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B/R NFL Draft 100: Top Defensive Tackles

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterApril 20, 2014

B/R NFL Draft 100: Top Defensive Tackles

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    Associated Press

    We all know that outside pressure on quarterbacks is essential, but not enough people talk about the importance of interior pressure. It's equally effective and, as defenses evolve to keep pace with high-octane offenses, the inside pass rush is becoming more and more crucial.

    That makes the value of a good defensive tackle much higher in today's NFL. Looking at the 2014 draft class, who does it best?

    That’s what the NFL Draft 100 aims to identify. Looking only at the film, who is the best? 

    The B/R NFL Draft 100 metric is based on scouting each player and grading the key criteria for each position. The criteria are weighted according to importance on a 100-point scale. Unlike our NFL 1000 series, this project factors in upside for each player—as the NFL draft is as much about upside as it is about production.

    Defensive tackles are judged on run defense (40 points), pass rush (40 points), upside (20) and all of the technique, athletic ability and football intelligence needed to play the position.

    In the case of ties, the ranking is based on which player I prefer personally.

    Subjective? Yes. But ties are no fun.

    I scouted each player with these key criteria in mind. The following scouting reports and grades are the work of months of film study and in-person evaluation.

10. DaQuan Jones, Penn State

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    Associated Press

    Run Defense

    34/40

    With a body tailor-made for the NFL, DaQuan Jones (6'4", 322 lbs) is ready to go in the middle of a defensive line. Against the run, he's a large man to move for offensive linemen, and he uses a good first step to work his leverage against interior blockers. He can control blocks with his hands, but he will need to get faster at using those hands in the NFL. He locates the ball well and has the recognition skills to do some damage shutting down rush lanes.  

    Pass Rush

    30/40

    Jones' ability to get to the quarterback is average, but he does have the strength to improve here. If placed in a one-gap scheme, he can penetrate and pressure the pocket, and he does have the strength and leverage to play in a two-gap scheme. You won't get great speed or agility, but he's a powerful man to move when he gets forward momentum. 

    Upside

    17/20

    Playing in a 3-4 defense will be the best thing for Jones, and in that role he has undeniable upside. He's a stout, heady run-stuffer with definite potential. 

    Overall

    81/100

9. Ego Ferguson, LSU

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    34/40

    A big, nasty defender from the LSU system, Ego Ferguson (6'3", 315 lbs) has the frame to stack up in a 0- or 1-technique alignment. He's the type of player to build the line around in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. Against the run, you see his size and power, and he uses both well to shut down rushing lanes. He needs to play more disciplined and work to not be fooled by misdirection or pulling linemen in front of him. 

    Pass Rush

    28/40

    Ferguson has good feet and agility, but he doesn't have great speed to close on quarterbacks and attack the line. He will flush the pocket and generate hurries but doesn't have great upside as a true pass-rusher in a 3-technique role. He is smart to work down the line of scrimmage and find openings to get to the quarterback, but that lack of high-end closing speed will be a factor in the pros.

    Upside

    19/20

    A one-year starter at LSU, Ferguson has room to grow as a technician and as a smarter, more effective player. Once installed into a scheme, he could blossom. 

    Overall

    81/100

8. George Uko, USC

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    Associated Press

    Run Defense

    30/40

    A defensive tackle by trade, George Uko (6'3", 284 lbs) offers a nice set of versatility thanks to high athleticism and considerable upside. Against the run, he can get washed down by stronger, more technical blockers. He excels at shooting gaps and then working down the line of scrimmage to find the ball. He's disciplined but is still very young and green. You like his size and athleticism value, as he can play in a 3-4 (DE) or 4-3 (DT) system right away. 

    Pass Rush

    33/40

    Uko fits the profile of what the Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars did with their defensive lines—big, versatile athletes with the ability to play defensive end or defensive tackle. He is in that same mold and comes in as a matchup problem for offenses. He's quick off the line and, while raw in terms of hand use, he's fast enough to explode past the hands of a blocker. In the NFL, he'll have to become more technical in his hand use and not rely on pure athleticism. Uko has talent, but he must be more aware about pad level and his leverage.

    Upside

    20/20

    A two-year starter at USC, Uko can play numerous positions along the defensive line and offers scheme versatility. He's also likely to receive more consistent coaching and weight room training once in the pros. 

