Positional analysis: Defensive tackles

The Vikings are changing the look of their interior defensive line significantly and could look to add younger depth in the middle rounds. We put the top 10 DT prospects under the microscope, examining their strengths and weaknesses, pro projections, strength and agility.

VIKINGS DEFENSIVE TACKLES – Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph, Fred Evans, Chase Baker, Tom Johnson, Kheeston Randall.

TEAM NEED – The Vikings haven't had a dominant defensive tackle tandem since Pat Williams was allowed to leave. But they have addressed the position with gusto over the last 12 months – drafting Floyd with their first pick in the 2013 draft, signing Joseph to a five-year, $31.5 million free agent contract and re-signing Evans. This isn't viewed as a huge need position, but if a player that fits Mike Zimmer's defense is available, it wouldn't be a shocker to see the Vikings take him in the third or fourth round, but likely no earlier than that.

POSITION OVERVIEW: A solid, but not great draft class. There isn't a clear-cut top pick, although Pitt's Aaron Donald has risen to the top. There are likely going to be three or four DTs that will go in the first round (Donald, Timmy Jernigan, Louis Nix III and Ra'Shede Hageman), but the drop-off is quick after that and, if all four are gone on Day 1, it may take well into Day 2 for the fifth one to come off the board, which could create serious competition for the top four and then a prolonged lull period.

THE CREAM THE OF THE CROP

Aaron Donald, Pitt, 6-0¾, 285 –
Fourth-year senior…Two-year full-time starter who had 123 tackles, 47 tackles for a loss, 16.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in that span…Had a monster senior season that included 28.5 tackles for a loss, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles…The first Pitt defensive player to be a unanimous All-America selection since Hugh Green in 1990…Had to build a new trophy case in 2013 after winning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award, Outland Trophy, Rotary Lombardi Award and ACC Defensive Player of the Year…Is a smart player who eats and sleeps football, working tirelessly in practice and film study…Incredible first step off the snap with the explosion and burst to get into the backfield…Off-the-charts production in 2013 as the most disruptive interior lineman in the draft…Has a very powerful upper body (see below) and knows how to use it to his advantage…Uses his hands well and has a shocking hand punch off the snap…Is very short for NFL standards and will have difficult disengaging from NFL interior linemen…His lack of size may be an issue when he tries to anchor and close running lanes…Not a killer instinct when it comes to closing on the ball and finishing…Has a habit of wearing down late in games when the defense is on the field a lot…Ran a 4.6 40 at the Combine with an impressive 35 reps of 225 pounds, a 32-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: If he was just a little bit taller, he would be a lock for the top 10. He will have to overcome some size limitations, but he is a force in the middle rushing the passer and won't last long, likely coming off the board in the middle of the first round.

Timmy Jernigan, Florida State, 6-1¾, 299 – Third-year junior…A one-year starter who had 63 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks last year…Didn't miss time during the season but suffered a high ankle sprain in 2012 and a torn MCL and meniscus in 2013 during spring practices…First-team All-ACC in 2013…Has excellent hand use and uses swim and rip moves to get through blockers…Has excellent lateral movement skills to mirror and slide into run lanes…Can take on double teams and hold his ground…Has the versatility to be a three-technique DT or fill the hole as a nose tackle…Is shorter than most scouts like for DTs who are asked to be run-cloggers and doesn't have great natural bulk…Isn't elite in initial burst to split blockers and get to the quarterback, making him much more effective as a run stopper than a pass rusher…Bites too often on misdirection and traps and will take himself out of plays…As only a one-year starter, he is still very raw in terms of technique…Ran a 5.06 40 at the Combine with 27 reps, a 29½-inch vertical jump and an 8-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: Jernigan is a tempting prospect who could be an immediate starter in the right system. He is a mid-first-round prospect and currently seems to be tied almost exclusively to the Dallas Cowboys, where he could make an immediate impact in the post-Jason Hatcher era.

