by Nate Dunlevy
Colts fans were thrilled with the third round selection of Drake Nevis out of LSU. A seemingly perfect fit for the Indy scheme, he evokes comparisons to Booger McFarland, whose arrival helped transform the Colts defense late in the 2006 season.
Nevis, perhaps more than any player in the Colts draft, will likely be the subject of completely unrealistic expectations. The truth is that of the entire series, I suspect Indianapolis fans will be the most disappointed with this installment.
To put it simply, 3rd round defensive tackles don't amount to much.
Since 2000, there have been 31 defensive tackles taken in the third round. The results have mostly been ugly. Five never played a game in their rookie year. 17 of 31 never started a game in their rookie year. Only 7 of the 31 started at least four games. The 31 players totaled just 23.5 sacks between them. The three best rookie seasons were:
Terrance Knighton (Jags, 2009, 72nd pick): 16 starts, 34 tackles, 1.5 sacks
Darnell Dockett (Cards 2004, 64th pick): 15 starts, 35 tackles, 3.5 sacks
Randy Starks (Titans, 2004, 71st pick): 8 starts, 17 tackles, 4.5 sacks
Only 6 of the 31 tackles had more than 20 tackles in his rookie season. Only 13 of 31 picked up at least one sack.
Looking long term, the career prospects for the 3rd round DT are not bright. Dockett and Starks built upon strong rookie seasons and both eventually made a Pro Bowl (Dockett made 3). Only 18 of the 31 ever became starters for even one year. Only 5 of the 31 ever accumulated more than 6 NFL sacks in his career. Aside from Dockett and Starks, the next three best tackles in the last decade in the third round were Brandon Mebane (Seahawks, 85, 2007) who has been a four year starter with 10 career sacks, Ron Edwards (Buffalo, 76, 2001) a five year starter with 15.5 career sacks, and Darwin Walker (Cardinals, 71st, 2000) who started for five years and had 28.5 career sacks.
In other words, a 3rd round tackle has about the same odds to get cut without ever having played a down in the NFL as he has collecting six sacks in the NFL for his career.
The Colts have not taken many defensive tackles in recent years. The list is short, and many fans will instantly recognize the names:
Matthews (2010, 238) played in 8 games his rookie year.
Moala (2009, 56) made one start his rookie year and four tackles in 10 games.
Taylor (2009) never made the team.
Pitcock (2007) made one start, had 14 tackles, 1.5 sacks and played in 9 games before succumbing to video game addiction.
Vincent Burns (2005, 92) never played a down for the Colts.
Larry Tripplett (2002, 42) started 10 games his rookie year and collected 18 tackles. He finished with 8.5 sacks in his Colts career and became essentially the prototype for the career of a second round DT.
David Pugh (2002, 182) played in four games with one start before being cut.
Rob Renes (2000, 235) never made the team.
Of the eight tackles the Colts took, only two made any impact in their first seasons (Tripplett and Pitcock). Only two (Moala and Pitcock) have managed to forge any kind of a career with the Colts. Four of the eight never made it through a full season.
So what can fans realistically expect from Drake Nevis his rookie year?
A fair expectation would be for him to make the team and manage to become a rotation player by the end of the year. A 20 tackle, 1 sack season would actually be superior to Quinn Pitcock's 'promising' rookie campaign. He needs only 12 tackles to have a top 10 rookie season for third round DTs since 2000. In other words, if he manages to show up in the stat sheet a couple of times and makes even one good play all year (a sack, a tackle for a loss), then he's had a good rookie year for where he was selected. The odds of him contributing in a meaningful way to the Colts in 2011 are very, very low. Again, that's not based on him as a player, just on the collective experience of 31 other players selected at a similar point in the draft. Any kind of regular meaningful contribution as a rotation player would constitute an outstanding rookie year for Nevis.
Long term, if the Colts get even one season out of Nevis as the primary starter, they will have have gotten normal value from the pick. If Nevis can have a three or four year career, become a starter and pick up five sacks or so, he'll be an above average 3rd round tackle. Every once in a while, a 3rd round tackle becomes a respectable NFL starter for multiple seasons. Even if he gets off to a slow start for his career (as Moala did), that doesn't mean he won't improve in 2012 and beyond. It's important not to jump to any conclusions based on limited playing time his first year.
This modest expected level of production does not mean it was a mistake to select a tackle. In general, only about 40% of third round picks (regardless of position) ever become NFL starters, and fewer than 5% ever become Pro Bowl level players. As much as draftniks make a big deal out of third round picks, they simply don't pay off as often as fans would guess. Taking a tackle in the third round is in part a commitment by the team to try and develop a player into a contributor for seasons to come. It is this process that makes a flame out like Pitcock's particularly damaging.
The Colts took Nevis hoping that he'll see the field in 2011, but knowing his real contributions will come further down the road.