Come next April, one of the most talked about players will most certainly be Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.
The 6'4", 325-pound senior stuffer is one of the most intriguing prospects from the defensive side of the ball to come along in quite some time. His unique blend of size, speed and athleticism is rare to find, so teams will be lining up to get a look at him.
The last time there was this much hype surrounding a defensive tackle was in 2010, when Ndamukong Suh hit the scene. The Nebraska stand-out impressed with a strong senior season and an out-of-this-world combine on his way to becoming the second overall pick.
So what are the chances teams like Lotulelei better than Suh? Why don't we go ahead and break down different parts of their game to help us find out.
His general size alone might put Lotulelei ahead in this category. He has about 20 pounds on Suh during his playing days. But the former Cornhusker was no slouch in this department either. Suh amassed a whopping 20.5 tackles-for-loss during his senior campaign on his way to winning the AP Player of the Year Award.
However, Lotulelei is an absolute beast in the middle. His strength is just too much for his opponents. Couple that with a quick first step and excellent explosion off the ball, and you have the makings of a guy who might be able to play any defensive line position.
One of his biggest advantages coming out of college in 2010 was Suh's almost natural ability to reach the opposing quarterback. He haunted quarterbacks in his final two seasons at Nebraska, compiling 19.5 sacks during that span and batting down 11 balls in 2009 alone.
Suh's pass-rushing prowess vaulted him up draft boards and was a major reason the Lions selected him at No. 2. It's difficult to find a guy who can consistently rush the passer from the inside, making Suh a rare commodity.
On the other hand, Lotulelei's numbers wouldn't dictate that he's an elite level pass-rusher (1.5 sacks in 2011), but numbers aren't everything.
Take a guy like Haloti Ngata, for instance. The Ravens' stalwart defensive lineman recorded only three sacks during his senior campaign.
It's true that Lotulelei still has a lot of work to do in the pass-rush department. He'll need to develop and utilize a better set of pass-rush moves and, as far as Suh goes, he's behind that curve.
Scheme versatility might not sound that important, but it can have a major impact on where a defensive lineman is drafted and how big of an impact he can have at the next level.
At 305 pounds and strong as an ox, Suh was though to be able to play a five-technique end or a three-technique tackle depending on which defensive scheme each team ran. Having a five-technique end with the pass-rush skills that Suh possesses would be nightmarish for offensive coordinators and a Christmas gift for those on the defensive side of the ball. But posting him inside at defensive tackle where the Lions do gets the job done just as well.
The problem is, there's probably no way Suh was going to play nose tackle at the next level. He's got good ability against the double team, but he lacks ideal size and isn't a true space eater.
While at Utah, Lotulelei defines the word space eater.
After watching some of his highlight reel, I believe Lotulelei could play any position on the defensive line and have success. He probably wouldn't be uber-effective as a seven-technique end in a 4-3 scheme, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't do his job.
Lotulelei could effectively be seen anywhere across a 3-4 front and both inside positions in the 4-3. His deceptive quickness allows him to play a lot more positions on the field.
So it would seem that out of our three categories, Lotulelei could become the better prospect than Suh, but you have to remember, these are just projections. Lotulelei will probably never have the pass-rush production that Suh had at Nebraska and, with the NFL becoming as pass-happy as they are, that could go a long way to push him down boards.
A better comparison to Lotulelei may be Haloti Ngata. Ngata does so much for the Ravens that goes unnoticed, but he's absolutely one of the best defensive linemen in the game today. Lotulelei has a chance to do that.
In the 2012 draft, Memphis' Dontari Poe was drafted 11th by the Chiefs. Lotulelei is leaps and bounds the better prospect than Poe, so I'd be stunned to say the least if he wasn't taken in the top 10 overall picks.
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