NFL

2014 NFL Draft: Highlighting the Top 10 Defensive Ends

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterJanuary 30, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Highlighting the Top 10 Defensive Ends

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    A great defense is built on the strength of its pass rush. Can you get to the quarterback? If not, good luck. 

    Defensive ends remain the most important building block for most NFL general managers. When creating a plan for the foundation of their teams, it's all about adding a quarterback and a guy to attack the quarterback. With that in mind, who are the best pass-rushers in this year's draft class?

    The flavor of these defensive ends varies. Some are a great fit for a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. Some may need to stand up and move to linebacker. Some are freaks who you just find a way to get onto the field.

    What are NFL teams looking for? Speed, flexibility, strength and a variety of pass-rushing moves. You don't have to be a finished product, but you'd better be able to explode off the line and bend the edge. Here's a more in-depth look at how to scout defensive ends in our "How to Scout" series.

    So who's the best? Find out inside.

10. DeMarcus Lawrence, Boise State

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    DeMarcus Lawrence has taken an interesting path to the NFL, but no matter where he played (or at what level he played), he produced. That's something scouts can fall in love with when viewing the Boise State defensive end.

    Lawrence dominated the JUCO levels for Butler (Kan.) Community College. From there he went to Boise for two seasons, and in that time he showed consistent pass-rushing ability while posting 20 sacks. Lawrence is athletic and comes off the ball with the quick first-step and leverage to win one-on-one battles.

    Spending just two seasons at a mid-major football power will be a concern for teams who view Lawrence, but when drafting him you're getting a ton of upside and a raw player ready to be developed.

9. Trevor Reilly, Utah

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    Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

    The football program at Utah has become underrated in its ability to send players to the NFL. The secret is out, though, and Trevor Reilly looks to be the next Ute to take on the pros.

    When you look at Reilly you see a long, muscular athlete lining up on the edge of the defense. He's 6'5", 255 pounds of muscle and explosive athleticism. He uses that build well, too, coming out of a three-point stance or a stand-up spot to attack the offense. 

    Reilly is aggressive and has shown he can use his length to get blockers off his frame. He's a bit raw around the edges, but the potential he brings to the table is huge.

8. Chris Smith, Arkansas

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    Chris Smith is an athletic marvel, and anytime you see him in person it's obvious he passes the eye-ball test.

    Smith isn't the tallest guy in the room, but his arms are an insane 32.75" long. That's equal to many of the offensive linemen weighed and measured at the Senior Bowl. Being shorter is fine if you have the long arms to keep offensive linemen off your frame, and Smith does.

    Length is the only asset he brings to the table, though. Smith showed off explosive skills at the Senior Bowl that weren't consistently shown on film. Being put in a position to succeed is huge for athletic pass-rushers, and Smith took advantage of a strong week in Mobile.

7. Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas

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    Jackson Jeffcoat leaves the University of Texas as a highly decorated defensive end. In 2013 he was an All-American, the AP Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, the Ted Hendricks Award winner and first-team All-Big 12. Not bad for the son of former NFL great Jim Jeffcoat.

    So why is Jeffcoat ranked No. 7 at the position?

    Injuries plagued his career at Texas. Jeffcoat missed four games in 2010, one game in 2011 and seven in 2012 due to injuries. And they weren't minor nicks and scrapes, either. His junior season ended with a ruptured right pectoral. His sophomore campaign was cut short by a ruptured left pectoral muscle and shoulder surgery. The sprained ankle from his freshman year looks minor by comparison.

    When healthy, Jeffcoat is a monster.

    He's super fast off the line of scrimmage and has the length teams want as an edge-rusher. From an athletic and production standpoint, his 2013 season should make him a first-round pick. And yet the injuries are there, clouding his prospects.

