KANSAS CITY, Mo. — During the 2012 NFL Draft, the Chiefs were caught in a classic dilemma. Do they draft for need, or do they take the best player available with the 11th pick?
The need was glaring. The Chiefs ranked 26th against the run in 2011, and a major reason for that was their lack of a run-stuffing nose tackle who could take on double teams and free their linebackers to make plays in the backfield, not four to six yards downfield.
The retirement of veteran Kelly Gregg exacerbated the need at the position, so the Chiefs looked long and hard at the top-rated nose tackle in the draft, Dontari Poe, a 6-foot-3, 350-pound behemoth from the University of Memphis.
Poe was a risky pick. He played in 35 games, with 30 starts, at Memphis from 2009-11 and averaged fewer than three tackles in a non-BCS conference. He had five career sacks for a team that went 3-21 in his last two seasons.
However, Poe, a two-time Tennessee Class 3A shot-put champion in high school, caught everyone’s attention at the NFL scouting combine. He led all participants in the weight room by squatting 700 pounds and bench-pressing 225 pounds 44 times while also showing some nimble feet.
The question became, was he a workout warrior or a cornerstone for a defense for the next five years?
“This isn’t baseball,” Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli said. “It’s not about numbers and stats at that position. That’s an easy way to oversimplify things.
“It’s about doing the job, doing it well, being consistent and being tough physically, mentally, emotionally. He played really well (at Memphis), and he played almost every snap at 350 pounds. That’s why we videotape games and watch guys play.”
The Chiefs also did an exhaustive analysis comparing the college careers of Poe to other nose tackles, including B.J. Raji, who taken ninth overall by the Green Bay Packers in 2009.
Here’s what they saw: In the measurables, Poe was a half-inch taller and nine pounds heavier than Raji. But Poe ran the 40 in 4.90 seconds; Raji ran it in 5.23.
In the production category, Raji, then a fifth-year senior at Boston College, made 92 tackles (53 solo, 39 assists) in 51 games (36 starts). Poe made more tackles — 101 (57 solo, 44 assists) — in far fewer games.
Raji had 12 career sacks (7 1/2 in his fifth season) to Poe’s five sacks in three seasons. But Poe had eight quarterback hurries to Raji’s four; 21 1/2 tackles for loss to Raji’s 29; and four forced fumbles to Raji’s one.
Raji started one game as a rookie before becoming a full-time starter in 2010, when the Packers won the Super Bowl. Last year, he started 16 games for the second straight year and was selected to the Pro Bowl.
The Chiefs hope Poe follows a similar path and fills the role of such previous nose tackles in Romeo Crennel’s system as Ted Washington, Keith Traylor and Vince Wilfork. Steady, workmanlike pluggers without much flash and dash.
“The guy has a lot of potential,” Chiefs defensive line coach Anthony Pleasant said. “At that position, it’s very important those guys … keep the center off the linebackers. It’s not a glorified position, but they have to play the technique in the defense.
“He could have a great game in our eyes, but in your eyes, he probably had a bad game. But at the end of the day, as long as we win, he gets glory because he allowed inside linebackers to make plays.”
Poe’s role in the preseason was as a backup to Anthony Toribio in the Chiefs’ base 3-4 defense, though Poe subbed in with the nickel defense as a pass rusher. But being a part-time player came as a disappointment to some fans who might have expected more from a premium draft pick.
It didn’t bother Poe.
“I play football. That’s what I’m here to do,” he said. “Whatever my coaches tell me to do, I’m guessing that’ll be the best thing for me. So for me to just listen to people and say I’m ready to this or do that because they said something, that’d be wrong on me.
“I don’t playoff pressure; I play off my ability and trying to do the best I can. I’m not really thinking about that point of it. I’m just trying to be the best Dontari Poe I can be.”
It takes a bit of a mean streak to succeed at nose tackle in the NFL, and Poe’s mild-mannered ways off the field can be misleading.
“He has it in him,” Pleasant said, “but I have to keep bringing it out of him.”
So does Crennel, who constantly stands over Poe at practice every day.
“He never lets me take off (a play),” Poe said. “If I do something wrong, I hear about it from him and all the coaches …
“You’ve got to be a man to play inside. Everybody knows that. You’ve got to have a mean streak in you, but most people think you just go wild and tear things up, but you’ve got to be technically sound.”
Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys personnel director who helps coordinate the NFL combine, believes Poe will develop into the kind of player the Chiefs envision.
“I don’t think he was an underachiever in college,” Brandt said. “A lot of times with young guys who are bigger, they don’t compete as hard because it’s so easy for them. The guy has unbelievable ability. To be as big as he is, and to be as quick-footed as he is … he didn’t know how to use his hands real well.
“That’s a big thing they’ll improve him on. They will use him in pass-rush situations, and he’ll be really good. Poe has a great attitude. I think the guy has great upside.”
Brandt got a good glimpse into Poe’s humble nature when calling him to invite Poe to attend the NFL Draft last April. Poe displayed no sense of entitlement when talking to Brandt.
“You really get a good feeling about certain guys,” Brandt said. “He didn’t say, ‘Well, let me ask my agent …’ or ‘Where am I going to be drafted?’ He said, ‘You’re not kidding me, are you? Can I bring my mom and dad?’
“I told him his name was all over the board. He might be drafted eighth, he might be drafted 28th and have to sit there a long time … I didn’t know. But he was enthusiastic, fun to be around, and for a guy who had never been out of Memphis, it was culture shock to come to a place like that.”
Poe liked everything about New York — “except for the traffic,” he said — and was a bundle of nerves when the draft began. And the one team he wanted to draft him was Kansas City.
“Not knowing where you’re going to be the next couple of years of your life was nerve-racking,” he said. “But at the same time, I knew I was going to get picked. Some people didn’t know that much.
“I was hoping it was the Chiefs. I liked the whole situation they had when I came for a visit. I liked everything about it. I heard a lot of things about coach Pleasant … and everybody knows how RAC (Crennel) can develop defensive linemen. So getting a chance to work with those two was a blessing.”
Crennel has established his line of expectations for Poe this season.
“I told him no matter what everybody says, if you work to get better and be able to help this team win, then you are valuable for this team,” Crennel said. “So that is the approach that I want him to take, to help this team win. If he will do the things that we need him to do, then that will help the team win. And then we’ll all be happy.”
Whatever success Poe and the Chiefs might have, he hopes to remain as humble as the day he was drafted.
“I stay within myself,” Poe said. “I’ve been humble all my life; why change now? I’m staying how I am.”