Who today compares to 14-time Pro Bowler Merlin Olsen of the Los Angeles Rams?
So it is onward…which in regards to this piece actually means inward.
Welcome to the 10th installment of our throwback series in which we have taken a look at the different positions around the NFL and drawn comparisons to standouts of years gone by.
Last time out, the focus was on some of the top defensive ends and who they reminded us of. Here, we’ll talk defensive tackles and nose tackles. Those positions don’t usually add up to a lot of statistics, but these performers obviously play a big role in a unit’s success.
How exactly do we come up with these comparisons? The criteria are multi-faceted, and one legend doesn't fit all. We are talking style as much as anything because after all, the eye test is still the best pop quiz ever. But other factors will be taken into account when making comparisons.
One very big reminder: This is not a ranking of the eight best interior defensive linemen in the NFL. It’s simply some of the best players at their position and who they remind us of from the distant or not-too distant past.
Similar To: Cortez Kennedy
There’s little doubt that Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh brings it every game.
Sometimes, we’re not exactly sure what he’s bringing.
The talented but controversial defensive tackle has enjoyed a solid four-year NFL career, totaling 27.5 sacks while being named to the Pro Bowl three times. But this is a franchise that has been to the playoffs just once (2011) in the last 14 seasons. Perhaps the hiring of new head coach Jim Caldwell will help the team turn the corner.
While some have mentioned Pro Football Hall of Famer "Mean" Joe Greene when it comes to Suh, that comparison has been based somewhat on temperament considering Suh's history—as documented by Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports—as well as Greene’s early days in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Still, to see a man the size of Suh (6'4", 307 pounds) brings comparisons to Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, who can tell you something about being a star on a struggling franchise. In 1992, the Seattle Seahawks were 2-14, yet Kennedy garnered NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Suh and Kennedy (6'3", 305 pounds) are/were big men who were able to penetrate and disrupt quicker than many linemen could react to. And it’s never good for an opposing offense when a defensive tackle is spending more times in the backfield than your running back.
Similar To: Jerry Sherk
It appears that the one person the San Francisco 49ers defense can least afford to be without is defensive tackle Justin Smith.
We saw evidence of that late in the 2012 season when defensive tackle Justin Smith was injured in Week 15 versus the New England Patriots and just wasn't his same self when he returned for the postseason.
However, Smith appeared to be his old imposing self in 2013, and the 49ers defense, after a slow start, reflected that. He was part of a unit that finished fifth overall in the league in total defense (fourth versus run, seventh versus pass) this past season. San Francisco also gave up 272 points, the third-fewest in the NFL in 2013.
During his 13-year career with both the Cincinnati Bengals and 49ers, Smith has excelled as a starter in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, lining up at both defensive end spots as well as defensive tackle with the Niners. It is these later years with San Francisco where Smith has gotten the recognition. The fourth overall pick by the Bengals in the 2001 draft has been named to the last five Pro Bowls.
Defensive tackle Jerry Sherk is not a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he was a four-time Pro Bowler with the Cleveland Browns in the mid-1970s. There’s something to be said for that considering the conference featured eventual Hall of Fame interior linemen such as Joe Greene and Curley Culp, to name a few.
Similar to Smith, Sherk toiled on his share of teams that didn't have a lot of success. Sherk manned the inside of the Cleveland defense without a lot of fanfare, despite those four Pro Bowl invites.
There’s plenty to be said for the lunch-pail guys in this league.
Similar To: Art Donovan
It was a short season for a big man.
New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who had started every game for the team the previous three seasons, was lost after four weeks in 2013. That, combined with the eventual loss of linebacker Jerod Mayo and others, saw the New England defense plummet to 30th in the league against the run.
The massive Wilfork, who at 6’2” and 325 pounds, is an imposing figure with great quickness and ball instincts. The former first-round pick seemed to really be coming the last few seasons. From 2011-12, he totaled 6.5 sacks, a pair of interceptions and six fumble recoveries.
Like Wilfork, Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle Art Donovan was known for his size. He co-authored a book titled Fatso: Football When Men Were Really Men. And like the Patriots’ standout defender, Donovan was more than a handful for any one blocker. The 6’2”, 263-pound defensive tackle got the job done against both the run as well as harassing opposing quarterbacks.
Kerry Byrne of Cold Hard Football Facts paid a very fitting tribute to Donovan when the larger-than-life figure passed away last August.
Similar To: Ernie Stautner
It must have been a strange year for Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who is used to ending his season in the playoffs.
