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Nose tackles hard to find, but not in 2012

4/5/2012

It takes a special kind of player to develop into an effective nose tackle, and it starts with a rare set of physical tools. Players with good movement skills and the combination of size and strength to hold up on the inside -- often against double-teams -- are simply hard to find.

It takes more than just girth and brute strength, though. These prospects need the tenacity to regularly fight off multiple blockers and the mindset to take pride in doing the dirty work without getting much recognition.

Who in the 2012 is cut from that cloth? Here are five prospects who can play the nose in three- or four-man fronts, and where they might land at the next level.

Michael Brockers, LSU (Scouts Inc. Grade: 94)

The 6-foot-5, 322-pound Brockers is a better fit at defensive end than nose tackle in a three-man front, but only because his height makes it more difficult to stay low and anchor when teams run at him. However, playing the nose in a four-man front is a different story.

In those schemes, Brockers can use his initial quickness to attack upfield, and his size makes it tough to block him one-on-one when he beats offensive linemen to the spot. In addition, his ability to shed blocks in time to make the play should continue to improve, so he's the kind of player teams will likely have to commit two blockers to neutralize.

The Carolina Panthers will be looking to improve a run defense and pass rush that both finished 25th in the league last season, and Brockers is capable of helping in both areas. Taking him with the ninth overall pick wouldn't be much of a reach. Other prospects on this list might have more potential, but Brockers was productive against a high level of competition and has some upside of his own.

Dontari Poe, Memphis (94)

Poe (6-3, 346) is a developmental prospect who has only scratched the surface of his potential, but he has the natural ability to push for early playing time at a few different spots. He can line up at nose tackle regardless of the font, and he could even slide outside to defensive end in a three-man front. In addition, all of his weaknesses can be worked on.

For example, he takes too long to get off blocks, but he can clearly improve this aspect of his game, considering he bench-pressed 225 pounds an incredible 44 times at the NFL combine.

The Dallas Cowboys need help along the defensive line, and Poe would be an excellent addition if he's there at No. 14 overall. The Kansas City Chiefs at No. 11 are perhaps a more likely possibility. The Chiefs' defensive front seven features four former first-round picks, but the team has yet to find its anchor in the middle and had some problems slowing the run last year. Head coach Romeo Crennel is capable of unlocking Poe's potential and strengthening that front.

Brandon Thompson, Clemson (85)

Thompson (6-2, 311) is capable of developing into an effective nose tackle regardless of the front. He has the first-step quickness and violent hands (35 bench reps at the combine) to excel in a penetrating one-gap scheme, as well as the power base and instincts to thrive in a two-gap scheme. His willingness to do the dirty work isn't a concern because he doesn't give up when two teams commit two blockers to him.

Thompson would be an interesting addition for the Indianapolis Colts with the 34th overall pick. That might be a bit of a reach based on his 2011 tape, but Thompson flashed first-round potential in 2010. New head coach Chuck Pagano and new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky have backgrounds in 3-4 defenses and will transition to that scheme, but Manusky has made it clear he will put his players in the best position to succeed, and Thompson's versatility could help make that transition smoother.

Alameda Ta'amu, Washington (81)

At 6-2.5 and 348 pounds, Ta'amu is built like the prototypical 3-4 nose tackle. He could play with better pad level at times, but his low center of gravity and rare size make leverage less of a concern than for some other nose tackle prospects. He also has the upper-body strength (35 reps at the combine) to control and shed blockers in time to make play.

Ta'amu is never going to be a feared interior pass-rusher, but he's a strong bull-rusher who can drive blockers back at times and make it tough for quarterbacks to step up in the pocket. Finally, he rarely came off the field at Washington, so there's a lot to like about his motor and endurance.

With 34-year-old Casey Hampton reportedly tearing an ACL in the playoff loss to Denver and backup Chris Hoke retiring, the Pittsburgh Steelers should be in the market for a nose tackle early in the draft. They're unlikely to find value there in the first round, but Ta'amu would offer solid value late in the second. He's capable of pushing early playing time in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme and would provide some insurance and an heir apparent behind Hampton.

Josh Chapman, Alabama (66)

Chapman doesn't offer much in terms of pass-rush ability, but he's got the frame, strength and will to develop into an effective nose tackle for a base 3-4 defense. At 6-0⅝ and 316 pounds, it's tough for defensive linemen to get under him, and he's heavy and strong enough to hold his ground when teams commit two blockers to him. Don't question his toughness or his desire, either. Chapman played the bulk of the 2011 season with a torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee.

Baltimore has more pressing needs, but it would do well to add depth along the defensive line and was awarded a compensatory pick late in the fourth round. If durability concerns drive Chapman's value down and he slips to the Ravens, he has the potential to quickly develop into an effective backup if healthy.