. He is an RFA and should get no offer.

#91 Aaron Smith: Smith made great strides in his second season. Drafted 4/99, Aaron hardly played in his rookie year. Showed the benefits of an off-season training regime. Started when Sullivan had back surgery and played well enough to remain in that role. Led the D-line with 4 sacks. Still, Aaron was hardly a dominator; he started because the Stillers had no one better able. Smith must continue to improve if he is to become a quality DE in the League. His college career does suggest that this is possible. Smith arrived on campus at 205# and left at about 260#. He listens, he works, he wants to get better. I think Smith can rise to the level of, say, Rob Burnett or Phil Hanson but he does have a ways to go. Smith will be RFA after 2001; if his commitment level remains high this off-season, I would consider extending him after the June, 2001 cap cuts.

#67 Kimo von Oelhoffen: If Dirt Dawson can�t play any longer, the Stillers might consider hiring him as a scout. KVO was signed on Dawson�s recommendation and played very well this year. Wore down in the late going because the Stillers had no competent backup NT. KvO is not a runstuffer; he lacks the bulk. His game is quickness and, as such would be ideal in a 4-3 DT rotation like the Titans or Giants. In the 3-4, his best position may be strongside DE.

#74 Chris Sullivan: Sullivan looked pretty good this summer but then had back surgery just before the season began. Perhaps as a result, he contributed very little this year. Though tenacious, Sullivan lacks, speed, bulk and explosiveness. Like Henry, Sullivan creates no mismatches, at least not in the Stillers favor. Sullivan has two years left on his deal; his bonus hit is about $433M/year. If cut in June, Sullivan will cost the team about $289M in 2001 and twice that in 2002.

#96 Kendrick Clancy: Has no position in the 3-4; Clancy is a one-gap NT, a status similar to "jumbo shrimp". Has quickness but lacks bulk, strength and speed. Last year, most draft experts had this man as 8th to 12th among DT. All regarded him as a 4-3 rush tackle who, to be effective, had to be paired with a power player. For example, consider Glover�s role next to Norman Hand. Might contribute as a third down interior rusher for the Stillers. It may be too soon to give up on this man, but I don�t see the fit.

#73 Chris Combs: Showed some ability this summer but disappeared when the regular season began. A tweener who may lack the bulk to play inside and the speed to play outboard. He has a good frame and is highly intelligent; we might hope that Chris can develop this off-season as Smith did last year. However, Aaron appears to be the better prospect. Smith ran a sub-5.0 40 at the �99 Combine; a year later, Combs did a 5.21 which was 18th of 21 DT who ran at the same venue (Clancy was 20th ). One more thing; in college, Smith increased his sack totals every year while Combs saw his total decline each season. I really don�t expect Combs ever to factor.

As currently constituted, the Stillers lack the personnel to play any system. They have no jumbo run-stuffer, no freakish speed rusher. KVO is the only player on the roster who could play in the Titan or Giant DT trio. The Stillers have four men (Henry, Smith, Sullivan and Combs) who are 4-3 LDE types. All are 6�-4" 280# or so. Of these men, Smith is the only one who is likely to develop. Clancy will never be an every down player in the 3-4 and Staat has been utterly worthless.

Note that Henry was drafted 4/93 and Staat 2/98. In the years between, the Stillers took Buckner (2/94), Faumai (4/94), Gibson (4/95), Raybon (5/96), Roye (6/96) and Manual (6/97). Of those six, three remain in the League; all three are starting, though not starring. Player evaluation is an issue, player retention has been a larger problem.

The bottom line is that the Stillers have spent few premium picks on the DL and have gotten predictable results. In the 3-4, all D-linemen are, essentially, DT. Every year, six DT are elected to the Pro Bowl. In �99, all six were former first round picks; in 2000, five of six were. 11/12 is a rate of 91%; that is higher than at any other position on either side of the ball. If you want quality, you must pay the price.

