A lot of attention will inevitably be focused on quarterbacks at the top of the 2014 NFL draft, but there are also several exciting defensive prospects who figure to be stars at the next level.
Chief among the class is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who has been criticized for not playing his hardest during his final season in Columbia. Now we will see if the rare, freakish athlete can capitalize on his physical gifts in the pros and silence his critics.
Clowney has the tools to go No. 1 overall depending on how the draft shakes out. However, he isn't the only defensive standout garnering considerable hype.
Below is a closer look at Clowney and where the other best defenders figure to land in the first round on May 8.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 3 overall)
There was a substantial improvement in the Jags pass rush under first-year head coach Gus Bradley, who had served previously as the defensive coordinator in Seattle.
Adding Clowney to the mix would undoubtedly bolster Jacksonville's defense and allow Bradley to game-plan around the Gamecocks product.
Quarterback is a big need for this franchise too, but all three of the top prospects on most draft boards—Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles—are underclassmen. Both Bridgewater and Manziel are undersized, while Bortles has big upside but is quite raw.
ESPN.com's Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required) explains his rationale for Clowney going to Jacksonville at No. 3:
Clowney got questioned on his motor in his final college season, but that has more to do with stats than the tape. And any evaluator who saw a tentative player could also imagine what Clowney had on the line. Clowney is physically prepared to come in and make a major impact, and I think there's a good chance the Jags draft for upside and angle for a QB later. Don't forget: Free agency and trades can still shift the QB market in the draft. Think of Kansas City last year at this time.
At 6'6" and 274 pounds with exceptional speed and quickness, Clowney is going to give NFL offensive lines immediate nightmares. This play from his junior year against Michigan shows everything Clowney brings to the table in one extraordinary moment:
If talented wide receiver Justin Blackmon can get his act together, he can form a decent receiving corps with Cecil Shorts and promising playmaker Ace Sanders in 2014. The offense can be centered around star running back Maurice Jones-Drew—presuming he doesn't flee in free agency this offseason.
Clowney seems like someone the Jags would kick themselves for passing on. No matter who the Jags pick, they aren't likely to be competitive this coming season.
With a 2015 QB class likely to feature Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Bryce Petty, among others, plenty of talent awaits. A stopgap option under center—say, Michael Vick?—the aforementioned tactics and the selection of Clowney should still allow Jacksonville to make further strides.
Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA: Atlanta Falcons (No. 6 overall)
Which incoming rookie defender will have the best 2014 NFL season?
With the No. 27 scoring defense and a bottom-five unit in terms of total yards allowed, Atlanta must find a difference-maker on that side of the ball. Julio Jones' return from injury and some alternative investments in the offensive line should see the Falcons score more next season.
Anthony Barr (6'4", 245 pounds) racked up 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and six forced fumbles in his final year with the Bruins—and he used to be a running back.
That makes him a rare short-area quickness player with incredible agility and lateral movement, capable of perpetual improvement despite how far his talent has gotten him already.
Bleacher Report's Ian Kenyon is impressed with how fast Barr is able to get off the line—something that will give him an early edge as he adjusts to the pros:
Anthony Barr's first step off the line is borderline ridiculous though. Up there as one of the best I've seen.— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) January 3, 2014
No, the Falcons don't run a 3-4, but Barr is a bit of a joker who can allow Atlanta coordinator Mike Nolan to utilize more hybrid fronts and throw more exotic pressures at opposing QBs.
In an NFC South division featuring the likes of New Orleans Saints elite leader Drew Brees, dual-threat Carolina Panthers dynamo Cam Newton and 2013's best rookie signal-caller in Tampa Bay's Mike Glennon, Barr is an ideal piece to add to the puzzle.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo: Detroit Lions (No. 10 overall)
Adding a versatile athlete in Khalil Mack to an already talented front seven would help minimize some of the problems the Lions have had defensively.
The secondary could use an upgrade at the cornerback position, but value can be had there in Round 2. A rare specimen such as the 6'3", 248-pound Mack won't be around for long. NFL.com scouting expert Daniel Jeremiah labeled Mack as the surest thing in the draft in a recent appearance on The Dan Patrick Show:
With a relentless motor, formidable physicality and sound fundamentals, Mack is a sure tackler and is rarely out of position against the run.
He is most dynamic when opponents drop back to pass. He intercepted three passes as a senior at Buffalo and was an effective pass-rusher off the edge, notching 10.5 sacks. Mack also forced 16 fumbles in his college career.
This all-around skill set sounds like the type of guy new head coach Jim Caldwell would be on board with as he tries to instill a more disciplined culture.
NFL.com's Bucky Brooks doesn't tout Mack as highly as other evaluators do, arguing he needs other stars around him to thrive: "I see Mack playing this role for a team in need of a sidekick for a veteran edge player. Therefore, I don't believe Mack is a top-10 talent, but a late first-round pick with the potential to become a difference maker on a defense with a few key contributors already in place."
Well, that's perfect for the Detroit scenario.
Defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh will continue wreaking havoc up front along with second-year end Ziggy Ansah. Alongside DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch in the linebacker corps, the opportunities for Mack to make plays seem boundless.
Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State: New York Giants (No. 12 overall)
With Terrell Thomas set to hit free agency with an extensive injury history, Corey Webster likely gone and Prince Amukamara entering a contract year, there is a serious need for cornerbacks in the Big Apple.
That works out well for the Giants, as physical, feisty defensive back Darqueze Dennard was a cornerstone on Michigan State's elite defense this past season.
When asked who the best man-to-man cover corner was in the 2014 draft class, Bleacher Report expert Matt Miller said Dennard (5'11", 197 pounds) is better than the rest:
Darqueze Dennard, Mich. State RT @brad_foster10: which cb in this draft class is the most physical and best in man coverage?— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 5, 2014
Dennard can play on the outside right away in the NFL and match up with big-bodied receivers. Elite passing offenses tend to capitalize on quick hits or back-shoulder throws. In those situations, the Spartan star can gain leverage and prevent those plays.
One negative on Dennard is that he's a bit of an ankle tackler. That can be coached up, though, and he has the technique that matters most for premier corners—the skills to blanket big-bodied receivers.
A healthy Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck should give New York enough push up front, but inserting Dennard as an instant starter could cause a resurgence for the G-Men in what should be a wide-open NFC East race.
Note: Players' height and weight are courtesy of listings on their schools' official athletics websites.