Defensive players have dotted the top of most draft boards since the mock draft business began in earnest back in January.
Virginia defensive end Chris Long remains an elite prospect along with fellow defensive linemen Vernon Gholston, Glenn Dorsey, and Sedrick Ellis. Others who have made appearances on the big board as likely first-round players are DE's Derrick Harvey, Phillip Merling , linebackers Dan Connor, Keith Rivers, and defensive backs Leodis McKelvin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Mike Jenkins.
Other players have used strong postseason performances, particularly at pro day workouts and individual team interviews in recent weeks, to boost their draft stock. Some are the beneficiaries of missteps by others, while there is a group of prospects whose standing has been affected by factors out of their control, such as team needs and the depth and quality of certain positions both on the free agent market and in the draft. For instance, the lack of impact pass rushers in this draft compared to other positions, like running back and wide receiver. For that reason, I expect a run on pass rushers early in this draft as teams who have prioritized that need will look to address it before the first tier players are gone.
Harvey is one of those players. His 4.8 in the 40 and 31 reps on the bench at the combine made him an instant prospect for 4-3 teams looking for an explosive pass rusher off the edge. But at 6-foot-4, 271-pounds, he has also shown rare athleticism in linebacker drills both at the combine and at Florida's Pro Day, making him an option to play upright as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. He's got long arms (82-inch wingspan) and the frame to add another 15-20 pounds without sacrificing speed and quickness, and is also a solid tackler and a willing run defender.
He was extremely productive at Florida, recording 20½ sacks in four years as well as 33 tackles for a loss over the last two seasons. His versatility makes him a fit for nearly any team. Apparent interest from top 10 teams in recent weeks has caused his name to be mentioned among the early picks later this month, and short of an off-field incident, there seems to be little that can derail him at this point.
USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson has been overshadowed by teammate Sedrick Ellis for most of the evaluation process, but he had a very strong showing at the Senior Bowl back in January. For those of us who watched him start 51 of his 52 career games as a Trojan and make a total of 83 plays behind the line of scrimmage in that time, it came as little surprise.
Jackson was smart to stay in school last year after considering a jump to the NFL, turning into one of the more polished pass rushers in this draft. He uses his hands well, has developed an inside technique, and has multiple ways to get to the quarterback. The more teams look into the pass rush talent in the draft, the more they come back to Jackson.
Other players are more explosive and have flashed elite talent, but Jackson has been steady and consistent all along. That kind of reliability becomes more and more important to teams as the draft gets closer and they weigh the benefits of their investments.
Another player who backed up a solid senior season (112 tackles) with some strong postseason workouts is Notre Dame's Trevor Laws.
The 6-1, 304-pound defensive tackle has a great first step and the quickness to excel as a three-technique tackle in a scheme like the one used by Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Buffalo, and Minnesota. But he also has shown the bulk and strength to anchor and shed against the run. He also tested well at the combine, running a 5.0 in the 40, putting up 35 reps on the bench and recording a 30½-inch vertical jump, a big number for a 300-pounder.
A former high school wrestler, Laws has quick hands and understands how to play with leverage. He's a classic overachiever and try-hard guy who has won over scouts with his effort and attitude and has climbed into day one consideration.
The fastest rising linebacker is Tennessee's Jerod Mayo. In many early mocks, Mayo was a clear second-round prospect. Then, over the course of the past month, he earned some mentions as a potential late first-round selection. Two weeks ago, he cracked the first round with possible landing spots at the Giants or Packers at the very end of the first stanza. In the last week, he has climbed even higher into the first round which caused me to watch his game tapes again.
Mayo showed some excellent speed that has teams considering him as more of a top prospect in line with Rivers and Connor. He is an aggressive downhill player who attacks the line of scrimmage. He gets cut occasionally but on three occasions I watched him get cut and get up and make a tackle for no gain.
An early entry junior, his strong showing at the combine, including an impressive 4.5 in the 40, surprised scouts, who hadn't seen that kind of playing speed on tape. He suffered through knee and ankle injuries early in his career, and as a senior moved from the weak side to the middle. The move worked, as he recorded a career-high 140 tackles.
While he might lack the bulk to stay inside at the NFL level, Mayo has the football intelligence to do it if needed. That speed can also help him be effective outside and he will be valuable on special teams. Again, that kind of versatility is hard to find and is extremely important to NFL teams as they look for multiple skill sets in putting together their rosters.
Finally, keep your eye on Jason Jones, a defensive lineman coming out of Eastern Michigan. He looked just average at the Senior Bowl in the 4-3 scheme but he has gained a lot of interest from the 3-4 teams looking for a 'five-technique' end. At 6'5, 275-pounds, with long arms and good lower body strength, Jones looks like a fit in the Pittsburgh, San Diego or Dallas 3-4 defense.
Jones ran a 4.78 40 and a 4.32 short shuttle at the combine and he told me he has a number of team visits scheduled. He has probably risen from the middle of the fourth round to the bottom of the second round in the past ten days.