Grading the pro potential: Defensive tackles

The top overall prospect for the draft resides among the defensive tackles, not the ends, according to NFL scout Dave-Te' Thomas. He breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of the defensive tackles, from the top prospects to the late-round sleepers.

While the defensive end position has a few high quality prospects, the same cannot be said for the defensive tackle position. With more and more teams utilizing the nose guard in their alignment, trying to find classic interior linemen in this draft means that a team will have to secure the services of that player early in the draft process.

Ironically, the best player in this draft resides at defensive tackle. Few can argue that Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald is the best defensive tackle available, as he can go anywhere from the Raiders' pick to when Chicago selects, but I suspect that some team will likely trade up in this draft to take a player I have rated higher than anyone in this draft class.

Many will not agree with that assessment, but I remember years ago when I ran the All-American Classic and Hula Bowl, bringing in an unknown kid from Texas A&M-Kingsville to play on my defensive line. I was asked why I invited one John Randle, as many felt he was an undersized player with limited upside. The last I checked, Randle has a nice bust on display in Canton. Come back in 20 years and read my reports on Donald as I predict he will also be in Canton one day.

In each of his last three seasons, Donald has recorded at least 16 stops behind the line of scrimmage. His average of 2.19 tackles-for-loss per game ranks 13th in the history of NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision action, as his final total of 66.0 stops for lost yardage of 315 is fourth-best in college football annals. His 28.5 stops-for-loss as a senior ranks as the seventh-best season total by a FBS player.

Known more for chasing down ball carriers, Donald still managed to register 43 quarterback pressures, as 15 of those resulted in turnovers (fumbles or interceptions) by the opposition. He took those passers down 29.5 times, the fourth-best career total by a Panther and tied for 23rd on the NCAA all-time record sheet.

As a pass rusher, Donald can beat you with either his speed or power. He has very good body control and excellent hip snap. His hand usage and quick burst off the snap lets him consistently pressure the quarterback. He also has very good confidence in using his rip and club moves on the bull rush, and has very good agility to spin away from the initial block and stymie the counter moves.

The Pittsburgh prospect generates great power in his initial surge and while he is more effective on the bull rush, he has the ability to wreak havoc in the backfield when trying to flush out the quarterback. He can turn the corner and shows good counter moves to come underneath and make the play. His lower body strength lets him push the pocket and he displays very good urgency to get to the quarterback.

When he extends his arms and uses good forward body lean, he has had very good success pressing the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle, as he shows flexibility and leverage to go with an explosive burst to close on the pocket. He also has the loose hips you want in an edge rusher who can consistently turn the corner (Donald often stunts and moves around the line, as seven of 11 sacks last season came from the strongside end position, but 20 of his 28.5 tackles-for-loss came from shooting the inside gaps).

Another undersized defensive tackle that will hear his name called in the first round is Florida State playmaker Timmy Jernigan, a classic under tackle who might not attack the backfield as often as Donald (just 8.5 sacks, six pressures and 25 stops-for-loss in 40 games), but has very good run-stuffing skills.

Few blockers have had any success stopping Jernigan when he explodes through the gaps, and while there are some size mismatches when he bull rushers vs. interior offensive linemen, he is a natural hands fighter who keeps himself very active utilizing swim and spin moves to force his way into the backfield to collapse the pocket.

Jernigan's lateral agility is ideally suited for the under tackle position, as he works well in unison with his defensive ends and has more than enough burst to handle guards in one-on-one situations. He also has enough short-area quickness (1.76-second 10-yard dash) to cover and handle tight ends and slot receivers working underneath.

Evident by his performance last season, his first as a full-time starter, Jernigan showed very good ability to line up vs. the opposing center and the weak-side guard to stall the traps and pulls from the opponent's interior blockers. In a 4–3 defensive set, nose tackles are rather quick and supposed to "shoot the 'A gap' and beat those blockers while pushing them back into the pocket. That he does with great success, recording 25 tackles-for-loss as a Seminole.

Some scouts compare Jernigan's ability to that of Hall of Famer Warren Sapp, but don't tell the junior defensive lineman that. He would much rather hear the names of former FSU standouts like Ron Simmons, Cory Simon, Darnell Dockett, Broderick Bunkley and Tank Johnson than being compared to a Hurricane. After all, he is a Seminole standout through and through.

