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The Big Draft Decision

With defensive tackles suddenly at a premium, NFL teams with high picks next month have a weighty choice to make: Gerald McCoy or Ndamukong Suh?

In a hotel lobby packed with coaches, agents and draft prospects in town for the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last Thursday night, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy craned his neck to see Carolina coach John Fox, then San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, then Seattle coach Pete Carroll.... "It's like it's not real," said McCoy. "All the people here, all the attention. When you're a defensive tackle, you're not used to attention like this."

The scouting combine is usually an occasion to fawn over the latest laser-armed quarterback or the next athletic freak, but at the weeklong NFL job fair this year the glamour position was defensive tackle. The spotlight focused on McCoy and Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska, who on April 22 could become the first DTs chosen first and second in the NFL draft.

In fact, the golden age for the grunts of a defense has already dawned. A year ago the Redskins gave free-agent All-Pro tackle Albert Haynesworth a seven-year, $100 million contract—the biggest ever for a defensive player. Last week Casey Hampton, a 32-year-old tackle with a history of weight problems who is on the field for less than half of the plays, re-signed with the Steelers for three years and $21 million. And when teams tagged franchise players last Thursday, there were more defensive tackles—New England's Vince Wilfork, Green Bay's Ryan Pickett and San Francisco's Aubrayo Franklin, as well as tackle-end hybrid Richard Seymour of Oakland—than any other position on the list.

Playing the run with an interior space eater is suddenly the rage; 14 teams expect to use a 3--4 defense in 2010, which is more than double the number from five years ago. Of the defenses that ranked in the top five in highest percentage of second-and-eight plays or longer, two were in conference title games (the Jets and the Vikings), one was a wild-card team (the Packers) and the two others (the 8--8 49ers and the 9--7 Steelers) were in the playoff hunt. All five had preeminent run stoppers in Kris Jenkins, Pat Williams, Pickett, Franklin and Hampton, respectively.

The prospect of landing a combination run stuffer and pass rusher such as McCoy or Suh forces even a club like St. Louis, in obvious need of a quarterback and owner of the No. 1 pick, to pause and reconsider choosing Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, the 2008 Heisman winner and highest-rated passer in this draft.

What's so attractive about Suh, who is nimble enough to have played as much soccer as football growing up, and McCoy, a defensive tackle since he was seven, is their versatility. At 6'4", 307 pounds Suh could play nosetackle in a pinch, but he's better suited as a 3--4 end or a 4--3 tackle who can shed blocks with strength and quickness. Suh could not have been more impressive in his 41/2-sack performance in the Big 12 championship game in December, once flinging Texas quarterback Colt McCoy to the ground as if he weighed 16 pounds, not 216.

Gerald McCoy is even quicker than Suh. At 6'4", 295, he has the interior burst reminiscent of John Randle's, the Vikings' great who last month became just the third pure three-technique defensive tackle (a position specializing in shooting the gap between the offensive guard and tackle) to be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame—another sign that defensive tackles are red hot at the moment. "I love Randle," McCoy says, "because he was a madman."

The buzz at the combine last weekend was that McCoy's quickness could move him ahead of Suh on draft boards. "They're the two best players in the draft, by far," said respected NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "I love Suh, but this has become a pass-first league, and I think McCoy's the better NFL player."

Suh or McCoy? McCoy or Suh?

"We love them both," Rams general manager Billy Devaney said last week.

Born to a heating-and-cooling system technician from Cameroon and an elementary school teacher from Jamaica who met in Portland, Suh was named after his 7'3" great-grandfather. (Ndamukong means "house of spears" in the language of the Ngema tribe of Cameroon.) At age eight he stood 5'8", the same height as his dad, and loved playing soccer. Young Ndamukong didn't give it up until eighth grade, when he decided the sport wasn't physical enough. "Too many red cards," Suh says. In high school he took up football, and before long the scholarship offers came flooding in.

At Nebraska he struggled until his redshirt junior year and the arrival of coach Bo Pelini and his brother Carl, the defensive coordinator who taught Suh to play smart and aggressively. Over his final two seasons in Lincoln he had 19½ sacks and 32 quarterback pressures as he became the most feared defensive player in college football. Strangely, despite having the performance of his life in the Big 12 title game, Suh frets that he was responsible for Nebraska's loss, which came on a Texas field goal as time expired. "I blocked three other kicks last season," he said glumly. "I should have blocked that one, without a doubt. It will always bother me, the way that game ended."

Meanwhile, NFL clubs that use the 3--4 and are drafting at the top of the first round are stewing over more pressing issues such as, Do we want to put Suh at end to play the run and risk wasting his pass-rushing ability? Most scouts see him playing multiple spots on the line; maybe end in a 3--4, or tackle in a 4--3 on rush downs with the option of moving outside on passing downs.

The thought that neither Russell Maryland nor Dan Wilkinson—the only two defensive tackles taken with the No. 1 pick since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger—turned into a star doesn't faze Suh. Nor does the prospect of having to meet great expectations in St. Louis or Detroit or Tampa Bay or wherever else he might land. "The pressure won't bother me," he says. "I know I will earn every last penny of what they pay me. Whoever drafts me will get every last ounce of effort out of me."

All-out effort, that's what Bradford admired in his teammate McCoy during their four years together in Norman. "Great motor," the quarterback says. "He always came in first in every drill we did at practice, from the start of practice till the end."

