The defensive line class for the 2011 NFL Draft is shaping up to be the deepest position in the draft. There is star power, depth, and a lot of versatility at the position.
Alabama’s Marcell Dareus has taken advantage of the post season to emerge as the top defensive line prospect in the draft. Before the combine, Auburn’s Nick Fairley was rated by most as the top tackle, but Dareus impressed and has moved past Fairley. He displayed impressive natural athleticism at a surprising 320lbs, and is a more developed player than Fairley. Dareus has a great first step, with very good short area quickness and the speed to finish plays off. He has some experience playing in a two gap system, but projects better in a 4-3 defense. Dareus is now one of the truly elite players in the draft, and should come off the board in the first three picks.
Auburn’s Nick Fairley is another standout on the interior defensive line. He was dominant all season long, and can wreak havoc on the interior line. His explosiveness off the ball and ability to get into the backfield are special, and he has the athleticism to make plays up and down the line of scrimmage. At a shade over 300 pounds, Fairley can also hold his own as a run stopper, in addition to his ability to affect the passing game. He fits best for 4-3 teams that need a playmaker inside, but has the versatility to play end in a 3-4 alignment as well. Fairley was very impressive at the combine, physically, despite checking in a little smaller than expected. The main reason for Fairley’s fall down draft boards is based on his maturity level and whether or not he’s ready to put in the work to live up to his potential. Someone may be taking a bit of a risk by selecting him, but the upside is too much, and he still could hear his name called in the top ten selections.
Illinois’ Corey Liuget is next in line, among players that fit a 4-3 tackle spot best, but has the versatility to kick out to end in a two gap system. He may not have the name recognition of the previous two prospect, but Liuget is only a step below as a prospect. He has excellent initial quickness to get a step on the blocker, and his athleticism and agility allow him to counter and get around a double team and disrupt the play. As a run stopper, Liuget holds up well at the point of attack and can get off blocks to make the tackle. He battles to the whistle and does not give up on the action. He may carry a little more ability to play in a 3-4 defense than Fairley or Dareus, and could be an attractive option in the middle portion of round one to any team needing defensive line help.
Marvin Austin of North Carolina has been well known name for awhile. He was a big time recruit, who saw the field immediately at UNC. He is an impressive athlete for a 300+lber. He has a great burst off the line, excellent short area quickness, and great closing speed for a defensive tackle. He has the talent to be a real force and consistently get into the backfield to disrupt the action. Unfortunately, Austin’s production has never lived up to the level his physical talents suggest. He has been inconsistent on the field, and some have questioned his dedication to the game and maturity. A suspension for his senior season did not help him prove himself on the field, but he has done a great job re-establishing himself since the post season has began. Some team may fall in love with the physical tools and upside, and take him near the end of the first, but he looks like he’s wrapped up a second round selection at the very least.
Oregon State’s Stephen Paea and USC’s Jurrell Casey do not bring the explosive physical tools or pure size other top tackle prospects do, but they are very good prospects, nonetheless. Both measure up about 6’1 300lbs, have a warrior mentality, and do not give up on the action. Not explosive pass rushers, but their short stature make them hard to block once they get moving up the field, and they can finish plays because of their motor. They are difficult to move off the ball and clog running lanes very well. They may not be the sexy pick on the defensive line, so where they may not end up being selected in the first round, but should provide excellent value outside of the first frame.
Drake Nevis of LSU is an explosive playmaker at the defensive tackle position. He has fantastic quickness and burst, and can really get up the field. He fires off the line, and maintains the quickness and speed attacking the backfield. His ability to make plays is up there with any interior lineman in the draft, but his lack of size pushes him way down the board. He is not going to be much of a factor in the running game because of his short stature and lack of ideal bulk. He can be pushed around in the running game and taken out of the action. His sole value will be getting up the field and making plays.
Phil Taylor of Baylor is the top nose tackle prospect in the draft. He has a massive frame at almost 340lbs but is not sloppy. He is an immovable force on the line, and is a one man run stopper. He holds his ground, can get off blocks well, and will make it difficult to run up the middle on any snap he is in the game. He is not going to get up the field much and impact the passing game, but he is a fantastic run stopper and should come off the board in the second round at some point.
