Positional analysis: Defensive ends

The Vikings appear to have their starters in place for the long term, but they have also showed interest in a few defensive ends in the predraft process. We analyze the strengths, weaknesses and draft projections of the top 10 defensive end prospects.

VIKINGS DEFENSIVE ENDS – Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, Corey Wootton, Justin Trattou, Spencer Nealy.

TEAM NEED – The Vikings will start their first season in a long time without Jared Allen as one of the vocal leaders of the defense. A sure-fire Hall of Famer, Allen's absence will be missed, but the Vikings aren't in a sense of desperation. They have enjoyed good success in the draft, finding both Robison and Griffen – the 2014 presumptive starters – in the fourth round of their respective drafts and added Wootton in free agency. While the Vikings won't turn away drafting a defensive end any time after the first round, it will have to be a special player to come off before the fourth round and they have shown interest in a few.

POSITION OVERVIEW: When the draft class includes the consensus No. 1 overall pick (Jadeveon Clowney), it starts off with a bang. While there may not be another defensive end taken in the first round, it's still a very strong class that will get a lot of early Day 2 attention. Clowney may be the only sure-fire first-rounder, but there may be as many as five DEs coming off the board in each of the second and third rounds, as the draft class has some depth in the talent pool.

THE CREAM THE OF THE CROP
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina, 6-5¼, 266 – Third-year junior…Started all 36 games of his college career…Finished his career with 130 tackles, 47 tackles-for-loss, 24 sacks and nine forced fumbles…Was named SEC Freshman of the Year in 2011 and finished sixth in the Heisman voting in 2012…Arrested twice for speeding – 110 mph in a 70 mph zone and 84 in a 55…A rare combination of size, explosiveness, speed and ball skills…Has elite pass-rush skill and can beat OTs with speed or strength…Has rare closing speed, and when a QB is in his sights, he goes down…Makes blockers miss and beats double-teams…Runs hot and cold and many question his work ethic once he gets paid and is a bona fide celebrity with millions in his pocket…Has suffered a lingering foot injury that has impacted him the last two seasons and he hasn't had surgery yet…His numbers in 2012 were much better than 2013…Has to improve on his lower-body strength because he doesn't have enough pure strength coming from his legs…Ran a 4.53 40 at the Combine with 21 reps of 225 pounds, a 37½-inch vertical jump and a 10-4 broad jump. PROJECTION: If Clowney ever decides to make football his top priority, there is no limit to his potential. In a 4-3 defense, he could be the next Jared Allen. In a 3-4 defense, he could be the next Lawrence Taylor. But he could be a tantalizing potential bust. Which makes him the biggest of risk/reward picks.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Kony Ealy, Missouri, 6-4, 273 –
Third-year junior…A two-year starter who had 79 tackles, 24 tackles-for-loss, 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles…Has blazing speed off the snap and can blow past offensive tackles…So disruptive that even SEC teams ran plays away from him…A three-down player who rarely leaves the field…Looks the part regardless of whether a team runs a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense…Will give up on some plays when he gets neutralized and can miss out on some tackles…Average tackle production despite being disruptive behind the line…Vulnerable to cut blocks…Needs to improve in run defense, which is why his production isn't at the level it should be…Ran a 4.92 40 at the Combine with 22 reps, a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: Ealy is a talented player whose potential is only now starting to be tapped. He may have a learning curve, but, when he gets on his game, he could be a Pro Bowl player for years to come.

Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame, 6-5¾, 304 – Third-year junior…Two-year starter who had had 96 tackles, 22 tackles-for-loss, 19.5 sacks, one interception, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in that span…Had sports hernia surgery following the 2012 season and didn't run or jump at the Combine when doctors found a Jones fracture in his left foot that would take six to eight weeks to recover from…Lost 24 pounds between Notre Dame's bowl game and the Combine…His mom in a deputy sheriff in Georgia…A rare combination of size, speed and power, he can play either defensive end or defensive tackle and some scouts rank him at both positions…Could thrive in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense…Has a good hand punch and initial burst off the snap to put O-linemen on their heels…Good overall recognition and closing speed when ball is in his area…Intensity runs hot and cold and doesn't consistently dominate…Doesn't use his hands well when rushing the passer (he tipped just five passes in three seasons)…Does not have a variety of pass-rush moves and offensive tackles can drop their anchor and force him to loop around too often and take himself out of plays…Durability is a question given his injury history…Did not run or jump at the Combine due to a foot injury, but did 31 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: A scheme-versatile player, there's no questioning Tuitt has first-round talent, but his durability questions and inconsistent performance may drop him out of the first round…but not much if he does.

