Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Know your Colts: Defensive tackles

This is No. 5 in the Know Your Colts series. This one deals with the defensive tackles.

Preface: Going into the 2008 season, defensive tackle was considered a weak spot for the Colts. They had Ed Johnson, the undrafted w√ľnderkind from 2007, and they were planning to line up either 2007 third rounder Quinn Pitcock or seventh rounder Keyunta Dawson next to him. But it didn’t work out that way. Pitcock retired for reasons unknown in training camp, and Johnson self-immolated after being caught with weed after Game 1. Desperate, the Colts went with Dawson, the other guys they had hanging around and anyone else they could get their hands on. The results were less disastrous as the season went along.

96 Keyunta Dawson
Numbers: 6011/272/4.72pd in 07
2008 stats: 14 GP/14 GS (10-4, 6-3 RDT, 4-1 LDT), 21 TK, 21 AT, 3 QBH, 0.5 TFL, 1 FR, 2-15 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 4 GP/4 GS, 1 TK, 3 AT, 0.5-0.5 TFL
Status: Signed through 2010

Although you won’t see it in his stats, Dawson actually did a pretty credible job at defensive tackle last season. He wasn't great, but he also wasn't bad for a guy who played mostly end in college, and who most teams projected as a 3-4 linebacker when he came out. The first thing to know about Dawson is that you can throw that 272-pound Combine weight away — he plays at more like 250-255. Predictably, that accentuates his quickness and athleticism, but it also makes him easy for the big brutes he faces to throw him around. Basically, Dawson has to rely on beating the guards or centers he faces on the first step, or he’s erased from the play. Sometimes it works and he gets behind them, sometimes it doesn’t and he’s buried and run over. That seemed to happen more often last year late in games, especially if the Colts were not winning the time-of-possession war.

Of course, Dawson’s schtick would work a lot better if he had a little more help. For most of the season, he played with undrafted rookie Eric Foster beside him. Foster was such a similar player (and even easier to erase on running plays), that Dawson often got more blocking attention than he could handle.

68 Eric Foster
Numbers: 6015/277/4.89pd in 08
2008 stats: 13 GP/11 GS (9-2, 3-0 RDT, 6-2 LDT), 28 TK, 6 AT, 6 QBH, 2.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 4-15 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 5 GP/1 GS, 10 TK, 1 AT, 2-17 SK, 3 QBH, 3-7 TFL, 1 FF, 1 PBU
Status: Signed through 2010

It’s hard not to like Foster. I remember him at Rutgers. He was a killer pass-rusher, the most dangerous guy on the field and a great team leader. Of course, because of his size, most teams projected him as an end. And he didn’t quite fit the bill at that position, so he went undrafted. The Colts, of course, gave him an audition at tackle, and he made the team. Actually, if you saw him play in the preseason, you wouldn’t be surprised. He destroyed those scrubs, slithering through gaps and causing mayhem in backfields. He looked like he could be a third-down weapon.

But then the regular season came around and Foster was asked to start 11 games on a depleted Colts’ defensive line. And, it didn’t work out so well. He made a couple nice plays, especially against the pass, but was often nullified by big blockers, especially if he had to stay on the field too long. Opposing teams had a much better success rate running at him than they did at Dawson — and it’s not like he was Albert Haynesworth in there.

If there’s one thing that Foster’s rookie season taught us, it’s that he can be a contributor on an NFL defense, but he probably shouldn’t be a full-time starter. Instead, Foster should be coming in fresh on third downs, wreaking havoc on tired offensive linemen. But in order for that to happen, the Colts would kind of have to find some guy to play all the other downs.

