2017 NFL draft positional breakdown: Defensive tackles

2017 NFL draft positional breakdown: Defensive tackles

We continue our positional breakdown leading up to the 2017 NFL draft with a look at defensive tackles. Instead of a top five, we'll highlight players at these positions who fit the Eagles and have a chance to be available when the team picks.

We've already looked at running backs, linebackers, quarterbacks, offensive linemen and defensive ends.

At No. 14

There are no interior linemen that would make sense for the Eagles in the first round. The player with a chance to go in the mid-teens is Michigan State's Malik McDowell, but he's more of a 3-4 end.

In the middle

Jaleel Johnson, Iowa, 6-3, 316 pounds
Johnson was named first-team all-conference after recording 7 1/2 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss during a strong senior season.

Johnson is big, strong and athletic. He anticipates the snap well and has a high motor. His issue is his pad level. He'll outmuscle offensive linemen, but lose because he's too high. With proper coaching, Johnson has intriguing physical tools. He'd fit well in Jim Schwartz's attacking defense.

Elijah Qualls, Washington, 6-1, 313 pounds
Qualls was also a first-team all-conference pick in the Pac 12. His efforts don't necessarily show up on the stat sheet, but Qualls tallied three sacks and five tackles for a loss despite missing three games with an ankle injury.

Qualls doesn't necessarily fit the Eagles' defense. He's more of a run stuffer in the mold of Beau Allen. Qualls is a little longer and more athletic than Allen, but is also limited in his ability as a pass rusher. Still, Qualls should be extremely effective on early downs at the next level.

Tanzel Smart, Tulane, 6-1, 296 pounds
Smart put up impressive numbers while being named – you guessed it – first-team all-conference. During a strong senior season, Smart accumulated 67 tackles, 18 1/2 for a loss and 5 1/2 sacks.

Smart was a dominant player on tape. The biggest issue will be his level of competition in the AAC. He's a bit undersized but flashes the quickness and athleticism that would be an ideal fit for Schwartz and the Eagles. He's not an every down tackle, but as a rotational piece, he can be valuable.

Late-round sleeper(s)

Charles Walker, Oklahoma, 6-2, 310 pounds
Walker's career at Norman was mired by concussions and inconsistency. He played just the first four games of this season before suffering his third concussion and deciding to forego the rest of the season to prepare for the draft. Walker has cited his young daughter as the reason for leaving early.

The concussions are definitely scary, but this kid is a good football player. He recorded six sacks as a sophomore reserve. He can look explosive and disruptive at times, but is inconsistent. Apparently the coaching staff at Oklahoma was not thrilled with Walker's decision and his love of football has been questioned. If he's there in the sixth round, he's worth a flyer.

Treyvon Hester, Toledo, 6-2, 300 pounds
Hester dropped weight for his senior season and had a strong campaign. He tallied 34 tackles, eight for a loss and five sacks.

Like Smart, Hester will be evaluated with a grain of salt because of his conference. Hester shows flashes of being able to play the run and get a pass rush, but struggles with pad level at times. He's another player with physical ability that needs to be coached up.

'Highly respected' Zach Ertz important piece of Eagles' offense

'Highly respected' Zach Ertz important piece of Eagles' offense

It doesn't take long in any conversation about Zach Ertz in Philadelphia before the words "breakout season" are tossed around.
 
Again.
 
But while a good portion of Eagles fans have been impatiently waiting for Ertz to "break out," the 2013 draft pick has quietly put together an extremely impressive start to his career.
 
In four seasons, Ertz has caught 247 passes for 2,840 yards and 13 touchdowns. He's one of just seven tight ends in NFL history to put up those numbers in the first four seasons of a career. The other six: Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockey, Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow and Mike Ditka.
 
Not bad company.
 
But for whatever reason, Ertz hasn't become a real fan favorite. Fans have questioned his talent, his play-making ability and even his toughness.
 
Why the indifference?
 
"I don't know," tight ends coach Justin Peele said. "I love coaching him. I think he's good for this team. Every day he comes to work with the right attitude, trying to get better. He's had some success. I don't know. He's a pleasure to coach and I know he's very highly respected in this organization."
 
Ertz, 26, admitted this spring that the constant criticism from fans used to bother him when he was younger. But now entering his fifth season with the Eagles, he's gotten used to it.
 
Does Ertz think he's underrated or overrated?
 
"Whatever people think, people think," Ertz said earlier this spring on Quick Slants on CSN. "I'm not going to get caught up in people's opinions. It's the guys in this building, their opinions of me. I'm really happy with how I progressed this spring and I think I'm setting the stage for a good season."
 
