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2014 NFL Draft: Defensive Line

By: Robert Davis

The defensive line has emerged as a premier position on draft day. Both ends and tackles have had their names called at the top of the draft, and this year should be no different.

South Carolina's Jadaveon Clowney may be the draft's best talent. The term is overused, but it is appropriate in his case; Clowney is a freak. He can do anything and everything on the football field. Clowney has a great frame, going in the 6'6 260lb range and still having room to grow. He is a phenomenal athlete with great quickness, change of direction ability, and closing speed. His natural strength and long arms allow him to push blockers around to make plays on the ball. Clowney is the type of player that you account for on every snap and he's the type of guy who can change the outcome of the game from the defensive end spot. The only question that has popped up with Clowney this year is where his head is at. He's shown questionable effort quite often, as well as questionable toughness missing a game earlier this year when his coaches expected him to play. Many feel he is playing to not get hurt and save himself for the NFL. While that's not a great trait for a prospect, Clowney's amazing potential will override any concern on draft day. He is a candidate for the top overall spot and is a definite top five selection.

DE RANKINGS
  1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
  2. Dee Ford, Auburn
  3. Kony Ealy, Missouri
  4. Scott Crichton, Oregon St
  5. Demarcus Lawrence, Boise St.
  6. Kareem Martin, North Carolina
  7. Chris Smith, Louisville
  8. Trent Murphy, Stanford
  9. Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas
  10. Adrian Hubbard, Alabama

Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame is another physical specimen along the defensive line. He is the ideal 3-4 defensive end with his 6'6 300lb frame and ability at the point of attack. But he also combines that with impressive athleticism and the ability to consistently get into the backfield and apply pressure. That athleticism and playmaking ability should allow him to play inside in a 4-3 defense as well. Tuitt got off to a slow start this year, but is rounding into form and has been his dominant self as of late. He has the talent and skills to land in the top ten come April, and the type of guy who could battle for #1 overall with another year in school.

Scott Crichton of Oregon St may not standout as much as Clowney or Tuitt on first glance, but once the game is under way, you take note real quick. He has solid bulk on a slightly shorter than average frame, which actually works to his advantage. He has impressive natural strength for a player on the edge, and his burst off the line makes him hard for blockers to control. Crichton consistently gets into the backfield to disrupt running plays, but also can hold his ground at the point of attack. He is a solid athlete, who is relentless getting up field after the quarterback. Crichton isn't the elite pass rusher teams want in an early pick, but he is a solid all around end that is the perfect fit at DE in a 4-3 defense.

South Florida's Aaron Lynch carries a lot of hype, but it hasn't necessarily translated into production just yet. He had a great freshman season at Notre Dame but transferred to USF to be closer to home. Lynch has been shaking off some rust while being the focal point of opposing offenses, so it's his physical tools that give him a high ranking, not his stat line. He's a great natural athlete with the frame(6'6 250) to play multiple positions. He fluidity and closing speed allow him to stand up as an edge rusher. While at Notre Dame, he performed in the 270lb range, making him an option for 4-3 teams. Despite the weight loss, he's still able to take on blocks because of his long arms and strength. Lynch is only a redshirt sophomore, so there is plenty of development left on the field. But he is the type of athlete that rises up draft boards in the post season, much higher than many expect. His size, length, athleticism, and strength are things you can't teach, and he will really impress teams leading up to draft day should he declare this year.

Trent Murphy of Stanford isn't a first round athlete, but he is a very good football player. He's the type of player that could've played 50 years ago. He's tough, he's mean and he thrives on anything physical. He stands up as an edge rusher and plays with his hand down, though his future in the NFL is definitely on the defensive line. Murphy is aggressive and attacks the football on every snap. He has tremendous strength at the point of attack, can take on blockers, and can shed them to make the play. While not a great athlete, he maximizes his mobility with his strength. He can get his man on his heels, then make a move to beat him. Murphy isn't going to blow anyone away in workouts, but once the pads are on, he's the type of guy you want on your team. There will be some value placed on his testing in the post season, but he's the type of player that can out perform his draft stock because of his toughness and motor.

