(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)
POSITION: Defensive Tackle (4-3)
OVERVIEW: As the Patriots continue to roll out more four-man fronts, the role of the defensive tackle will further be highlighted. In previous years, the Patriots have relied upon a middle-anchor nose tackle to set the defense in motion, a role Vince Wilfork has held for much of his career. The team now often ushers out two big bodies in the middle who work in unison to hunker down on the defensive line. The defensive tackle can serve in a variety of roles, with some defenses relying upon gap-shooters to generate vertical pressure to disrupt offensive concepts (longtime Patriots rival Tony Dungy often turned to such a concept). Other defensive tackles are called upon to hold the point of attack at the line of scrimmage, similar to a 3-4 nose tackle. As a result of the difference in schemes and duties of defensive tackles, production can vary quite a bit amongst the elite players.
DESIRED TRAITS: With an interior defensive lineman, size cannot be avoided. We mentioned it yesterday in the nose tackle overview, and it remains true for a defensive tackle – he needs to have girth.
But more than just size, a defensive tackle needs to have a sufficient first step to fire off the ball, re-set his base, and be able to engage a blocker. He must have enough strength and power through his core to not be knocked off of his center of gravity, and the hand placement to control his opponent. A defensive tackle needs to have the anchor to hold his ground, as well as the quickness – both laterally and vertically – to make an impact down the line and penetrate into the backfield.
From a pass-rushing standpoint, defensive tackles operate in a number of ways. Some are reliant upon strength and explosion to overpower their opponents, while others have the ability to use quickness off the snap to squeeze through gaps. Discovering how a defensive tackle generates pressure is critical.
One often-overlooked aspect of defensive tackle play is discipline. Defensive tackles work in the center of the action, and an inability to execute assignments due to a lack of discipline can disrupt the scheme played behind him. Execution and technique often correlate, which is one of the reasons why Wilfork – who has both the physical tools and sensational technique desired from a defensive tackle – has been so successful for many years.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Defensive tackles are most often used on field goal block, field goal protection, and occasionally as wedge-blockers on kickoff return (recent rule changes have decreased the role of wedges in kickoff return).
PATRIOTS TAKE: With Wilfork and Kyle Love, the Patriots have a pair of run-stuffing space-eaters who tag-teamed for a rock solid 2011. Beyond them, Gerard Warren adds sufficient depth, and a number of youngsters – including undrafted rookies Justin Francis and Marcus Forston – will look to establish a role in training camp. One factor that we’ll have our eyes on during the preseason will be how much Jonathan Fanene moves inside in sub situations. He appears to have the necessary size, strength and quickness to be disruptive from an interior role in passing situations. The Patriots look poised to be athletic and versatile across the defensive front this year, and the defensive tackle rotation appears strong already.