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21

Defending the Edge

by DJ Boyer on Apr. 21, 2014

It’s so important for an NFL Team to get pressure on the opposing quarterback. It helps keeps your defense fresh and off the field, and it aids the secondary in assuring they don’t have to cover receivers for long amounts of time or break free when a play breaks down. Defensive End remains the spot on defense that arguably comes with the most glamour and notoriety.

 

The Top Prospects

 

Jadeveon Clowney is the top prospect in this draft and he has held that position all season long. Had Clowney been eligible for the draft last season there is a good chance he may have been the #1 overall pick. Clowney may not be the choice of the Houston Texans at #1 overall but he seems to have put to rest the notion that he cannot transition to outside linebacker, where he would certainly play if selected by the Texans or a team in a 3-4 set for that matter. Everyone has heard about the work ethic or lack thereof and it even seems to have been confirmed by his college coach Steve Spurrier. There will be some risk with the team that selects Clowney but we haven’t see this type of ability or grade handed to a defensive end since Mario Williams, and interestingly enough that was the last time the Texans held the #1 pick overall. Clowney will make an immediate impact even if he only plays 70% of the plays at full speed.

 

Kony Ealy was second on the team at Missouri in many stats on defense, second to SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam. Ealy projects as a better pro player as he has better size, ability and quickness. Ealy should be selected in the 1st round and he could go anywhere from #12-#31 overall. What stands out most about Ealy is his play recognition skills as he is more than just a pass rusher. Ealy is a sure tackler who shows a nice blend of size and quickness without being guilty of overpursuit or losing his lane assignment. Ealy will be a coveted player on a number of boards but may not be the ultimate choice for these teams and wind up sliding a little further than many project. He could slide to the end of the 1st round but Denver and Seattle would not let him fall to round two if he is still available at the time.

 

Dee Ford is the player whose stock was affected more than any other player due to his Senior Bowl performance. Ford is built like a linebacker but if he is asked to be a linebacker at the Pro level he will need time to develop his game as he has strictly been asked to get to the quarterback from the front of the line. Ford was the heart and soul of the Auburn defense and finished second in the SEC with 10.5 quarterback sacks. The number is very impressive when you factor in Auburn led the conference in time of possession, so he wasn’t on the field as often as many of his conference peers. Ford is always looking to create the turnover whether it is stripping the ball from a runner or knocking the ball free from the quarterback, He has a knack for being in the middle of turnovers or highly disruptive plays. Ford should be very successful at the pro level but may be viewed only as a pass rushing specialist right out of the box.

 

Trent Murphy on paper looks like a sure fire 1st round pick, as he led the nation in sacks with 15 as a senior. At 6’6” and 250 pounds, Murphy is a bit of a tweener, as some teams view him as more of an outside linebacker. He doesn’t have the explosive speed off the edge but has shown he can stay with players coming out of the backfield in coverage. Plays more like a defensive end as he is strong at the point of attack and holds up well to opposing linemen. Some teams fear he may not have a natural position and it will likely cause Murphy to fall into the 2nd round where he will likely go during the early to middle stages.

 

Second Tier

 

Scott Crichton is held in high regard by many teams on the clock due to the fact that he may be the best pure run defender of the top defensive ends available. Crichton has posted a total of 16.5 sacks over the last two seasons so he can definitely pressure the quarterback, but he also holds his lanes well and has a nice wingspan with strong arms and hands that can stop ball carriers dead in their tracks. Crichton run-stopping ability makes him a candidate for a 4-3 front or 3-4 front, as he could add a little weight and still be an effective DE. He might be a little limited athletically but he has a pro ready physique and has always displayed a high football IQ during his tenure at Oregon State. He's very reminiscent of a poor man's Chris Long.

 

James Gayle is another player who is sort of a tweener and could be used as an outside linebacker depending upon the team that selects him. Gayle is a very streaky player. There are games when you watch Gayle and forget he is on the field and others where he looks unblockable and is a real game changer. The production could match the advertised athleticism at some point and be a huge payoff for a team. Gayle hurt his stock a bit at the Senior Bowl where his lack of upper body strength seemed to cost him dearly against the offensive lineman he was up against. Gayle should be selected in the 3rd or 4th round of the draft but some of that has more to do with potential rather than production.

 

Kareem Martin has seen his stock go all over the radar this season as he started as a 1st round prospect and then dipped into the 4th-6th round range. Martin looked sluggish and disinterested early in the season before putting it together with a late season flourish that saw him among the nation's leaders in sacks and tackles for loss in the back half of the season. Martin has entrenched himself as a solid 2nd round prospect, but he could drop into the 3rd round. Martin has the size and the athletic ability to keep up with any end in this class not named Jadeveon Clowney.  He has a history of playing through some injuries so his toughness and durability should not be questioned. He will lose lane assignments though and spends a lot of time overpursuing plays, something that will need to be rectified at the next level.

