2014 NFL Draft: Analyzing Key Players at Each Defensive Position
NFL draft season is upon us, and there will be a lot of action and discussion throughout bowl season as the NFL draft order gets underway.
I released this same type of article for offensive players on Sunday, but in case anyone needs a refresher, this is the premise:
I want to make a brief positional preview here for fans, highlighting five different types of players: the stud, the safe pick, the project, the wild card and the dark horse.
The stud is the biggest name, most naturally talented and/or imposing player. This is not, I repeat, this is not necessarily the best prospect.
The safe pick is the guy with the least potential to bust; even if he isn't inherently the most exciting prospect, teams mostly know what they're getting.
The project is an athletic and gifted player who will take some time to mature and develop but could end up being a great NFL player.
The wild card is the typical boom-or-bust prospect who could flame out or also be a star if put in the right situation.
Finally, the dark horse is a lesser-known talent who could end up rising and making waves over the next few months.
The Stud: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: Clowney has taken a somewhat unfair share of criticism this season because his statistics are down, but he's still the same athletic freak he was in 2012.
NFL teams will be enamored with his size and physique, and he's built like an NFL veteran already at 20 years old.
The Safe Pick: Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame: Tuitt hasn't been particularly explosive this year after a very impressive 2012 campaign, but he's still a top talent.
NFL teams will look at him as a prototypical 3-4 DE who has the strength and technique to step in and play right away, although his ceiling may not be super high.
The Project: Za'Darius Smith, Kentucky: He's 6'6" with an impressive physique and outstanding explosiveness, but he didn't start playing football until high school and went to junior college before Kentucky.
There's a lot to like about Smith's potential, but he's going to need a lot more practice before he can make an impact in the NFL.
The Wild Card: Shawn Oakman, Baylor: Oakman has flown under the radar because of his unique circumstance. He redshirted at Penn State in 2011 and then transferred to Baylor, where he was forced to sit out the 2012 season.
But he is an unbelievable physical specimen at 6'9" and 275 pounds and can be a dominant NFL player if he puts everything together.
The Dark Horse: Kareem Martin, North Carolina: The senior has been a good player for UNC for three years now, but he just hasn't generated much hype for some reason.
Even after recording 11 sacks and 20 TFL this year, Martin has remained under the radar. He's got the ideal build for a 4-3 DE in the NFL and could rise up boards in the coming months.
The Stud: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota: Hageman has increased his stock dramatically this year and proven that he's worthy of consideration as the top defensive tackle in the class.
He's big enough (6'6", 311 lbs) to play as the nose in a 3-4 defense but could also be extremely effective using his athleticism in a 4-3.
The Safe Pick: Louis Nix III, Notre Dame: Nix, like his teammate Tuitt, has seen his effectiveness drop off in 2013 after a BCS championship game run in 2012.
But he's still a superb talent who will, at the very least, clog up lanes with his 340-pound frame as a true nose tackle in the NFL, which is hard to find.
The Project: Timmy Jernigan, Florida State: Jernigan is an intriguing player who has a lot of physical tools but doesn't always play consistently.
He has been a big part of Florida State's dominant defense this season, but he's often too slow off the snap and doesn't get great leverage at times.
The Wild Card: Dominique Easley, Florida: Easley was shaping up to be a big difference-maker in 2013 before tearing his ACL early in the season.
His draft stock will hinge heavily on his progress with his rehab, and there's no telling how he'll adjust to the speed of the NFL post-injury.
The Dark Horse: Caraun Reid, Princeton: It's safe to say not many people around the country follow Princeton football, but those who know Reid are excited about his potential.
He accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl where I think he'll impress a lot of people against top competition. This article by Mike Vorkunov of The Star-Ledger is a good introduction to Reid both on and off the field.
The Stud: Anthony Barr, UCLA: Barr, a former running back, has cemented himself as a top prospect in this draft class after smartly going back to school for his senior year.
Barr is a dynamic outside linebacker who has the ability to rush the passer but also get in the backfield and stuff the run. He will definitely be drafted in the top 10.
The Safe Pick: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State: Shazier is an incredibly talented outside linebacker who has racked up the tackles this year.
He isn't a pass-rusher like many other outside linebackers in college nowadays but is a true 4-3 weak-side linebacker who can stop the run and also drop back in coverage effectively.
The Project: Adrian Hubbard, Alabama: Hubbard has a ton of natural ability and tools, but he's yet to really put it all together and break out for the Crimson Tide.
He's a beast athletically but is stiff and doesn't move well in small spaces. If he can improve his instincts and technique against the pass rush, he could be a useful 3-4 OLB one day.
The Wild Card: Khalil Mack, Buffalo: Make no mistake about it—Mack is a really talented player who has ascended from an unknown to a first-round prospect.
But there still has to be a little reservation about his quality of competition at Buffalo. The difference in speed between the MAC and the NFL is obviously enormous.
