Much has been made about the talent and depth of the Florida State defensive line heading into this season, and for good reason. With All-World pass rusher Brandon Jenkins opposite Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine, and a seven-man rotation of buffet busters at tackle to control the middle, 'Nole fans should expect great things from this unit in 2011.
One group that will benefit from the improved play up front is the linebackers. One of the most fundamental nuances of the position is avoiding and/or shedding blockers in order to get to the football and make a play. If the defensive line doesn't allow blockers to get a free release to the backers, the backers' job becomes exponentially easier. All-time greats like Ray Lewis (who has benefited from playing behind the likes of Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, Haloti Ngata, etc.) and Derrick Brooks (Warren Sapp, Booger McFarland, Simeon Rice) have been able to roam free and make plays because of their defensive linemen. Those are obviously superlative examples, but the point is that great defenses start up front, and everyone on a defense becomes better when the DL wins the battle at the line of scrimmage.
FSU's d-line will win the battle at the line of scrimmage this year more often than not, and Nigel Bradham will have more opportunities than ever to use his speed and athleticism to make plays. As most at TN know, Bradham has led the team in tackles for the past two seasons, but he has been the subject of some criticism. He's looked tight in the hips (which has improved to an extent), stood up too high (also correctable), and his consistency has been questioned by many (including me in the 4th question here). Any player who comes out of high school with the kind of ranking that Bradham did will be put through the meat grinder.That being said, all of the criticism of Bradham's game has been fair. But this is the year that we might see him become an elite player as opposed to the good player we've seen these past few years.
This defensive line will be the best that FSU has had since Bradham's arrival in 2008, and if there is a year for him to live up to the hype and improve his NFL Draft stock, this is it. You've got to believe that he has been working to improve his flexibility and fix his bad habit of giving up his numbers to blockers, and this line will likely keep blockers off him. Jimbo Fisher knows it will be able to, or else Telvin Smith wouldn't be playing Mike linebacker at 215 pounds. Fisher likes the prospect of Smith using his own speed to combat that of the spread offenses that FSU will see the first six weeks of the season, and if he was going to be fighting off 300-pound offensive lineman every play, he wouldn't be in the middle.
Smith is a very talented player, but at this stage in his career he's not the player that Bradham is, nor should he be. FSU fans have been waiting for Bradham to break out. Allowing a player with the size, athleticism and exceptional one-direction speed of Bradham to play downhill behind a stud d-line is a recipe for big plays, and that's what we'll see out of him this year.