Dee Ford, Auburn, 6-2¼, 252 – Fifth-year senior who was granted a medical redshirt three games into the 2011 season…A natural athlete with good burst and closing speed on the ball…A dedicated player who puts in time in the weight room and the classroom…Can handle tight ends when asked to drop in coverage…Has long arms and uses them well to keep offensive linemen off of his body…Missed time in every season due to injury, including a herniated disc, an ankle injury, an abdominal strain, a left knee injury and was granted a medical exclusion at the Combine with a lumbar spine injury…Is seen by some scouts as a ‘tweener who is too small to play DE in the NFL and inexperienced playing outside linebacker…Has added 40 pounds of muscle and bulk in his college career and is pretty much maxed out…Is neutralized by double teams and chips. PROJECTION: Has first-round ability and, when healthy, he's a difference-maker. But his laundry list of various injuries to various parts of his body will drop him into the second round and perhaps deeper.

Scott Crichton, Oregon State, 6-3, 273 – Fourth-year junior…Started all 38 games he played in his college career…Finished his career with 165 tackles, 51 tackles-for-loss, 22.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles…Second-team All-Pac 12 as a senior…A motor that only runs hot, he has an explosive first step and is relentless in pursuit…Has a powerful hand punch and uses it well to stun blockers and get a leverage advantage…A classic left defensive end bull rusher…Doesn't give up on plays and will chase plays to the other sideline…Is a little shorter than scouts like for DEs…Doesn't have quick lateral movement to fill in running lanes…Is not an elite athlete…Doesn't have a huge upside – you get what you get…Ran a 4.84 40 at the Combine with 24 reps, a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: On tape, he reminds you of Minnesota's Brian Robison, a player who will likely have to start in a rotation system before being cut loose. In a class with elite athletes with injury histories or commitment questions, Crichton is a "safe pick" that will likely land somewhere in the second half of the second round.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Chris Smith, Arkansas, 6-1, 266 –
Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 88 tackles, 24.5 tackles-for-loss and 21 sacks in that span…Arrested in October 2012 for failure to appear in court for a speeding ticket…Has one child…Has a thick, muscular trunk with long arms and good upper-body strength…Has good lateral movement, agility and change-of-direction skills…Versatility is a plus; he has played both DE and OLB…Doesn't have a violent hand punch and doesn't show the ability to consistently use his combination of speed and power to his advantage…Inconsistent burst off the snap and will be a half-second late too often…Is far too short for NFL prototype standards and at times will lose sight of the ball…Ran a 4.71 40 at the Combine with 28 reps of 225 pounds, a 37-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: Another classic ‘tweener type, if Smith was 3 inches taller, he would be a first- or second-round prospect. As things currently stand, he is a third-round prospect.

Kareem Martin, North Carolina, 6-6, 272 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who made starts in his final 41 college games…In his final three seasons, he recorded 162 tackles, 44 tackles for a loss, 19.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery…Had a huge 2013 season with 82 tackles, 21.5 tackles-for-loss, 11.5 sacks and three forced fumbles…A durable team captain…Had a strong week of practice at the Senior Bowl…Has an amazing set of measurable traits and is a prototype NFL DE…Has excellent burst off the snap and closes quickly on the ball…His combination of strength and long arms make him hard to corral off the snap…Is often slow coming off the snap and far too often is the last lineman moving off the snap…Has a narrow lower body and will have more difficulty getting around NFL blockers…Has limited flexibility and struggles to gain an upper hand when forced to change direction…Ran a 4.72 40 at the Combine with 22 reps, a 35½-inch vertical jump and a 10-9 broad jump. PROJECTION: A player coming off a tremendous 2013 season, his stock is on the rise. UNC has produced a first-round lineman each of the last three years (Sylvester Williams, Quinton Coples and Robert Quinn), but he is more likely to still be on the board into the middle of Day 2.