The Dark Horse: Telvin Smith, Florida State: He gets overshadowed on a talented Seminoles defense, but Smith has a good chance to be a productive NFL player.
He's an animal on the field, bringing a ton of energy and flying around to make plays. He should fit as a 4-3 OLB in the NFL.
The Stud: C.J. Mosley, Alabama: Mosley is a talented player who has been the heart and leader of Alabama's defense for the past two seasons.
As a senior in 2013, he has stepped up even more and been one of the best defensive players in the nation. He'll be the first inside linebacker taken and is a better prospect than Manti Te'o was last year.
The Safe Pick: Max Bullough, Michigan State: Bullough is "safe" in the sense that you know what you're going to get from him. He's a strong, instinctive run-stopper who is physically ready to play in the NFL now.
But his coverage skills are questionable at this point, and he may end up being relegated to a two-down linebacker in the NFL, which would limit his draft stock.
The Project: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee: They call him "The Beast" because of his impressive strength and physicality, and Johnson is a load at 6'2" and 243 pounds.
He's similar to Bullough in that his quickness isn't elite, but he's less refined than Bullough and needs to work more on his first step and the angles he takes to the ball.
The Wild Card: Shayne Skov, Stanford: Skov is a super aggressive and instinctual player who flies around the field to make plays and has become one of my favorite prospects.
But he tore his ACL and MCL while fracturing his tibia early in the 2011 season and didn't look like a top prospect in 2012. He's been much improved this season, but there will be a question mark about how long he'll be able to sustain this high level of play.
The Dark Horse: Yawin Smallwood, Connecticut: He's not really a dark horse among people who follow the draft closely, as plenty of rankings have him among the top for inside linebackers.
But Smallwood hasn't generated much hype from UConn, although he deserves it. UConn had four defensive players taken in the third and fourth rounds of last year's draft, so there's some legit talent to be found up in Connecticut.
The Stud: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: I had a hard time choosing between Dennard and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, but I just think Dennard is the better shutdown prospect.
He may not turn out to be as good as Deion Sanders, but he's still a really talented all-around cornerback who should be a first-round pick.
The Safe Pick: Jason Verrett, Texas Christian: Verrett has stayed a little under the radar down at TCU, but he's one of the top cornerback prospects in this class.
He's very athletic and aggressive, which makes up a bit for his height. (He's listed at 5'10", but I bet he measures under that.) He may not have a crazy high ceiling, but he doesn't come with risk either.
The Project: Loucheiz Purifoy, Florida: Purifoy started the season as a really highly regarded prospect who was athletic enough to be discussed as a receiver and returner on top of playing corner.
He's exceptionally quick but is not particularly strong in run support and has just two career interceptions. He could be taken high because of his natural talent, but he'll need to get stronger and develop before making an impact in the NFL.
The Wild Card: Bradley Roby, Ohio State: Like Purifoy, Roby started the season as one of the highest-rated cornerbacks in the nation.
He's ultimately been a big disappointment this year and has gotten burned by receivers in multiple games. (Jared Abbrederis had his way with him.) He shows flashes of a No. 1 corner but also has big lapses and misses easy assignments.
The Dark Horse: E.J. Gaines, Missouri: Gaines has been overlooked in Mizzou's surprising run this season, but he could end up being a very good NFL player.
The senior did a great job against Mike Evans and numerous other receivers this season and could rise up boards if he impresses this spring in workouts.
The Stud: Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Alabama: Clinton-Dix has been one of the best safeties in the nation for two consecutive years now and is a big reason for Alabama's defensive success.
He's a well-rounded player who doesn't quite have the upside of 'Bama alum Mark Barron but is still very talented and should start right away.
The Safe Pick: Dion Bailey, Southern California: Bailey hasn't gotten a ton of attention this year, but he's been one of the steadiest safeties in the nation.
Bailey, a senior, is the leader of USC's defense and isn't a remarkable athlete but is a strong and smart player who would be a great addition to most NFL secondaries.
The Project: Antone Exum, Virginia Tech: A highly regarded player last season after switching from safety to cornerback, Exum tore his ACL in January and missed the first half of this season.
The senior is likely still getting back to full strength and is a project because he'll have to get back to full strength and also figure out his position. I feel as if he'd be best suited to go back to safety in the NFL and utilize his strength and range.
The Wild Card: LaMarcus Joyner, Florida State: Joyner, like Exum, has played both safety and cornerback, but I also feel that Joyner fits best at corner.
Matt Waldman has a really interesting article about Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu and the evolving nature of the safety position in the NFL over at Football Outsiders that I highly recommend reading. In short, Joyner is a ball hawk who is a really intriguing playmaker that will be in the second- and third-round discussion.
The Dark Horse: Ed Reynolds, Stanford: It seems like it's hard for players to get individual attention on great college defenses like Stanford's, especially when they aren't highlight-reel players or guys who rack up stats.
Reynolds is a big, strong, steady player who has been an underrated part of Stanford's stellar defense this year. He could end up sneaking into the second-round discussion in a very weak safety class.