Perspective and a knowledge of your team are the most important things to keep in mind when projecting needs for your football team. The Kansas City Chiefs regime under current GM Scott Pioli has done a magnificent job this offseason of addressing most of those needs, but holes remain on the roster, and upgrades will always be welcome.
One of those needs is unquestionably this team’s lack of a nose tackle. Our current roster bodies Amon Gordon, Jerrell Powe and Anthony Toribio don’t seem to be much more than rotational, situational players at best (Toribio in particular has no place on an NFL roster). This team is in need of a big body who can drop anchor, hold the point of attack, and absorb blockers for those important two first downs.
But how important is that nose tackle position for the Chiefs? Is it truly the most important player on the defense, as has been repeated ad nauseum in so many arguments across the Chiefs blogosphere? Is it truly the difference between a Top 15 defense like the 2011 Chiefs, and a potential Top 5 defense? And most consequential of all, is it worth investing a first-rounder on in the 2012 draft, when the only real prospect you could take there would be Memphis gigantor Dontari Poe?
This is what I mean by having perspective, and knowledge of your team. Let’s exercise some of both.
Why do we consider the nose tackle position in the 3-4 is one of the defense’s most important? Because, the argument goes, it is critical to clogging the middle offensive lineman and allowing your linebackers (and All Pro safety Eric Berry) free rein in plugging the A- and B-gaps, and forcing offenses to limit their runs to off-tackle lanes.
But this Chiefs team, with aging vets and rejects, have already been capable of this feat under defensive guru Romeo Crennel without that fabled block-of-granite in the heart of their defense. Teams had a genuinely tough time running the ball on the Chiefs, the linebackers put up gaudy tackle stats, earning Derrick Johnson a trip to the Pro Bowl, and the Chiefs were on the doorstep of being a Top 10 defense last year, despite their lack of talent at the nose position.
So how important is that nose tackle again?
I don’t mean to demean the position, but Crennel has a defensive line fortified with a pair of the best run-stopping defensive ends in the NFL in Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson. Rotational lineman Amon Gordon was also decent enough in spot work. The Chiefs are already very tough against the run, as exemplified by totally shutting down the Broncos’ top-ranked run game at the end of the season. They will only get better with Eric Berry’s return.
It also helps to know the league you’re in. Crennel is a reactive visionary who has repeatedly sculpted his defenses over the past decade to match how the NFL’s rule changes have shaped offenses.
That results in a Romeo Crennel defense in 2012 that was in its base defense with a true nose tackle barely 50 percent of the time. The other half of the time? Nickel defenses and smaller defensive lines. The nose tackle is off the field.
Acquire a stud nose tackle, and does that number change? Maybe, but not enough to matter. The starting nose tackle is on the field as much as the nickel back, or the third rushbacker.
This is a pass-heavy league now, and our division just got pass-happier with an incumbent Carson Palmer and carpetbagger Peyton Manning. The nose tackle is simply not as important as it once was, and has even diminished some of its importance to the more versatile position of defensive end in the three-four defense. Defensive ends are responsible for more space and are going up against more talented athletes on the offensive line.
That is not to diminish the importance of the nose tackle. In the 3-4 defense, it remains one of the three most positions against the run game (along with the two defensive ends). It is a tone setter of your defense, such that an elite nose tackle gives the rest of your defense a feeling of near-invulnerability; play elevates from every position. It can be a difference maker, even for a limited number of snaps. And it has a popularity with defensive-minded fans’ imaginations in ways that almost no other position can inspire.
First and foremost, I am a lover of defensive football. The nose tackle is my favorite position to watch, for these reasons and more. So I get this fan base’s vast overreaction into demanding we waste our first rounder on Dontari Poe.
Poe is not worth the reach, however.
Last year, we had this same debate over Phil Taylor, another nose tackle (this time from a bigger school in Baylor) whose play left a lot to be desired on the field, but whose work in the Senior Bowl and at the Combine had Chiefs fans drooling with dreams of taking him at #21 overall. He was a workout warrior, pure and simple. Not only did the Chiefs not take him, they traded out of the draft spot so that another team could take him. The Chiefs had no interest in Taylor; I can guarantee you they have no interest in Poe.
Poe played at a smaller school in Memphis. Small school nose tackles virtually never make an impact in the NFL. Usually when you are that large, you succeed by simply being that large. You don’t have to defeat your opponent through technique or by listening to coaching. You just wait for the whistle, and go forward. Last year the attraction was Kendrick Ellis out of Hampton, a similarly-sized nose tackle prospect coming from a similarly sized school. The Jets reached for him in the second round, and thought so little of him they re-signed their 34-year-old free agent nose tackle this offseason.
At Memphis, Poe did not play in a way that was conducive to Crennel’s 3-4 two-gapping defense, which asks its lineman not to penetrate into the backfield, but instead to lunge at offensive lineman and occupy as many as possible so that others can make the play. Poe, by contrast, simply went up field to disrupt the pocket. And even then, he wasn’t that good at it. His stats, for a guy who was playing only to disrupt the pocket, barely register.
Last year, AA’s resident draft expert Merlin wrote that Pioli “wasn’t scouting the Phil Taylor we were watching at the Combine, he was scouting the Phil Taylor who took the field at Baylor.” If the same axiom were true with Poe, then there is no chance he ends up a Chief, especially not #11 overall.
Two-gapping football is, to put it gently, hard to play. It is physically brutal and psychologically demanding. It requires your linemen (especially the nose) to lunge at crusty, 300+ lb offensive linemen in order to attract punishment from as many as possible so your teammates can make highlights and garner attention.
Look at the one prospect the Chiefs have actually drafted at nose tackle: 2011 sixth-rounder Jerrell Powe. He is 6’1″, 330 lbs, with limited athleticism and near-zero intelligence. He hails from a bigtime SEC school. His profession after football, according to Powe himself, will be construction. Powe is so old school, he calls his position the “nose guard.” His body isn’t just built to play this style of football, his demeanor is built to play this style of football.
That’s what the Chiefs need in a nose tackle. And they actually have a perfect candidate for this defensive style in Josh Chapman, the slightly undersized (310 lbs) nose tackle out of Alabama, 100 percent committed to this style of play, with limited athleticism and unlimited toughness. And he makes a lot more sense as a Pioli selection in the third-round than Dontari Poe makes in the first.