The next 4-3 tackle that could be taken in the draft (I rated Minnesota's Ra'shede Hageman as a nose guard, knowing of the Patriots' preference for the Gopher) should be Penn State's DaQuan Jones. The move to strong-side defensive tackle as a junior saw Jones become a force vs. multiple blockers, as the long hours watching film helped him develop the explosive burst he needed to split double teams and shoot the gaps.

His once-inactive hands were now viable weapons that he would use to counter any moves the offensive lineman would try. The strength coming from his 322-pound frame would leave most ball carriers nursing wounds after being tackled by Jones. The senior finished the 2013 campaign fifth on the team with a career-high 56 tackles (33 solos).

Jones tied for third on the team in sacks, getting to opposing quarterbacks four times (two solos/two assists). He also led the Nittany Lions in tackles-for-loss, bringing down ball carriers in the backfield 13 times (ten solos/three assists). He packs power and has quick feet to handle one or two-gap run defense responsibilities in the box.

Jones is very tough to move, as he stands up blockers when anchoring vs. the run and brings down backs from behind within the box and straight up the middle. He also has the valid speed to chase plays downfield and towards the sideline. He spins off blocks and has good change of direction to reach quicker backs going through the hole once he's left it. He might get caught up in his man chest at times, failing to get off to make a play, but even quick backs have problems trying to elude him in the hole.

The enigma at this position is a Justin Tuck clone from the same university, Stephon Tuitt-Notre Dame. Prior to the 2013 season, the versatile lineman was regarded in the same breathe as Irish nose guard Louis Nix III – a certain first-rounder. While teams complained about the lack of effort from South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney in 2013, Tuitt's listless play was even more puzzling.

A possible reason for his decline in play might be his slow recovery from sports hernia surgery that limited him during 2013 spring and fall camp. It also slowed down his performance during the first half of the 2013 schedule. Then, at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, Tuitt was not given medical clearance to participate in agility tests after doctors at the Combine found a Jones fracture in his left foot. Recovery is expected to take six-to-eight weeks.

Tuitt started all 13 games at left defensive end in 2013, but was playing more than 25 pounds over his previous weight from his sophomore campaign (328) and this made him look very lethargic in his movements. He ranked sixth on the team with 50 tackles (24 solos), but his obvious lack of lateral agility, possibly due to his foot injury, or the unnecessary added weight, makes him more of a defensive tackle candidate than a player who can perform out on the edge.

If a player can be measured on heart, desire and fire in the belly, Florida's Dominique Easley would rank right up their with in-state rival Timmy Jernigan as the "next best" defensive tackle in this draft. Unfortunately, Easley's career has been highlighted more by his long litany of injuries rather than his production on the field.

Ever since he put on a Gators' uniform, he's spent a considerable amount of time at the doctor's office. As a freshman, he suffered a left knee anterior cruciate tear in the season finale vs. Florida State, missing the Gator Bowl vs. Ohio State. As a sophomore, he re-injured the knee vs. Tennessee, missing the rest of that game and the following week vs. Kentucky. He returned to action vs. Louisiana State, but left the contest and sat out the next game vs. Vanderbilt. As a junior, he suffered a right knee anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus tear in practice prior to the Gators' fourth game vs. Kentucky and missed the rest of the schedule.

Because of an assortment of injuries, Easley has never played a full season in the four that he has worn a Gators uniform. With the lineman starting at a variety of positions (has lined up at nose tackle, strong-side defensive end, strong-side tackle and weak-side tackle, earning playing time with the first unit at each spot) and on the field, Florida enjoyed a 22-10 record (.6875 winning percentage). With Easley on the sidelines, the Gators could manage only an 8-11 mark (.421 winning percentage).

Louisiana State's Anthony Johnson was regarded as the best defensive tackle in the country coming out of high school, but the five-star recruit never lived up to his press clippings. In fact, little known Tiger Ego Ferguson has leap-frogged his teammate by several rounds on most draft boards. Ferguson is a stay-at-home type of defender, too light to be a nose guard, but he does a very good job of plugging rush lanes when lined up over a center's head.

Ferguson shows surprising bend and power to win the leverage battle. He's been used as part of a rotation and loses his effectiveness when his pad level rises as he tires. He has very good upper-body strength to stack and shed, but I feel that he lacks the anchor to hold up to double teams as a nose guard. Still, he shows good quickness and aggression to seize the gap and works hard to split it.

