NFL Combine Preview: DEs

Dwight Freeney missed much of 2007 with a foot injury and his status is uncertain for the start of the 2008 season. Will the Colts look for another speedy pass rusher in the draft? Chris Steuber ranks the top prospects in this feature.

1. Chris Long, Virginia, 6-4, 275
Draft Projection: 1st Round

The son of Hall of Fame DT Howie Long, Chris enjoyed a stellar career at Virginia and is the top, most complete defender in the 2008 draft. This past season, he had 79 total tackles, 19 for a loss, 14 sacks and an interception. Long has a non-stop motor and possesses tremendous technique on the edge. He didn’t participate in any All-Star games over the last month and will workout in front of scouts for the first time in Indianapolis. Long is a lock to be a top-three pick this April, and his presence in Indianapolis is just a formality so that he can interview with NFL teams.

2. *Vernon Gholston, Ohio State, 6-4, 258
Draft Projection: 1st Round

A physical freak and a tenacious pass rusher, Gholston presents a versatile package to a team at the next level. He has the ability to play OLB in a 3-4 defense or continue to play DE in a 4-3. He had a monstrous year with the Buckeyes, recording 14 sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss. Gholston is considered a one-dimensional defender as a pass rusher and is a liability against the run. As physical as he is, he has to get off blocks better and locate the ballcarrier quicker. He’s probably better suited as an outside linebacker, but for a team in need of a physical pass rusher, Gholston is your man.

3. *Derrick Harvey, Florida, 6-5, 252
Draft Projection: 1st Round

Harvey is a one-dimensional defender who’s gotten better defending the run, but is primarily considered a pass rusher. He resembles another former rangy Gators sack artist, Jevon Kearse. Harvey has great quickness on the edge and uses his long wingspan to get separation and around the opposition. He has to get bigger and play more physically, but he’s still developing and has intriguing ability. He collected 18.5 sacks for his career, which included 8.5 this season. He also recorded 17 tackles for a loss. It’s that kind of ability that will have teams salivating.

Miami DE Calais Campbell stands tall against Maryland.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

4. *Calais Campbell, Miami, 6-8, 282
Draft Projection: 1st Round

A towering, physical force, Campbell has the ability to be a terror at the next level. After a sophomore campaign where he recorded 10.5 sacks and 84 total tackles, Campbell struggled a bit this past season and only managed 50 tackles and 6.5 sacks. But, he had 12.5 tackles for a loss, and that shows his ability to make plays in the backfield. Scouts are intrigued with his size and skills and will be anxious to see how fast and mobile he is in person.

5. Lawrence Jackson, USC, 6-5, 261
Draft Projection: 1st – 2nd Round

Jackson is a complete defensive end who’s greatly underrated. Overall, he’s been a consistent performer, but did suffer a down year as a junior. He went from 10 sacks as a sophomore to just four as a junior and then played extremely well this past season and registered 10.5. Jackson also played well at the Senior Bowl. He was the most consistent DE in Mobile, was very responsive to the coaches, and stayed after practice to improve his technique. Scouts in attendance in Indianapolis will be very pleased with Jackson and his overall ability. It’s just his speed that may hurt his draft stock in the end.

6. *Phillip Merling, Clemson, 6-5, 272
Draft Projection: 1st – 2nd Round

Merling left school early and is a young DE with star quality. He has a lot of great qualities, and with Gaines Adams out of the picture, he played at a high level this past season. He recorded 78 tackles, 17 for a loss and seven sacks. He has a quick first step and uses his strength and technique to gain an advantage against the opposition. Merling will surprise many scouts with his speed and has a chance to elevate his stock after a solid performance at the Combine.

7. Quentin Groves, Auburn, 6-3, 250
Draft Projection: 1st – 2nd Round

Due to a foot injury, Groves didn’t have a very productive year and wasn’t able to participate in any All-Star games. But when healthy, he’s one of the premier pass rushers in the country. He doesn’t have great size, but he’s very explosive and successfully beats the opposition with his quickness. He fits a 3-4 defense best as an OLB, and if he’s drafted into a 4-3 defense, he may only be a situational pass rusher. It will be interesting to see Groves work out in Indianapolis. He has an opportunity to really raise his draft stock and ultimately end up as a mid-first round pick.

