Landing elite pass-rushers in the draft is the goal of every NFL general manager, and a few players worthy of that distinction will be drafted early in 2014.
As the NFL has evolved into more and more of a passing league, defensive ends and outside linebackers who can get to the quarterback on a regular basis have become as important as cornerbacks and safeties—if not more so.
The best quarterbacks in the league will rip apart any secondary—no matter how good—if given enough time to read the field. But even the Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys of the world are prone to make mistakes when facing relentless pressure.
These players represent the next wave of superstar pass-rushers. They'll be among the first selected when the 2014 NFL draft kicks off in May, as teams will be looking for the next Von Miller, Aldon Smith and Ezekiel Ansah to spark a defensive revival.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina (Projected Top-Two Pick)
Unreasonable hype first marred Jadeveon Clowney's 2013 campaign, and then his poor production caused his perceived draft stock to tumble even more.
How early will Clowney be selected?
After logging 13 sacks and 26.5 tackles for a loss in 2012, Clowney managed only three sacks and 10.5 tackles for a loss for the Gamecocks this season.
But students of the game will tell you Clowney's numbers are more than a bit misleading. He's been constantly double- and triple-teamed this year, and his ability to take on those multiple blockers has allowed other players on South Carolina's defense to make big plays.
And this is still the same freak athlete who measures in at 6'6" and 274 pounds and who reportedly ran a 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds this past summer, as noted by Mark Schlabach:
Bruce Ellington said Jadeveon Clowney ran a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash yesterday "When he ran a 4.5, he said he wasn't running hard."— Mark Schlabach (@Mark_Schlabach) July 16, 2013
Clowney's size, speed and power come in at elite levels. Though his numbers didn't pop this year, the potential for greatness will spur teams to consider drafting him in the first few picks—if not the top pick—in May.
Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA (Projected Top-Five Pick)
Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey recently wrote, "Some (not many, but some) feel as if one prospect brings more to the table than either Bridgewater or Clowney. That prospect is UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr."
Watching the young pass-rusher in action, it's not hard to see why.
Because he plays in the Pac-12 instead of in the SEC, Barr has gone a bit under the radar nationally, but this kid is as athletic and explosive off the edge as any player coming into the draft in 2014.
After starting out his college career on offense as a receiver and running back, the talented Barr has burst onto the scene in his past two seasons. He registered 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss in 2012 and followed up that excellent campaign with 10 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss in 2013.
Measuring in at 6'4" and 248 pounds, Barr isn't as big as Clowney, but he's much more agile and is more comfortable playing in space. This makes him a perfect candidate to become a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he possesses the physical tools to make a living as a 4-3 defensive end too.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo (Projected Top-10 Pick)
Khalil Mack out of Buffalo is the most underrated defensive player in the country.
He recently won the Jack Lambert Trophy, which is awarded to the nation's top linebacker, and Bleacher Report's Matt Miller recently compared him favorably with Brian Orakpo of Washington, who was a No. 13 overall pick in 2009:
A pro player comparison I really like: Khalil Mack to Brian Orakpo.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) December 3, 2013
A bit undersized for NFL pass-rushers (prototypical) at 6'3" and 248 pounds, Mack is a supremely gifted athlete who is just as effective pursuing quarterbacks off the edge as his is chasing down running backs and making plays in coverage.
In his four years at Buffalo, he's racked up 28.5 sacks, 75 tackles for a loss, four interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. He's also shown a knack for separating offensive players from the ball, setting an NCAA record for most forced fumbles in a career with 16, as noted by Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports:
Hats off to #Buffalo's future 1st RDer Khalil Mack. Another awesome game-3 sacks/3 FFs. Smashed NCAA record for career forced fumbles w/ 16.— Bruce Feldman (@BFeldmanCBS) November 25, 2013
Mack's extraordinary production and exceptional athleticism make him one of the most exciting players coming out of the draft at any position in 2014. Nobody should be surprised if he ends up getting selected in the top 10 come May.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78