INDIANAPOLIS — Back in 2011, the New Orleans Saints got a piece of one of the richest harvests in the history of the NFL draft.
New Orleans snapped up defensive end Cameron Jordan with the 24th pick, landing a player who racked up 38 sacks over the past four seasons, made two Pro Bowls and earned the right to be the face of the Saints’ defense — a position he landed last summer by signing a five-year, $60-million extension.
Jordan is one of six defensive linemen taken in that draft who have made a Pro Bowl. Four more pass rushers classified as outside linebackers have already made the Pro Bowl.
Beyond simply making the Pro Bowl, five players taken in that 2011 draft — J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Muhammad Wilkerson, Justin Houston and Marcell Dareus — could be the highest-paid defensive players in the league, pending contract situations for Miller and Wilkerson this offseason.
A draft class like that, at one position, only comes along so often.
Alabama defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson thinks the 2016 class will be even better.
“The best, I’d say,” Robinson said at the NFL combine Friday. “Five years from now, I’d say it beats the J.J. Watt and Marcell’s class.”
That, obviously, is still very much in doubt. And we won’t get another look at these rookie pass-rushers soon. None of them will take the field at the NFL combine until Sunday.
But NFL talent evaluators are cautiously optimistic that this group — particularly at defensive tackle, has the potential to produce a bevy of defensive cornerstones.
“The Cliffs note is, Yes: It’s a pretty strong defensive tackle draft,” Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said. “You’ve got to see how it all flushes out. But it’s strong.”
Draft evaluators consider the class so strong, in fact, that the 2016 class may have trouble matching the 2011 class’s impact on the first round.
Eight of the 10 Pro Bowl power players in that draft came off the board in the first round.
“You could wait until the third or fourth round this year and get a defensive tackle that in past drafts was a first or second-rounder,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I mean, I’ve heard first-round grades on 10 to 12 defensive tackles this year from various feeds. So a lot of teams are going to wait until the third or fourth round to get that defensive tackle they need, because he’s still going to be on the board.”
For that reason, New Orleans — a team in need of pass-rushing help and a three technique defensive tackle, could have its pick of the litter at No. 12. Although a pair of defensive ends in Ohio State’s Joey Bosa and Oregon’s DeForest Buckner are projected to come off the board in the top five, the most recent round of mocks widely has the Saints taking the first tackle in the draft — Robinson or Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins.
In a class with that kind of depth, finding a way to stand out is no easy task.
Robinson is counting on his impressive strength. Baylor’s Andrew Billings is banking on his explosion off the ball. Bosa and Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence are counting on the pass rush.
Over and over, though, most of the defensive line’s draft hopefuls are banking on the same traits to set them apart.
“There aren’t many guys who can play the run and pass-rush or can play multiple positions that’s an interior guy,” Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “Most of these guys are just run-stoppers. I think that’s what sets me apart — my versatility.”
Versatility can be key in the NFL.
For example, Jordan opened his career in New Orleans as a heavy run-stopper as a rookie, then became a star at the power end position — lined up on the tackle, to the strong side of the formation — before moving out to a wide defensive end role this season. And on any given snap, Jordan could shift to tackle to provide interior pass rush.
Versatility like Jordan’s is rare. Most defensive linemen fall into two camps: an edge rusher who can play either defensive end or outside linebacker, or an interior player who can play the nose, the 3-technique or shift out to set the edge at a power end.
“Teams see me as a three technique who can do a bunch of other things,” UCLA defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. “I can be disruptive and get into the backfield from that spot. Other teams want me to be a nose guard or shade into the 1-technique (playing on the inside shoulder of the guard). I feel comfortable doing all that.”
A few defensive linemen in the class admitted they’re hoping to play a specific role. Many more have been working and training to show teams they can line up wherever a defensive coordinator might want.
“I could play tailback if you needed me to play there,” Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “I’m not worried where they put me on the field; it’s just getting me on the field.”
Nearly every defensive lineman is proud of being one of the deepest defensive line classes in recent memory.
And they know it might mean they have to make their way in the NFL from something other than a prime draft slot.
“We’ve got a lot of playmakers, a lot of guys who are deserving and work hard and want to go in that first round,” Florida defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard said. “Unfortunately, we all can’t, and the teams are going to have to make the best choice for their team and what they see on film.”
If this class is as good as the NFL seems to think it is, teams might be able to strike gold in a lot of different places.