As we continue our preview of the NFL draft following the combine this past weekend, we move to the defensive side of the ball, where we’ll look at the top 10 defensive linemen available in this year’s draft.
10. Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota – Hageman brings incredible athleticism and size to the interior linemen position. He has an explosive burst that can be tough to stop, as he gets good penetration, especially against the run. However, he remains raw and has a lot to learn about playing football, but his athleticism gives him a high ceiling.
9. Scott Crichton, Oregon State – He’s not the most talented pass rusher in this year’s draft, but he gets the most out of his abilities. Crichton gets good jumps off the line of scrimmage, putting himself in good position to put pressure on the quarterback. He’s solid but unspectacular against the run, and has the chance to be versatile and move to different positions along the defensive line. He won’t be a star, but he looks like a good rotational player that could be the second or third best pass rushing threat on a good defense.
8. Dee Ford, Auburn – Ford is a pure pass rusher, regularly beating tackles with his speed off the edge, while occasionally bull rushing and getting to the quarterback using a quick burst and a high motor. He’s a little small for defensive end, but he uses leverage well to make up for it, even though powerful linemen can push him around. He does struggle against the run, and he may have to move to linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, but in a 4-3 scheme he could be a great option at defensive end in passing situations.
7. Dominique Easley, Florida – Easley fought through injuries during his college career, which hurt his stock some, and on top of the fact that he’s a bit undersized for a defensive lineman in the NFL. However, he has plenty of ability and has one of the quickest bursts off the line of scrimmage of any lineman available. He gets great penetration and is a talented pass rusher, although he’s not quite as productive against the run. Part of Easley’s problem is figuring out where to put him on the field, as he moved around to different places in Florida’s defense, so he has experience playing different position, which could turn out to be an asset. If an NFL team can figure out the right place to put him, he’ll be a productive player for them.
6. Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame – Tuitt certainly has the size and athleticism NFL teams are looking for along the defensive line. He has surprising quickness for someone his size, and he has the versatility to fit in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. However, he didn’t dominate this past season the way many thought he should, so there are questions about his work ethic and his consistency, which could cause his stock to drop some, even though his upside is quite high.
5. Timmy Jernigan, Florida State – Jernigan moves extremely well for a player his size. He’s a little small for an interior lineman, but he’s strong and capable of taking on multiple blockers. Jernigan is still young, so he’s learning how to play the game while also learning how to use his body. However, he’s good against both the run and pass and he’ll fit most schemes, which will make him a useful player for just about any team out there.
4. Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh – Donald has one of the quickest first steps around, giving him an immediate advantage over his blocker, and once he gets a step on his blocker, he has a great swim move that allows him to get into the backfield and cause havoc. He’s a little undersized, especially when he plays on the interior of the line, but he has a great motor to help make up for it, and he’s capable of moving to the outside and using his quick first step to get around the edge. He may not hold up well against the run in the NFL, but among interior linemen, few are better at getting to the quarterback than Donald.
3. Louis Nix, Notre Dame – Nix is the best interior lineman in the draft. He has the size and the motor that NFL teams covet, not to mention the intelligence and character that they like to see as well. He can learn a few things and make improvements to his technique, which he should be able to do, and he has the size and the talent to become one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL.
2. Kony Ealy, Missouri – Ealy has the speed, technique, and moves to be a top-flight pass rusher, in addition to having the athleticism to move around the field and play different positions, which he did at Missouri. He runs well, has good play recognition, and knows how to put his hands in passing lanes if he can’t get to the quarterback, which is a useful and underrated skill. Ealy isn’t great at defending the run right now, but he has a chance to become an elite pass rusher.
1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina – There should be no doubt that Clowney is the most talented player in the draft. He has freakish athleticism that allows him to terrorize quarterbacks for 60 minutes and forces defenses to account for him on every single snap. He’s more than just a pure pass rusher, as he has good recognition against the run and has the speed to track down running backs. Of course, there are questions about his effort and his maturity, but passing on him is passing on a once-in-a-generation talent, and unless a team has an overwhelming need at quarterback, they’d be crazy to not draft Clowney.