Miami CB Antrel Rolle could be the first defensive player drafted
We've checked with the league office and, in case you were wondering, yes, there are defensive players available in this year's draft.
If you've lost track of defense in the endless Alex Smith vs. Aaron Rodgers debate; or the shuffling of the three big running backs, Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams; or the constant sizing up of receivers Braylon Edwards and Mike Williams; here are a few names to jog your memory. Antrel Rolle. Pac-Man Jones. Carlos Rogers. Derrick Johnson. Travis Johnson. Shaun Cody. Mike Patterson. Dan Cody. Marcus Spears. Shawne Merriman.
One of these young men is likely to be the first defensive player drafted on Sunday. If no team bites before Pick No. 8, however, he could set a "record." In 1999, the Washington Redskins took cornerback Champ Bailey with the seventh pick in the draft, making him the first defensive player off the board. That is the lowest spot for the initial defensive pick in any draft since the 1970 merger.
Bailey, of course, quickly became one of the best cornerbacks in the league, while two of the quarterbacks drafted ahead of him, Tim Couch and Akili Smith, failed to establish themselves in the NFL, at least as of yet. In that draft, you could say the Redskins were fortunate that the six teams in front of them were all thinking of offense.
Last year, only four of the top 13 picks, and none of the top four, were defensive players. However, those four – Washington's Sean Taylor, Atlanta's DeAngelo Hall, Houston's Dunta Robinson and the New York Jets' Jonathan Vilma – all look like stars in the making. In many drafts, the premier defenders have to wait while the big offensive names steal the early spotlight; in the end, however, they often make as much if not more of an impact.
This year's draft will surely be no different. Players like Rolle, Johnson and Merriman are very intriguing talents and potential difference makers. While there is no defensive lineman projected to go at the very top of the draft, there are at least 13 or 14 names that have been mentioned as possible first-round talents.
"There's some depth in it," said Director of College Scouting Ruston Webster of the defensive line group. I would say it is solid because there are some guys on the second day that have a chance to come in and play."
Furthermore, the overall field of defensive players, if not top-heavy, is deep.
At least, that's the opinion of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' talent evaluators. The Bucs, who own a whopping 12 picks in the draft's seven rounds, think they can pick up helpful defensive players throughout the weekend.
"There are guys all the way through to the seventh (round) that have something that we like, whether it's defensive backs or linebackers or whatever," said Webster. "I think it is good because we know what we're looking for on defense. We know the type of linebacker we play with, the type of defensive lineman, corners and safety. So, when we get late, if guys have certain traits, that fit what we do, then that's why we have been able to hit on some of those guys. Because we can be specific about players, I think the depth is good."
In 2002, the Bucs found a safety, Jermaine Phillips, in the fifth round, and Phillips has developed into a starter and a player the team wants to build around. In 2001, a sixth-round pick was spent on defensive end Ellis Wyms, who has become a very valuable end/tackle swingman. A fourth-rounder in 1999 produced Dexter Jackson; a sixth-rounder in 1998 netted James Cannida; a late fourth-rounder in 1997 delivered Alshermond Singleton.
Phillips and Jackson became starters relatively quickly. Singleton was a valuable reserve and special-teamer before becoming a starter in the 2002 Super Bowl season. Wyms and Cannida became important reserves. Obviously, getting a starter out of the fifth or sixth round is a favorable outcome, but it's not always necessary to make that selection a success.
"The early guys, the first-day guys, you want them to become starters and the rest of them, if they can contribute in other ways, that is what we would be looking for," said Webster. "The thing is we don't want guys who just won't fit in at all, obviously. We want to make the most of every pick, including the seventh-round picks, even if it's one of those guys becoming a practice squad player or someone you can develop later."
Most outside analysts have the Bucs matched up with one of the big offensive names, if they stay put at the fifth overall pick. Whether or not that's accurate – and this is no confirmation either way – the team feels there are enough needs to address that any of the subsequent 11 picks could fall on either side of the ball. The Bucs own a premier pick in the second round (36th overall) and two more in the third (71st and 91st).
"We're focusing on them all," said Webster of the targeted players and positions. "If that defensive player is better than that offensive player, we'll take the defensive player."