For the first time since 2007, the five-time Pro Bowler wasn't involved in the NFL’s postseason as he and the defending Super Bowl champions fell to 8-8 in 2013 and out of the playoffs.
Ngata did what he could to prevent that from happening. The eight-year veteran totaled 52 tackles and 1.5 sacks for a unit that finished 12th overall in the league in total defense.
Although probably better known for his days as a Dallas Cowboys assistant coach, Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle Ernie Stautner was a hard-nosed defender who was stout and dependable. Like Ngata, he did a lot of the unsung dirty work but made his presence felt via 25 takeaways in 14 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Unlike Ngata, Stautner was never a member of a championship team as a player, despite being named to nine Pro Bowls during his impressive career.
Similar To: John Randle
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was the third overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have finished last in the NFC South three straight seasons.
What’s in a number, after all?
How about this? The last two seasons, with a healthy McCoy in the starting lineup for every game, the Bucs have finished first and 15th, respectively, in run defense. That’s a far cry from where this unit was prior to 2012. McCoy missed a total of 13 games his first two seasons in the league. Now he’s been named to two straight Pro Bowls, totaling a combined 14.5 sacks to go with his run-stopping prowess.
Like Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle, McCoy can provide a pass rush from the defensive tackle spot. While he and the seven-time Pro Bowler took totally different paths to the NFL (Randle went undrafted), both have or had their sights set on the other team’s quarterback.
In the case of Randle, his career volume of sacks (137.5) was surpassed only by his…volume.
Similar To: Randy White
Give credit to the Cincinnati Bengals coaching staff in 2013. Without arguably the best defensive tackle in the NFL for a big part of the season, the team finished third in the league in total defense.
But that doesn't mean Geno Atkins wasn't missed. The improving defender totaled 20 tackles and six sacks before missing the final seven games of the season.
Over the previous two campaigns, he had played in all 16 contests each year, totaling a combined 20 sacks and forcing six fumbles. He was a monster in 2012, earning All-Pro honors thanks to 12.5 sacks from the defensive tackle spot.
We transition from monster to “Manster.” Many forget that Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Randy White was the second overall pick in 1975 and was drafted to play linebacker. After a few seasons, he was shifted to defensive tackle and became a big part of the "Doomsday" defenses in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Like Atkins (6'1", 286 pounds), White was obviously not a big man for the position. But he more than made up for it in tenacity. The nine-time Pro Bowler was the co-MVP of Super Bowl XII along with teammate Harvey Martin.
Similar To: Rubin Carter
A year following his less-than-impressive rookie campaign, Kansas City Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe turned disappointment into distress for opposing offenses.
The former first-round pick was one of the league’s most improved players in 2013, and it was hard not to notice how aggressive Poe had become in his second season. Credit both defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and the young defender, who was named to the Pro Bowl this past season.
The nose tackle is arguably the most important piece of the 3-4 defense. With a man in the middle that demands to be double-teamed, that ability frees things up for rest of the unit. Such was the case for the Denver Broncos and nose tackle Rubin Carter, who made life easier for Pro Bowlers such as team legends Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson.
Such was the case in 2013 for Poe, who spent much time in opposing backfields. The second-year pro joined inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston in Hawaii in late January. It’s worth noting that Hali and Houston tied for the team lead with 11 sacks, while Johnson and Poe each totaled 4.5 sacks.
It’s also worth a mention that the Chiefs finished with 47 sacks this past season, 20 more than the team came up with (27) in 2012.
Similar To: Joe Klecko
You know what they say in regards to better late than never?
In all honesty, it hasn't been too late for Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams. A fifth-round pick in 2006, the former LSU performers has come into this own in recent seasons on a defensive unit that seems to finally be making some strides.
Williams has been named to the Pro Bowl in three of the last four seasons and has done it at two different positions. He was a nose tackle in 2010 and now lines up at defensive tackle in the team’s 4-3 defense. The 6'1" 301-pound stout defender totaled a career-high 10.5 sacks in 2013.
Williams has been a bit of a late bloomer and like another standout performer who spent his NFL career in the AFC East, has a quiet but steady motor.
Joe Klecko, who spent 11 of his 12 NFL seasons with the New York Jets and his final year with the Indianapolis Colts, was a Pro Bowler at defensive end, defensive tackle and nose tackle. The Jets’ defensive front also known as the "New York Sack Exchange" featured Klecko, exuberant Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam.
The quartet made up one of the most feared pass rushes of the 1980s, and Klecko’s versatility was a huge key. Here’s a great look back on the group thanks to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News.
Still, you don’t need to be a stockbroker or accountant to know that Williams and Klecko add up to two players who got the job done wherever they played.