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Ranking The Defensive Tackles

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Few players have seen a surge in their draft stock more than Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who may wind up a top-10 talent on draft boards across the league. Photo by David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images.
Few players have seen a surge in their draft stock more than Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who may wind up a top-10 talent on draft boards across the league. Photo by David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images.

Defensive tackle isn't exactly the glamour position of an NFL defense. 

Sure, every once in a while, you get a star (like Warren Sapp, who went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer) or a Star (like Lotulelei, who was the 14th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft). But for the most part, you're talking about some of the biggest players in the game who wind up getting lost in the middle of it all.

If you want an indication of how important it is to find top tackles, consider that in the past five drafts, 17 different teams have spent a first-round pick on a defensive tackle. Twenty-six of the 32 teams have spent either a first or a second on an interior defensive lineman in the last five drafts.

In 2010, five defensive tackles went in the first round. There haven't been five running backs taken in the first round of the last three drafts combined.

Clearly, teams recognize the value of the big men in the middle. Here are the top 10 interior D-Linemen in the 2014 draft -- as many as four of whom could go in the first round, with one being a potential top-10 prospect:

1. Aaron Donald, Pitt (DT): I begin this observation with an apology. I was late to the dance on Aaron Donald. All season long, I dismissed his pro prospects because of his lack of prototype size. There wasn't a defensive tackle drafted last year smaller than Everett Dawkins (6-foot-2, 292 pounds), and Donald is smaller and lighter than Dawkins, who is already on his third team less than one year into his career. I have to admit, I was wrong about Donald. In every game I've watched of his, he looks like he's operating in a different gear than everyone around him. He draws your eye with his burst off the ball, and he understands how to use pad level leverage to maximize every bit of his 6-1, 285-pound frame. He had a dynamite 2013 season, looked superior against every lineman he faced in the Senior Bowl drills, then absolutely crushed the Combine (his 4.68-second 40-yard dash was fifth-best among all defensive linemen, his 35 bench press reps second, and his 7.11 three-cone drill fourth fastest.) His height and length are less than ideal; everything else about his game has the chance to be exceptional.

2. Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota (DT): Some skeptics see an underachiever who took plays off for an underrated Minnesota defense. I see a guy who has the versatility to contribute regardless of scheme -- a prospect, in fact, who can turn a one-dimensional base defense into a hybrid. Hageman has the size (6-6, 310) to line up on the nose, the quickness to be effective penetrating from the 3 technique, and the discipline to hold the edge as a 3-4 defensive end (he's probably the best 3-4 DE prospect in the draft). His long arms give him a chance to keep blockers at bay and swat down passes at the line, whether he's on the inside or on the edge of the formation.

3. Louis Nix III, Notre Dame (NT): The self-proclaimed Irish Chocolate is 6-2, 331, with an even bigger personality. He has prototype nose tackle size, with atypical quickness. In fact, if he bounces back as expected from the knee injury that shortened his 2013 season, he'll show the kind of quickness that could enable him to play some 3 technique tackle. He won't, of course. Nix will be lined up as a 0 or 1 technique, commanding double teams and still finding a way to make plays. In 2012, he had 50 tackles -- and a sizable number of those were outside the tackles or downfield. His motor matches his persona -- full-speed, all the time.

4. Timmy Jernigan, Florida State (DT): He's similar stylistically to Donald, but doesn't have the same upside. He's bigger but not as quick, productive but not as disruptive, strong at the point of attack but not dominating. I realize this sounds like a knock, but it's not. Donald has emerged as a top-5 defender in this draft; Jernigan is a late first-round talent who will be stout against the run game and could have some success pressuring the quarterback.

5. Dominique Easley, Florida (DT): Easley's biggest asset was his quickness, which makes it entirely reasonable for NFL teams to be skeptical about a return to form after a second ACL injury. When he was healthy, Easley was difficult to neutralize. He never let his blockers approach him the same way two plays in a row. He would use a variety of moves on his man, winning with great burst one play, and by smoothly crossing the face of the guy across from him the next. The threat of his speed rush set up Easley to maximize his power, helping negate any size disadvantage he'd face as a 6-2, 288-pound interior lineman.

6. Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina (DT): Quarles was the primary beneficiary of all the attention offensive coordinators paid to addressing Jadeveon Clowney. More the teams slid protection to Clowney, the more Quarles made them pay; he finished this season with 9.5 sacks. That's not to suggest he didn't earn his pelts; Quarles has a pretty impressive burst and has decent lateral quickness for a near-300-pounder which will help him penetrate at the next level. He's a notch below the top 3 technique tackles in the field, but he'll get some attention in the latter stages of Day Two.

7. DaQuan Jones, Penn State (NT): It's tough to decide where Jones fits best. He's big, bulky (6-4, 322) and occasionally assertive, though not enough to convince anyone he's an every-down tackle. He doesn't have much of a pass rush repertoire beyond an inconsistent bull rush. Still, his size, strong arms and quick hands will entice some team into taking a chance to find where he fits best.

8. Daniel McCullers, Tennessee (NT): The biggest man in the draft pool, McCullers (6-foot-7, 353 pounds) wasn't the impact player in college that he has the potential to be in the NFL. He lost a bunch of weight (he was around 400 pounds coming out of high school) and is about as solidly built as a 350-pounder can be. McCullers will never be quick like Nix, but he can have two-gap responsiibilities and command double-teams from the middle of an odd front. The key for him will be conditioning and stamina; the better shape he's in, the more he'll be able to contribute toward traffic congestion in the middle of the line.

9. Will Sutton, Arizona State (DT): Sutton's story really is a tale of the tape. Heading into the 2012 season, he was listed in the Arizona State media guide at 6-2, 271. After a ridiculously productive season for a defensive tackle (13 sacks, 23.5 TFL), Sutton was listed in the 2013 spring prospectus at 6-1, 288. By opening day, he was 6-1, 305. There is no question that the quickness that made Sutton so special two years ago was compromised by his dramatic weight gain. He sacrificed mph for lbs, and now Sutton isn't nearly the 3 technique prospect he seemed destined to be. If an NFL training staff can get him back down to the 290-pound range, Sutton may again become as disruptive an interior presence as Donald or Jernigan. If not, he'll be too big and sluggish to be an effective 4-3 tackle and way too small to play nose.

10. Ego Ferguson, LSU (DT): Ferguson came into the 2013 season as the second-best defensive tackle on LSU's roster. Anthony Johnson had a largely unmemorable season, giving Ferguson the opportunity to surpass him. I'm not sure either one is high on any NFL team's list, though Ferguson might have the edge because of his versatility. At 6-3, 315, he could fit into a variety of spots in a variety of schemes. His most natural fit might be as a 3 technique, and he'd be the biggest in the draft. Ferguson has only one season as a starter on his resume; teams are going to have to be patient with his development.