Draft top 5: Defensive Ends

If a club is looking for a pass rusher in the 2014 Draft, there are a number of them available. The problem is that many are “tweeners”, too small to play DE in a four man front and they don’t have the pass coverage experience to be counted on to be more than just a pass rusher in a 3-4. Still, players who can rush the passer are worth a premium in the NFL. We talked about four of these players when I wrote up the top five OLB’s (Mack, Barr, Ford, Lawrence). Many of them will play on their feet in a 3-4. The following are the top five who have should be able to play DE in a 4-3 front or play a five-technique in a 3-4.

1) Jadeveon Clowney – South Carolina

Clowney is a "once in every ten years" talent, but he is not a "once in every ten years" player. As a sophomore in 2012, he dominated and showed us the player he can be in the NFL. That wasn’t the case in 2013, as he basically took off and played not to get injured.

When Clowney wants to play, he has the traits to be one of the best defensive ends ever. He is exceptionally strong, powerful, and athletic. He has the initial quickness to get by his opponent before he sets and the power to walk him back to the QB. He still needs to develop his hand use and counter moves, but that should come easily.

When playing versus the run, he is quick to react and can shed quickly. He has the quickness to slip or avoid blocks and the speed to catch plays from behind. There is nothing he can’t do when he sets his mind to it. The big question is, can the team that drafts him trust that he will revert back to the player we saw in 2012?

2) Ra’Shede Hageman – Minnesota

Hageman is an interesting player as well as a versatile one. He can be a five-technique in a 3-4 or play left end or either defensive tackle in a 4-3.

Hageman is a huge man at 6057 – 310. He also is very strong, explosive, and athletic. On any given play, he can toy with his opponents and dominate. The problem is his consistency. While he does dominate on some plays, he looks very ordinary on others.

When he stays low, he is very difficult to block. He can hold the point, shed quickly, and get to the play. Then there are plays where he gets tall and loses the leverage game. As a pass rusher, he can bull rush with power or use his hands and athleticism to put together moves and counter moves. He has a very good burst off of blocks to close.

Come draft day, Hageman will go high because of his talent and ceiling, but the team that drafts him has to be hopeful that he is going to compete on every play.

3) Kony Ealy – Missouri

Ealy is a fourth-year junior and had a breakout year in 2013 with 43 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, and 9.5 sacks. His stats are interesting as Missouri plays a with a strict rotation on the defensive line, so Ealy is only playing about 65% of the defensive downs.

Ealy is a pure 4-3 defensive end. He played on the left side at Missouri, but I feel he can play either side in the NFL. He has good DE size at 6040 – 273 with 34” arms and 4.68 speed. He is best as a pass rusher because of his initial quickness, ability to stay low, and put moves together. He can come off the edge, staying low and getting under his opponent.

Ealy is an excellent pursuit player but can be a bit inconsistent versus the run. He flashes that he can do it, but he needs to stay more disciplined with his technique. He can have a tendency to free-lance, break contain, and get caught inside versus outside runs. That should not be difficult to fix. I see Ealy as a mid-to-late first round pick who will contribute right from the start.

4) Scott Crichton – Oregon State

Crichton is a fourth-year junior who entered the draft early. He redshirted in 2010 and has been a starter ever since. He keeps getting better as he gains experience. At 6030 – 273, he has adequate size to go along with good overall athleticism.

The best thing about Crichton is his high motor. He plays hard every play with strength and power. He has the instincts and reactions to make a lot of plays.

Against the run, he shows the power to two-gap, can shed quickly, and get to the ball. As a pass rusher, he has a quick first step with the snap in his hips to walk his opponent back and the agility to use moves and counter moves. 

He is a smart, well coached player who is very competitive. He will come in and start for most teams. He best fits the one-gap 4-3 teams. I see him getting drafted early in the second round.

5) Stephon Tuitt – Notre Dame

Right now, Tuitt is a bit of a wild card in the draft. At the combine, it was discovered he had a small fracture in his foot. He did work out at the combine as well as a short workout for interested clubs shortly after in Atlanta. He then had surgery, and how soon he is able to play is still to be determined. From what I understand, he should easily be ready for training camp.

Tuitt will be best as a five-technique player in a 3-4. At his size (6054 – 304), that is the ideal position. He is lighter now than he has been in at least two years. He played closer to 330 in 2013 and will probably play at about 315 once he gets to the NFL.

Tuitt is naturally strong and explosive but has some athletic limitations. He has some tightness in his hips and his lateral movement is good, not great. He has excellent straight-line quickness and speed.

There are scouts who question Tuitt’s ability. He had an excellent 2012, playing at about 315. During the offseason, he had hernia surgery and gained weight to 330 while rehabbing. Because of the extra weight, his level of play dropped in 2013. He didn’t make plays in 2013 that he made in 2012.

When healthy in 2012, he was a very good all-around player who could defend the run and rush the passer. He has the traits to be an excellent five–technique pass rusher in the NFL. Because of the surgery, it’s a question mark where Tuitt goes, but he is a legitimate high second round pick.

Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

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