Positional Analysis: Defensive Ends

The Vikings are expected to be targeting at least one defensive ends early in the draft with all the questions surrounding the health of Kenechi Udeze and Erasmus James. We go in-depth on the top 10 defensive ends in the draft with analysis, statistics, measurables and projections.

VIKINGS DEFENSIVE ENDS – Kenechi Udeze, Erasmus James, Ray Edwards, Brian Robison, Jayme Mitchell, Otis Grigsby.

POSITION ANALYSIS – Perhaps the most talked-about position for the Vikings heading into the draft, many believe the Vikes will be forced to use their first-round pick here. With Erasmus James' future in question due to three knee surgeries in the span of approximately a year and Kenechi Udeze's future up in the air after being diagnosed with leukemia, a case can be made that this is the Vikings' top need. Adding to the problem is that, while there are five or six legitimate first-round talents at DE, the talent drop-off comes quickly beyond them and, if the Vikings wait until the second round to address this issue, all of the top prospects will be gone. There could be more DEs off the board in the first round than any other position. While depth is considered good, the top of the totem pole is where everyone wants to be. Unlike quarterback or wide receivers, where teams can expect to still get top talent if they pass on the position in the first round, the same may not be true at defensive end, where the top of the draft board will be skeletonized quickly.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Chris Long, Virginia, 6-3, 272 –
Fourth-year senior … Son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long … Named Gatorade Player of the Year in Virginia as a high school senior … A three-year starter who started his final 37 collegiate games … In his final three years, he recorded 178 tackles, 41 tackles for a loss, 21 sacks, 15 passes deflected and three forced fumbles … Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior with 75 tackles, 19 tackles for a loss and 14 sacks … Excellent coordination and field vision … Is very strong against the run and chases plays to the other side of the field … Good pass rusher who has multiple rush moves … Very quick first step and puts offensive linemen on their heels … Good instincts and reads plays very well … Has the athleticism to drop into coverage on tight ends … Rarely fooled by misdirection or play-action … Motor never stops … Doesn't have the elite closing speed of many top NFL defensive ends … When bull-rushing, will often go too wide and miss sack opportunities … Got neutralized by Pitt's Jeff Otah when they met last year … Doesn't have the explosion off the snap to burn good offensive tackles immediately … Didn't lift at the Combine, but ran a 4.75 40 with a 34-inch vertical jump and a 10-4 broad jump. PROJECTION: Is as polished a defensive end that has come out of the college game in some time – better in many respects than Mario Williams, the top pick in the 2006 draft. He has so many good intangibles that what are viewed as weaknesses can easily be corrected with coaching. A legitimate No. 1 overall pick, but more likely will drop to the Rams at No. 2.

Vernon Gholston, Ohio State, 6-2¾, 263 – Fourth-year junior … Recruited as a linebacker but moved to DE as a true freshman … Redshirted in 2005 after breaking his left hand in the season opener … A two-year starter who, in 25 games, recorded 88 tackles, 30½ tackles for loss, 22½ sacks and one fumble recovery … Named Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2007 … Looks like a body builder … Incredible combination of speed and strength … Rare upper-body strength (see below) … Has very long arms and uses them well to get an immediate advantage on offensive tackles … Has good closing speed from the edge … Has a variety of pass-rush moves … Plays his best against top competition – he burned anticipated No. 1 overall pick Jake Long when Michigan played OSU last year … Explosive first step off the snap … Is inconsistent and seems to focus too much on pass plays and will get fooled on runs his way … Doesn't chase plays consistently to the other side of the field … Has trouble sifting through the garbage in pursuit on plays to the opposite side … Will take some plays off and take himself out of others with wide pass-rush moves … Doesn't have great field awareness for draws and play-fakes … Completely tore up the Combine with a 4.58 40, 37 reps of 225 pounds (tied with Jake Long for the most of any player that worked out), an incredible 42-inch vertical jump and a 10-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: A physical marvel that could play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, Gholston has the ability to be a dominant pro and perennial Pro Bowler. Had the most sacks of any college defensive player over the last two years and, while he doesn't play like a glass-eater emotionally, his fabulous post-season workouts could have him going No. 1 or No. 2 overall. In a worst-case scenario, he falls to the Patriots as an OLB at No. 7 – which could be a long-term blessing to hook up with that team.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Derrick Harvey, Florida, 6-4½, 269 –
Fourth-year junior … Gatorade Player of the Year in Maryland and USA Today Second-Team All-American as a high school senior … Set a state record for sacks (31) his senior year of high school … Named Defensive MVP of the National Championship Game win over Ohio State … Only a one-year full-time starter with the Gators – a season in which he recorded 49 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, five passes deflected and one forced fumble … Has good initial explosion to beat offensive tackles to the corner … Has excellent closing speed on the QB … Has a variety of pass-rush moves and can sell fakes and move underneath tackles … Can change direction quickly … Holds up well against the run and can consistently get containment when plays come his way … Can hit top speed quickly … Doesn't have great anchor strength and will struggle to hold his ground against big offensive tackles … Has a thin lower body … Had more sacks as a part-time starter (11) in 2006 than as a full-time starter in 2007 … Does not have ideal field vision and gets cut-blocked too often … Tried to bulk up for the Combine and seemed to lose a little of his quickness … Ran a disappointing 4.86 40 at the Combine with 31 reps, a 29-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: Harvey tried to show his versatility by running some linebacker drills at the Combine, but didn't fare well, which should take most 3-4 teams out of the mix. But he has the skills to be a solid defensive end from either side in a 4-3 alignment. He is still raw, but his athleticism will win the day. He would be an ideal choice for the Vikings at No. 17, but most don't believe he will make it past Carolina at No. 13.

