The 2011 crop of defensive ends may be the deepest group of the entire class and as many as eight players at the position could be off the board after day one. There is plenty of talent to be had for every defense this April, regardless of scheme.
The cream of the crop is North Carolina's Robert Quinn, a
ferocious pass rusher who was one of many Tar Heels defenders
surrounded by scandal. Quinn was suspended for the entire 2010 season,
but would've received a lot more attention as a candidate for the top
overall pick had he played. Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers finally lived up
to his billing this past year after arriving as the highest-rated
recruit in school history. The Tigers standout led the nation in
sacks, but a knee injury has raised red flags about his durability.
Cameron Jordan of California and J.J. Watt of Wisconsin are bigger
ends who both play the game with relentless effort and passion. Both
fit best as five-technique defensive ends in a 3-4 alignment.
Conversely, Missouri's Aldon Smith and Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan played
as defensive ends in 4-3 schemes in college, but could see a
transition to 3-4 outside linebacker in their future.
The elite group is rounded out by two Big Ten standouts, and as
you would expect coming from the power conference, both are stout
against the run. Iowa's Adrian Clayborn is versatile enough to play
strongside end in a 4-3 scheme, as well as five-technique defensive
end in a 3-4 alignment. Cameron Heyward of Ohio State is the perfect
fit as a five-technique, but could also find a home along the interior
of a four-man front.
POSITION REPORT CARD: Simply put, this class is one of the
deepest in recent memory. With eight possible first-round picks at the
position, how could it warrant anything other than an A?
ROBERT QUINN, North Carolina
Good News: Excellent pass rusher capable of being an elite
player on the weak side…Explosive burst and speed off the
edge…Exceptional agility and flexibility to bend and turn the
corner…Displays an effective rip move…Explosive tackler that causes
Bad News: Lacks elite strength to anchor against the
run…Flashes quickness off the ball but is a little inconsistent and
can be late…Suspended for the entire 2010 season and has been away
from live action for over a year…Medical concerns regarding a benign
2010 Statistics: Suspended.
Prediction: I've maintained that if Quinn had played this
season, he would be garnering a lot more consideration as the top
overall pick. He's a gifted athlete and incredibly explosive off the
edge as a pass rusher. Bowers' struggles in the pre-draft process have
opened the door for Quinn to retake the lead as the top defensive end
available, and he will be a top-10 selection. The Tar Heels standout
has enough talent to play weakside defensive end in a 4-3 or stand up
as a linebacker in a 3-4.
DA'QUAN BOWERS, Clemson
Good News: Excellent strength at the point of attack and
can anchor against the run…Displays very good awareness – keeps his
head up to locate the ball…Keeps containment and does a good job of
using his length to create distance before shedding the blocker…Solid
use of hands – fights blockers while working his way to the
quarterback...Good quickness and great effort.
Bad News: Likely a strongside defensive end and doesn't own
elite edge rushing ability…More of a bull-rusher who doesn't display a
wide array of pass rush moves…Significant injury concerns – coming off
surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
2010 Statistics: Led the NCAA (FBS) in sacks…Registered 67
total tackles with 26 tackles-for-loss and 15.5 sacks…Added 10
quarterback hurries, a forced fumble, an interception and a pass
Prediction: Bowers has top-five talent, but was unable to
perform at the combine due to surgery on a torn meniscus. Couple that
with a less-than-stellar outing at Clemson's Pro Day, and there are
enough red flags to scare some teams. He's viewed as one of the
"fallers" right now, but shouldn't slip out of the top 15. Bowers may
lack the elite edge rushing ability of a blindside defensive end, but
on the strongside he could be an impact player similar to Michael
CAMERON JORDAN, California
Good News: Strong against the run…Uses length to lockout
blockers and find the football before shedding…Violent use of hands
and battles aggressively…Displays an effective swim move to the
outside and often uses the spin to counter back inside…Plays with
leverage and displays a very strong bull rush…Good strength in his
hands and displays a nice punch…Plays with all-out effort.