99 Antonio Johnson
Numbers: 6030/310/5.15c5.08pd in 07
2008 stats: 4 GP/4 GS (4-0, 2-0 RDT, 2-0 LDT), 11 TK, 2 AT, 1 QBH
2008 preseason stats: 3 GP/0 GS, 5 TK, 1 AT, 1-3 TFL, 1-8 SK, 1-5 PEN with Tennessee
Status: undisclosed, but probably signed through 2010

When things got really bad for the Colts at defensive tackle last year, they signed pretty well every one who was available. They found a keeper when they plucked Johnson off the Titans' practice squad. The Colts’ faithful looked at his scouting report, noticed that his weight started with a 3 instead of a 2, and anointed him the long-lost nose tackle who had been missing since Tony Siragusa hung ‘em up. But, of course, if you watch the tape, you will see that Johnson is as much a nose tackle as he is a cornerback. Yeah, he’s a big guy, but he’s not there to absorb blockers so other players can get to the ballcarrier. He’s a big guy who plays the role of a one-gap penetrator. Think of Raheem Brock, only much, much bigger.

The Titans drafted Johnson in the fifth round in 2007, but an ACL injury destroyed his rookie season. He found himself the odd man out when the Titans’ found themselves very deep on the defensive line in 2008, and they attempted to hide him on the practice squad. When the Colts line was hit by multiple disasters in 2008, they grabbed him and eventually promoted him to full-time starter.

And he looked great last year, even though his statistics don’t reflect it. The Colts went 4-0 in games Johnson started — quite the feat considering Buster Davis started three of them at middle linebacker and he was just plain terrible. In games Johnson did not start, the Colts allowed an average of 133.84 yards rushing; in games Johnson started, they allowed 90.00. Make no mistake, the kid can play ball. Simply put, the Colts’ defense was much better when he played than they were when he didn’t. And I’m not even sure he was entirely over his ACL by the time he hit the starting lineup.

But there are issues. Johnson has all the physical attributes one looks for in a defensive tackle, but the knocks against him thus far have been discipline and intelligence. As far as discipline is concerned, he’s come to the right place. If the Colts can’t light a fire under his butt, nobody will. And intelligence? I’m not sure how fair that is. I’ve never met the young man, so I can’t really judge. But I do know that he is just nine hours short of his teaching degree. Besides, although I’ll be the first to admit the Colts’ defense is complicated, how hard is it to understand the defensive tackle position (especially when you have hands like Johnson)? Get past your man and nail the guy with the ball. I’d give him the benefit of the doubt on that.

Four starts may be too little to tell if Johnson will be an NFL success or not, but I think he’s earned the right to defend his starting spot when training camp comes around.

90 Daniel Muir
Numbers: 6017/303/4.92pd in 07
2008 stats: 3 GP/0 GS, 3 TK, 2 QBH, 1-15 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 6 GP/0 GS, 2 TK, 1 AT, 1 PBU, 1-0 PEN with Green Bay
Status: Signed through 2010

Muir is kind of like Johnson in that he’s a one-gap penetrator who just happens to weigh over 300 pounds. He’s not the nose tackle Colts fans may claim he is, just a bigger version of the guys they already have. A high school wrestler, Muir played alongside former Colts prospect Colin Ferrell on the inside of Kent’s defensive line, where both of them were very productive. In 46 games (45 starts), Muir recorded 35 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. He made the Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2007, but played in just three games due to injuries. They cut him after the following preseason, and the Colts picked him up. Again, injuries limited him. In the few times he appeared in games for the Colts, he showed some skill but no star power or consistency. He has a nice first step and a nice motor. He uses his hands fairly well, and when he stays low, he can do some damage.

At this point in his career, Muir has to be considered a wild card. Although he has some skills and is familiar with the team’s defensive scheme, his lack of experience and history of injuries work against him. He’s about as valuable as a middle-round draft pick at this point — he has the potential to contribute, but you can’t be sure he will.

Note: Muir’s middle name is Travanti, so he was presumably named after actor Daniel J. Travanti (left), who was the star of the very popular TV drama Hill Street Blues when Muir was born in 1983.

95 Darrell Reid
Numbers: 6016/284/4.88pd in 05
2008 stats: 15 GP/0 GS, 11 AT, 8 AT, 2 SK, 2.5 TFL, 11 STT, 7 STA, 3-15 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 5 GP/0 GS, 10 TK, 1 AT, 2-4 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FF, 1 STT, 1-0 PEN
Status: Unrestricted free agent

Katy Perry would be familiar with Reid. Y’know, ‘cause he’s hot then he’s cold. Okay, I’m trying too hard. But the fact is that Reid is pretty inconsistent. He’s good at some things (like making highlight hits on special teams or taking advantage of holes in blocking schemes) and he’s bad at other things (shedding blocks, stopping runs aimed at him, pursuit in general).

