2014 NFL Draft: Defensive Playmakers Destined to Become Stars

Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 07:  Darqueze Dennard #31 of the Michigan State Spartans breaks up a pass to Devin Smith #9 of the Ohio State Buckeyes during the Big Ten Conference Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 7, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

You have heard the narrative about how the NFL has become a pass-happy and offensive-oriented league all season long.

After all, the rules have developed to the point that it is nearly impossible to guard a wide receiver in a one-on-one situation, and even breathing too close to the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers will immediately draw a penalty flag.

However, if the NFC championship matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers proves anything, it is that elite defense can still win in today’s NFL. Plenty of teams that struggled to stop anyone this season should keep that in mind come draft day.

Perhaps they should draft one of the following defensive playmakers who are destined to become stars at the next level.


Khalil Mack

If you are only a casual college football fan you may not have heard of the MAC’s best linebacker. 

Khalil Mack of Buffalo wreaked havoc in opposing backfields all season long to the tune of 100 total tackles, 10.5 sacks and three interceptions. One of his showcase games came against Ohio State in the Horseshoe, where he tallied nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception off a Braxton Miller pass that he returned for a touchdown.

Mack is more than just impressive statistics though. He has the combination of size and speed that will allow him to be a hybrid player who can fill in at linebacker or defensive end. He is an elite pass rusher and can make plays in space, particularly versus screens.

Mack may not have played at the biggest stage during his collegiate career, but he will make plenty of marquee plays for years to come on NFL Sundays.


Anthony Barr

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Linebacker Anthony Barr #11 of the UCLA Bruins strips the ball  from quarterback Cody Kessler #36 of the USC Trojans for a fumble and a turnover in the fourth quarter at Los Angeles Coliseum on November 30, 2013 in Los Ange
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Mack and UCLA’s Anthony Barr may very well be the first two linebackers taken in the draft and could both be top-10 picks. The argument can be made that they are the best two defenders available not named Jadeveon Clowney.

Expect plenty of debate about which of the two star linebackers will be the better pro. The take here is that Mack will be more ready to contribute from day one, but Barr has the slightly better upside.

If Barr does have the better upside, it is because of his pass-rushing prowess. He tallied 10 sacks, including two against Oregon and two against USC. He saved some of his best games for the brightest moments, and in a Pac-12 full of elite quarterbacks, Barr was able to make a living in opposing backfields. 

You can’t go wrong with either of these premier linebackers.


Darqueze Dennard

There is a reason that Michigan State seized the college football spotlight down the stretch with headline-grabbing wins over Ohio State at the Big Ten Championship and Stanford at the Rose Bowl, and that reason was its defense.

Darqueze Dennard was the Spartans’ best defender and emotional leader (along with Max Bullough) throughout Michigan State’s memorable season. Let Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated describe just how much potential Dennard brings to the table:

Imagine Troy Polamalu as a cornerback. That’s not an across-the-board comparison, but Dennard brings a lot of those Polamalu traits to the field. Namely, he plays with an edge, a trait highlighted in how aggressively he dives down to pitch in against the run.

EAST LANSING, MI - NOVEMBER 02:  Darqueze Dennard #31 of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates his fourth-quarter interception against the Michigan Wolverines at Spartan Stadium on November 2, 2013 in East Lansing, Michigan. Michigan State won the game 2
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Dennard plays with the type of infectious attitude and confidence that a cornerback can only play with when he knows he is better than the wide receiver he is lined up against. It may rub some people the wrong way, but it certainly works for a certain Richard Sherman, who plays with a similar approach at the NFL level.


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