6. Marcus Smith, Louisville

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    All the buzz leading up to the 2013 NFL draft was about the versatility of Oregon's Dion Jordan. He could stand up and rush the quarterback, put his hand in the dirt or even line up in the slot to play press coverage. That ultimately led to his being the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. This year's class has an equally talented player but at a bargain price.

    Louisville coaches fell in love with the athletic versatility of Marcus Smith, and they used him in various matchups to best maximize his impact. Smith stood up. He put his hand in the dirt. And he even lined up in the slot. 

    A quiet week at the 2014 Reese's Senior Bowl has quieted some of the buzz surrounding Smith, but the draft process is just getting started. And by May 8, everyone will know his name.

5. Scott Crichton, Oregon State

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    It's rare for a junior defensive end to be considered underrated this time of year, as most early entries get a ton of publicity. But in a draft class with nearly 100 underclassmen flooding the ranks, Scott Crichton has too often been lost in the shuffle. 

    That might be the case with the media but not with NFL teams. Crichton's quickness and athletic ability are well-known when you talk to area scouts and scouting directors. The word on Crichton? He can play in any scheme and find a way to get to the quarterback.

    Crichton doesn't post the eye-popping numbers of other defensive ends, but his three-down ability to stop the run and get to the quarterback makes him one of the few Day 1-ready ends in this year's class.

4. Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame

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    Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt may get slapped with the scheme-specific label, but that's not always a bad thing, especially when you're the best player at that position. That's where Tuitt falls in this year's draft class. Among the players with experience as a 3-4 defensive end, he's the best. And there's really no one close to him.

    Tuitt has been a consistent force for the Fighting Irish at defensive end in the team's 30 set. He's big enough to hold the edge and shut down rushing lanes, and has flashed good quickness and pass-rushing ability. The key is figuring out which version of Tuitt is the one you're getting.

    The big defender struggled in 2013 to get off blocks and play with the burst he showed in 2012. If he's able to find that explosiveness again, he could be a steal in this year's loaded crop of defensive linemen.

3. Trent Murphy, Stanford

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    Equal parts defensive end and outside linebacker, Stanford's Trent Murphy has the tools to play in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. It's that versatility that has scouts excited about the former Cardinal.

    Murphy doesn't have elite speed, but he's quick enough to get off the line and cause problems for offensive linemen stuck in their stances. And unlike some of the smaller, speedier guys at the position, he's strong enough to flash with a bull rush or a rip move to get past blockers. It's that speed-to-power conversion of his that makes him so enticing.

    Each team will view Murphy differently. Some will love his length and strength at defensive end, others at outside linebacker. No matter the scheme or fit, the fact is that he's a menace off the edge.

2. Kony Ealy, Missouri

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    The Missouri Tigers had an All-American defensive end in 2013, but it wasn't this year's No. 2 player on the board at that position. Senior Michael Sam was the higher profile player, but it's junior Kony Ealy who is exciting NFL teams.

    Ealy has the size, strength and speed combination that scouts dream of. He's long at 6'5", but he's lean and strong at 275 pounds. To be his size and come off the ball with the quickness and balance he shows is remarkable. And it's why Ealy is a top-10 prospect in this year's class. 

    Ealy's versatile pass-rushing moves and eye-popping physical traits add up to a prospect who won't be on the board for long.

1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina

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    One of the most well-known college football players in the entire country, Jadeveon Clowney played the 2013 season under a microscope most NFL players will never know. His up-and-down season left many disappointed, but taking in the entirety of his career and his athletic profile, it's easy to see why he's ranked No. 1 here.

    Clowney has a rare combination of size (listed at 6'5", 275 lbs) and athleticism. Many will compare him to Mario Williams or Julius Peppers, but he's faster than both in the open field. Clowney's ability to explode off the line of scrimmage and beat blockers out of their stance is fascinating. And yet, as too many will note, there are times when he doesn't seem engaged or motivated.

    An NFL coaching staff will be tasked with getting the most out of this incredible talent. And if one can, he'll be a lock for All-Pro consideration every season.

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