 

Chris Smith saw his stock skyrocket in the beginning of the season as he was among the leaders in sacks for the SEC and the country, but he cooled down after the hot start. Smith still wound up making the All-SEC team and registering 8.5 sacks on the season. He is seen as an outside linebacker by some due to his 6’1” frame but his coverage skills are lacking and defensive end seems to be the best position for him. Being smaller in stature looks like it will mean Smith might not be an every down lineman, but rather a pass rushing specialist who could play linebacker in a 3-4 set. A tireless worker with a vast array of moves, Smith is far from being a one-trick pony and does have the attention of many NFL teams. His Senior Bowl was up and down so the overall lackluster performance hurt his stock a bit, and he should go somewhere in rounds 3-5.

 

Marcus Smith is not going to leave you with your jaw agape when you watch the highlight tapes. He does not have impressive straight line speed and he doesn’t overwhelm opponents at the point of attack. What Smith does do though, is line up nearly anywhere on the football field and deliver. He plays with a high football intelligence and seems to know just what the play calls for, showing no signs of indecisiveness despite lining up at multiple positions along the right and left side of the formation. When dropping into coverage or pursuing across the field, he is in the thick of the play and will make the correct call on pursuit angles nearly every time. The versatility of Smith will have him selected by the 3rd round, or maybe even sooner.

 

Ed Stinson doesn’t have the eye-popping numbers or sack totals that certain teams look for. Yet Stinson played at Alabama, the nation's top defense for 2013 and was a leader even when on the sideline and not in the game due to the endless rotations Alabama went to with their defensive front in 2013. Stinson is the George Foreman of college football, whereas sometimes it looks like he isn’t doing a whole lot but he always is. He seems to make lanes for others to shoot through or engage multiple blockers when asked so that a teammate can take advantage of a mismatch or create one. The unselfishness of Stinson could have him selected by the 2nd round but he needs to go into the right system, since Stinson’s style of play will not be a fit for every team in the league. He has the size to be a 3-4 end but he has the motor and awareness to be comfortable in a 4-3, or even slide inside on occasion with his penetration ability and run defending.  The ability shown by Stinson may be just the tip of the iceberg since this was the first year he was a full time starter at Alabama. This speaks to how deep the Crimson Tide are and how prepared Stinson was, as we have seen him be a suitable backup in the past.

 

Lurking

 

Will Clarke has kind of come out of nowhere this season. He was thought of as a fringe prospect and someone who had the attention of scouts but even being drafted was not a sure thing. Clarke seemed to flourish this season and got better and better every week showing a nice mixture of strength blended with technique and finesse. He seems to be catching on a bit late but you get the feeling that big things are coming for Clarke and his game is just starting to take shape. He has a true defensive end body but he does need to work on his conditioning. There were noticeable lapses in games as the game wore on or on longer drives when he looked more winded then he should have been. Clarke seems to prey on opponent's weaknesses and will set up players in order to expose a flaw during crucial moments of a game. He looks like a 4th round prospect but he is a gem that could turn out to be a mid-round steal in May.

 

Taylor Hart is the most accomplished run-stuffer at defensive end outside of Scott Crichton. Despite being larger in size and being built like a true defensive end there are a number of teams who have asked Hart how he would feel about playing outside linebacker or seeing him line up there as he did on occasion at Oregon. He plays well in space and in pursuit, provides tight screen coverage, and shows above-average play recognition skills. Hart’s athleticism is especially impressive when you consider that in about 15% of the plays in which he was lined up on the field, he actually played along the interior at defensive tackle. He should be taken by the 4th round as he shows terrific ability but finding a true position for Hart may be hard.

 

Demarcus Lawrence is a player leaving after his junior season after leading the Mountain West Conference with 20.5 tackles for loss during 2013. Lawrence would benefit from another year in school and some added strength to his upper body, but he has started to rise up the draft boards to where a 3rd round pick is possible, if not even the 2nd round. Lawrence is a bit one-dimensional, offering terrific upside as a pass rusher with a fantastic burst off the line of scrimmage, but run defense is spotty and there are stretches where Lawrence seems to disappear on film. When he has a ball carrier wrapped up or close to him the deal is sealed, as few escape his grasp when nearing a tackle. Lawrence may spend time floating between defensive end and linebacker or he may be asked to play linebacker full time if in a 3-4 alignment.

 

Cassius Marsh is a hot and cold type of prospect. On the cold front, he is a player that seemed to hurt himself with his measurables at the Combine and his production on the field is erratic. Yet Marsh can play inside or outside, and with teams usually trying to steer clear of Anthony Barr on the other side of the field, the opportunities for Marsh to shine were there. The best bet for Marsh might be to go to a team that could bring him along very slowly or even place him on the practice squad for a season to work with him in a defined role within the new defense where he will be going. Marsh played through a number of injuries and he has a massive wingspan.

 

Ethan Westbrooks is a small school player who won the Ron Lenz Division II Defensive Player of the Year Award as he posted 19.5 sacks, coming within 1 of the NCAA Division II record. Not only did Westbrooks clean up against small programs but the hype seems to have extended into major college football as Westbrooks was flat out dominant at the East-West Shrine game and nearly earned a Senior Bowl invitation. Westbrooks shows patience and this allows him to stay at home and make plays when he knows teams are running to his side of the football. If Westbrooks can be as dominant in camp, he could be a steal and contribute right out of the gate for his new team.