The one thing Ertz admitted he needs to improve is his production in the end zone. He has just 13 touchdown catches in four years and has never had more than four in a season.
 
To put that in perspective, only two players over the last four years — Matt Forte and Jarvis Landry — have had more catches with 13 or fewer touchdowns. 
 
"That falls on me to go out there every Sunday to make plays," Ertz said. "Show I can do it in the spring and in the summer leading into the season and I'm working really hard at it."
 
The height of Ertz criticism came during a 32-14 Week 13 loss at Cincinnati last season. There was an infamous play where Carson Wentz went scrambling and Ertz failed to block a charging Vontaze Burfict, who was in pursuit. The play actually looked like Ertz got out of the way.
 
It was a bad look.
 
And Ertz knew it. He heard the criticism loudly and went out the next week and had a tough, physical game. But the damage was done. A lot of the fanbase turned on him.
 
"One play is not going to define him," Peele said. "The kid played through injury, he came back quick off of surgery a few years ago. He practices every day. This team is important to him. The game of football is important to him."
 
One way Ertz can win back Eagles fans this year is by having a big season. And that isn't out of the realm of possibility for one big reason. He's entering Year 2 with Wentz.
 
Since he entered the league in 2013, he's played with a new quarterback every season. So for this upcoming year, he's worked hard to build a rapport with Wentz and hopes the two of them can build something (see story).
 
How big of a season can Ertz have in 2017?
 
"It just really depends on the health," Peele said. "He's really talented. He can do a lot of things. He can help this offense in a lot of ways. I'm looking forward to it. He's doing well right now."

Seumalo, Vaitai comfortable heading into Year 2 after busy rookie seasons

Seumalo, Vaitai comfortable heading into Year 2 after busy rookie seasons

Had everything gone to plan in 2016, Isaac Seumalo and Halapoulivaati Vaitai would have spent their rookie seasons watching from the sideline. 

Everything didn't go to plan. 

Allen Barbre had a hamstring injury, Lane Johnson was suspended for 10 games and Brandon Brooks lost two games as he dealt with anxiety issues. 

As a result, Seumalo and Vaitai, third- and fifth-round draft picks, respectively, aren't just one year into their NFL careers. They've also played significant NFL snaps. 

And this year, they'll arrive at training camp as seasoned veterans, not green rookies. So which has had the greater impact: the year or playing time? 

"It’s both," head coach Doug Pederson said. "It's a combination of both. But the biggest thing is the actual playing time last year has really put them in good position this year."

Vaitai ended up playing in seven games with six starts. He played a total of 423 snaps as a rookie and filled in for Johnson until he went down with a knee injury. After a rough start — really rough — Vaitai settled in and showed signs that he could possibly be the Eagles' right tackle of the future. 

When asked about the difference in Vaitai from last year to this year, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland laughed before answering. 

"Night and day, apples and oranges," Stoutland said. "Just his understanding of the position, his balance, his body control, the way he uses his hands. This is a lot faster game than college."

Vaitai found out about the speed of the game first-hand in Week 6 last year. Thanks to Johnson's suspension, Vaitai started at right tackle and didn't have a bad game. He had a horrible game. 

He didn't need to think very long when he was asked what his "welcome to the NFL" moment was. 

"It was that game," he said. "Because in camp I'm going with the threes and twos. I was still a rookie, but when I got thrown into the fire, I learned real quick that if you're not doing great, then you're out. I didn't want to be a disappointment to my family and be that guy who gets drafted and then is out the next year."

Seumalo ended up playing in nine games with four starts and a total of 335 snaps. He played four positions along the offensive line; the only one he didn't play was his most natural spot at center. 

"It's not just the year, it's the playing experience," Stoutland said. "He's played in nine games I think he started four of those games. ... He played a lot of football in his first year. Just that experience in playing those positions and understanding the angles we need to take. He's a very intelligent player. I love coaching players of his magnitude. They have talent, they're smart. Really all you do is coach him one time on something and he pretty much has it."

Seumalo didn't get to play at center last year because veteran Jason Kelce didn't miss any of the 1,133 snaps in 2016. Kelce is still on the team, but it seems like the Eagles are grooming Seumalo to eventually take over. Even this spring, the second-year lineman has been taking some first-team reps at center. 

That's actually how Seumalo thinks he got better. By learning the center position, he gained a better grasp of the offense. That, combined with a year under his belt and significant playing time, have him feeling much more confident heading into Year 2.

"Training camp was tough and a grind and the season is just long," Seumalo said. "Now, I know what to expect a little bit more."