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Can you ever have too much of a good thing? In the case of tall, athletic defensive linemen the Rams defensive line coach, Mike Waufle, would probably say no.
General manager of the New York Giants, Jerry Reese, has long subscribed to the idea that you can never have too many long,athletic pass rushers filling the front of your defense. In 2004, he found a kindred spirit in defensive line coach Mike Waufle. In the successful time that the two were together they amassed a fortune of young, fast, and tall defensive line talent. This concept was something that Waufle took with him when he left for Oakland in 2009. All of sudden, Oakland too had a surplus of tall athletic defensive linemen. Now, Mike Waufle has started all over again - this time in St. Louis.
It was obvious that Fisher brought Waufle in to improve the talent that already existed on the Rams defensive front, but he also knew that Waufle's style of building and running a defensive line would be imperative to repairing the Rams defense. So far, he has done a very good job. Fisher and Snead helped Waufle dig into his old bag of tricks by pursuing tall athletic talent for the defense in the form of Kendall Langford, Micheal Brockers, Jason Jones, Kellen Heard, Matt Conrath, and Mason Brodine. Ultimately, the Rams finished the season as one of the top pass rushing teams and a defense that was significantly improved up front from the year before. The strategy had worked again.
Why such an emphasis on tall, athletic lineman? Perhaps the answer seems self-explanatory. Why not, you may ask? Waufle and Fisher operated much of the season in a defensive front four that rotated most of the bookend depth players (Sims, Hayes) on the inside as well as the outside. Essentially in this defense, many of these 4-3 "ends" end up playing defensive tackle in the 4-3 alignment during passing downs. On these passing downs, the job of the tackle in a typical 4-3 is to shoot the gap (the space between offensive linemen). This is better suited for a quick athlete than a lumbering giant. However, a small athlete can become a liability if he is routed out of the play or taken advantage of on a draw. By having tall athletes with large frames, both of these liabilities can be minimized using leverage and technique. They can be taught to use their long arms to create separation from the guard and center allowing them to take up space, and yet still have space to make a play on the quarterback. That's why you see such an emphasis on tall athletic linemen in the Fisher/Waufle defense. As they always say in basketball, you can't teach height, and Waufle has a long history of taking raw natural size and ability, and coaching it to fit a specific role on his front.
With that in mind, I am of the opinion that this trend won't end. In every draft Jeff Fisher has ever been a part of as a head coach he has selected a defensive linemen in at least one round. I would bet that this streak will continue in 2013. So who are some of the tall athletic defensive lineman that are in this years draft class?
William Gholston: 6'7 280 - Michigan State
- A prototypical fit for the Waufle style of defensive line play
- Already has experience kicking-in on passing downs
- Is considered to have unrealized potential due to flashes of dominance
Dion Jordan: 6'7 250 - Oregon
- A fluid athlete that has the ability to add to his frame
- A quick prospect who plays faster than most offensive linemen
- A natural pass-rusher who keeps tackles at length with his wingspan
Ezekiel Ansah: 6'6 278 - BYU
- Powerful combination of size and athletic ability
- Compares to Justin Tuck on film
- Has experience playing OLB, DT, and DE
Datone Jones, 6'6 285 - UCLA
- An incredibly fast athlete for his size
- A player that can bull rush and get on the "edge" of the tackle
- A player that has a high upside if he can learn to use some of his innate talents better
Margus Hunt, 6'8 272 - SMU
- A gifted athlete that has the ability to develop into a strong NFL player
- Creates a powerful punch at the point of contact
- Is able to use his reach to effectively disrupt pass-blockers
Devin Taylor, 6'8 270 - South Carolina
- An immensely talented prospect who by all accounts has the ability to excel at the next level
- In need of coaching to improve technique and become more consistent
- Is able to physically dominate opponents when hand placement and timing is correct
So there you have it. Any big,tall, athletic prospects left out? I would keep an eye on all of these guys on draft day. I don't take much stock in draft position because it is all speculation (mostly bad). If any of these players catch the eye of Jeff Fisher and Les Snead I expect them to jump where they feel it's appropriate. That includes the first round, although many of these player could probably be had in the mid-rounds. In the meantime, fans can set their sights on a 2013 filled with QB pressures and Chris Long sack dances.