2014 NFL Draft: Final Defensive Positional Rankings

Curt PopejoyContributor IApril 18, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Final Defensive Positional Rankings

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    Otto Kitsinger

    Who is the best cornerback in the 2014 NFL draft? Is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney a transcendent player? Is the next Troy Polamalu in this safety class?

    So many questions about a very deep and talented group of defensive prospects. The problem is just trying to sort them all out.

    And how those questions are answered can vary according to whom you ask. Obviously, nothing is guaranteed when it comes down to prospects, so ranking them must be based purely on talent and NFL potential. Things like the team that drafts a player, current state of the depth chart or proper scheme can represent the difference between a talented player excelling in the league and simply treading water.

    Here is a look at some updated positional rankings on defense as the 2014 NFL draft fast approaches. These rankings have no bearing on the order these players will be selected in. If past drafts have taught us anything it is that franchises are unpredictable.

    These rankings haven’t changed much during the season, and short of some sort of injury or off-the-field breakthrough, these rankings won’t change.

Defensive Ends

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    Whether you play a 4-3 or 3-4 base defense, your edge players are vital to your team’s success.

    The roles of DEs in a 3-4 versus a 4-3 are very different, but by and large ends are valued highly by NFL teams no matter the defensive system they run. This means that there is no shame in taking a 3-4 end early in the draft. In fact, while there was a time when it was taboo, using a first- or second-round pick on a big boy to play the edge is much more commonplace.

    Nevertheless, don’t expect a 3-4 end to go early this year. That’s not to say one or more of the top defensive tackles in this draft won’t make the switch, but for pure ends, this group is characterized by traditional edge-rush players. 

    The king of the hill? It is South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney. The anointed one since early in his freshman year, Clowney is finally going to get to take his talents to the big stage. It will be interesting to see if he can live up to the pedestal he has been put on by his fans.

    After Clowney, it is really a matter of taste. Does your team want a sleek, speed edge-rusher like Auburn’s Dee Ford? Or could they prefer the beef and power of Missouri’s Kony Ealy? Or maybe they wait until later for a guy like Boise State’s Demarcus Lawrence.

    One note about this list. Several of the players here, could and will convert to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. However, their key function will still be to rush the passer, and they are categorized accordingly.

     

    1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
    2. Kony Ealy, Missouri
    3. Dee Ford, Auburn
    4. Scott Crichton, Oregon State
    5. Trent Murphy, Stanford
    6. James Gayle, Virginia Tech
    7. Marcus Smith, Louisville
    8. Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State
    9. Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas
    10. Kareem Martin, North Carolina

Defensive Tackles

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    Some of us really enjoy breaking down these big boys. There is something satisfying about watching a skilled big man do his job.

    This group of tackles is diverse. It doesn’t matter what you are asking of your tackle. This group has you covered.

    The consensus top defensive tackle in this group by the media is Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald. And his game is impressive. But, this list is topped by Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman. Hageman’s size is superior to Donald’s, as is his ability to impact a game from multiple spots. For Donald to be successful in the NFL, his role is going to have to be very explicit. The same cannot be said for Hageman, who looks to be a three-tool player along the defensive line.

    Looking further down this list, there is so much to like. The name to jot down is Dominique Easley. The Florida tackle was arguably the best in the country last season, but at this point, coming off an injury, much is unknown. At 100 percent, there might not be a more disruptive defensive lineman in the entire draft. How high he is taken will depend on team needs and how comfortable that team(s) is with Easley's health down the road.

     

    1. Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota
    2. Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
    3. Dominique Easley, Florida
    4. Louis Nix III, Notre Dame
    5. Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame
    6. Timmy Jernigan, FSU
    7. Will Sutton, Arizona State
    8. DaQuan Jones, Penn State
    9. Ego Ferguson, LSU
    10. Caraun Reid, Princeton

Outside Linebackers

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    Earlier, we intimated that several of the players listed as defensive ends could end up as linebackers in a 3-4 defense. This group, by contrast is more traditional 4-3 linebackers. That’s not to say one or two might not be able to make the transition, but know it is very rare for a college outside linebacker, coming from a 4-3 to make the switch to a 3-4 in the same role.