Marcus Smith, Louisville, 6-3½, 251 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter…Blew up in 2013, recording 42 tackles, 18.5 tackles-for-loss, 14.5 sacks and four forced fumbles…Came to Louisville as quarterback, but was almost immediately moved to linebacker and, in 2011, shifted to defensive end…Has a nice combination of speed, agility and power that could project him in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme…Has very active hands and quick read-and-react skills…A physical wrap-up tackler…Doesn't have ideal bulk or power and typically gets stopped when a blocker gets his hands on him…Doesn't have an array of pass-rush moves other than a looping speed rush or a double-move inside stunt…While seen as a ‘tweener, some scouts question his ability to play OLB in a 4-3 scheme…Ran a 4.68 40 at the Combine with 23 reps of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: A physical defender who emerged as a big-time talent in 2013, his lack of experience and potential ‘tweener issues will drop him into the third round.

Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas, 6-3, 247 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who made starts in the final 31 games of his career…Missed four games as a freshman with a severe ankle sprain and seven games in 2012 when he ruptured a pectoral muscle that required surgery…Had a monster 2013 season with 82 tackles, 19 tackles-for-loss, 13 sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles…Was the only FBS lineman to lead his team's defense in tackles…The son of former Cowboys and Bills defensive lineman Jim Jeffcoat…A versatile player who lined up at DE in four-man fronts, OLB in three-man fronts as well as getting time at inside linebacker…Has strong hands and fights his way through defenders to locate and track the ball…Is relentless in pursuit and has good closing speed…Has a big upper body, but a lean lower body that will make it difficult to shed NFL OTs…Doesn't have elite functional strength (see below) to dominate at the point of attack…Is too easily steered off in run defense…Ran a 4.63 40 at the Combine with a disappointing 18 reps of 225 pounds, a 36-inch vertical jump and a 10-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: An NFL legacy, he proved he could be a dominant player at Texas, but has a lack of a clear position – he's not a pure 4-3 DE and has limited experience as a 3-4 OLB. He will be a player who could have a tremendous NFL career, but will likely be available well into the third round.

Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State, 6-3, 251 – Fourth-year senior who spent two years at Butler (Kan.) Community College…Started all 23 games he played at Boise State, recording 120 tackles, 34 tackles-for-loss, 20 sacks, seven forced fumbles and one interception…Two-time first-team All-Mountain West selection…Suspended twice by the school for disciplinary issues/violations of team rules…Has long arms and uses them well to get an advantage off the snap…Has a good variety of pass-rush moves that he mixes and matches…Anchors well in run defense and holds his ground consistently…A raw prospect who had only two years of Division I experience and didn't consistently play against top competition…Has some significant character issues – it takes a lot to get suspended twice by a team – and may have some red flags that will scare off some teams…A classic ‘tweener who may not have the size/bulk to be a regular DE or the speed to be an impact OLB…Ran a 4.80 40 at the Combine with 20 reps of 225 pounds, a 34½-inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: The classic type of college player with talent, but more questions (both on and off the field) for teams to take a risk in the first two days. A priority pick early on Day 3.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Jeoffrey Pagan, Alabama, 6-3½, 310
Kasim Edebali, Boston College, 6-2, 253
Cassius Marsh, UCLA, 6-4, 252
Will Clarke, West Virginia, 6-6¼, 271
Ed Stinson, Alabama, 6-3¼, 287
Josh Mauro, Stanford, 6-6, 271
Aaron Lynch, South Florida, 6-5, 249
Michael Sam, Missouri, 6-2, 261
Ethan Westbrooks, West Texas A&M, 6-3½, 267
James Gayle, Virginia Tech, 6-3¾, 259
Taylor Hart, Oregon, 6-6¼, 281


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