Leading up to the NFL draft on May 8-10, Shutdown Corner will examine each position, rank the top players at each spot and try to identify some top sleepers, sliders and undrafted gems.
There are two potentially elite defenders in this year's defensive line class — South Carolina's Jadveon Clowney and Pitt's compact but disruptive interior rusher Aaron Donald. Both project to being top-10 picks, with Clowney the smart money favorite to be the first pick overall.
After that, there's a gap in talent, but still a few defenders (both inside and out) who could excel in the pros. DT Ra'Shede Hageman is a bit of a puzzle, with stretches of dominance followed by gaps where he does little. Lightning-quick edge rusher Dee Ford has the chops to be a top pass rusher, but is he a complete player?
There are other solid performers such as DTs Louis Nix III and Timmy Jernigan, DEs Demarcus Lawrence and Kony Ealy and multi-technique Stephon Tuitt. They all have a chance to be regular contributors, and there are some high-motor edge rushers who could be available in Rounds 2 and 3. The strength of the group appears to be inside, with the tackles a much thinner crop.
Here are our top 10 defensive linemen for the 2014 NFL draft (not what order they will be drafted but how we think they ultimately will perform in the NFL):
Jadeveon Clowney (DE)
47 TFLs, 24 sacks, 9 forced fumbles in 36 games
Flash edge player with once- or twice-a-decade physical skills; still so young
Aaron Donald (DT)
63 tackles for loss in past 38 college games
Compact frame, first-step quickness compare to Geno Atkins, Jurrell Casey
Demarcus Lawrence (DE)
20 sacks, 7 forced fumbles in two seasons
Super-athletic, long-armed edge rusher who can get a little stronger
Ra'Shede Hageman (DT)
13 TFLs, eight batted passes, 3 blocked kicks in 2013
Massive, strapping physique, but his motor doesn't always run hot
Louis Nix III (DT)
50 tackles in 2012, which led all Irish DL
Massive nose shows dominance, but is he a two-down player?
Kony Ealy (DE-OLB)
Sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 3 TFLs in SEC title game
Quick-footed, long-armed edge rusher with room to improve
Stephon Tuitt (DT-DE)
12 sacks in 13 games in 2012
Can play inside, outside; looked far better when healthy in 2012
Timmy Jernigan (DT)
Only started 16 games; totaled 25.5 TFLs
Stout, strong interior player good vs. run, but must improve stamina
Scott Crichton (DE)
Beavers' all-time leader in forced fumbles (10)
Well-built, productive end must refine technique, develop pass-rush moves
Dominique Easley (DT)
Only played 14 games in 2012 and 2013 combined
Two torn ACLs in past 3 years; shown flashes of dominance when healthy
Connecticut DT Shamar Stephen
Stephen has the physique to play in the NFL and appears to the kind of player who can benefit from a year learning technique and what it takes to be a professional. Although he shows flashes of dominance, Stephen could stand to play with a little more grit and effort on a play-to-play basis. Stephen has the athleticism to do so, and he could end up being a nice wave player who is a bargain in Rounds 4 or 5.
Yes, he most certainly has played like a first-rounder at times, and his many fans have pointed out that he has played multiple techniques in both odd and even fronts, showing great penetration skills. But NFL teams are worried about his health (two torn ACLs, one in each knee, in past 18 months), his size and his desire to be great. Two teams Shutdown Corner spoke with said Easley did not interview well at the combine. When healthy, he has the chance to be a very good gap-splitting 4-3 "under" tackle. But he might not last a long time in the league.
SMALL SCHOOL WONDER
Bloomsburg DE Larry Webster
A raw pass rusher with a basketball player's physique, Webster is very much known in NFL circles, and he helped his cause with a strong combine effort. He played hoops at the school and put up good numbers — 11 points per game, 7 rebounds per game and a school-record 175 blocks — before switching to football. He's still raw and learning the game, but he has good roots (his father was an 11-year pro with the Dolphins, Browns, Ravens and Jets) and put up a whopping 26 sacks the past two seasons. Some teams even think Webster, who ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at 252 pounds at the combine, could play tight end in the NFL.
Arizona State DT Will Sutton
With 20.5 career sacks from an interior player, it's easy to see why an NFL team might be quite interested in Sutton. But he played too heavy — over 300 pounds — and out of shape as a senior and saw his play drop off dramatically. Sutton also was way too hot and cold at the Senior Bowl, and it's not clear if he ever can maintain a good body-fat percentage to be a productive pro. At one point, he was viewed as a potential first-rounder. Now? Third round is entirely possible.
After an injury-plagued senior season that knocked him out of the first-round discussion and a postseason surgery to repair a fracture in his left foot, Tuitt is back on the rise again. Although he was not able to work out at his pro day in March, Tuitt's recent workouts for teams have drawn rare reviews and have scouts going back to review his 2012 tape, when he was dominant and played like a future top-10 pick. Although Tuitt might not work his way back into the first round, his combination length, strength, wingspan, balance and versatility is going to make some team happy.
Oregon DT-DE Taylor Hart
Hart broke his left foot in January and missed out on a chance to build his stock this postseason. And though his statistics were modest in college, Hart showed stretches where he looked like a strong interior rotational player who could be a factor in 4-3 and 3-4 fronts. He played both end and tackle last season and was named the Ducks' co-defensive MVP and has the toughness, instincts and strength to fit in the NFL.
PLAYER WHO WILL GO UNDRAFTED BUT SHOULDN’T
Eastern Washington DE Anthony Larry
A handful of teams have worked out the intriguing but inconsistent Larry, who missed his junior year with academic problems and will need some coaching. But he shows the ability to chase down quarterbacks and close well, even if his base strength is in question. Larry has the athleticism to make it as a pass-rush and special-teams ace.
Donald to the New York Giants
Perry Fewell's scheme works best when its front four is twisting, stunting and splitting gaps with a read-and-react approach. Fewell prefers not to blitz when he has four players rushing effectively up front, and Donald would be the perfect spark as a three-technique to collapse offensive line interiors, as well as open things up outside for Jason Pierre-Paul.
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