2014 NFL Draft: Defensive Player Rankings

ESPN Insider/Getty Images
ESPN Insider/Getty Images

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part four of five in my NFL Draft series, leading up to the draft on May 8. Each Wednesday I’ll post a new NFL Draft related post. In case you missed it, here’s last week’s post: my Offensive Player Rankings, two weeks ago I posted my NFL Mock Draft 6.0: The Penultimate Mock and three weeks ago I posted my NFL Mock Draft 5.0: Scenario Mock. Over the next two weeks I’ll be posting my defensive player rankings and my final NFL Mock Draft.

T-15 days and counting. We are a little more than two weeks away from the NFL Draft. A day where franchises are made and stars are born.

From the number one overall pick, to the last pick, nicknamed Mr. Irrelevant, college prospects will find out who their new teams will be.

With my offensive player rankings out last week, it is time for the rankings on the other side of the ball.

Who’s the best Inside Linebacker? Is Ohio State’s Bradley Roby a better cornerback than TCU’s Jason Verrett? Is Jadeveon Clowney the best defensive prospect in years?

Teams are answering these questions in preparation for the big day, so that when they are on the clock, they can decide who to select, based on their rankings.

For the sake of time and clarity, I’m only ranking those prospects who I give a first-round grade, meaning the prospects that I think have first round talent.

Defensive End

  1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: Clowney is a rare prospect, one that comes along only a few times every decade. He has an incredibly rare combination of size, explosiveness, strength, speed and technique. Clowney ran a 4.53 40 yard dash, faster than many receivers, and is a force off the edge. With 27.0 sacks and 47.0 tackles for a loss at South Carolina, Clowney will start in the NFL from day one. And Clowney is versatile, not only a great pass rusher, but also great against the run with excellent quickness and speed, having forced eight fumbles with the Gamecocks. While Clowney is an excellent prospect, he could struggle to match these unrealistic expectations, and at times during his collegiate career, disappeared for stretches, leading to questions about his conditioning. All-in-all though, Clowney is a rare prospect, and should be an elite pass rusher at the next level. Projection: Early First Round.
  2. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri: Ealy is an extremely athletic and quick defensive end, who had 8.0 sacks and 14.0 tackles for a loss this past year at Missouri. Quick off the edge, Ealy has the versatility to be both a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 rush outside linebacker. At Missouri, Ealy lined up all over the front seven. Ealy is able to use his quickness off the edge to get to quarterbacks and force turnovers, evidenced by 3 forced fumbles and 6 passes defended his junior year at Missouri. If transitioned to outside linebacker, Ealy would need to improve his coverage skills, which are lacking. Ealy has drawn some comparisons to Rams defensive end Robert Quinn, and if he can continue to develop, Ealy could be a pro-bowl pass rusher. Projection: Late First Round.
  3. Second Round Grades:
    • Dee Ford, DE, Auburn.
    • Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame.

