Grading the pro potential: Defensive ends

Jadeveon Clowney (Beth Hall/USA TODAY)

Beyond Jadeveon Clowney, there's plenty of depth — even with the NFL's scout having a low opinion on two of the presumed top prospects. Dave-Te' Thomas analyzes the players expected to go in the first three rounds — many of which would play outside linebacker in a 3-4.

While there are several team gushing over the defensive end talent available in the 2014 draft, I will likely need Lasik surgery — I just don't see it. The enigmatic Jadeveon Clowney is the finest athlete in this draft and will probably be the first pick in the draft, if/when Houston convinces the Falcons, Jaguars or some other pass rush-hungry team to fork over a "king's ransom" to obtain the top spot, but there is not another sure-fire first-round talent in this class.

Clowney did not have the dominant junior season teams were looking for him to have, as every one of his statistical categories failed to match up to his 2012 season (54 tackles, 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles-for-loss in 2012 compared to 40 stops, three sacks and 11.5 hits behind the line of scrimmage). Still, there is a reason that scouts have placed him in the Julius Peppers/Jevon Kearse class — he is just as gifted athletically. Despite his "slacking off" last year, as some call it, even with an equally monster season in 2013, it is borderline sacrilegious to put him in the category with Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.

Clowney has a solid structure with excellent muscle tone, long arms (34 1/2-inch length; 83-inch wing span) and quick feet. Some teams might consider his frame to be more suited for a stand-up rush end position, but he has that quick burst off the snap and very strong hands needed to pull and jerk down offensive linemen working from the edge or operating in-line.

He has a V-shaped frame with good bubble, tight waist and hips and thick thighs and calves, reminding some scouts of Green Bay's Peppers, but with his good arm length and reach, along with his tight abdomen, "old time" evaluators liken him to former Chicago standout Richard Dent. Even at 266 pounds, he has the frame that can carry at least another 10 pounds of bulk with no loss in quickness.

Clowney is a physical specimen. He combines the frame of a defensive rush end with the quickness and agility of a quality edge-rushing outside linebacker, making him ideal for the "hybrid" most 3-4 defensive-schemed teams are looking for. For a player his size, he impresses evaluators with his ease of movement when changing direction, along with the ability to stay low in his pads and come off the blocks with explosion and urgency.

One of his better attributes is his speed to chase from the backside (see 2013 Outback Bowl hit vs. Michigan). He plays with a solid base and demonstrates above-average body control, knowing how to "get skinny" when taking an inside gap. With his agility, the Gamecocks had very good success jumping him around the line (plays more like Dent in that factor). Clowney has that rare speed that lets him consistently explode past a lethargic offensive tackle. He can be sudden in his initial movement and has the lateral range to give a good chase in long pursuit.

Based on talent alone and not considering his lack of maturity and "Eddie Haskell" like ability to get under his coach's skin, the best edge rusher in this group is Boise State's Demarcus Lawrence. He lacks the sand in his pants to play with his hand down, but I liken his skills to those of the Colts' Robert Mathis, as he knows how to compensate for a lack of bulk with incredible explosion and very good hand usage to keep blockers away from his body.

Lawrence might find better success as a strong-side outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, but he is very quick off the ball, thanks to an explosive initial step. He shows good feet, along with above-average spin and swim moves. He generates a sudden burst to get to the quarterback after he clears his blocker. He has functional up field speed and is effective on the bull rush due to good counter moves when pressuring.

Lawrence chases hard all the time and makes a lot of plays out of sheer effort. He can look choppy when he tries to get through the interior trash, but has the straight-line burst to close on the ball-carrier or quarterback. He shows an explosive burst to flush out the passer. Coming off the edge, he sets his sight on the quarterback and will not stop until the whistle.

