College football's 2012 regular season has come to a close. For many of the sports' top amateur athletes, that means it's time to start preparing for the NFL Draft.
Last year's draft class featured some of the most talented quarterbacks and wide receivers in its history. Teams with high picks lucked-out with the opportunity to select franchise stars like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Justin Blackmon and Michael Floyd.
And even after the first round, there was still plenty of top-shelf talent to choose from. The Rams selected Brian Quick 33rd overall, one of the best receivers in FCS history, while the Bears snagged Alshon Jeffery a few picks after. Even in the third round, impact-level players like Russell Wilson and Mohamed Sanu were still available.
This year's class is much different. It's thin on star quarterbacks, and its wide receiver crop is more deep than flashy. What the 2013 crop does feature is a remarkable stock of game-changing defensive linemen.
As the modern NFL offense has evolved into a deep West Coast passing attack, a new emphasis has been placed on defensive athleticism. Positions that were once unheralded, like nose tackles and 5-technique defensive ends, now boast some of the game's premier talent. They're charged with stopping the run but also assisting their blitzers against the air attack.
Ten years ago, edge rushers in Cover 2 and 4-3 schemes were the fad, and defensive ends like Michael Strahan were taking most of the spotlight. Though there were exceptions, like Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, the interior linemen and 3-4 ends were generally faceless spaceaters, rarely accumulating money stats.
New breeds of athletic trench dwellers, like Justin Smith, J.J. Watt, Haloti Ngata and Ndamukong Suh, have redefined their respective positions.
These players aren't space-eating sumo wrestlers. They're multi-talented playmakers. Armed with speed, strength and size, they sack the quarterback, stuff the run, bat down passes and even drop into coverage. But they're not pretty boys either. They're still big and nasty, adept at beating up on blockers and collapsing the pocket for their backfield buddies to make plays.
The 2013 draft class is dominated by spectacular defensive linemen. Big, fast and vicious 7-technique ends are aplenty, with FSU's Bjoern Werner and Alex Okafor leading a heap of talent. But there's also plenty of starpower at other positions. At 3-4 end, Texas A&M's Damontre Moore and BYU's Ezekiel Ansah follow the trend set by recent draftees J.J. Watt and Muhammad Wilkerson as speed rushers with 5-technique size and strength.
And then there's LSU's star end Sam Montgomery, who's equipped with the tools to play every down in any NFL scheme. Montgomery is a freak athlete, blessed with an inhuman combination of length, power, speed and polished technique. He completes the package with a Pittsburgh Steelers-worthy chip on his shoulder, enjoying ruining any offense's day with extra hard hits and brutal QB takedowns..
On the inside, there's even more to choose from. Usually, there's maybe one or two premium nose tackles available in any given draft and in a good year there could be a handful of legitimate gap-shooting 3-techniques. This class is much different. Utah's Star Lotulelei, Georgia's John Jenkins and Alabama's Jesse Williams are all gifted 2-gap tackles. Each player has the size, strength and technique to harass the center of the opposing offense's line, yet they also have the speed and moves to lineup in the gaps.
And what about pass-rushing specialists and stand-up edge rushers? There's plenty of those too. Oregon Ducks junior Dion Jordan possesses wide receiver length and speed but the hands and muscle of a defensive end. The Lamborghini of defensive prospects, Jordan is raw at the moment, but his ceiling is sky-high.
Barkevious Mingo is even more of a wild card. For teams willing to take burn a first round draft choice on a high risk/high reward prospect, Mingo's got it all, he just needs more coaching to put it together. He's one of the best athletes in the college ranks, with a ceiling on-par with Clay Matthews' or Cameron Wake's. But, his production at LSU falls short of spectacular, with many believing that he's playing out of position, while some others question his motor. Regardless, the opportunity to take home a future elite pass rusher will convince many teams with mid first-round picks to pursue him.
Finally, for pro coaches looking to add a smart, polished player with diverse skill set to their team, Stanford star linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov fit the bill perfectly. While not quite as flashy as the Barkevious Mingos and the Jarvis Jones of the world, both players are prepared to help defenses right away.
Though not a stat sheet stuffer in any one area, Thomas is a great three-down linebacker, effective at stopping the run, rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. Skov is a similarly built prospect, and though he's spent his college career as an inside linebacker, he's not just a quality open field tackler and run stopper. Skov is also one of his position's top (inside) blitzers, accumulating 28 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks over the past three years.
Here are the 2013 NFL Draft's top defensive line prospects: