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The space eater lines up in a three-point stance with his helmet inches from the center's, or slightly farther from a guard's or a tackle's. At the snap he and his blocker often collide like rams. "Believe me," says Dolphins guard-center Richie Incognito, "that's a lot of man coming at you in one step." And a lot of preparation and technique too. "You study tendencies just like a quarterback," says Raji, 24. "You're not always going to be right in your reads, but you need to prepare because everything happens fast."
These middle men employ tricks like attacking a center's right side after a shotgun snap because the center's right arm is tucked into his midsection after following through and there's almost no chance he can raise it to block before the defender has tied him up. Some of them, like Ayodele and Hampton, play mostly on running downs; the more quick-footed of the bunch, like Wilfork and Ngata, play nearly the entire game because they can be disruptive in bull-rushing a passer.
Yet even on the inside, where the work would seem to boil down to a simple wrestling match among massive humans, the game has evolved. Hampton, 33, was the 19th pick in 2001 out of Texas, where he twice led the team in tackles. He was moved to the nose in the Steelers' 3--4. "Everybody told me it was a big step up to the NFL," says Hampton. "It wasn't. It was easy. They would try to block me with one little guy, like 300 pounds, or even give him help with another little guy, and I'd just overpower them. I was dominating. It's different now."
As interior linemen have grown larger, offenses have moved from power-running, power-blocked attacks to the popular inside and outside zone-blocking schemes, where offensive linemen move laterally—"like on railroad tracks," says Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Muñoz—in an attempt to use space eaters' size against them. Once a giant man begins moving laterally, it's difficult for him to stop. The runner is instructed to wait until the defense has overrun the play and then to cut back against the grain.
Terrance Knighton, a 336-pound second-year tackle whose Jaguars were eliminated on the last weekend of the season, says, "We're comfortable working in a small space. They want to get us running sideways." Even this is no guarantee of success. Ngata is listed at 350 pounds, runs the 40 in 5.01 seconds and arrives with frightening momentum. "The truth is that some of these huge guys are surprisingly athletic," says Mudd. "You see them start running, and you just hope they don't catch up."
When big men make the Pro Bowl they find each other and find common ground. They talk defensive schemes, families, the sensational weather. But the primary topic is weight. It rules the life of the big man. "We talk about our coaches," says Wilfork. "'Man, is your guy trippin' about your weight?' We all just wish they'd leave us alone. We joke about it; that's all we hear. The weight, the weight, the weight."
Surely there are few positions that better demonstrate the growth—literally—of pro football. Consider the legendary Fearsome Foursome, who played for the Rams from 1963 to '66. The ends were Deacon Jones (275) and Lamar Lundy (245); the tackles, Rosey Grier (284 pounds) and Merlin Olsen (270). Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, this year's Heisman Trophy winner, goes 250.
These days, coaching staffs want their space eaters to be as big as possible, but not so big that their athleticism or endurance is stunted. The team establishes an ideal weight. The space eater, meanwhile, feels that the constant battle to maintain a prescribed weight is more exhausting than playing at a slightly heavier one. Take Knighton. As a high school junior he was a 6'2", 250-pound wide receiver. In a prep year before college he was a 285-pound tight end/linebacker. He kept growing, moved to nosetackle at Temple, and at the NFL combine in the spring of 2009 he weighed in at 321.
After a solid rookie year (during which he picked up the nickname Pot Roast), Knighton went home and ate his mother's cooking. He blew up to more than 370 pounds. During training camp this summer the Jags made him run daily after practice until they felt he had dumped an acceptable amount of weight. "[Coach] Jack [del Rio] told me, 'I want you big,'" says Knighton. "But he said, 'I don't want you too big.'"