And the Colts love this guy. Not only is he on every special team, he plays defensive tackle, defensive end, fullback and even tight end. But, if you ask me, he’s not really all that good at any of them. Still, he’s a fan and management favorite and he offers depth at a number of positions, so you can expect to see him around for a while. But if you see him playing regularly on defense, you know that all else has failed.

Note: The following players also started at defensive tackle for the Colts: Ed Johnson (one game, 0-1 RDT), Josh Thomas (one game, 1-0 RDT) and Raheem Brock (one game, 0-1 LDT). Johnson is no longer with the team, while Brock and Thomas are ends who are really only suited to play tackle on third downs. Thomas is an unrestricted free agent as of writing.

How does this affect the draft and free agency?

No position is harder to predict than defensive tackle. And every Colts’ fan has a different — and often loud — opinion there. So let’s look at it analytically.

What the Colts already have: When the dust finally settled at the end of the 2008 season, the defensive tackles were playing at a decent level. Johnson has become something of an anchor on the right, while Dawson (when he was healthy enough) and Foster added a little spark from the left. They were hammered a little in the playoff loss, but I think a lot of that had to do with: a) the Colts’ offense leaving the tired and beaten-up defense on the field too long, and b) the Colts’ coaching staff’s inability to come up with schemes to adapt to the special abilities of Chargers’ microback Darren Sproles. Could you go into battle with Johnson at one tackle, Dawson and Foster alternating at the other, Raheem Brock spelling Johnson on obvious passing downs and Muir backing them all up? I think you could. It wouldn’t be ideal, but you could.

Polian’s history of acquiring defensive tackles from other teams: The one position Polian has shown a willing to pay for other teams’ players has been at defensive tackle — probably because the Colts are usually desperate at the position. He’s done it on three noteworthy occasions: signing Corey Simon from Philadelphia in 2005, trading a second-round pick to Tampa Bay in 2006 for Booger McFarland and trading a fourth rounder to Buffalo in 2008 for John McCargo.

For those who don’t remember, Simon played one season and looked great for a few games before getting fat and crazy and was run out of town clutching bags of money in his hands. McFarland played one season (they did win the Super Bowl that year), before an injury ended his career. McCargo failed his physical and was sent back to Buffalo.

So what have we learned from this? If Polian’s back is to the wall, he will move. But I’m not sure that he thinks his back is to the wall. And, of the three guys he did acquire in the past, only McFarland wasn’t an out-and-out fiasco and even he was only a qualified success.

I think Colts fans can forget about acquiring Haynesworth as a free agent. As delightful as it would be for so many reasons, they just don’t have the cap room, and I’m not even sure they would invest that much money in the position even if they could. There’s an outside chance they could pursue a lower-level free agent like Jonathan Babineaux, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Notes: The Colts paid Simon $5,842,500 not to play last season. The pick traded to Tampa Bay for McFarland resulted in starting safety Sabby Piscitelli. The pick traded for McCargo was returned to the Colts.

How about the draft: When was the last time Polian drafted a defensive tackle in the first round? It’s a trick question, because the answer is never — not with the Colts, Panthers or Bills. And the Colts haven’t drafted a defensive tackle in the first round since they grabbed Ellis Johnson in 1995. He was pretty good at best.

