Rating the defensive ends

Pass rushers are at a premium in the NFL evidenced by the fact that Mario Williams went into last year's combine as a potential Top-10 pick yet eventually became the top overall selection.

Three defensive ends came off the board in the first 20 choices last year, while eight were taken on the first day. Today's game has altered how teams look at this position as 4-3 teams are still in search of full-sized ends to play on the strong side and edge rushers to provide pressure on the opposite end. Meanwhile, 3-4 schemed franchises are looking to convert undersized pass rushers into outside linebackers or standup rushers.

As a result of the demand and versatility, this year's first round could feature as many as eight total defensive ends being taken within the top 32 selections.

The top names that are most likely to follow our current Top-5 rated prospects include Purdue DE/OLB Anthony Spencer, Nebraska DE/OLB Jay Moore and Hawaii's Ikaika Alama-Francis or Notre Dame's Victor Abiamiri.

DE SLEEPERS

Brian Robison, Texas
Gregory Peterson, North Carolina Central
Jeffrey Nweke, Fort Valley State

TOP DEFENSIVE ENDS

1. Jamaal Anderson, Arkansas. Offers great size (6-foot-5½, 302 pounds), natural strength and pass-rush ability thanks to a quick first step, long arms and combination of moves that wreaked havoc on SEC opponents.

Moved to left end after playing on the right side earlier in his career, Anderson has the ability to defeat blockers as a bull rusher, but will get high off the snap and can be ridden out of the play sometimes. He needs to do a better job of using his hands to get off the block, but his improved instincts and reaction off the snap helped increase his production and value this past season. He tends to lack suddenness off the ball, which keeps him from being able to provide more pressure when he shades to the outside of the tackle's shoulder, yet his long arms allow him to evade blockers that fail to sustain initial contact.

He did very well when used on stunts or twists, coming underneath several times to invade the pocket, and works to get better while displaying the ability to be effective in a variety or roles. He can dominate the line of scrimmage and is very agile for his size. He makes an equal number of plays behind the line of scrimmage or when chasing down the play from the backside and flashes a true nasty streak. However, at times, it seems like he needs to take that first punch or get pan-caked in order to bring it out of him.

Some evaluators say he can develop into a Richard Seymour-type pro, while others suggest he has the potential to be a double-digit sack dominant force along the lines of Michael Strahan. Above-average workout numbers could result in him becoming a Top-5 choice come April.

2. Gaines Adams, Clemson. The premier outside pass rusher available in this year's draft, Adams is able to create instant havoc as an attacking up-field defender and at times last season showed signs of becoming more of an all-around player. He uses his long arms (34½”) to escape initial blocks and sets up most linemen with a variety moves when they back into a deeper stance.

Adams gets engulfed at times on sweeps or pitches to his side because he lacks lower body weight. However, he makes plays down the line in pursuit and is athletic enough to create turnovers by either tipping the ball at the line of scrimmage or stripping them from the ball carrier while attempting to make the tackle. He plays his best when he displays a nasty streak, but will lean too much on his athleticism at times and fails to finish the play.

It is likely that several 3-4 scheme teams will ask to work him out at OLB, but I would not feel comfortable moving him off the line of scrimmage as it would make him more of read-and-react defender and strip him of the first step and burst he currently shows off the snap. His pass rush skills will be hard to overlook on draft day, especially since there is a lack of ideal depth to this class at the position. In fact, his college head coach once compared his skill level to that of former premier NFL pass rusher Derrick Thomas.

3. Adam Carriker, Nebraska. High-rising talent that opted to return for his senior campaign and after a slow start during the season, it has paid dividends. His combination of size (nearly 6-foot-6, 285-290 pounds) and strength made him an even more valued prospect coming away from the Senior Bowl practices as teams now feel that he can line up in a variety of roles, including 4-3 RDE, 3-4 DE and inside at the under-tackle position.

Carriker dominates the line of scrimmage with his upper body strength and capacity to collapse the pocket as a bull rusher. He works best when lined up over or inside an opposing blocker as he lacks the sudden quickness to be consistently effective as an edge rusher. He plays with great intensity, is very smart on the field, holds contain and is rarely put out of position. He can be a little stiff at times, but is able to anchor his side of the line on most downs and creates separation from blockers by using his long arms.

He will be a very good long-term addition to a locker room because he brings maturity and a team-oriented sense about him. His ability to play throughout the line and his impressive wins in 1-on-1 battles in Mobile, Ala., have pushed him up towards the top-half of the first round. He is clearly the top-rated defensive end for a 3-4 scheme team or ones that would like to install a version of that into their defensive philosophy.

4. Charles Johnson, Georgia. He is a little shorter than ideal, but has long arms (33”) that help him more than compensate for the fact that he is not 6-3 or 6-4. He plays with great strength and leverage at the point of attack, and is able to locate the ball/play quickly. He gets up field, but knows when to hold his ground on contain and has the motor to make plays in pursuit.

Johnson struggles at times to get off blocks if his initial move does not work, so he needs to work harder at the point of attack and stop being so much of an arm tackler. He stays low and fires off the ball, but does best when shaded on the outside or even inside shoulder as he lacks the bulk and power to disengage off bigger opponents when lined head-up.

He's a much better fit for a 4-3 scheme team as he lacks the size and lower body strength to consistently handle the alignment of a 3-4 DE and figures to be a 12th-20th pick of the first round.

5. Jarvis Moss, Florida. Young, talented pass rusher with rare tools, but also still a work-in-progress in terms of being an all-around defender. Moss has fought back from the brink of being out of football because of an extended battle to cure a staph infection, but it may still have some lingering effects in terms of keeping his weight up throughout a full 16-game schedule.

Moss works best when he is lined up outside and used purely as an edge rusher as he can be engulfed at the point of attack. He struggles on run plays to his side, but could get better by using his arms and helping to extend the play out for himself or others to make the tackle. He gets too tall off the line at times, giving away his body, and lacks the frame to ever carry much more than 260 pounds.

Teams that utilize the 3-4 look at him as a conversion to OLB, but he is likely to get drafted higher than this rating because he will entice a team with his athleticism and upside as a pass rusher.