KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Jalen Carter is not much of a talker, but his statement from last November still reverberates all the way from Sanford Stadium in Georgia to this week of the NFL Draft. In a confrontation against Tennessee while rushing the passer, the Dawgs’ All-American defensive lineman swung his huge left arm violently enough to dislodge the ball from Hendon Hooker’s throwing hand.
The Tennessee quarterback’s fumble in the end zone was somehow avoided, resulting in a safety. The ball was spotted just outside the Vols end zone. Nevertheless, the play set up the Dawgs for a short field touchdown that broke open what ended up being a 27–13 victory.
In a flash, Carter had changed the game, his season, and perhaps his career.
The NFL Draft comes to Kansas City this week, itself a modified event. Not so much into the hoopla and hype – hey, who ever gets tired of a Motley Crue concert? – but in structure. Carter is the highest-rated defensive lineman in the draft, a possible top-five pick. Pro Football Focus had him as the top-rated Power Five defenseman, the top defenseman of the sport’s best defense two years in a row.
Never mind that Carter only made nine starts in 2022 due to injuries, that kind of title comes with Pro Bowl projection and immediate defensive impact.
“I don’t know if there’s a position I value more than the insiders on the D line,” said Michigan defense coordinator Jesse Minter. “They give you so much flexibility. Their ability to not only tackle blocks, but to get off blocks and make tackles [are the difference].”
Carter has had company in the draft lately. As of 2019, a total of 10 domestic defensive linemen have been placed in the top 28. Six in 2019 alone. That was more than the number of quarterbacks (five) taken in the first three rounds of that year.
The 10 don’t represent the most in any position, but in those four years that total is more than all running backs, centers, and tight ends combined.
The position hasn’t changed as much as the people who play it. They are certainly more valuable because they can do more. They are more agile, more athletic than in the past. Remember Alabama’s Terrence “Mount” Cody? He played on Nick Saban’s first national championship team in 2009.
“He could ruin a game,” says Ted Lambrinides, a sports science consultant who has worked with the NFL and MLB. “The problem was that he couldn’t stay on the field.”
Not long enough – Cody’s NFL career lasted five years – at an oxygen-sucking 345 pounds. Strategically, a defensive lineman who can occupy two blockers and collapse a pocket is considered invaluable. Think of a lithe athlete like the 6-foot-4, 313-pound Ndamukong Suh who came out the same year as Cody but lasted 13 NFL seasons.
“You don’t win championships when you get cut down the middle,” said Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith, a top 50 draft prospect according to CBSSports.com.
“When the center is weak, it’s hard to defend. I’m not saying you have to rely on one person to stuff the middle, but when you get runs,
downhill over and over, you get those guys in secondary who get hurt.
From there, that sets off a numbers game. A dominant lineman makes it more likely that an edge rusher can make it home. That also eases the pressure on a defensive coordinator who doesn’t have to send an extra body to the box to stop the run.
“We have a saying, ‘Two on me, one’s free,’ Carter explained. “If I have two guys on me, there’s another d-lineman or a linebacker that can come in and make a play.”
It has yet to be determined whether Carter’s legal situation will affect his draft stance. Carter pleaded guilty to reckless driving and racing in March. Police claimed that Carter was in an SUV racing a vehicle containing Georgia player Devin Willock and a recruiting clerk. Willock and the staffer were killed in an accident that night.
Aaron Donald of the Rams may have refined this current trend of athletic, commanding defensive linemen. The nine-year veteran earns $28.5 million a year. But he has competition. Houston’s Ed Oliver has become an established star at Buffalo. The same goes for Kansas City’s Chris Jones. Slowed by injuries as a rookie, Georgia’s Jordan Davis still made the NFL All-Defensive Rookie team.
“What Jordan Davis did for Georgia two years ago, he changed the game. He destroyed the game plan,” said Lambrinides.
In 2021, Davis won the Outland Trophy (Best Lineman) and Bednarik Award (Best Defensive Player) with a weight of six feet and 340 pounds. His stats were predictably modest – 32 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks.
“They can play a game once or twice,” says TCU center Steve Avila. “I feel like a lot of people look at that when in reality there have been times when Aaron Donald has been blocked. I praise the offensive line. It’s not easy at all what we’re doing. It’s not easy at all to win a match to win.” one on one.”
The physical attributes of the position have changed so much that the defensive linemen of influence on the interior tend to get paid a lot for very little – at least statistically. They are no longer 300lb slugs big enough to take on two blockers. A good day for Carter can consist of a force fumble, a broken pass and a few tackles.
They must be alive and kicking chess pieces capable of mastering the A and B openings. The A-opening is the space on either side of the center. Each guard’s outer space is the B opening.
“If you have good defensive linemen, even more so than edge rushers, you’re going to win in football,” said Nebraska coach Matt Rhule. “You can play any defense you want. It’s not about sacks. It’s about the quarterback throwing off [schedule] because someone is lying at their feet.”
“All quarterbacks are affected by what we call the pressure-in-the-pain area just in front of the quarterback,” added Rhule. “We talk about speed rushers and power rushers, but a good quarterback can just leave.
“It’s about the ability to have guys on the inside who can win one-on-one or push the pocket.”
Five defensive tackles have won the Outland since 2009. They are now almost household names. Suh (Nebraska, 2009), Donald (Pittsburgh, 2013), Oliver (Houston, 2017), Quinnen Williams (Alabama, 2018) and Davis were all drafted in the first round. They will make more than $50 million together next season, not counting Suh who is a free agent.
“They set the point for the defense … When you find big athletic guys who can move like that but also strong enough, you can’t knock them off the ball, it’s a unique combination,” said Will Rogers, Will Anderson Jr . .’s high school defensive coordinator.
Anderson is expected to go high as an edge rusher this week and leave a legacy as one of Alabama’s best defensemen ever. Rogers played him briefly in high school.
“They’re hard to find in the NFL. They’re hard to find in recruiting,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said of domestic linemen. “High school courses – I have a lot of friends there – they are hard to find there.”
The best stay home. It’s no secret that the Southeastern US produces defensive tackles like Brazil produces soccer strikers or Bulgaria produces weightlifters. Ten of the last 14 defensive tackles in the top 47 picks since 2019 have come from SEC schools or Clemson. Four of the top 8 schools in total defensive tackles taken are SEC programs – 1. Alabama (33 all-time); 2. LSU (30); T-4. Florida (27) and 8. Texas A&M (24).
“There are more [quality interior linemen] but it’s hard to find people who can play 50-60-70 in a game,” Steele said. “With 300 pounds on their right ear and 300 pounds on their left ear, that’s 600 pounds per game.”
Indeed, physiology tells you that these giants cannot downplay everything. It has become an art for coaches to figure out rotations to keep their linemen fresh. The best teams are capable of having eight or so linemen ready.
“The most strenuous thing you do as a football player is to chase the passerby,” said Georgia co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. “When big guys, in my experience, run out of gas, they’re done. There’s nothing left.”
That’s why Muschamp limits his linemen to no more than six consecutive snaps. However, the question must be asked as his best lineman hits the day of duty: What is Carter’s limit?
“Until Jalen gets tired,” Muschamp said.