Summary: For a D-coordinator, life begins with a jumbo run-stuffer. If you have that man, you can play either the 3-4 or the 4-3. Most teams play 4-3, while the Ravens and Fins pair another big boy with Goose and Bowens, the Saints go small and fast with Glover next to Hands. Size frees speed and speed kills. Flexibility is the keyword; one stay-at-home immovable DT is the axis around which the D-Boss�s world turns.

Lacking that beast, the Titans and Giants employ their DT trio seeking to create mismatch opportunities out an aggregate of talent. Everyone stays fresh, everyone attacks. In some respects, this personnel-type fits the Stillers system, circa �94-�95.

In sum, the Stillers are, at minimum, (2) DL short. Whether, these men are jumbo, Freak, or trio types just doesn�t matter. Winning teams create mismatches up-front either with speed and size or with speed and depth. Speed is the constant yet the quickest route to a capacity overload goes through a Hand, Washington or Goose. Whatever way that a team can get an overmatch is the right way. Up front today, the Stillers struggle to stay even and that is their biggest problem.

Prospects for improvement

For now, I�m not going to consider dropping the 3-4. I think that there are good arguments to be made for that but these arise, not from this year�s college crop, but from a combination of FA available and cap dollars as the Stillers have allocated those. I�ll make that case later.

This year�s college draft has the best crop of D-linemen in years. The group is much stronger at DT than DE; one publication�s Hot Hundred list has (10) DT in the top 40. For now, I�ll preview this spring�s DL prospects and limit that to the DT since, again, 3-4 DE are DT who can push the pocket. 3-4 NT are, traditionally, run-stuffers. On the other hand, 4-3 DT have lined up on the nose since Joe Greene them showed how. 4-3 DT like Sapp, Randle, etc. have made a nice living pushing the pocket. Talent makes any scheme go, so:


First Round:

    1. John Henderson, 6�-6", 300#. Univ. of Tennessee. Sub 5.0 40, talented with great work ethic. Could be a Darrell Russell/Darrell Gardener type.
    2. Richard Seymour, 6�-5", 295. As Henderson, except Univ. of Georgia.
    3. Wendell Bryant, 6�-3", 305#. University of Wisconsin. Plays hard, plays hurt, plays in opponents backfield.

I�d be pleased with any of these men but, since the Stillers draft 16-19, they may not be available.

Second Round:

    1. Mario Fatefehi, 6�-2", 305#. K-State. Will get bigger. Smart, bull rusher. Reminds me of KvO but with more upside. I like Fatafehi and the conference he played in may have been the best in the nation.

Second Day: The current roster is full of scrub DE. The only reason to consider these men is if the Stillers get aced out on day one.

    1. Daleroy Stewart, 6�-3", 305. So. Mississippi. Big enough and runs sub 5.0 40. Bad hand fighter, stays blocked.
    1. Derrick Chambers. University of Florida. Similar vitals to Stewart. Solid worker who should play better.


First Round:

    1. Casey Hampton, 6�-1", 320. Univ. of Texas. Very professional attitude, plays hurt, great leader in college. Despite small frame, excellent against the run. Quite slow in the 40 but makes plays with anticipation and want-to. If he stays free of injury, will not bust.
    2. Gerard Warren, 6�2", 315. University of Florida. Said to be a powerful short area player. Didn�t impress me in two games I saw.
    1. Shaun Rogers, 6�4", 330. Another Longhorn. Slow but immense. Has more ability than Hampton but has bust potential.

Second Round:

    1. Marcus Stroud 6�-5", 305. Another Bulldog. Immensely strong, four years ago was considered best high school DL in the nation. Played well, not great at Georgia. Like Rogers, this man has bust potential.

Second Day:

    1. Mario Monds, 6�-3", 330. University of Cincinnati. Amazingly, is said to run a sub 5.0 40. Has played only two years at Cincy; the Bearcats don�t play a great schedule but they did beat Dayne�s Wisconsin team.

Do Not Draft:

Stroud and Rogers might yet make this list but for now I�ll limit it to Ennis Davis, USC and Damoine Lewis, Miami. Lewis is just too small; Davis played soft for a team that underachieved last year.

(Next Time: Linebackers.)

The Steel Phantom

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