Phillip Merling, Clemson, 6-4½, 276 – Third-year junior … Two-year starter who registered 124 tackles, 27 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in that span … Very good size and strength … Has long arms to keep offensive tackles away from his body … Is hard to run at because he sees the field well and can straighten up O-linemen consistently … Excels at chasing plays to the other side of the field … Reads and reacts quickly to plays as they unfold … Uses his hands well to rush the passer and get rid of blockers … Rarely fooled by misdirection or play-action … His motor doesn't stop … Does not have great sack numbers … Has neither good initial explosion or sustained speed in the pass rush … Leaves himself vulnerable to cut blocks and will end up on the ground too often … Does not have great upper-body strength (see below) … Doesn't have a variety of pass-rush moves … Not an elite athlete … Wasn't able to work out at the Combine because of a groin injury, but did just 18 reps of 225 pounds – a dismal total that had some thinking he shouldn't have even attempted. PROJECTION: Vikings fans may want to pay close attention to Merling because there is a very good chance he could end up being the player they wind up with in the first round on draft day. He is what scouts call a better football player than an athlete. While he doesn't have elite speed, he has experience at both end positions and his willingness to work hard has never been questioned. He doesn't jump off the page like some of the other prospects, but may have just as good a pro career as most if not all of them.

Calais Campbell, Miami, 6-8, 282 – Fourth-year junior … Holds the Colorado state high school record for most career sacks (57) … Two-year starter who had 134 tackles, 33 tackles for a loss, 18.5 sacks, six passes deflected, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in that span … Has an impressive combination of size, speed and agility rarely found in one package … Has long arms and a very quick jump off the snap … Has good closing speed on the quarterback and rarely doesn't get to him when he has him in his sights … Uses long arms to direct and swim past blockers … Takes long strides and can close ground in a hurry … Can chase plays down the line and make plays on the other side … Does not play to his size or use his length to his own advantage on a consistent basis … Has inconsistent technique in the run game and will get out of position too often … Doesn't play with a lot of intensity … Will take plays off or give a half-hearted effort at times … Doesn't have good upper-body strength (see below) … Still viewed as raw in many respects … Is not well-defined and didn't look all that good when he tried to bulk up 10 pounds at the Combine … Ran a 5.01 40 at the Combine with just 17 reps of 225 pounds, a 30-inch vertical jump and a 9-2 broad jump. PROJECTION: Campbell had much better numbers as a sophomore when playing closer to 270 pounds – all of his key numbers (tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, etc.) were better than last year's totals. Ideally, he goes to a team that has veteran DEs and he can be used on a situational basis as a pass rusher to start and find his niche as he gains experience. The Jaguars near the end of the first round look like an ideal landing spot.

Lawrence Jackson, USC, 6-4¼, 271 – Fifth-year senior … Started 51 of the 52 games in his college career … Had surgery on his right ankle following his redshirt season in 2003 and after his junior year in 2006 … Finished his career with 181 tackles, 52 tackles for a loss, 30½ sacks, 14 passes batted, seven forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries … A team captain as a senior … Has long arms and a body that can add 10-15 more pounds of bulk without losing much speed … Has a strong punch and is very solid vs. the run … Has good field vision and recognizes and reacts quickly … Despite not having great speed, he is adept at chasing down plays and making tackles … Very good upper-body strength (see below) … Is not explosive and won't threaten the edge with a speed rush … Doesn't play with great balance and can get pushed around … Is cocky and didn't come off very well in some Combine interviews … Will disappear at times and get frustrated when being manhandled by a strong OT … Doesn't use his strength to push blockers back toward the quarterback when bull-rushing … Ran a 4.81 40 at the Combine with an impressive 31 reps, a 31-inch vertical jump and an 8-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: He doesn't have any of the top intangibles coaches are looking for and may never be a consistent pass rusher at the next level. But, despite some attitude problems, he is as polished, experienced and game-durable a DE prospect as there is in the Class of 2008. However, two right ankle surgeries likely have put many teams' medical staff on point and, as a result of that red flag and other minor deficiencies, he should be on the board well into the second round. But a four-year starter at USC comes to the NFL ready to contribute immediately. If the Vikings don't go for a defensive end in the first round, they may go to the USC well with Jackson in the second.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Chris Ellis, Virginia Tech, 6-4½, 262 –
Fifth-year senior … Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a child and took medication throughout elementary school … Became a starter early in his sophomore season and started 35 of the final 36 games of his college career … In his two years as a full-time starter, he had 91 tackles, 17.5 tackles for a loss, 13 sacks, six batted passes, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries … Had two surgeries for a torn right labrum – one in 2003 and another early in 2007 … Has good burst at the snap to get into blockers on running plays … Has a good hand punch … Is always on the move and has a variety of pass-rush moves … Does his job effectively and maintains containment on back-side plays … Is good in pursuit...Plays small and has a thin lower body … Tries to free-lance too often and will take himself out of plays … Will have trouble holding his point in the NFL against much bigger tackles … Has trouble getting blockers off of his body once they lock on … Has had some attitude problems and picks up too many flags as a result of frustration and lashing out … Character might be a red flag because of penalties and cocky attitude … Didn't lift at the Combine, but ran a 4.71 40 with a 27½-inch vertical jump and a 9-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: Somewhat undersized for a 4-3 defensive end, Ellis has a lot of playing-field intangibles that will get the attention of scouts. But his history of shoulder injuries and bad attitude will drop him down on some teams' draft boards. But with the need for DEs in the draft, he should still come off the board somewhere in the second round.