Let’s look at the defensive tackles drafted in the first round over the last ten years, and see what the Colts have been missing:

2008: Glenn Dorsey Chiefs LSU, Sedrick Ellis Saints USC, Kentwan Ballmer 49ers North Carolina
2007: Amobi Okoye Texans Louisville, Justin Harrell Packers Tennessee
2006: Haloti Ngata Ravens Oregon, Brodrick Bunkley Eagles Florida State, John McCargo Bills North Carolina State
2005: Travis Johnson Texans Florida State, Mike Patterson Eagles USC
2004: Tommie Harris Bears Oklahoma, Vince Wilfork Patriots Miami, Marcus Tubbs Seahawks Texas
2003: Dewayne Robertson Jets Kentucky, Johnathan Sullivan Saints Georgia, Jimmy Kennedy Rams Penn State, William Joseph Giants Miami
2002: Ryan Sims Chiefs North Carolina, John Henderson Jaguars Tennessee, Wendell Bryant Cardinals Wisconsin, Albert Haynesworth Titans Tennessee
2001: Gerard Warren Browns Florida, Damione Lewis Rams Miami, Marcus Stroud Jaguars Georgia, Casey Hampton Steelers Texas
2000: Corey Simon Eagles Florida State, Chris Hovan Vikings Boston College
1999: Anthony McFarland Buccaneers Louisiana State, Reggie McGrew 49ers Florida
1998: Jason Peter Panthers Nebraska, Vonnie Holliday Packers North Carolina

Of the 31, I’d call 10 (almost a third!) absolute busts — Peter, McGrew, Warren, Bryant, Sims, Joseph. Kennedy, Sullivan, Robertson and McCargo. And just six (less than 20 percent) to be true successes — McFarland, Hampton, Stroud, Haynesworth, Henderson and Wilfork. The rest fell somewhere in between.

The sad truth is that there are just very few human beings big, fast, athletic and mean enough to play the position. The result is that teams are generally forced to pay too much — in terms of both cash and draft picks — for them. For the most part, Polian has wisely managed to stay out of the top end of the market. Instead he has spent whatever picks and cap space left over after the offense has been at them on ends, corners and middle linebackers.

Besides, I believe that Polian believes that the shortest way to get the Colts back to the Super Bowl is to fix the offense (which was 31st in the league running that ball) before fixing the defense (which was 24th in stopping the run).

So, although 90 percent of fans and a similar proportion of "draft experts" will disagree, I sincerely doubt the Colts will draft a defensive tackle in the first round.

Conclusion: So, if the Colts’ defensive tackle savior isn’t on the roster, isn’t likely to be bought in free agency and won’t be found in the first round, where will be come from? Well, it may not be a popular opinion, but I think the Colts will continue to do business as usual. They will enter camp with Johnson holding the starting spot on the right, and Dawson and/or Foster on the left. They will be joined by Brock on third downs and Muir will back them all up. And Polian will bring in one or two second-day draft picks, hoping to find someone who'll make an impact.

The Colts like hard-working athletic guys who can be creative with their pass-rushing moves. A couple of guys I’ve seen who fit the Colts’ bill are LSU’s Ricky Jean-Francois, Iowa’s Mitch King and Cincinnati’s Terrill Byrd.

Defensive tackles drafted by the Colts since Polian took over

2007 Third round Quinn Pitcock
2007 Seventh round Keyunta Dawson
2005 Third round Vincent Burns
2002 Second round Larry Tripplett
2002 Sixth round David Pugh
2002 Seventh round Josh Mallard
2000 Fourth round Josh Williams
2000 Seventh round Rob Renes


shake'n'bake said...

I think part of why Foster disappeared so much was he got stuck as the nose/overtackle until the Colts decided to play Antonio Johnson. If he could stay at the undertackle, rotating with Dawson

I would love Mitch King as a mid round pick. He lived in the rest of the Big Ten's backfield for the last two years. He also actually plays at a reasonable DT weight (listed 280 this year, was 275 at the senior bowl).

Jerry Langton said...

I agree on both counts Shake. I love King. Did you see him in the Senior Bowl? I thought he looked great. There's still a lot to shake out before the draft, but it would be nice to see King perhaps end Polian's third-round curse once and for all.

Thanks for reading.

shake'n'bake said...

I didn't see the senior bowl (no NFL Network) but the word I got from the practices was that he was doing very well and that the bigger O linemen were having a lot of trouble with him.

He might even drop to them in the 4th or 5th (see Marcus Howard last year). Most of the other teams would be looking at him as a DE.