Bad News: Upside could be viewed as somewhat limited due to
limited athletic ability…Not an elite pass rusher…Lacks great speed
off the edge and won't be the type to rack up sacks.
2010 Statistics: All-Pac-10 Conference first-team
selection…Registered 62 total tackles with 12.5 tackles-for-loss and
5.5 sacks…Added one quarterback hurry, three forced fumbles, four pass
deflections and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.
Prediction: Jordan is stout against the run, aggressive
with his hands and plays with relentless effort. His ceiling could be
viewed as lower than other defensive ends due to limited athletic
ability, but he's versatile enough to play in either scheme. In a 4-3
defense, he can play the strongside end position and possibly kick
inside on third-down to increase the interior pass rush. I think his
best fit is his position from college – five-technique defensive end
in a 3-4 alignment. He should be selected in the middle portion of the
J.J. WATT, Wisconsin
Good News: Possesses very strong hands and uses them
extremely well…Slaps down the tackle's hands when rushing off the edge
to turn the corner…Delivers a jolting initial punch…Can shed tight
ends with ease…Does a good job of getting his hands up to disrupt
passing lanes…Gives relentless effort…Pretty good quickness off the
ball…Flashes an effective spin move to bring the rush back inside.
Bad News: Lacks the flexibility to bend around the corner,
as well as the speed/burst to take the edge…Not quite as effective
against the run as you would expect, but still is very solid overall
in this aspect...Can get turned sideways and driven out of the play on
occasion...Plays a little high at times.
2010 Statistics: Lott IMPACT Trophy winner and second-team
All-American…Registered 62 total tackles with 21 tackles-for-loss and
seven sacks…Added 10 quarterback hurries, eight pass deflections,
three forced fumbles, three blocked kicks and an interception.
Prediction: After transferring as a tight end from Central Michigan, Watt moved to the defensive line for Wisconsin and became a
star. His hands are simply some of the strongest in the game and he
uses them as well as anyone. Some view him as a potential strongside
defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, but I think his best fit is playing the
five-technique in a 3-4 defense. With roughly half the league
employing the 3-4 defense, he's another player whose skills will be
coveted in that role and he should be off the board midway through the
ALDON SMITH, Missouri
Good News: Nimble on his feet and displays excellent
lateral agility…Good speed in the open field and was able to spy
athletic QBs…Uses length very well to prevent defenders from fully
engaging and can shed blocks…Displays very quick hands and uses them
extremely well…Much better strength than his frame would
indicate…Flashes a strong punch…Able to slide inside and rush from the
defensive tackle spot, where he is simply too quick for interior
Bad News: Very young and still requires time to fully grow
into his body…Loaded with potential, but still raw…Plays too high and
needs to consistently get his pad level down…Will need to improve
lower-body strength in the running game to become a three-down player
(and has the frame to do so), as he can be moved off the ball when the
play is run at him…Some durability concerns – missed time in 2010 with
a broken leg.
2010 Statistics: All-Big 12 Conference first-team selection
despite missing three games with a broken leg…Registered 48 total
tackles with 10 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks…Added one quarterback
pressure, a forced fumble, two pass deflections and an interception.
Prediction: Smith is loaded with potential, but left
Missouri as just a redshirt sophomore. Had he stayed in school another
year, it's not far-fetched to think he could've been a top-10 pick.
Smith can provide great pressure as a defensive end in a 4-3 alignment
and has enough athletic ability to stand up and rush the passer as a
3-4 outside linebacker. He will need some time to develop and grow
into his frame, but should be a solid mid-to-late first round choice.
RYAN KERRIGAN, Purdue
Good News: Great pass rusher that gets by more on hustle
than athletic ability…Good explosion off the ball…Enough speed to beat
the right tackle to the edge on occasion…Exceptional closing burst and
has a knack for causing fumbles…Generally plays with leverage and has
the strength to hold up against the run…Plays with motor on high from
snap to whistle.