McCoy grew up in Oklahoma City, the son of a human resources manager and an aircraft mechanic who had two other children, and football was his sport from the start. "When I was eight, they put me at defensive end for a while, and when I was in high school I begged my coach to let me play tight end a little as a senior," he says. "But the rest of the time it was all defensive tackle. I was just bigger than everyone else."

After McCoy had 40 sacks during his final two seasons at Southeast High, Oklahoma came after him hard. He redshirted his freshman season before becoming a three-year starter but spent his career playing in the shadows of more famous Sooners such as Bradford.

Though McCoy's stats don't compare well to Suh's (a season best of 6½ sacks in 2008, for instance), McCoy seems a natural for the three-technique position. "I think I can contain the run, but I thrive on getting upfield and going after the quarterback," he said. "I think the important thing about our position is not necessarily sacks but disruption. Look at some of the great tackles, and what they do is set up plays for the defensive ends."

McCoy smiles a lot when he's speaking. If anyone at the combine was just happy to be there, he was. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops often praised his big defensive tackle for his leadership, and at the combine McCoy was quick to befriend some of the lesser-known defensive linemen. "I just have so much fun around this game—practice, games, just being around the guys," he said. "When I'm not playing, I'm a little sick to the stomach."

The Rams have a gut-wrenching choice to make among Bradford, McCoy and Suh. A quarterback or a defensive tackle? And which defensive tackle? Before the combine McCoy and his dad, Gerald Sr., talked about how it was about time that defensive tackles were getting all this national attention. They should be careful what they wish for—there's still seven more weeks of hype and rumors until draft day.

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Playing the run with an interior space eater is the rage.

Underwear Olympics

Higher, faster, stronger is still the goal for prospects at the combine, but teams are no longer easily impressed

Gil Brandt, the 77-year-old godfather of the NFL scouting combine, took a look around Lucas Oil Stadium last Saturday and marveled at what he saw: a football operation in Indianapolis running as efficiently as a watch factory in Geneva. On the field one set of offensive linemen and tight ends was being put through speed and agility drills. In a weight room other players took turns bench-pressing 225 pounds. In the press room some of the 648 media representatives lobbed questions at USC defensive end Everson Griffen, while others pecked away at stories on players they had already interviewed.

"I always thought of myself as an aggressive thinker," said Brandt, the longtime Cowboys scouting chief who now assists with the operation of the combine, "but who could have seen this coming?"

Above all else, the combine remains a measuring tool. The 329 players in Indianapolis this year were put through physical exams (four times, eight doctors at a time, one from each of the 32 NFL teams), intelligence tests and other mental exercises, athleticism and position drills on the field and, at night, team interviews lasting 15 minutes. "You get dizzy from it all," said Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford just before 11 p.m. on Saturday. "You go from 5:30 in the morning till 11 at night, every day. You better be in good shape when you come here."

But over the years enough combine standouts have failed to pan out as pros that some personnel men are putting less value on the data collected at the Underwear Olympics—the nickname old-time scouts have given the event—than before. One team executive told SI last week he had no interest in going to the combine anymore; instead he was relying on video study of the players' college careers to set his draft board. He said his board was 90% set before the combine and would change only if a player's character or medical condition came into question.

While there are no official combine records for the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill and shuttle run, there is anecdotal evidence of outstanding achievement in the drills—which, in many cases, marks the high point of a player's NFL experience. For instance, at the 2000 combine defensive tackle Leif Larsen, a Norwegian from UTEP, set what is believed to be the alltime bench-press high of 51 reps. (No player has come within six reps since.) Larsen wound up appearing in 16 games and making 16 tackles over two seasons with the Bills before being waived out of the league.

The best vertical jump is said to have been made in 2004 by North Carolina safety Gerald Sensabaugh, who soared 46 inches. He's had a middling five-year career with the Jaguars and the Cowboys. As for the three-cone drill—in which players sprint and weave around cones placed in the shape of an L, five yards apart—Texas A&M cornerback Sedrick Curry rocked the combine 10 years ago, churning through the drill in 6.45 seconds (a time that has not been beaten). Alas, he wasn't drafted, never played in the NFL and hooked up with the Birmingham Bolts of the short-lived XFL.

"If you ran under seven [seconds] in the three-cone drill, you're almost a cinch to make it [to the NFL]," said Brandt, who then had a second thought. "But no drill's perfect."

PHOTO

Photograph by TODD ROSENBERG

WHO'S NO. 1? McCoy (opposite, 31, and top photo) has the edge in quickness, but Suh has superior sacking skills.

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ALBERT PENA/CAL SPORT MEDIA

[See caption above]

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KARL ANDERSON/ICON SMI

[See caption above]

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RICH GABRIELSON/ICON SMI

FRANCHISED Three DTs were tagged, including Wilfork, more than any other position.

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PETER DIANA/PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE/ZUMAPRESS.COM

RE-SIGNED The weight-challenged Hampton got a three-year, $21 million deal.

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TANNEN MAURY/EPA

FRANCHISED Like Wilfork, Pickett is guaranteed a lucrative one-year contract.

THREE PHOTOS

Photograph by TODD ROSENBERG

FIELD DAY McCoy (left) and Suh (below and below left) were measured in six drills, including the three-cone and vertical and broad jumps.