Kareem Martin(North Carolina), Jackson Jeffcoat(Texas), and Morgan Breslin(USC) are guys to watch on day two.

DT RANKINGS
  1. Aaron Donald, Pitt
  2. Louis Nix, Notre Dame
  3. Timmy Jernigan, Florida St.
  4. Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
  5. Stephon Tuitt, DT, Notre Dame
  6. Daquan Jones, Penn St.
  7. Dominique Easley, Florida
  8. Daniel McCullers, Tennessee
  9. Caraun Reid, Princeton
  10. Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina

Louis Nix is the headliner at the DT position, forming one of the nation's most feared duo's with Stephon Tuitt at Notre Dame. When both players are on their game, as they were against USC this year, they can completely shut down offenses. Nix is an immovable force on the nose, standing 6'3 340lbs. He commands a double team on every snap, and can completely shut down the running game up the middle. He's not just a run stopper though. Nix is an impressive athlete with a great initial burst. He gets consistent penetration and blows up plays in the backfield. While players his size will always have to keep their weight in check, Nix is the type of player every defensive coaches wishes they had in the middle of their defensive line. He has battled some knee pain and missed a couple games but it doesn't appears to be a long term issue and should be fine for the workout process. Nix looks like a top ten pick that could land inside the top five.

Ra'Shede Hageman of Minnesota has been a steady riser and will likely continue his ascent as the draft approaches. He is a remarkable physical specimen, with athleticism rarely seen in a 300lb lineman. He is extremely fluid on the field, and his movement skills will allow him to play in any defensive front. He uses his quickness and change of direction to wreak havoc on blockers, constantly getting into the backfield. He's not a finesse lineman though, despite that athleticism. Hageman is strong and physical at the point of attack. He's still developing as a player and will need further development at the next level, but the tools and toughness are there to be a star. He can play inside in a 4-3 defense or end in a 3-4. He may not currently be regarded as a top 15 pick, but he could be come draft day.

Florida State's Timmy Jernigan is another athletic lineman that is making a name for himself. Just a junior, Jernigan is rising up this list because of his quickness and athleticism for an interior lineman. He's built low to the ground, and his quickness inside makes it hard for blockers to square up on him. Whether in the backfield or down the line of scrimmage, he also shows the agility and foot speed to chase down plays. Even if he doesn't get initial penetration, Jernigan does show quick and powerful hands to keep the blocker from controlling him. For as quick and as athletic as he is, Jernigan hasn't made as many big plays as you would expect. He can still rely on his natural gifts too much, and can be taken out of plays when blockers do get a hold of him, he'll need to learn to disengage when his first moves are met with resistance. Jernigan still has another year of eligibility, but should he declare, he has a very good shot at landing in the first round with his upside.

Florida's Dominique Easley saw his season end prematurely with an ACL tear, but will not pursue a medical redshirt and will proceed with his NFL career. When healthy, Easley is an explosive playmaker along the defensive line. He fires off the ball and uses his quickness and athleticism to disrupt the action in the backfield. He is on the light side however, and can be neutralized quite often if he doesn't gain a step initially. Durability is also an issue. Not only is he only about 6'2 285, but he has now torn the ACL in both of his knees. For a player that relies on his explosiveness, this is a big concern. Easley will be approximately six months removed from the injury as the draft process winds down, so his stock will be determined by how far along he is and by what he may be able to do for teams in a workout. If he can regain his athleticism and agility, Easley has the potential to be a real impact player in the NFL as a penetrator.

LSU's Anthony Johnson is yet another athletically gifted interior defensive lineman. Johnson is an inconsistent performer, but he flashes some big time ability when he does make plays. He is very light on his feet, showing the ability to fire into the backfield and the speed to chase plays down from behind. He doesn't always play up to those skills however, and he is too often taken out of the action by a blocker. He needs to work on keeping his pads down and has to do a better job disengaging blocks to maximize his potential. He is just a junior and has time to develop, but the natural gifts are there to be a coveted draft pick whenever he enters the league.

Will Sutton(Arizona St), George Uko(USC), Daniel McCullers(Tennessee), and DaQuan Jones(Penn St.) are potential names to watch on day two.

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