If the Vikings are looking for a young Jared Allen type to replace their departed All-Pro, they might think hard about Oregon State's Scott Crichton. In 38 games, he collected 22.5 sacks and his 47 solo tackles-for-loss ranked fourth among active NCAA players behind BYU's Keith Van Noy (58), Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald (61) and Buffalo's Khalil Mack (62).

Crichton plays with very good leverage and shows the heavy hand punch needed to stab and collapse when working off the initial block. With his improved power, he has had good success pressing the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle. He also demonstrates the flexibility and leverage to burst and collapse the quarterback's pocket. You also can see he has the feet and flexible hips to turn the corner when generating his edge rush.

The Oregon State product possesses a high motor and good quickness, along with his hand usage has made him one of the most feared pass rushers in the Pac-12. He flashes above-average leg drive when trying to bull rush at the X's and demonstrates excellent timing, especially with his spin move.

With his quickness, Crichton is best off the edge, where he can use his speed to bend the corner, but he also has the ability to work in-line as a potential under-tackle. He uses the bull rush with effective rip, swim and club moves. He is effective on counter moves, as he looks very fluid spinning.

If there was ever a young player with a stronger work ethic than Stanford's Trent Murphy, he is not in this draft class. He's old school all the way, a player that grizzled defensive-minded coaches like Buddy Ryan and Chuck Noll always wanted on their team.

Much like Washington's Ryan Kerrigan and Philadelphia's Connor Barwin, Murphy is a "quiet assassin," a mortal enemy of quarterbacks and ball-carriers that dare to enter his territory. A starter for his last 41 games, he had a hand in sacking the quarterback 37 times (solos/assists), in addition to making a stop behind the line of scrimmage on 63 plays during that span.

Murphy's 32.5 sacks (28 solos, nine assists) not only leads the nation's active Football Bowl Subdivision players, but rank 11th in FBS history and placed third on the school's all-time record chart. His 52.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage (43 solos, 21 assists) are tied for 17th on the conference all-time record chart and are fifth-best in Stanford history.

With the success that Seattle had with edge rushers Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin, teams looking to copy that explosive tandem have been slowly moving Louisville's Marcus Smith into the second-round picture, feeling he is just starting to develop the power that was missing from his game before an intense training regimen prior to the 2013 season. He produced 14.5 sacks on just 42 tackles last year, along with 12 additional quarterback hurries, but at 250 pounds, teams will have to pick spots for him to wreak havoc in the backfield. He lacks the lateral range to be a linebacker, but he will find ways to impact the pocket.

West Virginia's Will Clarke is as tough as nails. He's likely to return to defensive end in the pro ranks, but his stellar performance working inside last season, when he piled up six sacks to go with 17 stops-for-loss, could make him an inviting prospect for teams that utilize a 3-4 alignment, as he can play outside on running plays and then shift inside when the team goes with a four-lineman scheme on passing situations.

The thing I like about Clarke is that he works hard to gain advantage and shows enough burst and suddenness to get to the gaps due to his savvy play and ball anticipation skills. He's a disruptive force in the gaps, excelling at pushing the lead blocker back to clog the rushing lanes. He's also a strong inside run stuffer who can make plays up and down the line due to his lateral movement. He knows how to get underneath to get a piece of the blocker's pads and is very effective stacking and controling in one-on-one situations.

Some teams have worked North Carolina's Kareem Martin out as an outside linebacker but, despite his impressive speed, I feel he is more suited to play on the front wall. He's the type of defender who won't stay blocked for long when he keeps his hands active and inside his frame. There are times when he relies more on his strength than hand placement to defeat a block, but when he is able to generate quick hand technique, he has an effective arm cross over move in bull rush attempts to push the pocket.

As you see from the top of my list, there are two well-hyped players that seem to be much further down on my charts than any other evaluator. One is Missouri's Kony Ealy, who I feel is better suited to play defensive tackle than coming off the edge. He's not the explosive playmaker everyone makes him out to be. When he was getting lots of attention early in the 2013 campaign, he was as quiet as a church mouse, with just nine tackles and two sacks the first half of the schedule.

