Defensive linemen: Draft at your own risk

Marcell Dareus (left) and Nick Fairley are two of the top-ranked defensive tackles in the draft. AP Photos, Getty Images

There are high expectations for this defensive line draft class.

San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith says this is the strongest group available in the draft. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said that he hasn’t seen such an impressive defensive line group at the combine and in workouts.

That’s why defensive tackles Marcell Dareus of Alabama and Nick Fairley of Auburn both could be top-five picks. Defensive ends Da'Quan Bowers of Clemson and Robert Quinn of North Carolina may not be far behind Dareus and Fairley. The Denver Broncos are studying defensive linemen closely and may take Dareus at No. 2.

Even though the talent is high at this position, Denver -- and every other team picking in the top five -- must beware. Taking a defensive lineman with a top-five pick is a major gamble.

Over the past 20 years, 24 defensive linemen have been taken with top-five picks -- with extremely mixed results. For every Julius Peppers (drafted No. 2 in 2002) and Ndamukong Suh (drafted No. 2 in 2010), there are busts like Dewayne Robertson (No. 4, 2003), Courtney Brown (No. 1, 2000) and Steve Emtman (No. 1, 1992).

Even though he likes this group of defensive linemen, McShay acknowledged earlier in the offseason that the bust rate for defensive linemen is “shockingly high.” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said he thinks defensive line and wide receiver are “neck-and-neck” as the riskiest positions in the first round behind quarterback, which is in a different league when it comes to draft uncertainty.

Williamson thinks one of the reasons many top defensive linemen fail is a sense of entitlement. He said top defensive linemen are rare because of their combination of size, speed and ability. They are pampered from an early age and may not work as hard as other, less-coveted players.

“I think it comes down to them just being very special people/athletes,” Williamson said. “If you notice, a high percentage of the stud DT talent comes from huge colleges. For example: When I was at Pitt, we just couldn't get great DT recruits. There are just so few people in the world with their size that can move like stud DTs need to. They are very coveted and go to massive programs. Even at the college level, they are freakish enough that they often don't have to work extremely hard to be great. When they get to the NFL, that all changes ... and they often don't adapt in terms of professionalism and work ethic.”

Williamson said he believes Dareus will buck the trend and have a strong NFL career and be worthy of a top-five pick. However, he said he has concerns about Bowers and Fairley because they were “one-year wonders [who] would disappear at times.”

Studying the history of failure at the position and trying to figure out if this year’s prospects can succeed in the NFL has been one of the Broncos’ toughest tasks. Vice president of football operations John Elway has acknowledged the risk involved in studying defensive linemen.

“It’s so hard to be able to find guys with that size that have athletic ability,” Elway said. "Whether they’re raw coming out of college or they’re polished coming out of college, people see that athletic ability with the size and the speed. You just can’t find that, it’s very difficult to find those type of athletes that are that big later in the draft. That’s why I think you see so many of those guys with the speed and the size do not go very deep in the draft.”

Perhaps last year signaled a change in the trend. Detroit took Suh at No. 2 and Tampa Bay took Gerald McCoy at No. 3. Suh was brilliant and McCoy was impressive before he was injured. Denver would love to get a player of Suh’s or McCoy’s caliber in the form of Dareus.

The decade before 2010 didn’t produce anyone great other than Peppers, although Mario Williams, who was taken No. 1 in 2006, has become a good player.

The Chiefs took defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey at No. 5 in 2008 and defensive end Tyson Jackson No. 3 in 2009. Dorsey came on strong last season and was a big part of an improved defense after a slow first two seasons. Jackson has shown some flashes, but he has yet to show he was worthy of a top-five pick. Like Dorsey, St. Louis defensive end Chris Long, taken at No. 2 in 2008, began to make strides in 2010.

Denver can’t afford to wait on production if it takes a defensive lineman with the No. 2 pick. The Broncos were last in the NFL in total defense and points allowed in 2010. Elway has said numerous times that the Broncos have to get this pick right. In a perfect world, the Broncos would take a defensive lineman and begin their resurrection. History, though, shows it’s not that simple.