Maybe we’re on the verge of something epic. This NFL Draft swings so heavily toward the defense that there’s probably a new rule being written at this very instant to combat that.
Sure, Kyler Murray, the gunslinger with wheels, is widely expected to be picked No. 1 overall on Thursday night in Nashville. But after that? Defense is supposed to rule.
Perhaps nearly 20 defensive players will be picked the first round. Records for first-round selections of edge rushers (8, 2017) and defensive tackles (6, 2001 and 2003) have been put on notice. At the scouting combine a few weeks ago, defensive players stole the show with eye-popping times. And one day, we’ll possibly look back on this draft as somebody’s launchpad on a trek to Canton.
Ohio State's Nick Bosa figures to be among the top two or three picks in Thursday's NFL Draft. (Photo: Brian Spurlock, USA TODAY Sports)
At least those are the expectations for what is widely hailed as a special defensive class.
“We always talk about the quarterback Class of ’83, and how all of those guys are Hall of Famers,” Anthony “Booger” McFarland, ESPN’s analyst for Monday Night Football, pondered for USA TODAY Sports. “They all started with talent. This draft has some talent like that.”
Some will contend that Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa is the best player in the draft, a strong consideration for the Arizona Cardinals if Murray isn’t the top pick. Then again, Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen looks to be a better athlete than Bosa. There's a chance, too, that Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, rated No. 1 on the overall board by Ourlads.com, will have the biggest impact of them all, so long as he is able to wreck pockets from the inside as he did in college.
Other potential NFL household names: Christian Wilkins. Ed Oliver. Brian Burns. Rashan Gary. Greedy Williams, a cornerback with a moniker that suggests he’s hungry for the ball.
Then there are the Devins, White and Bush. Both are inside linebackers, from LSU and Michigan, respectively. The other thing they have in common is that they are game-changers.
Maybe it will come to this for some team: We took the best available Devin.
This draft was made for somebody who goes by the nickname, “Booger.” McFarland won Super Bowl rings while performing grunt work in the trenches as a defensive tackle for the Bucs and Colts, but as he’s evolved as a broadcaster he’s seen the game tilt even further toward offense.
“It’s really good to see a draft, particularly the first round, that’s going to be dominated by defense,” McFarland said. “More importantly, it’s good to see the influx of talent coming into the NFL.”
It’s fitting. For all of the records for points and yardage set or threatened in the NFL last season, the ultimate prize was settled in a defensive standoff. The Patriots claimed their sixth Lombardi Trophy by surviving the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever. To get there, they won a shootout against the high-flying Chiefs in the AFC title game that proved bad defenses (Kansas City’s) don’t win championships.
Well, this is the week to take a few more significant steps to fix the issue. The Chiefs, who discarded edge rushers Justin Houston and Dee Ford, obtained defensive end Frank Clark from the Seahawks on Tuesday. That followed the big free-agent signing of versatile safety Tyrann Mathieu. Now you’ll be hard-pressed to find a mock draft that doesn’t have the Chiefs taking a cornerback, safety or linebacker in the first round.
The deep defensive draft couldn’t have come at a better time for the Chiefs and other teams (hello, Tampa Bay) seeking major overhauls on defense.
“This is a great defensive draft, I think, all the way to Round 7,” new Bucs coach Bruce Arians declared while undoubtedly hoping to benefit.
The impressive performances at the combine only added fuel to expectations. Montez Sweat, a 6-6, 260-pound defensive end from Mississippi State, had the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.41) of any defensive lineman in combine history. Reports have surfaced that raise concerns about a pre-existing heart condition, but it’s unclear how that will affect his stock with each individual team. His 22 sacks over the past two seasons could be tough to ignore.
Another 40-time of note: Williams clocked in at 4.83 – while carrying 303 pounds.
It can be tricky to read too much into the numbers produced at the combine, which some like to call the Underwear Olympics. Players train much better for the timing and testing than their predecessors a generation ago.
The key is for teams is to put the numbers into the proper context.
Why such incredible measurables from these big men?
“Evolution,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel told USA TODAY Sports. “Maybe recruiting. You always want to recruit speed, and you kind of let size, or weight, take care of itself.”
Vrabel, a former linebacker who won three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, broke into the coaching ranks at Ohio State. That experience sharpened his perspective. He said it’s typical that, say, a linebacker will go to college at 6-3, 205 and fill out to maybe 6-4, 245 in three years.
“He’s eating four or five time per day, he’s lifting,” Vrabel said of the training regimen. “But he didn’t get any slower. And the one thing you can’t coach is speed.”
You’d think that these players were destined to become big receivers or tight ends.
“Maybe they couldn’t catch,” Vrabel said. “So they couldn’t be a tight end. They end up being an outside linebacker. That’s the premium position, because you’ve got to be able to cover and rush. So that’s where the faster, most athletic guys wind up, on the edge.”
Of course, as McFarland stresses, football is not played in shorts.
“Football is played with the thought that’s always in your mind, that at any moment somebody can knock your block off,” McFarland said. “That’s football.”
Football is also the sport where the quarterbacks are getting more athletic, too. The scoreboard keeps exploding. The rules are continually tweaked to put the defense at a disadvantage, because the NFL likes nothing better to bolster its TV appeal than 44-41 shootouts.
Somebody has to deal with all of that offense. So here comes a fresh crop, purportedly better than any in recent years, ready to make their NFL mark.
Good luck, defenders. The challenges and expectations are already something special.
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