Tatupu key in middle of Seahawks' defense

The NFL world is buzzing over the Reggie Bush sweepstakes.

Texans fans, angered over the 1-12 season, would be more irate if the Texans blow the chance to acquire the USC halfback. While Bush still hasn't actually declared whether he is entering the 2006 draft, it is widely assumed that he's turning pro. Who can wait for that season-ending showdown between the Texans and the 49ers, when the winner could become the ultimate loser and not get Bush?

As properly hyped as the draft is -- drafts offer hope for the hopeless -- the Rookie of the Year awards oftentimes don't go to a top-five selection. If Cadillac Williams of the Bucs beats out Ronnie Brown of the Dolphins for Offensive Rookie of the Year, it would be No. 5 topping No. 2. Just going back to 1997, there hasn't been a first, second or third overall pick in the draft that's won Offensive Rookie of the Year, and the only top-three selection to do it on defense is end Julius Peppers, the second pick in the 2002 draft.

This year's battle for Defensive Rookie of the Year comes down to Odell Thurman of the Bengals battling Lofa Tatupu of the Seahawks. Both are middle linebackers. Both are second-round draft choices.

If either wins, it would mark the third time in five years that a second-round inside or middle linebacker would win Defensive Rookie of the Year. Kendrell Bell of the Steelers, the 34th selection, won in 2001 following a nine-sack season and Jonathan Vilma of the Jets won last year. Don't minimize the trend.

Normally, the Defensive Rookie of the Year is reserved for the rookie who makes the most sacks. Peppers won it when he had 12 sacks in 2002. Terrell Suggs won in 2003 with 12 sacks. Jevon Kearse had 14½ in 1999 and won it for the Titans. Peter Boulware of the Ravens won in 1997 with 11½.

What's interesting about the last season (when Vilma won) and this season (when it looks like Tatupu or Thurman will win) is that it signifies a shift on defenses. While defensive ends and cornerbacks are considered the prime properties to acquire on defense, there is renewed value at middle linebacker.

Part of the reason the Seahawks are expected to clinch the top seed in the NFC playoffs has been the play of Tatupu. Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell raised a number of eyebrows when he moved up in the second round to grab Tatupu, who athletically measured out as more of a second-day draft choice than a second-rounder. Tatupu ran a 4.84 40 at the combine and didn't even measure out to 6-foot.

Ruskell could win NFL Executive of the Year, in part, for the Tatupu pick.

"We felt we just needed a quarterback of the defense back there," Ruskell said. "Lofa can run the defense. We looked at the players who could help us and no one could help us more on defense than him."

Ruskell checked and doubled checked. He kept asking his contacts at USC about Tatupu's value in running the Trojans' defense. USC coaches raved about his leadership. If you noticed, the Trojans' defense may have been every bit as talented this year as it was last year, but there was a drop-off. USC lost its defensive quarterback.

"From our first mini-camp you realized that he was able to handle more than a lot of the young rookies," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "I could get really excited about that because a middle linebacker for us has to call the defenses. He was a quick study, a very intuitive player. When you look at him he's not the biggest guy in the world. You're playing against Larry Allen and you're playing against these guys that are probably three times the size he is and he's got to take those guys on, now how is that going to work? But the mental stuff and the knowing what to do and how to do it, that I didn't worry about at all."

Tatupu has set a standard for video study among Seahawks defensive players that has become infectious. Two weeks ago, Tatupu noticed things in the Eagles' offense and told cornerback Andre Dyson that Dyson was going to score a touchdown against the Eagles. Dyson ended up with two scores (one on an interception return and one on a fumble recovery).

Tatupu's personality has created good chemistry on a relatively young defense.

Since last year, the Seahawks revamped their entire linebacking corps, cutting veterans Chad Brown and Anthony Simmons. The Seahawks have vaulted to 11th on defense with Tatupu, first-year starter D.D. Lewis and fellow rookie LeRoy Hill starting at the three linebacker spots.

While Tatupu has grabbed the spotlight over the last few weeks, Thurman is doing similar work for the Bengals. Most draft experts pinned him correctly as being another version of Vilma, the star who helped keep the Jets a playoff team in 2004. But Thurman was a bargain, coming with the 48th pick, 36 later than Vilma. The Bengals used a first-rounder on outside linebacker David Pollack, whom they still believe will be a star. Thurman has provided the impact this year.

What all this is saying is that there is a renewed value at the middle linebacker position. The timing is strange, though. Because of spread offenses in colleges, it's hard to find middle linebackers. Four- and five-receiver sets are preventing the traditional middle linebacker from getting on the field. College defensive coordinators have to substitute extra cornerbacks or linebackers with the speed to cover receivers.

But thanks to the evolution of the Tony Dungy Cover 2 defense, personnel people have thrown out the stereotypes of players. Whether he was in Tampa Bay or Indianapolis, Dungy didn't care about height, so scouts like Ruskell could push for smart defenders who were under 6-foot. Some computer programs used to scout players would reject a linebacker who is under 6-foot. Dungy's undefeated team starts Gary Brackett, who is listed at 5-11 but is known to be at least an inch shorter than that.

The Cover 2 asks the middle linebacker to have enough range to drop into coverage and fill the middle zone deep when necessary. For any middle linebacker to succeed, he has to have enough speed to run past the tackle box to make stops. Tatupu, Thurman, Vilma, Brackett and others all have enough speed to handle all of the qualifications.

"I think the way people spread you out now and the way you have to play pass defense, as well as the run, that it's difficult to play with a guy who can't move well and who has some speed and athleticism at that position," Dolphins coach Nick Saban said. "Vilma certainly does have that and he certainly doesn't play like a guy that's not big enough to play. So like a lot of guys, he overcomes what some might see as a size deficiency. I certainly don't see that because the guy's a great football player. I think that it's a little harder to play with what I want to call a 'plugger-type' LB -- guys that can stand up and take the guards off, can't move, break on the ball in playing space because I think it's much more of a space game now than it used to be."

Saban is a little spoiled. He had Zach Thomas as his middle linebacker, but in the draft he selected Channing Crowder in the third round. Crowder, who slipped in the draft due to some injury concerns, is yet another steal. When Thomas hurt his shoulder, Crowder came in and ran the defense as a rookie. Now that Thomas is back, they both start, and the defense continues to get better as they work together.

To fill athletic needs, teams got away from putting smart, less athletic players at the middle linebacker position, but the trend now is to keep your eyes open, ignore size and height stereotypes and fill the middle linebacker spot with good football players who can be defensive coordinators. The Giants did that with the signing of middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who entered the league undrafted with the Redskins.

"Antonio is a throwback," Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "I go back to the days of Mike Curtis and Willie Lanier, the old-fashioned linebackers. Maybe we are getting back into that trend."

Teams in the NFL aren't winning unless they have the right quarterback on offense. Now, the middle linebacker position is regaining importance because defenses need their own quarterbacks to win. And it doesn't take a top draft choice to find the right ones.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.