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Thursday, March 31, 2011
Could AFC South first round be all D-line?

By Paul Kuharsky

Bowers, Watt and Smith
Da'Quan Bowers, J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith are likely first-rounders who are under the microscope.
It’s the right year to need a defensive lineman in the first round, and in the AFC South, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if all four teams spent their first pick in the draft on a tackle or an end.

Speaking briefly Tuesday night before a charity event, Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt offered nothing substantive on his quarterback-needy team’s feelings about the quarterback prospects.

But the guy running the team’s draft is also in need of a couple of defensive linemen, and joined the chorus raving about the talent available.

“I think it’s going to be very tempting because I think there will be 14 or 15 defensive linemen that go in the first round,” he said. “So that’ll make an interesting choice for a lot of people in the first round.”

NFL Draft Scout rates seven ends and two tackles as clear first-rounders and another two ends and four tackles as possible first-rounders. Some of those ends could wind up as pass-rushing outside linebackers in a 3-4.

At the NFL scouting combine, many of the hot defensive linemen expressed pride in the strength of their position in this draft.

“I look at it like, if you go back in the history of watching football, before the game was started, it started up front,” said Marcell Dareus, the Alabama tackle who's expected to be the first defensive lineman off the board. “Some people were scared and backed up off the ball. But the real bulls stayed up front and played the game.”

The compelling group that could have guys coming to try to hit Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub and slow Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson includes a guy who plays the guitar and the drums (Clemson end Da'Quan Bowers), another who had a brain tumor removed five years ago (North Carolina end Robert Quinn) and a third who started out not in football, but in rugby (Oregon State tackle Stephen Paea).

I asked one college scout from the AFC and Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. to pair each AFC South team with a defensive lineman likely to be available at each team's slot. Here’s what they said.

Tennessee (No. 8)

Scout: Bowers

"Add him to a young Derrick Morgan and Titans would have bookend defensive ends with pass-rush ability for many years. Look at the Titans' current DEs: Jacob Ford (potential free agent) is a nickel pass-rusher; Dave Ball (free agent and injuries) is a rotational player only; Jason Babin (free agent) is a one-year wonder and honestly just a pass-rusher; William Hayes is a base/run-down end. So the need is there for sure. Players that can play the run and rush the passer usually never hit free agency, they aren’t allowed to because they are so hard to find. If there wasn’t a issue with the knee, Bowers wouldn’t be there at eight."

Williamson: Auburn tackle Nick Fairley or Quinn

“Value and upside. Both players are dripping with upside, but have some questions. The Titans' new line coach, Tracy Rocker, comes from Auburn and already has a relationship with Fairley. He is just too good of a prospect to pass up at that point of the draft. And Tennessee’s line has enough guys already that they could sort of ease either player into his respective role.”

Texans (No. 11)

Scout: Wisconsin end J.J. Watt

"A great choice for a 5-technique player. High motor, excellent size with potential to add to frame, great kid with a huge upside. I am ignoring obvious pass-rushers because they are outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense and you wanted a lineman. The [Texans] are in need of a pass-rusher more than a 5-technique end -- Mario Williams, Shaun Cody and Antonio Smith all fit that position. Amobi Okoye is a quick nose tackle, but not a true nose. They will need to upgrade that spot as well, but there is not a value nose tackle for them with the 11th pick."

Williamson: Watt or Cal end Cameron Jordan

“For Houston, I think they would love to get a 5-technique like JJ Watt or Cameron Jordan. Nose tackle is the bigger need, but taking [Baylor’s] Phil Taylor there is too early.”

Jacksonville (No. 16)

Scout: Missouri end Aldon Smith

“An excellent pass-rusher. Young, inexperienced but has a huge upside. Should grow into his frame and maintain athletic ability. They lack true pass-rushers. Larry Hart is a situational rusher at best. Austen Lane is a run-down player… at best. Derrick Harvey hasn’t worked out. And they are already solid in the middle. [Miami end] Allen Bailey, [Iowa end] Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Jordan are too close to what they have already. The only other option would be [Purdue end] Ryan Kerrigan, but he and Aaron Kampman are similar in skills and limitations. Aldon has true edge pass-rush ability.”

Williamson: Aldon Smith

“I like Smith a lot for Jacksonville. They are set at tackle, so they only would look for an end up front in my opinion. He is loaded with upside. And with all this defensive line talent in this draft, he could be a real value pick where they select.”

Indianapolis (No. 22)

Scout: Illinois tackle Corey Liuget

“He would be a great choice for them. A very athletic defensive tackle with size, effort and upside. He can play the run as well, but helps with pressure on inside. He is a very good combo DT playing run/pass equally well. They are set at defensive end. Jerry Hughes will come around and they will have three solid players at the spot. Liuget adds to depleted interior group.”

Williamson: Taylor or Liuget

“Indy might pounce on Taylor to clog up the middle or if Corey Liuget is still there, he would be ideal. I would say it is unlikely, but Bill Polian doesn't care about what others think and he likes 'his type of players' ... so Drake Nevis from LSU could be someone he really likes.”