Once teams started doubling up on SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam, "Rip Van Winkle" finally woke up and Ealy recorded 7.5 sacks in his final eight appearances. I look at a player whose body of work through his first 30 college games was 36 tackles and 6.5 sacks, feeling this is what he will likely be at the next level, and not what finally emerged late in his junior campaign.

Self-promoter Dee Ford had a great week at the Senior Bowl to put him at the top of most draft boards, but if I am a general manager, knowing that this kid has had lumbar issues dating back to 2011 (missed most of the season after suffering a herniated disc in the third game vs. Clemson), then had medical red flags pop up at the Combine, it scares me. His speed matches up to Clowney's, but at 6-foot2, 250 pounds, how long can he hold up vs. 330-pound offensive linemen is the $64 question teams have to be asking.

Two players with "search and destroy" approaches to their games are Oregon's Taylor Hart and Virginia Tech's James Gayle. Hart is a brute who can easily manhandle multiple blockers and has experience at both end and tackle spots. He's a very efficient run stuffer and not one that will collect sacks, even though he did get to the quarterback eight times when lining up outside in 2012.

The best way to compare Hart is to the Charlie Brown character "Pigpen" — whether in practices or games, Hart is certain to be the first guy on the field willing to get his hands dirty. It is amazing how this versatile, talented and consummate team player has flown under the radar for as long as he has. Ask any offensive lineman in the Pac-12 Conference and most will tell you what their worst nightmare is Taylor Glenn Hart.

Hart has above-average quickness for a player of his size. He shows very good balance, quick feet, good agility, change-of-direction skills and flexibility. He generates a very good initial burst off the snap and builds acceleration on the move. He has outstanding lateral pursuit ability and does a very good job closing down the line. He is a strong wrap-up tackler with good hand usage and uses those hands effectively to keep blockers off his body.

Gayle's final campaign did not greatly improve his draft stock, as expected. A position shift to strong-side defensive end took the senior time to adjust after playing on the weak-side for his first three seasons. It was not that he was overpowered or double-teamed often, but just needing time to get comfortable with different hand placement and angling that saw him deliver just "pedestrian-like" figures.

Gayle might not have been as impressive statistical-wise as scouts had hoped for, managing just 138 tackles in 53 games that included 39 starting assignments. He did come up with 22.0 sacks and post at least double-digit stops-for-loss in each of his last three seasons, closing out his Tech tenure with 40.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Much like his predecessor, Jason Worilds (Pittsburgh Steelers), the Hokie has a perfect blend of strength and quickness off the snap, evident by his performance while shifting between the strong-side and weak-side edge positions.

Arkansas' Chris Smith is a likely candidate to play strong-side outside linebacker at the next level, but has a wealth of experience playing in the trenches. Changing positions is never easy for a player, but lots of undersized college defensive ends have gone on to great success playing strong-side linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

Actually, the potential position shift might entice a team to take Smith earlier than a team that has him listed on its draft value board as a rush end. At 266 pounds, the Razorback is blessed with impressive speed, as he was timed at 4.71 seconds in the 40-yard dash during testing at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.

Teams that might be concerned about his lack of size at 6-foot-1 had those thoughts erased after the senior measured in with a 10'01" broad jump and executed a 37-inch vertical jump, a figure that ranked fourth among all defensive linemen at the 2014 event and 10th-best when linebackers in Indianapolis were included in that tabulation. There were no concerns about his power base, either, as he lifted the 225-pound bar 28 times during the bench press testing.

Jackson Jeffcoat of Texas is built along the same lines as Smith. At 247 pounds, he's not going to frighten too many NFL offensive tackles, but as a senior, he was one of just five NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision players to average at least one quarterback sack per game, leading the Big 12 Conference while tying for third in the nation with 13 sacks, tied for the fifth-best season in school history and seventh-best in league annals. He also led the Big 12 while finishing 11th in the FBS with 22.0 stops-for-loss, the fourth-highest total by a Longhorn and good for 11th on the conference annual record chart.