Louis Nix III, Notre Dame, 6-2½, 331 – Fourth-year junior…Started 30 of 34 career games, finishing with 122 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble…Suffered a knee injury in the 2013 BSC title game vs. Alabama and elected not to have surgery – the knee bothered him much of the 2013 season and he had season-ending surgery in November, in time to return to work at the Combine…Has 13 brothers and sisters…Was a YouTube sensation with his "Chocolate News" videos and got himself in some trouble with his penchant for using social media and saying or doing things his coaches didn't particularly care for…Ideal size for a two-gap NFL nose tackle…Very muscular and dominant inside against the constant double teams he faces…Has very agile feet and rarely gets his legs cut out from under him…Plays with a mean streak and seems to enjoy frustrating offensive linemen by playing to the whistle (and beyond)…Has good football intelligence and is adept at disengaging and making plays when the ball gets close…Weight has always been an issue and last summer he blew up when not working out rehabbing his knee…Is not a threat is pass production (just 2.5 career sacks) and will be a two-down lineman in the NFL…Doesn't have many counter moves when stood up at the snap…Doesn't have the best stamina, which can be attributed to his lack of conditioning…Didn't lift at the Combine with a pectoral strain, but ran a 5.42 40 with a 25½-inch vertical jump and an 8-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: Nix could be the second coming of Vince Wilfork, but, because he is a pure nose tackle, his value won't be as high with teams that run a 3-4. We have him with a first-round grade, with his most likely landing spots being Pittsburgh, Baltimore or New England.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Ra'shede Hageman, Minnesota, 6-6, 310 –
Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 73 tackles, 20.5 tackles for a loss, one forced fumble and one interception in that span…Had a very sad childhood in which he never met his father and his mother was a drug abuser…Came to Minnesota as a tight end, but moved to defensive end as a redshirt in 2009…A team captain as a senior…Has an excellent combination of height, strength and speed…Has an excellent push off the snap as a three-technique DT over the center and consistently gets into the backfield…Dominates when not double-teamed…Has elite upper-body strength and translates his speed and strength into power…Needs to refine his pass-rushing technique because he takes himself out of too many plays…Is not an elite finisher and will let QBs get away too often…For his talent, his production from one game to the next was marginal at best…Will disappear for long periods of time, especially when offensive coaches scheme to double him…Ran a 5.02 40 at the Combine with 32 reps of 225 pounds, a 35½-inch vertical jump and 9-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: Hageman is a classic draft prospect. He isn't elite in any specific category, but is very strong in all of them. In the right system, he has Pro Bowl potential and, because the versatility of his skill set is so pronounced, it will be hard for him to make it out of the first round, but he isn't a lock to go on Day 1.

Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina, 6-3¾, 297 – Third-year junior…Started 29 of 35 career games…A two-year full-time starter who had 77 tackles, 21.5 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks in that span…Spent a year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy before coming to USC…An All-SEC first-team pick in 2013…Has excellent anchor strength and consistently holds his ground in run defense…Has long arms and uses them well to keep blockers away from his body…Has a strong upper body and a jolting hand punch…Is very active and will work his way down the line and upfield to chase down plays that don't come his way…Played on a defense where offenses were geared up to stop Jadeveon Clowney and he didn't see as many double-teams as other DTs in the class…Is consistent is his pad level and comes off the snap high too often and has difficulty getting away from blockers once they lock on…Does not have good speed or flexibility, so he plays pretty much in a phone booth…Gets sucked in on draws and misdirection and will take himself out of plays…Ran a 5.03 40 at the Combine with 27 reps, a 23½-inch vertical jump and an 8-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: The first player after the significant drop-off in talent at DT in the Class of 2014, he projects as a Day 2 pick, but likely will be on the board when the third round starts.

Brent Urban, Virginia, 6-6¾, 295 – Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who started 20 games, recording 60 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, three sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery – which he returned for a TD…Missed time in 2010 with a knee injury, had wrist surgery after the 2011 season, missed four games in 2013 with a leg injury, suffered an ankle injury at the Senior Bowl and couldn't take part in drills at the Combine because he was wearing a soft cast…Grew up in Canada and played both football and hockey in high school until his junior season…Was drafted in the second round (15th overall) by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL…Has excellent burst off the snap and can get into the backfield quickly…Played both defensive end in a 3-4 and tackle in a 4-3, so he projects to any NFL scheme…Has long arms and a strong hand punch, which he uses effectively and consistently…Is a big-time hustler and will chase plays to the sideline…His injury history will be sure to raise some red flags for some teams simply because of the number of them…Wasn't a factor as a pass rusher (just three sacks in 20 starts)…Is susceptible to getting his legs cut out and ends up on the ground too often for a big man…Isn't a finisher and misses too many tackles. PROJECTION: A player with good versatility to be of interest to all 32 teams, but his injury history will likely drop him to Day 3 of the draft or very late on Day 2.

