Steelers could opt for nose tackle

Sunday, February 26, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS -- There would appear to be less and less room in the pass-happy NFL for space-consuming, run-stuffers who don't play on throwing downs.

Not that Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert buys that nose tackles are creeping toward Jurassic status just because 10 players threw for more than 4,000 yards last season.

"You can't get to third down if you don't stop them on first and second down," Colbert said.

Translation: Nose tackle is still one of the team's most important positions.

The Steelers figure to make finding an eventual successor to Casey Hampton one of their priorities as they piece together their draft board. And two of the more highly regarded defensive players offered glimpses Saturday as to why tackle is one of the deeper positions in the draft.

"I think hands down I'm the best defensive tackle in the draft," Penn State's Devon Still said. Dontari Poe, a 6-foot-4, 346-pounder from Memphis, used the words "weight-room" and "love" in the same sentence.

The Steelers may be more interested in Poe because he has the size of a prototypical nose tackle, and he played the position in college.

"Most people kind of see me as a 3-4 nose tackle, which is cool with me," said Poe, who had eight tackles for losses last season. "I think I can rush the passer a lot more than people think, but I am used to playing nose tackle."

Poe said few play the position better than Hampton, which is why he has long followed the five-time Pro Bowler.

"Once he gets his hands on you, he controls you," Poe said." That's probably what I admire most about him."

Poe's strength -- he is a self-described weightlifting devout -- could allow him to control opposing linemen in the NFL, though he said he needs to become a more consistent player.

The question the Steelers may have about Still is how he would fit with them.

The 6-foot-5 Still weighed in at 303 pounds here at the NFL Scouting Combine, and he may be better suited to play tackle in a 4-3 defense.

Still said he could play nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, and what isn't in question are the credentials he put together during his final season at Penn State.

Buoyed by success he had against Florida center Mike Pouncey in the Outback Bowl at the end of his junior season, Still dominated on a unit that carried Penn State. He recorded 17 tackles for a loss and became the latest standout developed by defensive line coach Larry Johnson.

Still overcame two serious injuries -- one a torn ACL -- early in his career. That, he said, is telling of his desire to excel.

"I don't strive to be mediocre," said Still, the 2011 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

Still once headed draft expert Mike Mayock's rankings for defensive tackles.

Underclassmen, like Poe, pushed him to No. 4 when they entered the draft -- and they made the position flush with top-end talent.

Mayock said he will give first-round grades to as many as seven defensive tackles in his final evaluation of draft-eligible players.

That doesn't necessarily mean there is a lot of quality when it comes prototypical nose tackles.

Colbert said the pool of nose tackles is "not as deep as some other positions, but there's enough. Chances are, you aren't going to get them if you don't take them high."

Colbert drafted Hampton in the first round of the 2001 draft, and Hampton has been a vital part of a defense that has helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls and play in another since then.

At 34, though, Hampton is nearing the end of his career. He is in the final year of his contract and coming off a third torn ACL dating to college. The question doesn't appear to be if the Steelers will take a nose tackle in this year's draft but when.

"Can you take a guy that's not a three-down player high? Absolutely," Colbert said. "But they've got to be special (since) nose tackle is a special part of our defense."

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