2014 NFL Draft: Highlighting the Top 10 Defensive Tackles

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterJanuary 30, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Highlighting the Top 10 Defensive Tackles

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    War daddies. That's what we call them. They're the anchors of the defense. The men asked to plug two gaps, stop the run and still get to the quarterback. They're defensive tackles, and finding a great one can change a defense overnight.

    What do NFL teams look for in a defensive tackle? That depends on the scheme they run and if they want a nose tackle or an under tackle.

    A 3-4 defense will want a big, stout, strong nose tackle to pair with longer, more athletic defensive ends who are built like tackles. If you're in a 4-3 front, it's most common to have one nose tackle and one under tackle.

    Generally, one is a body built for stopping the run while the other is a smooth athlete with pass-rushing abilities. Sometimes, you get lucky and grab guys who can do it all.

    A more in-depth look at what teams want at the position can be found in our "How to Scout" series, but if you're looking for an introduction to the top 10 players at the position in this year's class, you can find it here. 

10. Ego Ferguson, LSU

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    The big man from LSU has caught the eye of NFL scouts thanks to his scheme versatility. Need a monster to handle the nose tackle position? He'll do it. Need someone athletic enough to line up as a 3-technique and crash the pocket? He's there. 

    Ferguson's strength is in his versatility, which allows him to work in any scheme or defensive front a team may want to use. Whereas some players are limited to one type of schemeand thus only some team's boardsFerguson is an option for all 32 NFL teams.

    He'll have to learn to play more disciplined and controlled at the next level, but Ferguson has the quickness and strength to be an asset in his first year in the middle of an NFL defensive line.

9. Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina

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    Jadeveon Clowney stole much of the attention away from anyone watching South Carolina's defensive line this season, but when not watching the freakish defensive end, you should have noticed big No. 99.

    Kelcy Quarles has the strength scouts love from the defensive tackle position, but his biggest question mark is his lack of elite quickness. That's offset well by his assortment of pass-rushing moves, but it all comes back to his raw strength and power.

    And there's a lot of it.

    Quarles is a bit of a project, but it's rare to find a defensive tackle with his ability to lock on to offensive linemen and win the battle in the trenches. Too many college defenders try to live on speed and athleticism, but Quarles is a well-rounded tackle with a pro-level skill set.

8. DaQuan Jones, Penn State

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    It's hard to imagine a player from Penn State being underrated, but we're at that point with defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. For now, at least. NFL teams know all about the powerful, versatile defender. Fans will soon enough.

    Jones has all the qualities of a starting defensive tackle in the NFL. He has the first-step quickness to blow off the line and split gaps with speed. And hand use? He's a ninja with those things.

    Jones needs to learn to play stronger when engaged, but that's a technique issue and one that's easy to learn in a summer training camp. The raw tools he brings to the table are worthy of a top-50 pick.

7. Dominique Easley, Florida

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    The only thing keeping Dominique Easley from a first-round grade is a torn ACL suffered in September. With his 2014 availability in question, Easley's stock is uncertain. His talent is not.

    The Florida defensive lineman has the versatility teams crave, showing the ability to play defensive end or defensive tackle in either a three- or four-man front.

    With an exceptional athletic profile, Easley is the type of guy you want playing 5-technique on the end of a 3-4 defense or splitting blockers as a 3-technique pass-rusher in a 4-3. 

    How high Easley goes in the draft will depend entirely on his readiness for the NFL Scouting Combine, his pro day and then individual workouts before the draft. If healthy, he could easily jump into the top five defensive tackles in this class.

6. Will Sutton, Arizona State

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    A one-time lock to be drafted in the first round, Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton has had a rough run through the predraft process.

    It all started when Sutton gained weight in an effort to overcome the "undersized" label he carried after the 2012 college football season. The weight gain made Sutton into more of a prototypically sized defensive tackle, but his added bulk ruined the first-step quickness that made him a fan favorite in his junior season.

    Fast-forward to the Senior Bowl and Sutton not only looked too heavy, he played too heavy.