Jeffcoat compensates for a lack of bulk with great hand usage. He looks natural keeping them inside his frame, knowing how to keep blockers off his feet. He uses and keeps his hands active in attempts to shed and will surprise a lethargic blocker with the thud he puts behind his arm swipes and hand punch. That is why he is able to compete well vs. bigger people, thanks to his leverage and proper use of his hands and feet. He has a no-quit attitude combating blocks on the move and shows above-average hand placement to get off second-level blockers to make tackles in pursuit.

The best defensive end coming out of the small-college ranks is West Texas A&M standout Ethan Westbrooks. With his 4.7 speed, he was like a man playing vs. boys at the Division II level, delivering 48 tackles-for-loss in just 25 games. He has great athletic agility, loose hips and good suddenness closing on plays in front of him. He plays with quickness and balance to stay on his feet, showing good flexibility and range to make plays along the sidelines. He is a smooth open-field runner who plays at a good pad level to leverage. He is an explosive hitter when he keeps his pads down and has the balance to work through trash.

The third day of the draft is where you find a lot of deficiencies in those players' games, but you can unearth a few gems if you have a patient coaching staff. Stanford's Ben Gardner was set back by injuries last year, but is a high-motor type who can also play defensive tackle. Brent Urban of Virginia is another player with medical issues that might be a better fit for an interior line position. Valdosta State's Lawrence Virgil, Alabama's Jeoffrey Pagan and Stanford's Josh Mauro are other ends who can easily make a living playing at tackle.

Undersized defensive ends who might have to learn how to play linebacker are Chaz Sutton of South Carolina, Colorado's Chidera Uzo-Diribe, UCLA's Cassius Marsh, Bloomsburg's Larry Webster, who might be considered for a tight end role, Illinois State's Colton Underwood, South Florida's Tevin Mims and his oft-troubled teammate, Aaron Lynch.

MY PERSONAL LIST

CREAM OF THE CROP: Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina; nothing like Steve Spurrier's trash-talking to get Clowney to prove his coach, and others, wrong).

BEST OF THE REST: Demarcus Lawrence (Boise State; rush end) and Scott Crichton (Oregon; strong-side).

MOST UNDERRATED: Will Clarke (West Virginia) and Taylor Hart (Oregon).

MOST OVERRATED: Dee Ford (Auburn).

SUPER SLEEPER: Ethan Westbrooks (West Texas A&M).


The following chart shows NFL scout Dave-Te' Thomas' rankings. #-denotes underclassman; %-denotes player with injury concerns; OB-denotes outside linebacker prospect; IB-denotes inside linebacker prospect; DT-denotes defensive tackle prospect.