    Overall

    83/100

7. Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame

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    Associated Press

    Run Defense

    33/40

    With 34 3/4" arms, Stephon Tuitt (6'5", 304 lbs) has the reach to lock out run blockers that try to get inside his frame. And in a 3-4 defense, that's what he needs to do at defensive end. His best position is locking down that 5-technique spot. When healthy, he has shown the strength and quickness to be an impact player, shooting gaps and anchoring the run. That said, in 2013 he was hobbled by injury and slowed by a weight gain. You have to worry any time a player's impact decreases in their final year, and that's what happened with Tuitt.

    Pass Rush

    33/40

    More of a run-stopper than pass-rusher in Notre Dame's 3-4 scheme, Tuitt does have the quickness and hand use to transition into a role as a penetrator. He doesn't have the well-rounded burst or pad level of other 3-technique players, but he does have the coordination, balance and agility to move in space. He was productive as a pass-rusher—largely when quarterbacks rolled his way—and showed the shedding ability to go get the quarterback. 

    Upside

    17/20

    If healthy, Tuitt could definitely develop in the NFL. It will also help him to know the scheme and assignment he'll be asked to play in the pros—as he can focus and really refine his tools for that spot. The trick will be keeping his weight in check and staying healthy.

    Overall

    83/100

6. Will Sutton, Arizona State

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    Associated Press

    Run Defense

    34/40

    Will Sutton (6'0", 303 lbs) doesn't have the ideal measurables to be a stout run defender, but his quickness and athleticism help make up for that. His best asset is his quickness in getting into the backfield—from there he does well to work down the line in pursuit or penetrate to cut off zone-rushing lanes. He's a strong, wrap-up tackler when confronted by a runner. At the next level, he may struggle to get off blockers unless he gains functional strength and learns to use his leverage and naturally low pad height to his advantage. 

    Pass Rush

    36/40

    Sutton has shown top-tier ability as a 3-technique penetrator and pass-rusher, but you do have to worry about his limited impact this past season. He was a heavy producer in this area in college, but he wasn't facing elite offensive line play in many situations. He has shown the first-step quickness to stun a blocker, but in 2013 that player was non-existent, as Sutton bulked up and was more of a nose tackle. If you can draft the 2012 version, you're getting a potential first-round talent. With his smaller stature, he has to excel with quickness and leverage, and he did that in his junior season. 

    Upside

    17/20

    Sutton was a top player in 2012, but he lost his way in 2013 as weight gain and an odd use from the coaches saw his impact decline. He has upside when playing near 290 pounds and unleashed as a pass-rusher, but it's all hope that he can become the 2012 version again. 

    Overall

    87/100

5. Louis Nix, Notre Dame

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    Associated Press

    Run Defense

    37/40

    Louis Nix is a massive man (6'2", 331 lbs) with surprising movement skills for a nose tackle. He's a scheme-specific player tailor-made for the 0-technique spot in a 3-4 alignment. He has incredible power to stun and drive interior blockers at the collegiate level but must harness that ability and bring it consistently to win the same battles in the NFL. He is able to get off the ball with good quickness and first-step burst, and he follows that up with enough short-area speed and agility to track ball-carriers inside the A- and B-gaps. 

    Pass Rush

    33/40

    Nix has the power to be the anchor of a three-man front, but in the passing game he must consistently split more blocks. He has the power to take on a double-team, but he doesn't always get through traffic and push the pocket. He is quick enough to give chase when he's free in the backfield and also gets up in the air to attempt to swat down passes more than you'd expect. He shows nice agility, flexibility and knee bend to redirect and give chase in the pocket.

    Upside

    17/20

    Nix struggled with a knee injury that slowed him for much of 2013, but if you look at his entire career, you see a big, athletic nose tackle with room to get better at read-and-react and hand usage in the NFL. 

    Overall

    87/100

4. Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota

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    Associated Press

    Run Defense

    35/40

    A freak of an athlete, Ra'Shede Hageman (6'6", 310 lbs) was a stud tight end prospect in high school. At Minnesota, he became the defensive tackle we see now. The biggest issue with him is that his performance does not run consistently. A player this physical should dominate, and Hageman doesn't. He is long and explosive and uses that reach well to lock out blockers on the edge. He's also scheme-versatile in that he could play defensive end in a 3-4 or line up as a 3-technique in a 4-3. If he can learn to split or take on double-teams, he could be elite.

