The NFL is a copycat league. The West-Coast offense, the cover-two, and the zone-blocking scheme are all examples of trends that became commonplace as a result of their effectiveness and their contribution to teams that win.
The Giants dethroned what many believed to be the first dynasty of the 21st century by first and foremost neutralizing Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offensive machine. The running game was rendered sterile at the point of attack, and Brady’s ability to check down to his second, third, and fourth receiving option was obliterated by the onslaught of the Giants’ relentless pass rush.
Rest assured that many general managers and player personnel were taking notes, and expect teams throughout the league to invest heavily in both top-tier defensive linemen with big-play capability as well as journeymen to add depth and keep defensive line rotations fresh.
Many teams use the currently crowned champion to mold their rosters. Take the current Superbowl champion, mimic their strengths on both sides of the ball, and mold your defense around the strategy that best neutralizes the champions’ offense. In the case of the Giants’ victory over the Patriots, the defensive line held the key.
As a result, look for defensive linemen to be a constant theme in the 2008 draft. Not only will the top-tier players like Chris Long and Vernon Gholston be commanding attention, but well into the middle and later rounds with players like Marcus Harrison and Jeremy Geathers, the defensive lineman will be viewed as the new skill position player.
Already, top-tier defensive linemen have commanded top dollar in the open market. And the trend will continue as castoff defensive linemen are available after June 1st cuts, as teams will look to add linemen for depth as well as to factor into their defensive line rotations.
At press-time, the Chiefs’ are shopping Jared Allen in the hopes of receiving multiple picks in the 2008 draft. The potential to receive multiple draft picks in exchange for a pass-rushing stud like Allen confirms the worth of a player with his ability to rush the passer. The Bills parted with more than one undisclosed draft pick for the services of the Jaguars’ Marcus Stroud. They value Stroud’s services so much that they view him as worthy of several players in the open market.
The 49ers inked former Bengals’ defensive end Justin Smith to a six-year, $45 million contract including $20 million guaranteed, despite many feeling that they should be focusing on investing in their offense.
Obviously the 49ers’ brass considered Smith’s pass-rushing skills and sure-tackling ability to be a sound investment - again, these are no longer big, fat guys that you shove up front to clear lanes for linebackers, they are premier athletes that are commanding top dollar in the open market because of their ability to help win championships.
Look for more personnel shifts along the defensive line, stunting, player rotation, and a high emphasis on players that can line up at defensive tackle and defensive end as coordinators look to exploit mismatches along the offensive line.
For example, the 49ers will line up Isaac Sopoaga at both tackle and end to better utilize his ability to penetrate opposing offensive lines in the hopes that it will translate into more tackles for losses behind the line of scrimmage.
Putting an emphasis on the defensive line and pass rushing ability is nothing new, but the difference will be that teams will be willing to invest more money into unproven prospects like the Raiders’ Tommy Kelly in the hopes of finding that next blue chip player.They will pursue castoffs that are past their primes more aggressively to add depth and bolster their rotations, and they will stockpile mid and late round picks in the draft in the hopes of finding that defensive end/outside linebacker "tweener" with pass rushing ability.
With their victory over the "unbeatable" Patriots in Superbowl XLII, the Giants have laid out the Blue-Print for success in 2008. Move over wide receivers, quarterbacks, and running backs, and bow down to the elite defensive lineman - your new skill position player.