    The best player at this position is Buffalo’s Khalil Mack. It is notoriously difficult to categorize Mack with any singular description. He is so disruptive in all phases of the game; he must be accounted for on every play. Some teams neutralized Mack by scheming everything to him. NFL teams won’t have that luxury and Mack is going to flourish.

    Another linebacker on this list that doesn’t get enough press is BYU’s Kyle Van Noy. The BYU product lacks the flash that draws so many media types to a prospect. That’s unfortunate, because his all-around game is just as good as any on this list. Some team is going to get a real steal.

     

    1. Khalil Mack, Buffalo
    2. Anthony Barr, UCLA
    3. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
    4. Kyle Van Noy, BYU
    5. Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech
    6. Jordan Tripp, Montana
    7. Carl Bradford, Arizona State
    8. Trevor Riley, Utah
    9. Christian Kirksey, Iowa
    10. Michael Sam, Missouri 

     

Inside Linebackers

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    This isn’t the most exciting group of inside linebackers we’ve seen. Outside of the four players that top this list, you are looking at a lot of two-down, run-stuffing linebackers, who aren’t going to wow anyone.

    Nevertheless, Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is an exciting prospect that should be great if he can stay healthy. The most interesting player on this list is Florida State’s Christian Jones. His physical gifts are equivalent to that of Mosley, he just needs great coaching.

    The wild card of this group is Wisconsin’s Chris Borland. What Borland does on the field flies in the face of what most expect from an NFL linebacker. But, you put on the film, and he just keeps making plays. Some team is going to take a great college football player and turn him into a productive NFL player.

     

    1. C.J. Mosley, Alabama
    2. Christian Jones, FSU
    3. Shayne Skov, Stanford
    4. Chris Borland, Wisconsin
    5. Telvin Smith, FSU
    6. Yawin Smallwood, UConn
    7. Lamin Barrow, LSU
    8. Max Bullough, Michigan State
    9. Avery Williamson, Kentucky
    10. Preston Brown, Louisville

Cornerbacks

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    If there is a position in this draft that is the star, it might be cornerback. This list only includes 10 players, but 35 cornerbacks have draftable grades this year. That is a huge number. In fact, every cornerback on this list could be gone by the end of the second round.

    Now, whom you consider the top cornerback is only a matter of taste. Some prefer the elite technique of TCU’s Jason Verrett, while I favor the length and athleticism of Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert. Bottom line is, both will be great.

    The sleeper of this list is Missouri’s E.J. Gaines. Gaines is similar to Verrett in that the biggest criticism of his game centers on his height. However, there few routes Gaines can’t run as well as the wide receiver he is covering. He might be a little undersized, but his ability to mirror wide receivers will give even great quarterbacks pause as to whether they should throw in his direction.

     

    1. Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
    2. Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
    3. Jason Verrett, TCU
    4. Bradley Roby, Ohio State
    5. Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
    6. Pierre Desir, Lindenwood
    7. Jaylen Watkins, Florida
    8. Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
    9. E.J. Gaines, Missouri
    10. Phillip Gaines, Rice

Safeties

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    The 2014 safety class is by far the most overrated position of the entire draft. There are several quality players to choose from, but if you are looking for the next Ed Reed in this group, keep on walking.

    Part of the blame for this is college football. College systems don’t cultivate safeties to be fluid athletes like they had in the past. Now, lots of teams use their safeties more like extra linebackers to account for spread offenses. These safeties are athletic playing downhill, but turn and change of direction are harder to come by.

    The player on this list who might have the most NFL upside is Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner. This is because he is fluid enough to play cornerback and can utilize those coverage skills in his move to safety. There is a real Tyrann Mathieu feel to Joyner’s game, and I really feel like he can have a similar kind of impact at the next level.

     

    1. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
    2. Deone Bucannon, Washington State
    3. Calvin Pryor, Louisville
    4. Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
    5. Lamarcus Joyner, FSU
    6. Dion Bailey, USC
    7. Terrence Brooks, FSU
    8. Tre Boston, North Carolina
    9. Craig Loston, LSU
    10. Ed Reynolds, Stanford