The Tiger pursues well when he has a lane to do so, but there are times when he can get tied up inside and lose track of the ball. He plays with good effort, gets up quickly when knocked to the ground and gives his all to the whistle. He also flashes enough quickness off the snap to threaten gaps at three-technique, especially when slanting. The thing I like about him is that he has heavy hands, good lower-body strength and the ability to roll his hips into his opponent to drive them backwards on the bull rush, as he arrives with a thud as a tackler.

Johnson only started 16 times in 40 games at LSU, with 13 of those starting assignments coming last season, when he posted just 35 tackles. He actually had a better year as part of a rotation in 2012, coming off the bench to deliver 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage as a sophomore. He shows the burst to split gaps and make the play on his own.

Johnson also has the ability to create a pile in the middle, even showing the ability to split the occasional double-team. However, he is just as often blown off the ball due to his high pad level. He needs to do a better job of being the aggressor and tossing blockers aside to make the play rather than falling off blocks onto ball carriers as they go by.

The Tiger flashes good lateral agility to side-step blockers and can surprise you with his speed and effort in lateral pursuit. He may struggle to shed at the NFL level due to disproportionate arms (left arm is 33 inches long and the right one is 31 3/8), but he does have functional strength and balance to sit down, lock out and create a pile.

While Jadeveon Clowney drew lots of double-team attention, his running mate at South Carolina, Kelcy Quarles, made it a habit to take advantage of seeing lots of one-on-one battles, leading the Gamecocks in sacks (9.5) and tackles-for-loss (13.5) in 2013.

Quarles is a natural under tackle, as he knows how to take advantage of his long reach (80 3/8-inch wingspan) and explosive burst off the line of scrimmage to win most one-on-one battles. While Clowney had success getting to the quarterback, you can see on the game films that few defensive tackles possess the suddenness and power crashing through the gaps that Quarles displays.

More often than not, a lethargic offensive lineman is observing as Quarles explodes past their block by simply using an over-arm swim move. Those trying to ride him wide have difficulties making reach blocks, as Quarles is very active using his hands to defeat such a move. The fullback needs to be constantly alert to the Gamecock, as most defensive tackles do not have the lateral agility and pursuit skills the junior can generate.

The first player from the small college ranks likely to be drafted from the defensive tackle group appears to be Princeton's Caraun Reid, drawing lots of attention from both the Bears and Cowboys as a potential third-round target. It is a rare occurrence when an Ivy League player is selected in the NFL Draft, and even rarer when that athlete goes on to have a successful professional career, rather than battle every season to hold on to a spot on the bottom of a team's roster.

In the last decade, only 10 players from the league were chosen to play in the NFL, with none being taken in the first three rounds. While quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (Harvard) will be vying for a backup job with the Houston Texans, and offensive lineman Kevin Boothe (Cornell) hopes to earn a starting job on the Oakland Raiders' front wall, none of the other five taken before the last draft made any impact in the league.

Reid might not have the 330-pound frame you look for to be a nose guard, but he has above average upper body strength and that strong anchor to split double teams and collapse the offensive line from a conventional 4-3 strong-side tackle position. He has become more conscious of using his hands to play off blocks and keeps them active when working across the face of an offensive lineman.

Reid will engage and shed with good force and shows a surprising motor in short-area pursuit. When he gets into the hole, he delivers that strong hand punch to clog the rush lanes and push back the lead blocker (teams have recorded just 15 first downs on 155 rushing attempts vs. him). He is very hard to block coming off the ball and even if the blocker gets into his body, Reid is not the type the offensive guards can hold for long. He knows how to get underneath to get a piece of the blocker's pads and is very effective stacking and controlling in one-on-one situations.

A pair of Pac-12 Conference players that have been set back a bit during postseason workouts are California's Deandre Coleman (right knee) and USC's George Uko (back). Coleman has been able to recover most of his draft stock in the past few weeks, running a 5.06-second 40-yard dash in a recent private workout.

Coleman is an imposing-looking figure with experience at every defensive line position, but he came into his own when he shifted from strong-side defensive end to the much more demanding nose guard spot last season. Many talent evaluators felt that Coleman would emerge in 2013 with the position change and he proved them right with his ability to handle multiple blockers, yet still lead the team in tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Coleman has plenty of positive oversized characteristics. There is, however, an unfortunate one, too: His football career has been plagued with an abundance of big losses. "It's always been stressful," said Coleman, who has lost 72 career football games, including a 2-34 record at Garfield High in Seattle. "I just try to stay positive through everything. That's all I can really do."

