ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After he had extolled the virtues of Ramen noodles of all flavors, discussed his shoulder surgery, and explained that he could be the best pass-rusher in the draft, UCLA defender Takkarist McKinley might have found this draft's bottom line.
"This is one for the guys on defense," McKinley said as he rushed in between stops at the scouting combine. "Everybody talks about offense and quarterbacks and all that. But this time it’s about defense, you know? The guys getting to the quarterback, getting picks, making tackles."
In an NFL world featuring fantasy football, an almost constant drumbeat of conversation about point production, and rules that are rarely tweaked to do anything other than help offenses, this year’s draft could well be a three-day shoutout to defense.
Especially in the event’s first two days and definitely in the first round.
Several personnel executives privately say they have between 22 and 25 defensive players among their top 32 players, and many projections -- including those by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- predict three defensive linemen could be among the first five players selected.
Three defensive linemen have gone in the top five picks just twice in the common draft era -- 1970 and 1985. The 1985 trio of Bruce Smith, Ray Childress and Chris Doleman might be a gold standard in that regard, because it included two eventual Hall of Famers (Smith and Doleman) and Childress was named to five Pro Bowls.
"You have to be a game-changer," said Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, who is considered by many to be the top player on this year’s draft board. "You have to be able to turn the tide of a game at any given time. Somebody who, when it’s third-and-15 and maybe it’s the fourth quarter and we need a stop to get the ball back, they put you in and say, 'You’re the guy.' That’s how good you have to be. ... I’ve been in those situations before and I’ve made those plays. I feel that in crunch time I’ll make a play, I’ll cause a sack-fumble, and I’ll be a game-changer and a playmaker."
Many observers believe teams not only will expend draft picks to acquire this class of defenders but also will sign them to their second contracts.
In the current collective bargaining agreement, teams hold a fifth-year option on players selected in the first round. Decisions on those fifth-year options must be made before the player's fourth season and are good indicators of what teams think of those players over the long haul.
As a reference point, the 2011 and 2012 drafts -- the first two years of the current labor deal -- include players who have been subject to the fifth-year option. Of the 64 players selected in the first round of those drafts, 40 had the fifth-year option engaged by their respective teams, and according to ESPN Stats & Information, 34 of those 40 stayed for their second contract with the teams that selected them.
"That’s your goal with every pick, to find players who can be a part of your team for a long time," said Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway, who engaged the fifth-year option on his 2011 first-rounder, Von Miller, and then signed Miller to a $114.5 million deal last July. "Especially with those early picks. Does this draft have those guys? I hope so. There are a lot of players we’re going to like a lot. We always think there are guys who can be Denver Broncos. But some of those guys on defense do jump out at you this year."
Optimism usually reigns among draft hopefuls in April; they are on the doorstep of their football dreams, after all. But this year’s group of defensive players has even taken that optimism to another level.
They realize they could grab the headlines from the glamour guys at quarterback and the other touchdown-makers. Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert labeled it simply a "deep class."
"Five, 10 years from now, people are going to see," McKinley said. "That’s just how I feel. There’s a lot of guys in this group, you know?"
"Along the defensive line, there are some really good players," said Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff. "There are some really good pass-rushers in this group. For most of the league, who happen to be looking for pass-rushers, it’s a positive. I think more and more everyone realizes the importance of having one, two and three pass-rushers that can affect the quarterback, as we are very aware of that."