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Nose tackles remain hot commodity

INDIANAPOLIS -- Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said this draft class is deeper at defensive tackle than any other he has seen in 26 years of scouting. That didn't stop the Steelers from signing nose tackle Casey Hampton to a three-year deal worth as much as $21.3 million Thursday.

The New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers also won't take the chance of finding a nose tackle who can contribute right away in the draft as they placed the franchise tag on Vince Wilfork and Aubrayo Franklin, respectively.

Such measures speak to the importance of the position as well as how the pendulum has swung even further when it comes to the supply and demand of nose tackles.

"Defensive linemen in general are tough to find, especially for 3-4 defenses," Colbert said yesterday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "In our case, Casey Hampton was the anchor of our defense and has been."

That is high praise for a player who has averaged a little less than a sack in the nine seasons he has played for the Steelers. But Hampton's ability to occupy blockers and help control the line of scrimmage is such that the 6-foot-1, 325-pounder has been to the Pro Bowl five times.

Finding players who are not only willing but able to handle the dirty work required of nose tackles has become even harder in recent years with more NFL teams switching from 4-3 to 3-4 defenses.

The Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins are in the process of making that transition. The Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs went to 3-4 defenses last year.

That trend has increased the value of quality nose tackles. Yet there is still considerable difficulty in projecting which players will be able to handle the position in the NFL because of something that has stayed constant in the college game.

"There's not a lot of 3-4 defenses in college football," 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said. "There's a lot of good (college) defensive tackles, but they don't maybe fit the role as nose tackle."

This reality may be why McCloughan said the 49ers tagged Franklin with the intention of negotiating a long-term contract with him. The Patriots presumably want to do the same with Wilfork, who went to the Pro Bowl last season despite making only 43 tackles with no sacks.

Fortunately for teams looking for immediate or long-term help at nose tackle, there won't be a shortage of candidates from which to choose in the draft.

Among the top ones are Tennessee's Dan Williams, Alabama's Terrence Cody and UCLA's Brian Price.

Colbert said the Steelers haven't ruled out using their first-round pick (No. 18 overall) on a nose tackle even though they have Hampton signed for three more years.

As Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said, "You never have enough defensive linemen."

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