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NFL draft

Potential for Memphis’s Poe is big - very big

Memphis defensive lineman Dontari Poe, a 346-pounder, was impressive at the combine. Memphis defensive lineman Dontari Poe, a 346-pounder, was impressive at the combine. (joe robbins/Getty Images)
By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / April 22, 2012
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Sir Isaac Newton taught us that mass times acceleration equals force.

When a 6-foot-3-inch, 346-pound man (mass) runs a 40-yard dash in 4.98 seconds (acceleration), NFL observers start to think he could be quite a force in the middle of a defensive line.

Dontari Poe is that potential force.

The Memphis defensive tackle was the talk of Indianapolis during the NFL combine when he posted his 40-yard time, a 29 1/2-inch vertical leap, and bench-pressed 225 pounds 44 times. It was a display of athleticism expected from a running back or linebacker, but one not often seen from potential nose tackles.

“I think I’m explosive - very explosive,’’ Poe said before his combine performance. “That’s probably my biggest strength. Most people think just because I’m big I do nothing but [overpower] you, things like that. I try to use my quickness to my advantage.’’

The Patriots have their own athletic big man in Vince Wilfork, who is far more agile than his frame might suggest. Wilfork often wows fans with his athletic feats, and the veteran enjoys telling tales of his surprising abilities.

Wilfork, however, has proven that he can play tackle in the NFL, whether anchoring a three-man line or in a four-man unit. When he came out of the University of Miami in 2004, there were few questions about Wilfork’s ability to excel in the league.

With Poe, things are a little different. While it is easy to be impressed by combine performances - and many a team has been swayed by them in the past - experts say the 21-year old Tennessee native is raw in terms of playing ability.

“I see the workout numbers, and I found myself wanting and waiting and wishing and hoping, is what I keep saying,’’ said ESPN draft evaluator Todd McShay. “Every single play I watched from Memphis, I was just hoping that he would make a big play.

“He will disrupt and be involved in some plays, but for a guy that you’re talking about potential top 10, top 12 pick, I just didn’t see the production and I didn’t see a guy who understands and has a great feel for the game.

“That’s not to say he won’t develop - and he very well may - and one day he may be a junior Haloti Ngata. But Haloti Ngata coming out was a much better football player than Dontari Poe is right now, and that scares me.’’

Poe played in all 12 games for the Tigers in his final (redshirt junior) season, totaling 33 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, a sack, three pass break-ups and a forced fumble.

The NFL Network’s Mike Mayock is a bit more succinct, calling Poe “a very average football player right now,’’ and saying that a team will be drafting him on his upside, though the possibility that he’ll never blossom is definitely there.

While Mayock has his doubts, he also says Poe has a high motor, which undoubtedly will serve him well. As a state champion shot putter and discus thrower in high school, one of Poe’s favorite places to be is the weight room - as proven by his bench-press at the combine.

“I love the weight room,’’ he said. “It’s something I got into in high school because people always used to say college players are bigger, faster, stronger. When you get to college, they say the NFL is bigger, faster, stronger.

“I never let up on it. I’m intrinsically motivated to do it.’’

Poe is most often compared to Ngata, Baltimore’s Pro Bowl tackle, and the Steelers’ Casey Hampton, another highly regarded big man. He welcomes both comparisons, particularly those to Hampton, an 11-year veteran.

“He’s aggressive,’’ Poe said of Hampton. “He’s one of the more aggressive defensive tackles this league has seen.

“His hand strength - once he gets his hands on you, he kind of controls you. That’s probably what I admire most about him.’’

It seems only fitting, then, that ProFootballTalk.com reported last week that the Steelers believe Poe can be Hampton’s successor. Hampton underwent ACL surgery earlier this year and may not be ready when the season starts.

Pittsburgh is slated to pick 24th overall Thursday night.

Poe has no problems playing nose tackle, he said, and has designs on being a pass-rushing nose.

“I see myself as someone who can rush the passer a lot more than people think. I am used to playing nose tackle and the 3-technique and I’ve played some 5-technique,’’ he said, adding that Memphis played both 3-4 and 4-3 while he was there and that pass rushing has taken on added importance as NFL offenses have become pass-first.

Once he gets drafted, Poe will have to prove that he isn’t just a workout wonder - that he can be a force for his new team.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com.

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