Jason Jones, Eastern Michigan, 6-5¼, 275 – Fourth-year senior … Came to EMU as a tight end but converted to the defensive line after his freshman season … Started 33 of the 34 games he played his final three seasons … Finished his career with 174 tackles, 50 tackles for a loss, 14 sacks and three forced fumbles … Has incredibly long arms – 36½ inches, the second-longest of any player measured at the Combine … Plays well against both the pass and the run … Has a quick first step and can turn the corner when rushing the passer … Has a good hand punch and stands up blockers … Played his best at the biggest times – vs. Michigan in 2007 and at the Senior Bowl … Improved his numbers each year of his college career … Does not have great upper-body strength (see below) … Plays much too high and can be directed by good offensive tackles … Is raw in NFL terms and will need some refinement … Never played against top competition on a regular basis … Tries to make big plays all the time and will take himself out of too many plays as a result … Has a thin lower body … Does not always play with a lot of fire … Is slow to react and late in pass/run recognition … Ran a 4.79 40 at the Combine with 19 reps of 225 pounds, a 30½-inch vertical jump and a 10-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: Jones will need some refining to his game, but has experience at both end and tackle and his versatility will be viewed as a plus for teams with depth concerns. He will need time to develop, but will be worth a look in the middle to late portions of the second round.

Darrell Robertson, Georgia Tech, 6-4, 255 – Fourth-year senior … Two-year starter who had 90 tackles, 23 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries in that span … Very good footwork and moves and slides effectively … Was effective both as a pass rusher and in the running game when using good technique … Hits with extreme force on the snap and can force blockers back into the pocket … Has a good variety of pass-rush moves … Has the speed to drop into coverage on zone blitzes and take on tight ends … Has not been a consistent producer in terms of tackles and game-changing plays … Is viewed as undersized by NFL standards at DE and not fast enough to play outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme … Plays too high and can be directed by good offensive tackles … Is vulnerable to cut blocking and ends up on the ground too often … Will loop around O-tackles too often and arrive late at the quarterback … Did not work out at the Combine because of a right shoulder injury. PROJECTION: A good athlete, but he has gained 65 pounds since coming to GT as a 190-pound freshman. There are a lot of questions as to whether he will ever be able to get much bigger. He could develop into an ideal 3-4 rush linebacker, but because so few teams use that defensive system, he could remain on the board for a long time.

Bryan Smith, McNeese State, 6-3, 240 – Fifth-year senior who missed his redshirt freshman season with a dislocated shoulder … In his final three seasons, he started 29 of the 31 games in which he played and had 187 tackles, 56.5 tackles for a loss, 31 sacks, nine forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries … Played like a man among boys his last two seasons with 45½ tackles-for-loss and 24 sacks … Never stops working and gives his maximum effort at all times … Has good burst off the line and closes ground quickly on the quarterback … Very good at pass-run recognition … Can sift through the garbage to make plays on the other side of the field … Good finisher on tackles … Very undersized for the NFL at defensive end and has no experience at linebacker … Has little in the way of upper-body strength (see below) … Has faced inferior competition and faces a big learning curve … Does not have the strength to ever be an every-down DE in the NFL … Ran a 4.78 40 at the Combine with a position-worst 17 reps of 225 pounds, a 36½-inch vertical jump and a 9-9 broad jump. PROJECTION: The only teams that might be interested in Smith in the early rounds would be someone that views him as an OLB project in a 3-4 system or someone that uses undersized speed rushers like the Colts and Eagles. As a result, he could easily slide well into the third round if not farther.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Titus Brown, Mississippi State, 6-2¾, 246
Shawn Crable, Michigan, 6-5, 245
Jeremy Geathers, UNLV, 6-2¼, 259
Chris Harrington, Texas A&M, 6-4½, 264
Kendall Langford, Hampton, 6-5¾, 287



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