Defensive Tackle

  1. Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh: If Donald was a few inches taller, some scouts have said he’d be in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick with Clowney and Khalil Mack. Donald, 6’1” and 285 pounds, is a bit undersized for a defensive tackle, but he is a monster, routinely beating offensive lineman to get into the backfield for sacks and tackles for a loss. His senior year at Pittsburgh, Donald had 11.0 sacks and 28.5 tackles for a loss to lead the NCAA. Donald has great burst and quickness that makes him an excellent interior rusher, and has drawn comparisons from scouts to Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins and Hall of Famer John Randle. Projection: Early First Round.
  2. Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame: At 6’2” and 331 pounds, Nix is a large man, but carries his weight very well for his size. A prototypical 3-4 defensive tackle, Nix is excellent at stuffing the gap and stopping the rush, but also has the quickness and  pass rush abilities to apply some pressure on the quarterback. Coming off knee surgery, Nix has some injury concerns and also had trouble handling double teams this past year after a breakout season during Notre Dame’s championship run. With 14.0 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks, Nix can be a force in the middle. Projection: Mid to Late First Round.
  3. Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State: With 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss this past year for Florida State, Jernigan was a big reason why the Seminoles won the BCS National Championship game. At 6’2” and 299 pounds, Jernigan is still light on his feet and has good technique to shed blocks and get to the quarterback or running back, evidenced by 63 tackles his junior year. He needs to improve his snap anticipation, many times he was the last Florida State defensive lineman to react to the snap. But very athletic and powerful, Jernigan will continue to improve after being drafted having not reached his full potential yet. Projection: Mid to Late First Round.
  4. Ra’Shede Hagemen, DT, Minnesota: An imposing player at 6’6” and 310 pounds, Hagemen displays great burst and strength at the defensive tackle position, pushing blockers off their block and quickly getting into the pocket. With 13.0 tackles for a loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles his senior year with the Golden Gophers, Hageman showed great versatility, lining up all over Minnesota’s defensive line. Hageman has trouble locating the ball at times and will need to improve his awareness at the next level. Projection: Mid to Late First Round.
  5. Second Round Grades:
    • Dominique Easley, DT, Florida.
    • Daquan Jones, DT, Penn State.

Outside Linebacker

  1. Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo: If Jadeveon Clowney is the No. 1 defensive prospect in the draft, Khalil Mack is No. 1A. At 6’3” and 251 pounds, Mack has great build and has the experience as a four-year starter at Buffalo. With 10.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss his senior year, along with 16 career forced fumbles, a FBS record, Mack is a force off the edge, with the ability to shed blocks and quickly get to the quarterback. A physical player, Mack is great in pursuit and while he lacks the ideal coverage skills for an outside linebacker, still had three interceptions and seven passes defended his senior year. Mack has room to improve and while he played against inferior competition, Mack dominated against Ohio State, proving he is indeed one of the best defensive players in the draft. Projection: Early First Round.
  2. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA: At 6’5” and 255 pounds, Barr has great size and athleticism and with his long arms, has great burst and speed which make him tough to block. A great bull rusher, Barr accumulated 23.5 sacks and 41.5 tackles for a loss the past two seasons at UCLA. Barr has great balance and acceleration, and the ability to force lineman to commit holding penalties because of his relentless motor and ability to shed blocks. Still very raw and developing as a run defender, scouts are comparing Barr to Demarcus Ware, if Barr can improve his run defense and quickly adjust to the NFL. ProjectionEarly to Mid First Round.
  3. Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State: Shazier is a linebacker with good range and solid as both a pass rusher and against the run. Good off the edge, Shazier has good vision and awareness on the field and is an excellent tackler, accumulating 144 total tackles along with 23.5 tackles for a loss his senior year. A smart player, Shazier is relentless and quickly finds and pursues the ball. Versatile enough to rush the passer or drop back into coverage, Shazier was one of the most productive linebackers in the nation. But at 6’1” and 237 pounds, Shazier lacks elite size and can sometimes lack discipline. He also has been bothered by some minor injuries through the years which kept him on the sidelines for a few games. Projection: Late First Round.
  4. Second Round Grades:
    • Demarcus Lawrence, OLB, Boise State.
    • Jerry Attaochu, OLB, Georgia Tech.

Inside Linebacker

  1. C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama: With great instincts and toughness, Mosley is one of the best linebackers in this year’s draft class. As a product of Nick Saban’s great Alabama defenses, Mosley has a high football IQ and is ready for the NFL game. A very smart player, Mosley is athletic enough to line up at any linebacker position, inside or outside. At times, Mosley will lack fundamental tackling skills, but usually is able to move through a crowd well and make the tackle. ProjectionMid First Round.
  2. Second Round Grade:
    • Chris Borland, ILB, Wisconsin.

