Dontari Poe and drafting defensive linemen

Quoth the draftniks, Evermore: You will always draft the largest man on the board. It will lead to riches and wins.

Draftniks sometimes lie.

There’s Edgar Allen Poe, and then there’s Dontari Poe - one could write brilliantly, the other is simply huge. At 6-3 and 346 pounds, Kansas City’s future at nose guard may be tied to Poe’s ability to play the two-gap nose position. Poe is without question a huge man with surprising athletic talent. The question that’s going to have to be answered is whether he fits the slot for which he’s been chosen.

Dontari Poe looks every inch and every pound the ‘monster in the middle’ kind of nose guard that odd-front teams all over the NFL are looking for. Head coach Romeo Crennel is drooling over his chances of turning around the team’s fortunes. There was a lot more than Poe to KC’s draft, but despite all the clamoring about him and his potential, there’s something that people aren’t talking about.

The odd-front nose guard is not a natural position for him so far, and not due to some ridiculous criteria like those that were made up for why Von Miller ‘didn’t fit’ the 4-3. It seems unnatural because of what his skills are - and aren’t - on the game film that exists of him to date.

Before the details, a couple of facts - Poe came out as a junior, so there’s a lot that he’s going to learn in the NFL that he might have picked up in another year of college. You can’t argue with his choice, though - going eleventh overall in the draft suggests that it was a good one, at least on that level.

Every college player needs work. Poe isn’t a classic nose run stuffer yet, and the truth is that he’s not a pass rusher yet, either. Poe has a rare physical build and intriguing athletic ability - he embodies potential at a position that’s often hard to fill. What people saw at the Combine excited them and it soon had Poe scorching his way up draft boards. It happens each year - teams are betting on the raw ability they see at Combine being malleable; capable of being purified in the scalding crucible of constant training.

Poe didn’t have one of the world’s best lines around him in college and that may alter what you see when you watch game film on him (the same was true of Derek Wolfe). In any event, he’s unquestionably far better off in an NFL franchise facility with all the benefits it has in terms of his development. Right now, though, Poe isn’t a three-down player. He’s in Kansas City to become an every-down player over time, with careful development. They know it, too, and that’s going to help him a lot.

For him to become who KC wants him to be, it’s important to get him to become capable of meeting the necessary skillset of a two-gap nose guard player. It’s an extensive repertoire - they need to be capable of handling both run stopping and pass pressure. They have to be able to anchor, and they need to be capable of overcoming double teams, both to fill gaps and to attack the offensive backfield. Most importantly, they have to be able to discern in a fraction of a moment which direction to step to and how to best attack, while often lined up against the center and one other lineman. Do you anchor, holding your gap for the run? Where and what is your key read? Your progression? Do you knife between the linemen, or spin around the double team on the pass rush? Swim move, rip, bull rush? All of that has to be processed and acted on in a fraction of a moment, against players who are often better than the best you've gone up against. It’s a tall order.

For all the discussion of Poe’s heft, speed and athletic skills, all of which are impressive, his college tape shows he was not a particularly effective two-gap player, and he wasn’t much on pass rushing. The quality of the team around him played into that. He was also double-teamed a lot, but hey, welcome to the odd-front nose. He’s one of the players that has unbelievable physical genetics and had a brilliant Combine. Many of the personnel folks (as well as fans and pundits) might have started to ignore that his film wasn’t always that impressive and that he might not fit as well as some are hoping as the 3-4 NG. It happens nearly every year. The good news is that Crennel is talented at getting the best out of his defensive line players - Poe is in good hands.

His hips and lower body have to be strengthened for anchoring, and his upper body has to become stronger to improve both his punch and his hand fighting. He has to develop his core muscles for explosion, and internalize the hand fighting skills that are equal parts of power and technique. And as much as all of it, he has to learn the theory of the NFL offense and defense so that he can understand which gap to attack. Understanding has to morph into an automatic response as he visualizes the film he’s studying, learns his keys, and practices until his body reacts without thought. It’s often grueling, incessant and challenging work.

Linebackers Tambi Hali and Justin Houston have begun to tackle or to drive runners to the inside where Glenn Dorsey, Tyson Jackson, Derrick Johnson, Allen Bailey, Houston and Kelly Gregg, last year - and soon Poe - can bring their weight to bear on stopping them. It’s the space-eating skill of Jackson and Dorsey against the offensive line that’s permitted more freedom to the pass-rushing of Hali, Bailey and Houston. The new CBA will keep Poe from hamstringing the team the way that Jackson’s or Dorsey’s contracts have.

What you have in Dorsey and Jackson are two very expensive run stoppers who often come out on third down. When you’ve got a sizable portion of your defensive costs sunken into three players who went in the top twelve of their respective drafts, you’ve got monetary reasons to hope for them to be able to play for three downs at a time. KC had done a very good job of creating a workaround by using Bailey and Wallace Gilberry (who signed with Tampa Bay for 2012, while Kelly Gregg hasn’t been re-signed as of today), but it’s not unfair to notice that they’re on the edge of needing two separate DLs, depending on the down. KC had only 29 sacks last year to Denver’s total of 41, so they have to find ways to make up the sack slack.

Please understand that I’m not bad-mouthing the big guy. I would have liked to have seen him on the Broncos at nose tackle in a one-gap even front, which is a very different set of requirements and one that I think would have suited him better. He will have to show that he’s got the football IQ to choose his gap and fire off quickly, the ability to defeat NFL double teams, to hold the middle on run downs, as well as to collapse the pocket on pass downs. He’s a big guy, but it’s a big job. My question is not can he do it - sure he can - but how well, and how soon? 

Reality, either way, will start this summer. By the way, for a second look into both sides of the question, I’d recommend a look at what Poe’s scouting report from Sideline Scouting had to say. I thought they covered both sides well.

Why are Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli taking the approach of drafting for potential, when so many fans will tell you fervently that you only take ‘sure things’ (I’ve got to meet one, someday) that high in the draft? It’s because the ex-Patriated Kansas Citians in the front office have seen this approach work. One of the reasons that New England was so successful in the early part of this century is that they understood getting a player and developing him, letting him set the pace for how much he plays. One reason that they’ve been somewhat less successful is that other teams started copying their methods on scouting and player development. What works in the NFL gets around fast.

I’ll leave you with a video of Romeo Crennel talking very rationally about where they believe Poe is and how they hope to use him, taking things slowly to start. That’s smart football. Poe is something that KC hopes makes a lot of sense - a high pick, first-round development project. If they’re going to achieve the goals they have for him, understanding where he is and giving him the tools before asking him to excel is just good football. 

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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