There are a number of players that are intriguing prospects that project to hear their name called in the third round and beyond. Hampton’s Kenrick Ellis and Jerrell Powe of Ole Miss are two sleeper nose tackle prospects that could outperform their draft stock. They have fantastic size and ability to anchor, but will need time to develop and get into better shape. Jarvis Jenkins(Clemson), Sione Fua(Stanford), Lawrence Guy(Arizona St), and Terrell McClain(South Florida) are names to keep an eye on.
There are a lot of names to know at the defensive end position as well. Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers was arguably the top overall player in the draft until questions around the health of his knee surfaced. He was a big time recruit that blossomed into a star this season. While not the physical marvel like a Julius Peppers or Mario Williams, Bowers is an impressive combination of power and athleticism. He is a very good athlete, with good agility but he couples that with the power to push blockers back and get off blocks. He is a true 4-3 end, but does bring some versatility to the field. He has lined up inside on passing downs, and as he gets older, could pack on enough weight to play end in a 3-4 alignment if the need ever arises. The real issue about his draft stock is built around his knee. Surgery kept him out of the combine, and he wasn’t sharp at his pro day in early April. Only team doctors know how serious the questions about his long term health are, but he appears to be sliding at the moment. He could still crack the tail end of the top ten, but if he slides further, the questions about the knee will prove to be worse than most think.
Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn is a well rounded defensive end prospect. He may not have one explosive trait, but his consistency as both a pass rusher and run stopper provide an impact. He is a decent athlete with good speed and the strength to hold up at the point of attack. With some added weight, he may be able to handle the five technique position in a 3-4 alignment.
Allen Bailey of Miami may be one of the more physically imposing players in the entire draft. He is a chiseled 285lbs with long arms, and displays excellent athleticism and strength on the football field. He has been a solid producer in college, but not quite to the level his talent indicates. Bailey is more of an athlete at this point, and will need to some coaching in the NFL to live up to his potential. The athleticism and speed is there to remain at end in a 4-3, and the power is there to play end in a 3-4 alignment. That talent and potential package should get Bailey selected in the second round, though he may need some work before he makes an impact.
There are a number of players that fall into the defensive end category, but depending on the scheme they may be asked to stand up and play outside linebacker. Robert Quinn, Ryan Kerrigan, and Aldon Smith will all line up with their hand on the ground if drafted by a 4-3 team, but will stand up as an edge rusher in a 3-4 alignment.
Robert Quinn of North Carolina entered the year as a potential #1 pick candidate. His suspension for receiving benefits from an agent ended that possibility. Quinn is a great athlete with all the tools teams look for off the edge. He has a great first step when lining up with his hand on the ground, and shows the agility and speed to beat even the most athletic tackles. Those skills will allow him to rush the passer, no matter what scheme he is in. There may be questions about stopping the run as a DE, but his pass rush ability makes up for it. Quinn may have re-emerged as the top end in the draft, based on Da’Quan Bowers’ perceived slide. He really could go anywhere from pick five or down into the early teens on draft. Whoever lands him though, is getting a big time playmaker.
Ryan Kerrigan has the game to remain at defensive end, despite size questions but may be asked to play in the 3-4 because of his ability and the amount of teams looking for help. He isn’t an athletic freak, but he is still a force as a pass rusher. He isn’t going to blow by tackles with sheer speed and athleticism, though he is not lacking in either area. He has the quickness and change of direction ability to slip by tackles, and the speed to finish the play off. Kerrigan has the strength and quick hands to aid him as a pass rusher, but also makes him a quality run stopper as well. He will likely pack on weight to his frame if he does remain at end, which will only enhance his ability as a run stopper. Kerrigan’s all around ability and versatility will get his name called in the first round, potentially in the top 20.
Missouri’s Aldon Smith may have as much upside as any pass rusher in the draft. He has tremendous physical gifts across the board, and even has room to grow. He is a fluid athlete with great closing speed, and has shown the ability to make big plays during his two years in college. That lack of experience is what raises questions about his game and where he ends up in the draft. He needs more experience and relies on his natural gifts too much. He may not be ready to provide an all around impact early on, and some teams may want a more immediate return on their selection. At the same time, you may find a team that sees what he can become and is willing to take him earlier than expected. He really could go anywhere in the first round, from just outside the top ten or well into the twenties.
