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2014 NFL Draft: Best Fits for This Year's Top Defensive Playmakers

Ryan RiddleCorrespondent IApril 8, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Best Fits for This Year's Top Defensive Playmakers

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    Keith Srakocic

    The 2014 NFL draft is loaded with incredible playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Each prospect is hoping to land somewhere he can maximize his potential while providing as many opportunities to play as possible. 

    There are a lot of possibilities when it comes to where these players will end up on draft day. Some lucky prospects will land in exactly the right situation, while others will be less fortunate with their destination.

    In this slide, I first had to identify the biggest playmakers in the draft.

    In order to do this, I weighted the career stats of every defensive player who was invited to the combine. From there, I had to generate a player’s level of production on two prisms: (1) production per game and (2) production throughout his career. Those two separate scores were then averaged together to create the final production grade. Naturally, the higher the grade, the more of a playmaker that prospect is. 

    This is an interesting way to figure out the top playmakers because it mitigates subjectivity in the process. 

    I used the two highest scores from each defensive position in the slideshow.  

Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State

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    Rex Ryan's defenses love to put the pressure on quarterbacks, and Roby is great prospect for playing as a pure man-corner. The New York Jets could use some more help at cornerback. They released veteran corner Antonio Cromartie this offseason and failed to land any of the free agents who were available at the position.

    Roby would fit great on a team that could use some depth at corner. Last year they drafted Dee Milliner in the first round, but the jury is still out on whether he can live up to expectations. Perhaps a little competition would motivate him.

    The 49ers are the practical choice here based off draft position and a strong need at the position. The big issue here is whether the 49ers feel comfortable investing in a player who has issues with his effort and tackling. Those are normally major red flags, but if the coaches and the organization can get Roby to buy in, they might discover something special.

E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri

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    Brandon Wade

    The Key to Gaines’ playmaking prowess is consistency over the course of a career. He dabbled a bit in nearly every statistical category as a jack of all trades at Missouri.

    He is willing and able to make a tackle, as evidenced by his career average of 4.88 tackles per game, which is good enough for second-best among all cornerbacks. At 5'10", 190 pounds, he has good size for a CB, and his biggest playmaking strength is the way he attacks the ball.

    Based on this playing style, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their Tampa 2 scheme would be an intriguing fit. Newly hired head coach Lovie Smith has always valued cornerbacks who can set the edge against the run and make plays either on the line or down the field.

    Smith's defenses have thrived behind playmaking corners like Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman.

    Gaines would likely be a reserve player, providing depth and learning from guys like Alterraun Verner and second-year player Johnthan Banks.

    The other team that Gaines would do well with is Dallas. This fit is for similar reasons as with the Bucs. His skill set suggests playing in a Cover 2 scheme would be ideal for him.

    The Cowboys have talent at corner, but none of those guys are suited for Cover 2.    

Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State

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    This well-built, playmaking safety wreaked havoc in the Pac-12 at Washington State. During his college career, Deone Bucannon demonstrated a knack for causing turnovers and making big hits on ball-carriers.

    He is not afraid to dip the shoulder on a ball-carrier and has the adequate closing speed to succeed at the next level. If needed, he can even be a good special teams player. He is a good-effort guy who knows how to impact the game with splash plays.

    The Green Bay Packers are in need of a safety badly. Bucannon could be a second-round steal that would be a much higher value than taking Calvin Pryor or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. With the 21st pick in the first round, Green Bay could look in Bucannon’s direction.

    I have a funny feeling this kid might end up being the best safety of the draft.

    In the video above, Matt Miller compares him to James Ihedigbo, who recently signed with the Lions this offseason. Perhaps an ideal scenario would be for him to sit a year or two behind Ihedigbo and learn from the guy who has a similar skill set.

    Besides, there would be ton of situations where these two could roam the secondary simultaneously.

Jimmie Ward, S, NIU

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    Jimmie Ward is an instinctual playmaker with impressive hands and uncanny timing for breaking on balls. He may not be the best athlete on the field, but his football acumen, toughness and overall feel for the game are what make him so special.

    The best thing that can happen to him is that the Pittsburgh Steelers draft him, so he can battle for a starting safety spot behind recent acquisition Mike Mitchell.

    Ward could eventually take over the hole that’ll be left behind when aging star and often-injured safety Troy Polamalu finally retires. Ward has the versatility to play either strong or free safety and would be a promising edition to the Steelers secondary.

    The Buffalo Bills had to say goodbye to one of the best safeties in the league in Jairus Byrd and were not able to come anywhere close to filling the void left behind. Ward could challenge Da’Norris Searcy for the starting job on his way to becoming a top-tier NFL safety over time.

    In the immediate future, Aaron Williams seems to have one of the two safety spots locked down. He and Ward could develop into a formidable tandem.  

Khalil Mack, Edge-Rusher, Buffalo

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    Few prospects generated more production over their collegiate careers than Khalil Mack. In fact, his 16 career forced fumbles are the most among any draft eligible prospect this season. But he did a lot more than just force fumbles.

    He has a unique style of play that seems to exploit opponents in the right way and at just the right time.

    The Houston Texans would be well-served by adding this talented playmaker to their roster, potentially with the first overall pick. Mack has not appeared to be a main target for the Texans, as many insist they will draft a quarterback.  

