Marcell Dareus will be the Bills’ starting nose tackle this season, although the coaching staff has declared an “open competition.” He was the third overall draft pick in 2011 but is the only player drafted in the first seven picks of that draft yet to earn a spot on a Pro Bowl roster (Cam Newton, Von Miller, AJ Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, and Aldon Smith are the other six). While he has struggled at times, Dareus has shown flashes of the player he could become: a player with the potential to become a dominant nose tackle Buffalo’s attacking 3-4 defense needs to succeed.
Buffalo’s big man lined up over opposing centers and right guards most of the time last year. Not coincidentally, the Bills allowed the fewest yards per carry on runs up the middle and behind right guards. That’s because Dareus was there. The graph below illustrates just how important number 99 was for Buffalo’s run defense last season. More Dareus tackles means a lower yards per carry against
Dareus played in a 3-4 defense in his rookie season (2011) and performed well against the run. His total tackles and run stops (a metric that counts tackles in the context of down and distance) rivaled those of Geno Atkins, one of the best defensive tackle in the NFL for the past two seasons. But Buffalo’s young defensive tackle regressed in run defense during 2012, when the defense switched to Dave Wannstedt’s vanilla 4-3 defense. The graph below compares Dareus and Atkins’ run defense over the past two seasons.
Dareus was asked to get after the quarterback last season as a part of the 2012 Bills’ super-hyped 4-3 defensive line. That could account for his declining run defense numbers, but it increased his total quarterback hits (quarterback knockdowns and sacks).
Atkins has been a monster to quarterbacks in the past two seasons, accumulating twenty sacks in the past two seasons. Dareus couldn’t match Atkins’ 2011 quarterback pressure, but he was able to close the gap in 2012, showing another side to his game.
Dareus has shown the ability to rush the passer and be an effective run stopper, just not in the same seasons. Now is his chance to put it all together, in an attacking defense that keeps offenses guessing and without the horrible distractions he suffered from at the beginning of the year.
While this may be Dareus’ breakout year, Alex Carrington and Torell Troup will be fighting tooth and nail for playing time. Carrington averaged just over 21 defensive snaps per game last season and Troup is coming off a back injury that has kept him off the field since 2010. Playing time could be hard to come by for one of the three players.
Wait a minute. Are we really questioning the starting spot for a third overall draft pick in the summer before his third year in the NFL? There’s no doubt Dareus came into Buffalo with high expectations, he was awesome in the 2010 BCS Championship game, but how good does he need to be to justify his draft position? How good should he be by this point?
Let’s compare Marcell Dareus’ first 32 games to the early careers of four starting nose tackles in 3-4 defensive schemes: Vince Wilfork, Haloti Ngata, Sione Pouha, and Jay Ratliff (I also looked into the first 32 games of BJ Raji, Paul Soliai, and Casey Hampton, but they were far behind the four chosen). The four graphs below compare the total tackle production (tackles + assists + sacks) each player accrued in their first 32 NFL games. Aside from Vince Wilfork’s enormous production (the guy is enormous too), Marcell Dareus is well on his way to becoming a premier nose tackle.
I’m expecting an exciting season from the whole defense, Marcell Dareus included. He’s shown flashes of ability, accumulated counting stats in line with young players in his position. It’s time to put it all together. It’s time to be the beast anchoring that badass defensive line we swooned about last summer.