Arizona’s Brooks Reed another conversion candidate. He will not wow you with his physical skills, but he make plays. He shows up better on film than he does working out, and his non stop motor on the field allows him to make plays. Based on when and where a couple of the other hybrids go earlier, Reed could crack the tail end of the first round, but would be a great option in the second round.
With a lot of teams employing a 3-4 defense nowadays, the five technique has become a very valuable position and one that carries a lot of value in April. There are some players that project very well into that role, but their role will also depend on what defense they are in.
California’s Cameron Jordan could be the ideal five technique candidate. He has experience playing in a two gap system, and does an excellent job at the point of attack. He can stand up the tackle and contain his gaps, but also get off the block to make the tackle. He has very long arms which help keep blockers away from his chest, which makes up for him being 10lbs lighter than the typical 3-4 end. In addition to his run stopping abilities, Jordan is a good athlete that can get up the field as a pass rusher. He has enough ability here to remain at end in a 4-3, though he will never be an explosive pass rusher. In a 3-4 alignment, he will bring more ability to get up the field than your typical 5-tech. He has a good first step and push the tackle around helps him clear a lane to the QB. A very good senior season, a great Senior Bowl week, and a very good combine could have moved Jordan into the top twenty of the draft.
JJ Watt of Wisconsin has some similarities to Jordan. He has the ability to play a 4-3 defensive end, but not being an explosive pass rusher limits the upside in that role. Watt will need to pack on some weight to play in a 3-4, as he was only in the 275-280 range in college, but is up 290 now which will make him even harder to block. A former tight end, Watt uses his hands very well. They are quick and powerful, and allow him to play stronger than his frame would indicate. He can get off blocks with ease, but even when he is initially blocked, his relentlessness allows him to break free and make something happen. Watt has gained a lot of steam since the end of the season, and is definite first rounder now.
Cameron Heyward of Ohio St has some questions to answer about his stock, but is a very good prospect. An elbow injury took him out of the Senior Bowl, and will limit him in workouts leading up to the draft, so he will not get a chance to fully impress teams physically. Much like Jordan and Watt, Heyward’s lack of explosion off the edge raises some questions about playing DE in a 4-3 alignment on an every down basis. Heyward is a decent athlete that does show the ability to get up the field and make plays in the backfield but also shows the ability to hold his ground and play gap control. Heyward has flashed the ability be dominant at times, and the right coach may be able to get more of that out of him. The elbow injury has not allowed him to fully showcase his talents, but he still has the potential to slip into the bottom end of the first round.
There are two players that project well to a 3-4 end position, but will also bring value as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense: Temple’s Muhammad Wilkerson and Iowa’s Christian Ballard.
Wilkerson has an impressive blend of talent. He tops the 300lb mark while dominating at the point of attack and showing impressive mobility. His ability to get up and down the line of scrimmage definitely jumps out at you for a 300lber. He is a good athlete and shows the athleticism and speed to make plays outside the tackles. Wilkerson can be overpowering at the point of attack at times. He can push tackles into the backfield, and gets off the blocks very well to make the tackle. Wilkerson should hear his name called in the middle of the first, and will battle Jordan and Watt for the top five technique ranking.
Adrian Clayborn got more attention on Iowa’s defensive line but Ballard is a talent in his own right. He is more physically gifted than Clayborn, but not as polished. His production hasn’t matched his talent and he will need the right coach to maximize his potential. The talent is definitely there though. He is a good athlete with good speed for a 290+lber. He also flashes some strength and the ability to control blockers at times. There isn’t any consistency to his performance but the talent level should get Ballard taken in the second round, and he has the potential to justify the selection.
As always, there will be talented performers that won’t hear their name called in the first round, but could provide solid value where they get selected. Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus of Pitt, Cliff Matthews(South Carolina), Pierre Allen(Nebraska), Mario Addison(Troy), and Sam Acho(Texas) are players that have the talent to be contributors and are players to watch.