Playing for three different defensive coordinators, Coleman is still a raw talent at this stage, but he still has a lot of upside to his game. He showcases a consistent pad level when asked to sit into his stance, and he has the ability to keep his base low, demonstrating the ability to fire low off the ball, as this prevents him from getting upright into contact.

When Coleman maintains proper pad level, he can extend his arms and gain leverage on contact, generating very good initial power when asked to anchor. With his long reach and big hands, he works hard to prevent defenders from getting under his frame and he can be very difficult to drive off the line, as he does a good job collecting himself, extending his arms and using his length to free himself and make a play on the football.

Uko is a versatile defender with starting experience as both a weak-side defensive tackle and weak-side end. As a senior, he also shined on special teams, producing a pair of blocked kicks. A coveted recruit who was a consensus All-American during his playing days at Don Antonio Lugo High School, the Trojans' new coaching staff was caught by surprise when the junior opted to try his wares in the National Football League next season, rather than return to school.

Uko might lack the ideal size to play tackle in a conventional 4-3 alignment, but he has very good balance, a strong lower frame and active hands, making it very difficult for bigger blockers to get under his jersey and ride him wide. With his long arms, he has had good success beating reach blocks and can shock a lethargic lineman with his very explosive burst coming out of his stance.

The third day of the draft could see at least four underrated players hear their names called, led by Connecticut's late bloomer, Shamar Stephen. Syracuse's Jay Bromley, Valdosta State's versatile lineman Lawrence Virgil and Purdue's Bruce Gaston are all types that have enough value to bring into camp. Mike Pennel (Colorado State-Pueblo) has mid-round talent but numerous off-field issues.

CREAM OF THE CROP: Aaron Donald (Pittsburgh; NFL Draft Report's top-rated player)
BEST OF THE REST: Timmy Jernigan (Florida State)
MOST UNDERRATED: Caraun Reid (Princeton)
MOST OVERRATED: Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame)
SUPER SLEEPER: Deandre Coleman (California)