Cornerback

  1. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State: A first team All-American and the winner of the Jim Thorpe award, given to the nation’s top cornerback, Dennard is a great, physical corner who helped lead the Spartans to the Rose Bowl. Very good awareness and ball skills, showing the ability to rip the ball away from the receiver even after the catch. Also good against the run, Dennard had 10 passes defended and four interceptions his senior year with the Spartans. Good acceleration and a great tackler, Dennard didn’t face the most vaunted defenses in the Big Ten, leading to questions as the Spartans front seven also helped improve the Spartan’s secondary play. Even though he’s not the greatest athlete, Dennard should be a good, physical man to man corner at the next level. ProjectionEarly to Mid First Round.
  2. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State: The most athletic corner in the draft class, Gilbert had seven interceptions and seven passes defended this past year at Oklahoma State, including two returned for touchdowns. The prototypical size for an NFL corner, Gilbert has good acceleration and change of pace allowing him to handle down field coverage against speedy receivers. A good tackler, Gilbert can be forced into penalties and will bite on pump fakes. His inconsistent technique and footwork will need to be improved at the next level, but has great athleticism that can’t be taught. Prediction: Early to Mid First Round.
  3. Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech: A physical corner with great awareness and route recognition, Fuller has excellent anticipation and is able to jump receivers’ routes and make a play. A physical corner, Fuller has great instincts and is opportunistic, which can hurt him at times as he can over pursue and be over aggressive. A good blitzer and against the run, Fuller had six interceptions and 32 passes defended in his career at Virginia Tech. He has some durability concerns as his senior season was cut short due to hernia surgery and at times, he can be undisciplined. One of his best games last year was against Alabama and A.J. McCarron, a projected second round pick, in which he had one interception and two passes defended. Projection: Mid to Late First Round.
  4. Jason Verrett, CB, Texas Christian University: At 5’10” and 189 pounds, Verrett doesn’t have the prototypical height of NFL corners, but tends to make up for it in other areas. Verrett has great cover instincts and good ball skills to read and react to quarterbacks and receivers. With nine interceptions and 41 passes defended over three years at TCU, Verrett is a productive and smart corner who has the ability to take on opposing wideouts in man to man coverage. A bit small, Verrett could use improvement in his tackling and needs to eliminate mental mistakes in his game. Verrett has some durability concerns, but with room to improve, Verrett should be a solid corner in the NFL. Projection: Late First Round.
  5. Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State: Roby has great speed that allows him to play tight coverage with receivers all across the field. He’s an aggressive player, who will fight for the ball and try to make plays against both the pass and the run. With eight interceptions and 41 passes defended over three years at Ohio State, Roby was a productive player, but tended to struggle this pass year against weaker competition and missed time due to injury. At 5’11” and 194 pounds, Roby lacks the ideal size for the position and may have trouble guarding bigger and faster NFL receivers. A cornerback with great potential, Roby will continue to improve in the NFL with the possibility of being a No. 1 corner down the road. Projection: Late First Round.
  6. Second Round Grades:
    • Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, Nebraska.
    • Lamarcus Joyner, CB, Florida State.

Safety

  1. Ha Ha Clinton Dix, S, Alabama: At 6’1” and 208 pounds, Clinton Dix is a very athletic and physical defender with the speed and versatility to handle differing coverages. Coming from Nick Saban’s pro-style defense at Alabama, Clinton Dix will experience a seamless transition to the NFL. With very good awareness and ball skills, Clinton Dix can quickly figure out the offense and make a play on the ball. A very aggressive player, Clinton Dix can at times be too aggressive, forcing himself into mistakes. Clinton Dix will continue to improve and could one day be an All-Pro safety, similar to Seahawks safety Earl Thomas. Projection: Early to Mid First Round.
  2. Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville: Prototypical size for a safety at 5’11” and 207 pounds, Pryor is an explosive player capable of making open field tackles in both coverage and run support. In the mold of Giants safety Antrel Rolle, Pryor has great vision and is an excellent, physical tackler. He has good ball skills as well, evidenced by seven interceptions and 18 passes defended over three years at Louisville. At times he can be too aggressive of a tackler, drawing penalties, and can be beaten by double moves. Projection: Mid to Late First Round.
  3. Second Round Grades:
    • Jimmie Ward, S, Northern Illinois.
    • Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State.

 

 

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