Ranking The DEs
It is the position with both the surest thing in the 2014 NFL Draft and the most unsure things.
The best player available in the draft is a defensive end. Beyond Jadeveon Clowney, everything's a muddle.
Other prospects who were 4-3 ends in college project more as outside linebackers in the NFL. There are more tweeners in this pool than there are sure-fire guys at either position the masses are falling 'tween.
Some of the best 3-4 ends in college might be better as NFL defensive tackles, and some of the better college DTs project as top 3-4 DEs.
Sure, it happens every year. But it seems that virtually every prospect you consider as a potential defensive end comes with a caveat, making this the most enigmatic of positions in 2014.
1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (4-3): Aside from wide receiver, there isn't another position in the draft with a clear-cut No. 1 prospect. You can argue about the best quarterback available, the best safety, the best tackle. But there is no question outside of Dee Ford's mind (or mouth) that Clowney is the best defensive end available. He's the best defensive player available, probably the best player available at any position. There are questions about the consistency of his effort, but almost no doubt about his ability when Clowney's full-speed ahead. Even NFL tackles will find it difficult account for his first step and his ability to cross the face of his blocker in a blur.
2. Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota (3-4): Some see Hageman as one of the top three defensive tackle prospects in the draft. I see him as an even better 3-4 end, who can force offensive line coaches to use a tackle in protection against him. In truth, Hageman's best attribute is his versatility. The team that drafts him would be able to play hybrid fronts, slotting him as an end in odd fronts or slide him inside in four-man fronts.
3. Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame (3-4): Like Clowney, there's no question where Tuitt belongs. He's a classic five technique end, who has the length and the strength to take on left tackles. At Notre Dame, he showed some versatility, and he potentially could move to tackle on passing downs as he did show a knack for getting to the quarterback (21.5 career sacks). But Tuitt's greatest contributions will not be as a pass rusher. He'll secure the edge and keep tackles off his outside backer, which he's perfectly suited to do.
4. Dee Ford, Auburn (4-3): I have Ford here for now, but I've said all along that he's likely to end up as a rush linebacker. That would be a bit of a shame, because his quickness is his best attribute. He has such a blazing first step, he's able to win battles against far bigger tackles consistently. If he plays off the ball, that first step won't be as big a factor in his pass rush; tackles will have time to set for him. Even Ford, apparently, sees himself as a linebacker. She weighed 244 pounds at his pro day, which would be way too light to play end in the NFL against tackles 65 pounds heaiver. I can see Ford getting some reps at end in passing situations, and I think he's a better prospect playing with his hand on the ground. Still, he appears destined for a switch to outside backer.
5. Kony Ealy, Missouri (4-3): Unlike Ford and his Missouri teammate Michael Sam, Ealy is more a prototypical 4-3 defensive end. He's 6-foot-4, 273 pounds, and could probably add a little muscle to his long, lean frame. In fact, he probably needs to, as he's not demonstrated much potential to bull rush a 300-pound tackle. Ealy's athletic and smooth in his pass rush moves, so much so that teams focused so much on him -- especially in the early going of the 2013 season -- that opportunities were created for Michael Sam to rack up sacks.
6. Scott Crichton, Oregon State (4-3): Crichton has the size (6-3, 273) to line up every down as a 4-3 end. He's strong and physical, but he's likely never going to develop into a double-digit sack guy. His best fit as at left defensive end -- especially considering his tough, stout play against the run -- and those ends comes off the board far later than the ones who are going to apply heat on the quarterback.
7. Kareem Martin, North Carolina (4-3): Another prospect that seems not to fit anywhere. His pass rush repertoire is still too raw, so he's not really a right end in a 4-3. He has the size (6-6. 272) and lower-body explosiveness (as shown by his 10 foot-7 inch broad jump at the Combine) to play left end in a 4-3, but he seems to disappear on tape, taken out of the play too often by tackles or even tight ends. And he's probably too slight to play end in a 3-4. He may have the most upside of anyone in the second tier of end prospects. But Martin will need to find where he's a good fit and be lucky enough to work with a coach who can develop him at that spot.
8. Chris Smith, Arkansas (4-3): Everything I've said about virtually everyone else on this list applies to Smith, maybe most of all. At 6-1, he's the shortest defensive end prospect on the board. He has the explosiveness teams want in a 4-3 end, but that lack of ideal length is not going to be easy to overlook. He played some linebacker at Arkansas, and he plays with energy and aggressiveness. That may be where he ultimately winds up. As a rookie, though, I suspect he'll be viewed and used as a situational pass rusher. If he wants to expand his role beyond that, he'll need to develop something other than a flat-out speed rush, which will be easily negated at the next level.
9. Ed Stinson, Alabama (3-4): Stinson is the classic solid but unspectacular prospect. He does what he does well -- he uses his hands well, keeps blockers off him, makes plays against the run to his inside and on the corner. But when you watch him on tape, you rarely see anything remarkable. There's a certain amount of unselfishness and commitment to doing the grunt work that is part of the job description of a 3-4 defensive end. Stinson looks like the kind of prospect who would have no problem playing that unglamorous role.
10. DeMarcus Lawrence, Boise State (4-3): Tweener alert. Lawrence (6-3, 251) lacks the bulk to tangle with a tackle for 70 snaps. And he hasn't shown the athleticism to do everything he'd be asked to do as a linebacker. He's a less-polished, less-quick version of Ford. He may wind up being limited to a situational rotation player.