DONALD, Aaron   6:01285 4.6835 3209'08" 4.397.11 8.61
#JERNIGAN, Timmy   6:02299 5.0327 29 1/208'06" 4.837.93 71
HAGEMAN, RaShede (NG)  6:06310 5.0232 35 1/209'06" 4.57.87 6.82
JONES, DaQuan (NG)   6:04322 5.3525 27 1/208'05" 4.787.73 6.62
#%TUITT, Stephon  (DE) 6:06304 4.9231 3209'03" 4.767.84 6.23
%#EASLEY, Dominique  (DE) 6:02288 4.9326 2608'06" 4.787.69 6.23
#FERGUSON, Ego (NG)  6:03315 4.9824 29 1/209'03" 4.857.94 6.13
#QUARLES, Kelcy   6:04297 5.0327 23 1/208'06" 4.287.32 63
REID, Caraun   6:02302 4.8520 27 1/208'10" 4.587.59 64
%COLEMAN, Deandre (NG)  6:05314 5.0824 25 1/208'07" 5.17.71 5.75
#JOHNSON, Anthony   6:03308 5.2420 24 1/208'06" 4.837.93 5.55
#UKO, George   6:03284 4.9922 29 1/209'02" 4.577.47 5.45
STEPHEN, Shamar (NG)  6:05309 5.2525 30 1/208'07" 4.897.81 5.37
BROMLEY, Jay   6:03306 5.0626 33 1/208'10" 4.787.92 5.26
VIRGIL, Lawrence (DE) 6:05287 539 3109'04" 4.827.77 5.17
PENNEL, Mike   6:04332 5.2323 28 1/208'06" 4.847.94 57-FA
HYDER, Kerry   6:03290 4.9720 3009'01" 4.337.23 4.97-FA
MANUMALEUNA, Eathyn   6:02296 5.9229 2808'05" 4.617.78 4.97-FA
GASTON, Bruce (NG)   6:02308 4.9534 3409'01" 4.557.48 4.87-FA
MEDER, Jamie   6:02293 5.233 3008'05" 4.437.47 4.87-FA
%WHALEY, Chris   6:03269 4.8723 3108'07" 4.687.82 4.7PFA
STATEN, Jimmy 6:05303 4.9330 2707'10" 4.77.43 4.7PFA
BROWN, Levi   6:02310 5.2333 28 1/209'01" 4.727.75 4.6PFA
SMITH, Garrison 6:01310 5.2123 24 1/208'02" 4.757.88 4.7PFA
%RAMSEY, Kaleb   6:03293 5.2436       4.7FA
MCALLISTER, Demonte  6:02297 5.1316 29 1/208'07" 4.847.61 4.7FA
HOOVER, Tyler 6:07286 5.1527 2909'04" 4.677.38 4.6FA
PALEPOI, Tenny   6:02298 5.131 30 1/209'03" 4.537.51 4.6FA
HAVILI-HEIMULI, Ricky   6:04329 5.32        4.6FA
BAH, Francis   6:02301 4.87        4.6FA
JONES, Byran   6:02315 5.12        4.6FA
TJONG-A-TJOE, Ricky   6:03303 5.4        4.5CMP
KELIIKIPI, Wade   6:02303 5.42        4.5CMP
WARMSLEY, Julius 6:02299 5.01        4.5CMP
JACKSON, Tim   6:04283 4.93        4.5CMP
SCHWENKE, Kona 6:04287 4.94 4.5CMP
WAY, Colby   6:03285 5.19        4.5CMP
GROSZ, Sullivan 6:03295 5.15        4.4CMP
TUIPULOTU, L.T. 6:01298 5.07 4.4CMP
McDANIEL, Jacobbi   6:00295 5.02        4.4CMP
WELLS, Anthony 6:03291 5.08        4.4CMP
ROBINSON, Luther 6:03302 5.08        4.4CMP
BROWN, Austin 6:02297 4.99        4.4CMP
JOHNSON, Roland (NG) 6:00312 5.28        4.4CMP
JACOBS, Damien 6:03299 5.26        4.3CMP
DORSEY, Ashton 6:02292 5.05        4.3CMP
CLEMONS, Galen 6:02297 4.94        4.3CMP
PATAIALII, A.J. 6:02311 5.05        4.3CMP
CUMMINGS, Euclid 6:03291 4.84        4.3CMP
CARTER, Kennerth 6:04287 5.06        4.3CMP
#Gray, Carlos   6:03296 5.12        4.3CMP

Immediate starter...Should have a major impact to the success of the franchise, barring injury...Possesses superior critical factors...Plays with consistency and without abnormal extra effort...Rare talent.
7.6-8.0Star Quality Eventual starter...Should make a significant contribution in his first year...Possesses above average critical factors...Has the talent and skills to start...Will contribute to upgrading the team...Can play without abnormal effort, but has some inconsistency in his play that will improve with refinement and development...Has no real weakness.
7.0-7.5Impact Player Possesses at least average to above average critical factors in all areas...Will contribute immediately, whether as a starter or a valuable reserve...Will move into the starting lineup with seasoning...Above average player who needs to refine certain areas.
6.5-6.9Eventual Starter Could move into the starting lineup within three years...Has average critical factors in all areas...Needs further development, but has the ability to contribute.
6.0-6.4Potential Starter Could force himself into the starting lineup with improved perform- ances...Will make a team...Has average critical factors in most areas, but at least one with less than average quality that he will have a hard time overcoming...Probable draft choice.
5.5-5.9Roster Player Has the ability to serve as a key reserve and possible future starter... Possesses average critical factors, but more than several areas are less than average...Plays with normal extra effort.
5.0-5.4Project Has the skills to play pro ball with proper tutoring...May make a team based on need...Possesses no real strong critical factors and is probably below average in several areas that the player will have a hard time overcoming...Possible draft choice, but only if that team is caught short on talent available at that position.
4.6-4.9Develop- mental Could make a team with an impressive showing in training camp... Not strong in most critical factors...Deficient in more than one area that he will not be able to overcome...At least average in the factor of competitiveness...May not make a team due to his limitations.
4.1-4.5Camp Player Has redeeming qualities that could allow him to play in the pros with improved performances...Deficient in more than one critical factor... Might make a team, but will always be the player that squad will look to replace.
3.5-4.0Reject Might make a team, but has glaring deficiencies in several critical factors...Below average competitor whose athletic skills will allow him to enter training camp, but has a difficult time in trying to make a team.

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