PLAYER HTWT 40225 VJBJ SH3C PRORND
#CLOWNEY, Jadeveon (OB) 6:05266 4.5321 37 1/210'04" 4.437.27 81
#LAWRENCE, Demarcus (OB) 6:03251 4.6920 34 1/209'05" 4.317.46 6.92
#CRICHTON, Scott 6:03273 4.8424 31 1/209'00" 4.297.19 6.72
MURPHY, Trent (OB) 6:05250 4.7219 35 1/209'10" 4.26.78 6.62
SMITH, Marcus (OB) 6:03251 4.6823 3510'01" 4.387.08 6.52
CLARKE, Will (DT) 6:06271 4.7722 3209'04" 4.577.26 6.33
MARTIN, Kareem 6:06272 4.7222 35 1/210'09" 4.337.2 6.2 3
#EALY, Kony (DT) 6:04273 4.6922 3210'00" 4.456.83 6.12
HART, Taylor 6:06281 4.8523 3008'09" 4.617.42 64
%FORD, Dee (OB) 6:02252 4.5929 35 1/210"04" 4.737.07 62
JEFFCOAT, Jackson (OB) 6:03247 4.6318 3610'03" 4.186.97 63
GAYLE, James (OB) 6:04259 4.626 3710'02" 4.277.19 5.84
SMITH, Chris (IB) 6:01266 4.7128 3710'01" 4.467.37 5.6 4
WESTBROOKS, Ethan 6:04267 4.7220 33 1/209'02" 4.677.3 5.6 5
#GARDNER, Ben 6:04277 4.8327 39 1/210'02" 4.46.78 5.4 6
%URBAN, Brent (DT) 6:07295 4.9823 3009'06" 4.457.41 5.3 6
WEBSTER, Larry (OB/TE) 6:06252 4.5817 36 1/210'03" 4.447.29 5.26
MOORE, Zach 6:06269 4.8423 33 1/210'03" 4.467.41 5.2 7
MARSH, Cassius (OB) 6:04252 4.717 3209'06" 4.257.08 5.1 6
SAM, Michael (OB) 6:02261 4.7119 30 1/209'06" 4.77.8 5.16
WYNN, Kerry 6:05266 4.731 3409'05" 4.737.53 5PFA
STINSON, Ed 6:03287 4.8727 3009'00" 4.537.45 4.96
SUTTON, Chaz (OB) 6:04247 4.8227 35 1/209'06" 4.346.88 4.97-FA
UNDERWOOD, Colton (OB) 6:03256 4.6926 3610'00" 4.437.03 4.97-FA
#LYNCH, Aaron (OB) 6:05249 4.6918 2909'09" 4.617.46 4.87-FA
#PAGAN, Jeoffrey (DT) 6:04310 4.9222 2908'08" 4.727.81 4.87-FA
MIMS, Tevin (OB) 6:04260 4.9517 27 1/209'01" 4.587.33 4.87-FA
VIRGIL, Lawrence (DT) 6:04281 539 3109'04" 4.647.4 4.87
MAURO, Josh (DT) 6:06271 5.2121 3209'08" 4.517.43 4.77-FA
UZO-DIRIBE, Chidera (OB) 6:02252 4.6721 3510'01" 4.527.19 4.7PFA
CATO-BISHOP, Darryl (OB) 6:03240 4.8220 29 1/209'01" 4.537.43 4.7PFA
ENEMKPALI, IK 6:01261 5.0128 3409'04" 4.657.67 4.7PFA
AUTRY, Denico 6:05273 5.08        4.6FA
GILL, Evan 6:03292 4.85        4.6FA
FEDE, Terrence 6:04277 4.77        4.6FA
%MERRELL, Jamil 6:04249 4.77        4.6FA
MAY, Walker (OB) 6:04250 4.84        4.5FA
ANUNIKE, Kenny 6:04260 4.84        4.5FA
SANDERS, Craig 6:04248 4.78        4.5FA
ANKRAH, Jason 6:03262 4.78        4.5FA
METZ, Jake 6:06263 5        4.5FA
REDDING, Kristopher 6:04261 5.03        4.4CMP
YENDREY, D.J. (DT) 6:03276 4.76        4.4CMP
SCHAUDT, Chris 6:03265 4.83        4.4CMP
GIDDINS, Ryne (OB) 6:03245 4.91        4.4CMP
MCALLISTER, Chris 6:02255 4.8        4.4CMP
NDIAYE, Elhadji (OB) 6:04243 4.67        4.4CMP
THOMPSON, Zachary 6:04273 4.77        4.4CMP
COX, Rakim 6:04262 4.95        4.3CMP
SCOTT, Tyler 6:04359 4.9        4.3CMP
DIEKE, Emanuel 6:06266 4.87        4.3CMP
GILBERT, David 6:04259 4.93        4.3CMP
%MILLER, Corey 6:03258 4.64        4.3CMP

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