O'HARA'S DRAFT PREVIEW: Rating the defensive linemen

Posted Apr 21, 2014

In the first installment of his draft preview series, Detroitlions.com columnist Mike O'Hara rates the top defensive linemen available

Jadeveon Clowney has lived with the pressure of being a No. 1 draft prospect longer than most players.

Clowney’s reign as No. 1 began with the last game of South Carolina’s 2012 season. The All-American defensive end closed out his dominating sophomore season with a highlight hit in the Gamecocks’ victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. The hit sent Vincent Smith’s helmet flying backward – and firmly sent Clowney’s stock soaring upward as college football’s top draft prospect.

Being No. 1 was an “if only” proposition, though.

If only Clowney had been eligible, he would have been the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft. NFL rules that bar players from entering the draft until three years after their senior year in high school forced Clowney to return to South Carolina for his junior season.

After a lackluster – by his standards – season, Clowney has left college behind and enters next month’s draft as the top-rated prospect – again.

In a stop in Detroit as part of his pre-draft tour, Clowney admitted that at times he has felt the burden of being No. 1.

“There are ups and downs,” Clowney said. “Guys start taking shots at you. People start figuring out what your weaknesses are, just throwing out things about you. It’s something you have to deal with, being that No. 1 guy.”

The scrutiny is something he has come to accept, and he has enjoyed his draft tour, but he admitted he watched last year’s draft thinking he could have been the No. 1 pick.

“I did, but that wasn’t my turn,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting started with whatever team I go to.

“This process is very long. You have to keep your focus and keep working, work out and enjoy it. A lot of people don’t get to do what us guys are doing --- visiting teams, going to new towns and cities. It’s a great experience for me. I enjoy it.”

O'Hara's Top 12 defensive line prospects
1 DE Jadeveon Clowney South Carolina 6'5 266 4.53
2 DT Aaron Donald Pittsburgh 6'1 285 4.68
3 DT Ra’Shede Hageman Minnesota 6'6 310 5.02
4 DT Timmy Jernigan Florida State 6'2 299 5.06
5 DT Louis Nix III Notre Dame 6'2 331 5.42
6 DT/DE Stephon Tuitt Notre Dame 6'6 304 4.89
7 DE Dee Ford Auburn 6'2 252 4.75
8 DE Kony Ealy Missouri 6'4 273 4.92
9 DE Scott Crichton Oregon State 6'3 273 4.84
10 DT DaQuan Jones Penn State 6'4 322 5.35
11 DE Kareem Martin North Carolina 6'6 272 4.72
12 DE Jackson Jeffcoat Texas 6'3 247 4.63


The best

Defensive end: Jadeveon Clowney: He has gotten some criticism for the way he performed last year, and some of it’s legitimate. It often looked like he was saving himself for the NFL and not risking getting hurt. One critic said it looked like he was playing in an all-star game.

Clowney’s raw ability ranks him with the best defensive end prospects in history. He has long arms, big hands and he gets off the ball quickly with power. He has played tough in college and played with minor injuries.

As a sophomore in 2012 he had 23.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks and finished sixth in voting for the Heisman Trophy. In terms of stats, 2013 was a step – or two – down. He dropped to 11.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks.

But his workouts for the scouts, including a blazing 4.53 seconds in the 40, confirmed his status as the No. 1 prospect.

Defensive tackle: Aaron Donald, Pitt: At 285 pounds, he doesn’t have the bulk of the prototype defensive tackle, but his ability and performance outweigh his size, and his athletic ability – 4.68 in the 40 and 35 reps in the bench press – is at the top of the charts.

In his last three seasons he had 61 tackles for loss and 27.5 sacks, making him a legitimate top 10 prospect.

The rest:

DT Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota: Originally a tight end, converted early to defense. A full-time starter at tackle his last two seasons, he had 13 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 8 pass breakups and 2 blocked kicks in 2013 and was the team MVP.

DT Timmy Jernigan, Florida St.:Three years at Florida State and a one-year starter.

Undersized for a nose tackle, which is where the Seminoles played him, but had 11 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and started all 14 games for the BCS national champs.

DT Louis Nix III, Notre Dame: A classic nose tackle in size and performance, whose strength is stuffing the run. He had a big season in 2012, leading the Irish with 50 tackles, but a knee injury in 2013 kept him out of five of the last six games.

DT/DE Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame: A three-year player at South Bend, the only question might be whether to play a 304-pound lineman who runs the 40 in 4.89 at end or tackle. He had hernia surgery after the 2012 season and surgery on his left foot this offseason. Strength and movement skills allow him to play inside and outside.

DE/OLB Dee Ford, Auburn: A five-year player, he had back surgery in 2011 and was granted a fifth year of eligibility. He had 14.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks in 2013. Questions are health, and whether he plays DE or OLB.

DE Kony Ealy, Missouri: All State in basketball and football at Missouri. He had a big 2013 season --14.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 6 pass breakups and an interception. A 273-pound freshman in 2009, Ealy is maturing physically and has upside.

DE Scott Crichton, Oregon St.: A red-shirt in 2010, he started at right end in 2011 and left end the last two years. He set a school record with 6 forced fumbles in 2011 and ranked No. 1 in the nation among freshmen with 14.5 sacks and 6 tackles for loss.

DT DaQuan Jones, Penn St.: A versatile high school athlete, he participated in track, played basketball and offensive line in football. An offseason weight loss helped him to his best season in 2013 – 3 sacks, 56 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss.

DE Kareem Martin, N. Carolina: He fits the mold of other North Carolina linemen who played basketball and football. Size, long arms (35 inches), big hands (10) and good speed make him a prospect. A three-year starter and play-maker: 11.5 sacks in 2013.

DE Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas: He comes from a football background. His father, Jim Jeffcoat, was a defensive lineman on two Super Bowl championship teams with the Cowboys. A speed rusher who might be used at outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, Jeffcoat had 22 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 2013.

Small college stud: Larry Webster, Bloomsburg. After playing four years of basketball, Webster stayed at Bloomsburg and played two seasons of football. His athleticism on the basketball court – a school record 175 blocked shots – helped him covert to defensive end on the gridiron. He had 26 sacks in two seasons.

Webster’s Combine results were among the best for defensive ends– 4.58 in the 40 (second), 36.5 inches in the vertical jump (fifth) and a standing long jump of 123 inches (fourth.)

It’s a big jump from DII football to the NFL, but it should help having a father – Larry Webster – who played 11 NFL seasons on the defensive line.

Lions depth chart:

Returning: Starters Ziggy Ansah, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Jason Jones (before injury).

Backups: Devin Taylor, Andre Fluellen, C.J. Mosley, Jimmy Saddler-McQueen, Xavier Proctor (2013 practice squad).

New players: DE Kourtnei Brown, DE/LB Darryl Tapp, DT Corvey Irvin, DT Vaughn Martin.

Projecting the Lions defensive line draft possibility: Martin Mayhew has drafted a lineman every year since becoming GM in 2008, and three were in the first round – Suh (2010), Fairley (2011) and Ansah (2013). All three are starters.

Aaron Donald’s production and intensity would be a good fit for the Lions, especially considering the uncertainty over Fairley’s future after 2013. Clowney’s visit sparked speculation about a possible trade up to draft him, but that seems unlikely.

Mayhew’s record suggests he’ll draft a defensive lineman this year.

No one should be surprised if it’s higher than most are projecting.