    The conundrum NFL teams face is determining which Sutton they're getting. The 310-pound version isn't one they'd want. The 285-pounder who wrecked backfields in the Pac-12 is a guy they'd all want.

    If Sutton can respond to the challenge and get back to his ideal playing weight, he could be a steal at defensive tackle.

5. Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame

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    The prototypical 3-4 defensive end, Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt looked like a future star after the 2012 college football season. Then again, so did most of the players on that Fighting Irish defense.

    The 2013 season told a different story.

    Tuitt looked slower and less explosive overall this season. He was hampered by injuries and potentially bothered by offseason back surgery, but that lack of burst was a huge loss for him and the Notre Dame defense. Whether or not he'll get it back is a major question too.

    When healthy, Tuitt has shown the strength and quickness to dominate the opposition's offensive line. He has the length and power you want in a 3-4 defensive end, as well as experience there, but he's talented enough to make the change to defensive tackle in a 4-3 front too.

    However, that's all for naught if he's not healthy.

4. Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota

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    The man. The myth. The legend. Ra'Shede Hageman is a beast. 

    That much is obvious when you look at his 6'6", 318-pound frame. He's big, thick and solid. This isn't Andre Smith flabbing down the track. Hageman is an athletic marvel, and it shows up on film.

    Rarely do big men have the flexibility and athleticism to get leverage coming out of their stanceshell, most can't get in a three-point stancebut Hageman fires off low and loose. 

    Where do you play him at the next level? Where don't you play him? Hageman can be a 0-, 1-, 3- or 5-technique once in the NFL. He's as scheme-versatile as they come, and when you combine that with his speed and strength, it's easy to see why he won't last long once the NFL draft kicks off.

3. Timmy Jernigan, FSU

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    Want a 3-technique, pass-rushing menace at defensive tackle? Then you want Timmy Jernigan.

    The Florida State junior wasn't always a dominant force in the 2013 season, but he saved his best for last. Turn on a replay of the national title game against Auburn and you'll see Jernigan take over...and do so with the flu.

    It wasn't quite Michael Jordan against the Utah Jazz, but it was an impressive performance against the odds. That's Jernigan, though.

    His quickness is too much for most offensive linemen to handle, and although raw, he has the skill set to learn more pass-rush moves. He wins now with a good mix of speed and a bull rush that allows him to push the pocket.

    As he develops, and Jernigan is definitely a player with room to grow, he could be deadly.

2. Louis Nix, Notre Dame

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    The top nose tackle prospect in the 2014 NFL draft class, Notre Dame's Louis Nix is a big man. And he actually plays big too. Nix has the size and motor to dominate the inside of the defensive line.

    The question NFL teams will have is if a knee injury that slowed him at times this year will be an issue or not.

    Nix's weight and the torn meniscus in his knee have received the most attention, and rightfully so, as both tended to slow down the mountain of a man this fall. However, 247Sports.com reveals that the untold story about Nix is that he was an academic senior this year for Notre Dame and took 19 credit hours to graduate early.

    A hard worker on and off the field.

    Nix's best fit in the NFL is as a nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, but he's not limited to that position. His size, speed and strength put him in a category with rare talents like Dontari Poe and Vince Wilfork.

1. Aaron Donald, Pitt

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    Do not tell me that Aaron Donald is too small to play in the NFL. Don't believe me? Ask the college offensive linemen he dominated, as he posted 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss this season. Ask the all-star senior players he toyed with all week at the 2014 Reese's Senior Bowl. Ask anyone in the NFL.

    Donald is the real deal.

    Donald doesn't fit the ideal model of an NFL defensive tackle for some, but at 1/8" shy of 6'1" and 288 pounds, he's big enough for me. And he's quick. So quick. Donald's first step is full of burst, which allows him to shoot past interior offensive linemen before they can get their hands on him.

    In some cases, being short is actually a big benefit for Donald. The lower he fires out of his stance, the more leverage he has. At under 6'1", Donald is an almost impossibly small target to block off the ball.

    All the teams that passed on Geno Atkins or Jurrell Casey because they were too short can make it right by going after Donald. They'll be glad they did.