Although the top of the 2014 NFL draft is highlighted by plenty of offensive talent, teams seeking to upgrade their defenses with high-upside players also have some options. The only question is which of the prospects on that side of the ball will come off the board first.
Early in the process, Jadeveon Clowney seemed like a lock to fill that role. The South Carolina defensive end possesses intriguing athleticism and his potential is off the charts.
Buffalo's Khalil Mack has been steadily gaining steam, however, and is pushing Clowney for that top defensive spot.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at each of the top defensive prospects in the 2014 class and predict where each of them could land on draft day. While they are at different points in their development, all three should be key pieces moving forward.
If Clowney had a better junior season before declaring for the draft, he would likely be a lock to come off the board first among defenders and potentially as the first overall selection as well. He racked up just three sacks, however, a drop-off of 10 from his tremendous sophomore campaign.
That wasn't enough to cause his stock to plummet because of his obvious athletic gifts and outstanding upside. With that said, it did raise questions about his ability to step right in and dominate at the NFL level.
As comments passed along by Dave Zangaro of CSNHouston.com show, Clowney still has his sights set on going first and believes in himself:
Of course. That's one of my goals here, to go No. 1. I came out of high school as the No. 1 player. So I want to come in the league as the No. 1 guy.
I just want to be the best. I want to be one of the greatest of all time. The NFL is just the next level, a stepping stone.
It would be difficult for the Houston Texans to ignore their immense need at quarterback and select Clowney.
Nevertheless, he shouldn't have to wait long to hear his name called. Despite some additions to the defensive line, the Jacksonville Jaguars could use a true superstar on that side of the ball.
Prediction: Jaguars at No. 3
Mack burst into focus in Buffalo's season opener against Ohio State, when he made play after play while most of his teammates were overmatched by a more talented Buckeyes squad. This solidified his spot in the first-round conversation and he's steadily risen up the ranks since that point.
Now, he even finds himself in the conversation for the first pick, which was certainly a long shot heading into his senior season.
SportsCenter passed along the latest mock draft from Mel Kiper Jr. and it has Mack going No. 1 to the Texans:
It's not a reach. Mack is the pro-readiest defensive prospect in the class. He isn't on the same level as Clowney in terms of raw upside, though, and once again it seems like quarterback is the best bet for Houston.
That means Mack should still be on the board for the Atlanta Falcons, who could use an edge-rusher.
Prediction: Falcons at No. 6
Barr was an offensive player at UCLA for his first two seasons before switching to linebacker and excelling. He can't match Clowney's potential or Mack's NFL-readiness, but he's a well-rounded prospect that finds himself right on the fringe of being a top-10 pick.
He tallied 23.5 sacks over his final two seasons with the Bruins. Those type of pass-rushing options are more valuable than ever in the NFL as teams do everything in their power to slow down high-powered passing games.
Ultimately, Barr should find himself in the 10-12 range.
If he gets past the Detroit Lions, the Tennessee Titans or New York Giants are going to grab him. The Lions do need playmakers on defense and Barr is a better overall option than any of the top cornerbacks available.
Prediction: Lions at No. 10