November 25, 2014

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NFL combine: No shortage of good defensive linemen in draft

INDIANAPOLIS – One by one they took the podium Saturday in the giant media room at Lucas Oil Stadium. Alabama’s Marcell Dareus. Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers. North Carolina’s Robert Quinn. Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt.

Which one will the Browns select at No. 6 in the NFL Draft on April 28?

The Browns could go in a different direction – LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, Georgia receiver A.J. Green, Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller – but the early money’s on a defensive lineman, because it’s a natural fit. Cleveland’s converting to a 4-3 scheme, and general manager Tom Heckert acknowledged the need for linemen.

If that weren’t enough, the top of the draft is loaded with quality linemen.

“There’s tackles and ends, so it’s a good group,” Heckert said Saturday at the scouting combine.

“This is the second year that I think we’ve had a very good defensive line draft,” Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said. “I think it’s great for the league because for the longest time we had a dearth of d-line. We are now excited about having some very high-producing athletes along the front.”

If the Browns go with a lineman, they’ll have to choose between end and tackle. Ends usually generate more sacks, but tackles can disrupt quarterbacks up the middle and are necessary to stop the run.

“If you’ve got guys who are equal, you’d go with the pass rusher outside,” Heckert said. “But if you really like a guy who’s special as a defensive tackle, he’s still going to get pressure on the quarterback, so he’ll help you. If you don’t have those guys, you’re in trouble.”

We’ll start inside.

Dareus (6-foot-3½, 319 pounds) and Auburn’s Nick Fairley are considered the top two tackle candidates and possibilities to go No. 1 overall. Fairley wasn’t available to the media Saturday, but there was a report he measured 6-3, 2 inches shorter than he was listed at Auburn.

Fairley had 11½ sacks and an outstanding BCS championship game in the 2010 season after 1½ sacks in 2009. He has the reputation of being dirty.

“No, not at all,” Heckert said. “I think it’s more toughness than being a dirty player.”

Some experts are concerned about Fairley having just one year of production and think he may not live up to being a top-10 pick. Dareus had a pair of good years (20 total tackles for loss, 11 sacks) and called himself the most versatile lineman at the combine. He compares himself to Warren Sapp, and ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has the Browns taking him at No. 6.

“I describe myself as a nice guy. I’m a real nice guy,” Dareus said. “Everybody I tackle I pretty much help ‘em up. I’m coming after you the next play.”

Dareus knocked Browns quarterback Colt McCoy out of the 2010 BCS championship game versus Texas when he landed on McCoy, who suffered nerve damage in his throwing shoulder.

“He’s relentless, he plays hard,” Heckert said of Dareus. “I think he spent a lot of time this year with a high ankle sprain and he played through it. He’s a high, high-motor guy and he does not stop and he makes a ton of plays for a defensive tackle.”

The options are more abundant at end, and Heckert appreciates that. The Browns have been desperate for a big-time pass rusher for years, and an elite end with top speed off the edge would change the dynamic of the defense.

Bowers (6-4, 275) and Quinn have the prototypical size and speed. Bowers had 15½ sacks after three in 2009 and understands why some are calling him a one-year wonder.

“I had one good year, the rest were considered busts,” he said, crediting the improvement to playing full time, being healthy and getting comfortable in the system. “This year I turned it up.”

Bowers had surgery after the season to repair a torn meniscus and won’t work out at the combine. He said he’s 100 percent, but needed more time to catch up to the competition.

“He’s obviously a super-productive guy,” Heckert said. “He’s legit. This is a big guy that can rush the passer. Anytime you can get a guy like that, you’d have to be interested.”

Quinn (6-4, 265) is also an athletic freak with speed and explosion who should dazzle during his workout. But he was suspended for the 2010 season for accepting improper benefits.

“I made a selfish mistake and me and my team and my family and coaches paid a price for it,” he said.

Teams will have to rely on film from 2009.

“I don’t know if it’s a risk,” Heckert said. “It’s obviously less exposure you have on a kid and I think you have to make your own judgments on what exactly happened. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.

“I think some people do have him as the best defensive end.”

Other end possibilities are Watt (6-6, 290, who could move inside on passing downs), Missouri’s Aldon Smith (6-5, 255),  Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn (6-3, 287), Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan  (6-4, 263) and Pittsburgh’s Jabaal Sheard (6-3, 254)

Heckert said he won’t limit the search to those with ideal size.

“If you can rush the passer, you can probably live with giving up a little bit as a run player,” he said. “We want to get athletic, so at the end we’re not going to need the huge guys. We can live with a little undersized guys. I think there’s a lot of those guys in this draft.

“I do think there’s a lot of real good players that aren’t the ideal size. But I think in the perfect world, the bigger the better.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.