8. Chris Ellis, Virginia Tech, 6-4, 260
Draft Projection: 2nd Round

Ellis has been a productive, undersized DE at the college level, but he was exposed at the Senior Bowl. He struggled against bigger opponents and lacked technique. He can’t rely on his strength and quickness all the time. He has to develop an inside move. Ellis is another DE in this class that has the athleticism to play OLB, but a team will most likely utilize Ellis’ ability on the D-Line. Scouts will keep an eye on Ellis and see if his explosiveness returns in Indy.

9. Darrell Robertson, Georgia Tech, 6-4, 247
Draft Projection: 2nd – 3rd Round

Robertson is a promising prospect who has big-time upside, but he lacks size. He has a great frame and a world of ability, but he can get manhandled at times. He had good days and bad days at the Senior Bowl. There were days where he was explosive and got in the backfield to make plays, and then there were days where he looked weak and didn’t shed blocks well. Robertson worked out at OLB in Mobile and could offer a team running a 3-4 a versatile weapon. But he’s a pure pass rusher who, with some added bulk, could be an elite performer at the next level. Robertson will have to show a little more strength in Indianapolis to win over scouts.

10. Cliff Avril, Purdue, 6-3, 252
Draft Projection: 2nd – 3rd Round

Avril is another tweener who enjoyed a solid career at Purdue, but doesn’t necessarily have a position at the next level. He started the first four games last season at linebacker before making the switch to DE for the rest of the season. He plays with a high motor and possesses great quickness. He’s active, instinctive, and is always around the ball. He performed well in Mobile and played at both linebacker and DE. He showed his ability at the Senior Bowl and will continue to prove to scouts that he’s more than just a tweener in Indianapolis.

11. Jason Jones, Eastern Michigan, 6-5, 272
Draft Projection: 3rd Round

Jones had a promising week at the Senior Bowl. He displayed a lot of skills and showed that he can rush the passer. He only managed 3.5 sacks this past season at Eastern Michigan, but his 70 tackles, 19.5 for a loss were very impressive. Jones is an intriguing prospect who has the ability to be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He’s a guy who’s on the rise and will continue to draw interest in Indy.

12. Wallace Gilberry, Alabama, 6-3, 263
Draft Projection: 3rd – 4th Round

Gilberry had an outstanding senior season for the Crimson Tide, recording 80 tackles, 27 for a loss and 10 sacks. Those numbers stand out big and bold, but his performance in Mobile was less than stellar. He didn’t show much explosion off the line and struggled to disengage against the opposition. It wasn’t an impressive week for Gilberry, but he’s a solid player that gives maximum effort. The biggest question about Gilberry is his speed, and scouts will observe that closely.

13. Kendall Langford, Hampton, 6-6, 275
Draft Projection: 3rd – 4th Round

14. Chase Ortiz, TCU, 6-2, 244
Draft Projection: 4th Round

15. Chris Harrington, Texas A&M, 6-5, 268
Draft Projection: 4th Round

16. Jeremy Thompson, Wake Forest, 6-5, 264
Draft Projection: 4th Round

17. *Johnny Dingle, West Virginia, 6-3, 273
Draft Projection: 4th – 5th Round

18. Tommy Blake, TCU, 6-3, 274
Draft Projection: 5th Round

19. Kenny Iwebema, Iowa, 6-4, 265
Draft Projection: 5th Round

20. Titus Brown, Mississippi State, 6-3, 239
Draft Projection: 5th – 6th Round

21. Adamm Oliver, Georgia Tech, 6-4, 268
Draft Projection: 5th – 6th Round

22. Louis Holmes, Arizona, 6-4, 270
Draft Projection: 6th Round

23. *Jeremy Geathers, UNLV, 6-2, 248
Draft Projection: 6th Round

24. Bryan Mattison, Iowa, 6-3, 272
Draft Projection: 6th Round

25. Joe Clermond, Pittsburgh, 6-3, 260
Draft Projection: 6th – 7th Round

26. Marcus Dixon, Hampton, 6-4, 284
Draft Projection: 7th Round

27. Dorian Smith, Oregon State, 6-2, 255
Draft Projection: 7th Round - FA


* Underclassmen

A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999.

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