Bad News: Doesn't display elite flexibility to bend around
the corner and tackles will ride him around the pocket…Lacks the elite
speed and burst to consistently take the edge…Very limited experience
dropping back if he is to convert to outside linebacker…Good overall
size, but upper body is a bit disproportionate compare to thinner
2010 Statistics: Big Ten Defensive Player of the
Year…Registered 70 total tackles with 26 tackles-for-loss and 12.5
sacks…Added five forced fumbles and a pass deflection.
Prediction: Kerrigan plays like his hair is on fire from
start to finish. Despite lacking elite physical tools, he gives
relentless effort and is a difference-maker up front. Although he has
extremely limited experience playing in space, I believe he's
versatile enough to convert to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme
(think Mike Vrabel). Most teams will view him as a 4-3 defensive end
and he should be selected in the mid-to-late first round.
ADRIAN CLAYBORN, Iowa
Good News: Displays very good overall strength and anchor
well against the run…Stout at the point of attack…Understands
assignments in the running game and maintains gap integrity…Possesses
very strong hands and uses them well…Violent sheds blocks when play is
run at him…Can effectively push-pull to quickly shed a block…Good
Bad News: Won't be a dominant pass rusher at the next
level…Lacks great burst off the snap, as well as elite speed off the
edge…Owns short arms at 32 1/2 inches…Overall athletic ability is
2010 Statistics: Consensus All-American…Registered 52 total
tackles with seven tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks…Added six
quarterback hurries, a pass deflection, a forced fumble and a blocked
Prediction: Clayborn is a fantastic fundamental football
player. Although he lacks the dynamic ability and athleticism to
consistently bring pressure off the edge, he's incredibly stout at the
point of attack and is a dominant force against the run. He has the
talent to play the five-technique defensive end position in a 3-4
scheme, but his best fit may be on the strongside in the 4-3 defense.
Clayborn is a solid pick later in the first round.
CAMERON HEYWARD, Ohio State
Good News: Exceptional strength at the point of
attack…Generally maintains leverage…Can use his bull rush to drive
opponents into the backfield…Cognizant run defender…Uses a nice spin
move to defeat the block and get to the ball carrier…Pretty quick off
the snap for his size…Strong hands and can deliver a jolting initial
Bad News: Simply won't be a threat to rush off the
edge…Lacks the burst and speed of traditional 4-3 defensive ends, but
is quick for an interior defender…Injury issues – coming off a left
elbow injury and underwent Tommy John surgery in January…Can get
pushed back with a solid double-team.
2010 Statistics: All-Big Ten Conference first-team
selection…Registered 48 total tackles with 13 tackles-for-loss and 3.5
sacks…Added three quarterback hurries, a pass deflection, a fumble
recovery and an interception.
Prediction: Heyward has seen his stock suffer a bit due to
an elbow injury that required surgery. He's been limited in the
pre-draft process, but has shown enough throughout his career to
warrant late first-round or early second-round consideration. Heyward
fits best as a defensive end in a 3-4 defense but could also play
along the interior as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme.
OTHERS TO WATCH:
Jabaal Sheard, Pittsburgh
Notes: Effective pass rusher with good length as a strongside end
in college, but may need to transition to linebacker at the next
Projection: 2nd round.
Allen Bailey, Miami (FL)
Notes: Mostly a bull rusher that struggles to generate pressure
off the edge and will be a better fit as a 3-4 defensive end or 4-3
Projection: 2nd-3rd round.
Pernell McPhee, Mississippi State
Notes: Entered the season as one of the most highly regarded
prospects at the position, but a lackluster performances in his senior
season and at the Senior Bowl have his stock on the decline.
Projection: 4th round.
GREG ROMEUS, Pittsburgh
Notes: Gifted pass rusher with outstanding size, but suffered
major back and knee injuries that nearly cost him his entire senior
Projection: 4th-5th round.
2011 Draft Preview: Defensive Ends
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