    Pairing Mack up alongside J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus would be devastating to offensive coordinators around the league. With those three all targeting the opponents’ QB at the same time, teams would not be able to focus their attention on Watt or any single member of the front seven.

    Any club that is looking to add Mack to its roster on draft day will have to move up into in the top five at least.  

    The Jaguars would be another great fit for him and one that could feasibly happen. Head coach Gus Bradley values pass-rushers and knows that Mack would be an incredible addition. 

    In Jacksonville, he would assume the role of the "Elephant" linebacker. This would take full advantage of his unique skill set while instantly transforming the team’s pathetic pass rush into a formidable group. Jason Babin led the team in sacks a year ago with 7.5.

Kyle Van Noy, Edge-Rusher, BYU

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    I’ve said it numerous times throughout the predraft process: Kyle Van Noy is very similar to Tyrann Mathieu in his playmaking ability. Both players are obsessed with taking a normal play and turning it into a game-changing moment, and they have the incredible instincts and enough physical gifts to pull it off.

    No team would be a better fit for Van Noy than the New Orleans Saints. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan did a nice job when you consider what he had to work with last year. You can be sure that Van Noy would show up on that roster as a Day 1 starter.

    Coach Ryan is in need of an outside rusher/playmaker if he hopes to take this defense to the next level. Van Noy is the guy to do it.

    Although this underrated BYU product is being projected as late as the third round, I believe he can end up a better pro than Anthony Barr, who is going to be drafted much higher than Van Noy when the time comes.

    If the Saints pass up on him with the 27th pick, he might fit well with Rob’s brother Rex.

    Having played under both of these coaches, I know they would enjoy coaching a player like Van Noy. The Jets have been in need of a dominating outside linebacker ever since Rex took over as head coach.

    Van Noy’s ideal position in the NFL is as a 3-4 rush linebacker. The Saints and Jets run a scheme that would help him to do the things he does well.  

Aaron Donald, DL, Pittsburgh

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    In 51 games, Aaron Donald racked up 66.5 tackles for a loss as an interior lineman. Only Khalil Mack had more tackles for loss than Donald in this draft class over the course of a career.

    At 6'1", 285 pounds, he is undersized as a defensive tackle, but he uses his frame to be quicker than the slow, lumbering guards and centers who are often assigned to block him. He also has tremendous functional strength, which allows him to drive blockers back and keep them off guard.

    Today’s NFL has proved that undersized interior linemen can be successful. 

    The Buccaneers would be a great fit here. The Tampa 2 scheme requires penetration from all four linemen, considering that they rarely blitz. The mindset of that defensive line is to play the run on the way to the quarterback.

    Pairing Donald up with Gerald McCoy could make this front line one of the best in the country.

    The Chicago Bears are another team that would greatly appreciate the playmaking of Donald.

    With Henry Melton moving on via free agency, the Bears could use a guy like him. In Chicago, he would be on a team that is seemingly on the rise. Besides, this would be an opportunity for him to plug in as an immediate starter from Day 1.

Will Sutton, DL, Arizona State

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    Will Sutton and Aaron Donald are similar in that they’re both undersized players who understand how to get into the opponent’s backfield.

    Sutton is not as quick or as strong as Donald, but he does a better job with his counter moves and hand technique when fighting off linemen.

    He is likely going to be a mid-round draft pick due to his 6'0", 303-pound size and less than ideal numbers during his combine and pro day.

    The Bengals could be an interesting team for him. He would get to reunite with his former teammate Vontaze Burfict and learn from the best undersized defensive lineman in the game, Geno Atkins.

    Sutton would provide depth and contribute to the line as a rookie.

    The other ideal fit would be with the Cowboys.

Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State

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    If you like speed and explosion at the linebacker position, then you’re going to love Ryan Shazier from Ohio State. He is the complete embodiment of a sideline-to-sideline player. His speed and quickness also allow him to be a dominant coverage linebacker.

    Surprisingly, he is one of the best blitzing backers in the draft.

    A perfect fit would be as the final piece of the LB puzzle for the Bengals. With Rey Maualuga inside and Vontaze Burfict in the strong side, Shazier can be the speedster of the group, cleaning up the trash and locking down intermediate routes for the next decade.

    Burfict and Maualuga are physical thumpers, whereas Shazier can provide a bit more versatility as a blitzer and cover guy.

    The Giants could benefit from his impressive tools also, but an inside backer who can stuff the run is really the more pressing need.

    Imagine if you put Shazier on the Carolina Panthers to take over as the weak-side linebacker. That would be a dream combination at linebacker with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. This fit would bring out the best for both the player and the organization while taking that already dominating defense to the next level. 

Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin

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    This undersized middle linebacker was a steady playmaker for the Badgers for more than 50 games, averaging 7.76 tackles per contest.

    He may not look pretty doing it, but at the end of the day, he gets his job done with regularity.

    He could provide a much-needed interior presence against the run if he were to somehow land on the Broncos. Denver spent the better part of last season without a true middle linebacker and suffered because of it. Borland would give the Broncos that anchor inside that was lacking during their run at the Super Bowl.

    The New York Giants have also been in search of a consistent presence at the middle linebacker position. He could come into New York and learn from the established core of veterans while simultaneously jumping right in as a steady contributor, if not as a starter.

    Adding a solid middle linebacker could be the face-lift that the organization is looking for on defense.

     

    Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player who writes for Bleacher Report. 

    For questions, follow along on Twitter.

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