    Pass Rush

    35/40

    Hageman too often relies on athletic ability only and doesn't show refined technique. You would like to see him use his hands better to disengage from blockers, but instead he allows himself to be caught up by smaller, weaker offensive players. He has the strength, length, quickness and flexibility to become great, but he must attack each snap with the same relentlessness he shows when there's an open path to the quarterback. Given his size, he could easily come in and play 5-technique in a one-gap scheme that lets him see single blocks and use his athleticism in space. 

    Upside

    18/20

    Hageman turns 24 before the 2014 season begins and is maxed out physically. That said, he's phenomenal athletically and could become an instant-impact player if a coach can harness his ability and teach him the technical side of the game. 

    Overall

    88/100

3. Timmy Jernigan, Florida State

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    Associated Press

    Run Defense

    32/40

    Timmy Jernigan (6'2", 299 lbs) may not look the part of the do-it-all player, but he is. He's able to stack up blockers in the hole and can be a big plugger. He is also fast enough off the line to disrupt the run by splitting gaps and making tackles in the backfield. The concern is that he doesn't do this consistently, and his get-off can run from elite to non-existent. His limited change-of-direction ability is also a big question mark when projecting his NFL ability. 

    Pass Rush

    38/40

    Jernigan shows flashes of sheer dominance—like in the BCS Championship Game—but he runs hot and cold. He has shown the ability to be a major disruptor and can use his hands to disengage from blockers off the snap. He's also quick enough to shoot gaps and work his motor past their hands. Jernigan can line up over the center or in the A-gap to pressure the pocket and has the versatility to be an impact at any spot along the interior line. He must work to show better range on extended pockets, but he can pull the chain and attack when there's an opening.

    Upside

    20/20

    A young (21 years old), attacking player with big upside, Jernigan carries some boom-or-bust ability. If someone can tap into his ability and athleticism, they could strike gold in the first round. 

    Overall

    90/100

2. Dominique Easley, Florida

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    35/40

    A stunning athlete along the defensive line, Dominique Easley (6'2", 288 lbs) is a scheme-versatile stud with the range to play as a defensive end in a 3-4 or inside as a defensive tackle in a 4-3. He might be able to put his hand in the dirt as an end in a 4-3 too, like Michael Bennett in Seattle. He plays with great natural leverage and shows the ability to accelerate with his pads down. He's quick, smart and instinctive. Easley will struggle to split blockers and can be put on skates when a strong run-blocker gets their hands on him. He needs to get a bit stronger, especially in his lower body, to compensate for shorter arms. 

    Pass Rush

    38/40

    Passing downs are where Easley makes his money. He's explosive and attacks the line of scrimmage with a violent attitude. He's light on his feet and sees the play develop, which allows him to get into positions to take on scrambling quarterbacks. He's a high-energy player with the speed to pursue the quarterback and give them chase well outside the pocket. He doesn't give up if hit by a blocker and does show some secondary pass-rushing moves when tied up.  

    Upside

    18/20

    It's very possible that a healthy Dominique Easley would have been a first-round talent. NFL teams will see that, and his upside, when considering where to draft the former Gator after his second ACL tear. As long as he's healthy, he's worthy of a very high grade.

    Overall

    91/100

1. Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    34/40

    Aaron Donald (6'1", 285 lbs) doesn't have the ideal size to stand in and take on the run. What he can do is stop the run on his way to the quarterback. His ability to get through the line of scrimmage with excellent burst and leverage will show up against the run too. He has to learn to play disciplined and not get caught on misdirection or delays—a la Ndamukong Suh—but he can use the skills that make him an elite pass-rusher to stop the run. Donald needs to be in a one-gap system, ideally as an under tackle, and he shouldn't be put in place to anchor against double-teams. 

    Pass Rush

    40/40

    Donald is an elite athlete with off-the-charts agility, strength and quickness. He was also one of the most dominant defensive linemen the college football world has seen since Mr. Suh left Nebraska. Donald is exceptionally quick off the snap and can get inside a blocker's range before they've come out of their stance. He gets under the pads of blockers that do reach him and fights through blocks with fast-moving feet, great leverage and exceptional burst in a short area. When he has his eye on the quarterback, he closes faster than any defensive tackle in the draft. 

    Upside

    19/20

    Donald's athleticism is incredible, but his upside as a technician is still there for the taking. A good defensive line coach will work on his hands and teach him countermoves that will allow the Pitt defensive tackle to become one of the best pass-rushing 3-techniques in the NFL. 

    Overall

    93/100

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