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Early Player Rankings for the NFL Draft: Top Five Defensive Line Prospects

Notre Dame Fighting Irish nose guard Louis Nix (9). Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

 

Over the past two weeks I have been providing my early player rankings for each position in the 2014 NFL Draft. This is a brief look at my top five players at each position at this point in the draft evaluation process.

With the NFL Scouting Combine only a few days away, the draft landscape could change rather rapidly depending on how well these players do in drills and workouts, but for now, this should at least give you an idea of who some of the top players are at each position.

Earlier in the week, I highlighted my top wide receiver prospects, and today, I’d like to take a look at my top 3-4 defensive linemen in this year’s draft class.

1. Louis Nix III, Notre Dame

2. Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh

3. Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota

4. Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame

5. Timmy Jernigan, Florida State

This year’s defensive line group seems like a mixed bag. There isn’t one standout prospect that has it all at the position and seems like a good fit in a 3-4 defense.

Yes, Jadeveon Clowney is the top prospect on defense, if not in the entire draft, but Clowney is best suited as a 4-3 defensive end and doesn’t have a fit on the line in the 3-4. This is why I left him off the list.

At the top of the linemen suited for the 3-4, I have Nix. Donald may be the most talented defensive lineman in this draft, but Nix is perhaps the most valuable. There just isn’t that many nose tackle prospects with Nix’s combination of size (6-2, 345) and explosiveness.

Top notch nose tackles come at a premium in the NFL, so Nix will probably be the first interior defensive lineman off the board come May. Nix is a big run stuffer that can hold the point of attack against double teams, but he also has the quickness and short-area burst to get off his block and generate interior pressure.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97). Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Donald was the most dominant defensive lineman in college football last year, recording 11 sacks and a whopping 28.5 tackles for loss. The only downside to Donald’s game seems to be his size at 6-foot-1 and 288 pounds.

Although a bit undersized, I still believe Donald is an explosive interior rusher and has proven he can hold the point of attack against the run and has the strength to withstand double teams.

I know many don’t see Donald as a great fit in the 3-4, and I do agree his best position is at the three-technique as 4-3 tackle. However, Donald’s talent is too great to pass up, and a team like Green Bay could find a spot for Donald on their defense. Even though he lacks length, I think he could play as a five-technique in base and move to the inside as a pass rusher in nickel.

Like Donald, Jernigan seems better suited as a 4-3 tackle, but he has a better size (6-2, 298) and could play on the line in a 3-4. The Florida State prospect has good burst off the line and plays with a good motor.

Hageman and Tuitt are similar prospects in the fact they are both around the 6-foot-6, 315-pound mark, seem fit for the 3-4, and flash playmaking ability but struggle with consistency.

Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman (99). Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman (99). Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Hageman is slightly more valuable, in my opinion, because he can also play nose and he’s stouter against the run. If the Packers miss out on Nix in the first round, Hageman could be an option, but he still seems better suited as an early second round pick.

Tuitt is a better pass rusher and at times looks like the better athlete. However, Tuitt struggles with holding his ground against the run and needs to play with better leverage and technique.

There are plenty of players that could make their way into the top five at the position in the coming months.

Brent Urban of Virginia is an underrated prospect at the position. He plays tough, has good size (6-6, 298), and plays with a high motor. He also plays with good leverage and rarely loses ground at the line, even against double teams.

South Carolina’s Kelcy Quarles is another guy that could move up. He’s a bit inconsistent against the run and may not fit as a two-gapper in the 3-4, but he’s an excellent interior rusher, recording 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last season. Quarles may improve against the run in time, and he has enough raw ability to make him an early round prospect at the position.

Penn State’s DaQuan Jones and Louisiana Tech’s Justin Ellis are two more options at nose tackle and could be found in the third or fourth round.

Stanford Cardinal defensive end Josh Mauro (90) sacks and causes Washington State Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday (12). Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford Cardinal defensive end Josh Mauro (90) sacks and causes Washington State Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday (12). Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

LSU’s Ego Ferguson, Princeton’s Caraun Reid, and Syracuse’s Jay Bromley, are players that could be good interior linemen found in the middle rounds but might not have the ideal 3-4 size teams are looking for.

My sleeper at the position is Stanford’s Josh Mauro, who was an excellent defensive end in the Cardinals’ 3-4 system. He’ll need to add more weight to his 6-foot-6, 278-pound frame, but he’s quick off the snap and stronger than his size would indicate. He could be an excellent 3-4 end with a little more development at the next level.

Look for these players and plenty more at the position to impress with their workouts as the NFL Combine gets under way in Indianapolis Feb. 22-25.

Check back here at Lombardiave.com for the next position’s top five draft prospects. Also, look for a more in-depth position-by-position breakdown later in the spring as we get closer to the NFL Draft in May.

Previous Position Rankings:

Top 5 Wide Receivers

Top 5 Outside Linebackers

Top 5 Offensive Linemen

Top 5 Inside Linebackers

Top 5 Tight Ends

Top Five Safeties

Top Five Cornerbacks

Topics: Aaron Donald, Green Bay Packers, Louis Nix III, NFL Draft, Ra'shede Hageman, Stephon Tuitt, Timmy Jernigan

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