THE BEST OF THE REST

DaQuan Jones, Penn State, 6-3¾, 322 –
Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter…Didn't make an impact until his senior season when he had 56 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks…Played in the shadow of fellow DT Jordan Hill until 2013…First-team All-Big 10 in 2013…A coach's dream who is a natural leader and works hard in film study to improve his game…Strong vs. the run and is a load to steer or move out of the way…Plays with intimidating strength and power…Has an extremely violent hand punch…Has had issues with his weight and it has fluctuated significantly and will need to be monitored…Is an extremely limited pass rusher and will probably be a two-down lineman…Doesn't play with a mean streak and at times appears passive…Ran a 5.35 40 at the Combine with 25 reps of 225 pounds, a 27½-inch vertical jump and an 8-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: He has the tools to be a solid NFL player, but his athletic limitations, unless harnessed and redefined, will likely have him struggling to become a full-time player, but he's a hard worker who has the look of a fourth-round pick with upside.

Dominique Easley, Florida, 6-1¾, 288 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter (26 games played), who had 68 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks…Suffered a torn left ACL in 2011, suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss time in 2012 and torn his right ACL and medial meniscus during a practice three games into the 2013 season…A team captain known for his toughness, willingness to work hard in practice and the weight room and study film…Explosive off the snap and has good moves to gain separation from blockers…Is a strong tackler who closes with velocity and makes the big hit…Few players have ever had an NFL career after suffering ACL tears in both knees…At 288 pounds, he is viewed as undersized for an NFL DT by a lot of teams…Seems only to be a fit in a 3-4 defense, which may take half the teams out of consideration…The only work he did at the Combine was 26 reps of 225 pounds because he got a medical exclusion from the other drills because he was still recovering from surgery. PROJECTION: Had he stayed healthy, we would be talking about him as a first-round pick. But, coming off two torn ACLs, including one just seven months ago, some teams won't even have him on their draft boards and he could remain on the board for a long, long time.

Will Sutton, Arizona State, 6-0½, 303 – Fifth-year senior who was granted a redshirt in 2010 after being ruled academically ineligible…A three-year starter who started 38 of 39 games his final three years…In that span, he had 144 tackles, 42.5 tackles for a loss, 19.5 sacks and three forced fumbles…His father Mickey was a NFL player for the Rams, Packers and Bills…Effective when on the move in the run game, where he takes advantage of his good hand placement and balance…A finisher who has good acceleration to the ball…Plays with a mean streak and is hard to miss on the season…Gained 20 pounds after his junior year, which not only hurt his stamina, but had people questioning his work ethic and commitment to the game…Doesn't possess prototypical size and has very short arms, which is never good for an NFL DT trying to keep blockers away from his body…His production dropped badly in 2013, as he tended to wear down late in games…Ran a 5.36 40 at the Combine with 24 reps, a 28½-inch vertical jump and an 8-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: He was seen as an early Day 2 prospect following his junior season, but after gaining weight and losing his edge, he will be lucky to come off the board before the fourth or fifth round.

Ego Ferguson, LSU, 6-3, 315 – Fourth-year junior…One-year starter who had 58 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and one sack in 2013…Has a big, wide body and has developed into a solid player with good gap control…Has excellent balance, fluidity and change of direction skills…Has good foot quickness – both getting off quickly and chasing plays laterally…Has trouble getting rid of blockers once they latch on…Very raw with just one season as a starter…A sub-par pass rusher who was rarely making plays behind the line of scrimmage…Had 24 reps of 225 pounds at the Combine, but wasn't able to take part in drills after getting a medical exclusion for a right ankle injury. PROJECTION: A raw prospect with upside, he played from a program known for churning out NFL players, but his lack of tangible game experience will drop him into the final day unless a team falls in love with him and rolls the dice too early for a risk-reward pick.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Anthony Johnson, LSU, 6-2½, 308
Caraun Reid, Princeton, 6-2¼, 302
Daniel McCullers, Tennessee, 6-6¾, 352
George Uko, USC, 6-2¾, 284
Deandre Coleman, Cal, 6-4¾, 314
Justin Ellis, Louisiana Tech, 6-1½, 334
Chris Whaley, Texas, 6-3¼, 269
Jay Bromley, Syracuse, 6-3¼, 306
Khyri Thornton, Southern Miss, 6-2¾, 303
Tenny Palepoi, Utah, 6-1½, 298


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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