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Picking 1st: The Case Against Star Lotulelei

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Super Bowl XVII is in the books and the 2013 offseason has officially begun.

For the Chiefs, of course, the draft talk has been going since mid-season and in case there is was any doubt, I am in the camp of fans clamoring for the Chiefs to take a quarterback with their first pick.

I’ve come to this decision not because I’m smitten with any particular prospect (although I think Geno Smith currently leads the class), but because I think all other options are uninspiring and won’t help this team take the next step. In short, I think Geno wins by process of elimination. To make that point, I’ll be going through all the other players frequently mocked to the Chiefs and that the team will be able to grab with the 1st overall pick.

First up, DT Star Lotulelei.

The Good:

Star Lotulelei is a big, big man who is extremely powerful and stunningly fast. He once caused a fumbled snap and recovered it against USC because he hit the center so quickly and powerfully that the guy was on his rear before he ever got the ball to the QB. That’s really hard to do in the split second that the ball goes from the ground to the quarterback’s hands.

Although he made his bones blowing up blocks in the middle and causing havoc for offensive lines, he also was able to chase down runners from behind on plays where he was left unblocked on counters in one direction of the other. Overall, the player he most reminds me of is B.J. Raji – both an unstoppable force and an immovable object. I’m really not sure what would happen if two Star Lotulelei’s collided, but it would probably tear a hole in time and space.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Bad:

We’ve drafted this guy before.

Several times in fact.

This isn’t necessarily his fault, but I don’t need to remind Chiefs fans that this team has an awful history of selecting defensive linemen with their first picks in the draft. Still, in case anyone has forgotten, this is how it has gone lately with run-stuffing DT’s that KC grabbed with their first selection that year:

2001, 75th overall pick Eric Downing – Started just 13 games for the team in three years before being cut and picked up by the Chargers, who in turn cut him after one season. He accumulated just two sacks and 44 tackles in those four years.

2002, 6th overall pick Ryan Sims – Started 36 games for the team in five seasons on the roster, racking up just five sacks and 64 tackles before being let go.

2004, 36th overall pick Junior Siavii – Cut after two years without ever starting a game. Had 13 tackles and one sack for the Chiefs.

2006, 20th overall pick Tamba Hali – Obviously has become a franchise pass rusher for the team and one of the most important pieces of our defense … but only after we moved him off the line to linebacker.

2008, 5th overall pick Glenn Dorsey – Has never been worth his contract although he has turned into a respectable player in the 3-4, but he’s been injury prone and his best season was in that magical (possibly fluky) 2010 season, in which he had 51 tackles and two sacks. My guess is that he won’t be with the team next year.

2009, 3rd overall pick Tyson Jackson – Last November, Pro Football Focus wrote of Jackson: “However you want to spin it, Jackson was a bad draft pick. Not because he’s a bad player, but because you don’t spend a third overall pick on a two down run stuffing end [more on that later]. That’s what the Chiefs did and they’re having to live with the consequences of his astronomical salary. His work in the run game has been decent this year (though nowhere near as good as 2011), but he’s yet to pick up any pressure. In fact, throughout his career he has 19 quarterback disruptions. Through 8 weeks of the NFL season, 43 defenders have more this season alone.”

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2012, 11th overall pick Dontari Poe – He may yet turn into something, but a pass rusher he is not. At the end of the year, PFF noted: “In his rookie season, Dontari Poe had the lowest Pass Rushing Productivity of all defensive/nose tackle, at 2.3. In his 391 pass rushes, he had zero sacks, three hits and nine hurries. The two lowest 3-4 defensive ends included Tyson Jackson at 2.2, and Ropati Pitoitua at 2.3.”

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In other words, Kansas City defensive linemen have been useless against the pass, and that won’t change if we pick up Lotulelei.

Although he is Scouts Inc.’s top overall rated player and is the top rated defensive tackle (4th overall) on Mel Kiper’s Big Board, he still grades out poorly as anything other than a run-stuffer. He had just average production for his position with 41 tackles and five sacks in 2012. As with Poe, scouts rightly point out that given the extreme difference in level of play between college and the NFL, prospects should stand out big time at the college level. They should look like the best player on the field – especially if they are considered a top-10 pick. I’m not sure that’s the case with Lotulelei.

Scouts Inc. graded him as “below average” on pass rush skills, saying: “Needs development and doesn’t have a ton of upside in this area. Flashes an effective bull rush to collapse the pocket when staying low. However, too often comes off the ball too high initially. Does not have a wide array of pass rushing moves right now. Also needs development with hands in combat to counter. Shows good instincts to get his hands up in throwing lanes when seeing quarterbacks start their throwing motion.”

The only thing they graded him as “exceptional” in was his durability and run defense, saying he’d be a good fit in a Romeo Crennel-style two-gap 3-4 – an accolade that sends a chill down my spine.

If he hasn’t been effective at rushing the passer in college, he won’t be in NFL. The fact that scouts don’t believe he has upside in that area should worry any coach. Honestly, given how much passing and defending the pass has become the marquis struggle in the league, I’m amazed at how highly Lotulelei is projected to be selected.

In the end, I agree with  what PFF said about Jackson. You just don’t pick run-stuffers this high in the draft. While a pass can be disrupted by a single player, run-defense is squad-level effort and one player is not going to make the same impact against the run as a pass-rushing specialist will at getting after the quarterback. Even if one D-lineman is especially fierce against runners, teams will just run around him. It’s always good when your defense can dictate what the other team is able to do, but making them run left instead of right isn’t as big of a contribution as them having to keep extra backs in for pass pro or ignore a side of the field because their receivers are stuck on Revis Island.

While it would be a painfully Chiefs-esque move, the team should definitely not spend their 1st pick this year on Star Lotulelei. He might help us, but he won’t fundamentally change this team, which is in need of serious work.

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Tags: Defense Dontari Poe Draft Star Lotulelei Tyson Jackson

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