Pass rush is often what comes to mind when thinking about the impact of defensive ends in the NFL. In fact, scouts will refer to outside linemen in four-man fronts as "rush ends" because attacking opposing passers is their primary focus.
But the proliferation of hybrid fronts has created great variation in the way defensive ends are labeled and used. In this year's class, you'll see shorter, quicker 4-3 rush ends slated for use in the wide-nine formation brought back into vogue by the Philadelphia Eagles last season. Teams using three-man fronts will siphon off some of those prospects to convert them to rush linebackers.
Taller ends with great length fit as base ends on the strong side of a more traditional four-man alignment. Some 3-4 teams valuing length and power off the edge in their rushers will line up those taller ends outside, as well. San Francisco's usage of Aldon Smith in 2011 (14 sacks) is the prime example of a successful conversion.
Scouts are a bit disappointed that there isn't an elite rush end in this year's draft with the size, length and speed of a Julius Peppers or Mario Williams. But that doesn't mean the class is bereft of prospects capable of excelling in whatever roles their new teams conscript them to fill -- a few impact players will be available on each day of the draft.
Impact first-round defensive ends must be accounted for on every play because of their explosiveness off the snap and strength to swallow ball-carriers coming their way.
Melvin Ingram, South Carolina: Picking a position group in which to list Ingram is difficult, as he made plays in multiple spots during the past two seasons with the Gamecocks. His 19 sacks over the past two years and strong Senior Bowl outing showed scouts how he can be used in various roles. His average size (6-foot-1 1/2, 264 pounds) and length (31 1/2-inch arms) might drop him on some boards, just as they did to Tamba Hali when he fell to the 20th overall slot to Kansas City in 2006. Jared Allen's 32-inch arms didn't prevent him from leading the NFL in sacks in 2011, either. Ingram's nose for the ball, short-area agility and willingness to knife between double teams give him a natural playmaking ability that shouldn't be ignored due to measurables.
Nick Perry, USC: Perry didn't quite reach the 6-3 mark on the measuring tape at the combine, but weighed in at 270 pounds while maintaining high-4.5/low-4.6 speed in his 40-yard dashes. This increased scouts' interest in Perry as a potential impact rush end. Philadelphia's Jason Babin (18 sacks in 2011) and Detroit's Cliff Avril (11 sacks) are just two examples of shorter ends who stand tall over NFL quarterbacks after bringing them down in the backfield. Perry's work off the edge should allow him to make a similar impact in time.
Chandler Jones, Syracuse: Teams are quite intrigued by Jones, whose 35-inch arms and surprising agility and explosiveness in athleticism testing at the combine opened their eyes to his potential. When scouts went back to the tape after the workout, they saw him overwhelm lesser tackles with his power and quick hands. The brother of Ravens defensive lineman Arthur Jones and UFC champ Jon "Bones" Jones might finally emerge from their shadows with Pro Bowl appearances if able to stay healthy (he missed five games in 2011 with a lower body injury) and learn to maximize his physical attributes.
Friday night lights
Impact defensive ends selected in the second or third round overcome scouts' concerns about their games by utilizing their natural physical tools as a long-time starting pass rusher or run-stopper.
Vinny Curry, Marshall: Forget his combine 40 times: Curry's relentlessness and strength on the edge made him extremely productive at Marshall. The two-time first-team All-Conference USA pick compiled 40 tackles for loss, 20 sacks and 10 forced fumbles over the past two years. Curry might be snapped up in Round 1 due to his production, but if his average triangle numbers (height, weight, speed) cause him to be available Friday night, he shouldn't have to wait very long before getting the call from his new employer.
Tyrone Crawford, Boise State: Broncos second-level defender Shea McClellin is a rising prospect, but scouts are also excited about Crawford's potential as a strong, hustling starter on a four-man line. This Canadian native went to junior college before playing a major role on Boise's underrated defensive squad the past two seasons (13.5 sacks in 2010-11). He bulled through tackles at the East-West Shrine Game and displayed better-than-expected athleticism at the combine, giving him a chance to affect the efficiency of opponents' passing and running games.
Olivier Vernon, Miami, Fla.: Missing half of his junior season due to an NCAA suspension for his dealings with booster Nevin Shapiro limited the film scouts could see of Vernon. But the more they watched, the more they liked what they saw. His 6-2 1/8, 261-pound frame won't scare off every 4-3 team because he plays with leverage, strong hands and quickness on the edge. His fluid movement in space may cause 3-4 teams to project him as a linebacker, as well. No matter where he plays, his physical abilities will eventually allow him to stand out on the field once he gets experience.
Impact defensive ends from the third day of the draft often become unheralded starters in a year or two who can hold the line of scrimmage and pressure the quarterback when given the chance.
Cam Johnson, Virginia: When scouts watch Johnson's tape, they write words like "inconsistent" and "invisible" in their reports for some games. When coaches see the lengthy pass rusher eat up a bunch of grass off the snap, they think, "I can get him to be a player." I'll side with the coaches on this one. General managers might be afraid to use a top-100 pick to secure his services based on his film, but staying healthy (battled a leg injury throughout 2011) should make him a Mark Anderson-type.
Jack Crawford, Penn State: This London native picked up the game after his family moved to the United States, but learned quickly enough to earn a scholarship to Penn State. Injuries derailed Crawford's progress in 2010, but he flashed enough talent as a senior (and athleticism at the combine) for me to project the 6-5, 274-pound prospect as a regular starter in time with more work on his strength and technique. His impact might be delayed a bit, but it is coming.
Trevor Guyton, California: Tyson Alualu and Cameron Jordan parlayed productive careers as 3-4 defensive ends at Cal into first-round selections. Guyton's grades are not quite that high due to his average athleticism and ill fit in a 4-3 system, but he did use his extreme hustle and ball awareness to earn second-team All-Pac-12 accolades in his first season as a full-time starter in 2011. Even if Guyton has to wait behind veterans for a year or two before getting his chance, as he did at Cal, he'll be tough for a 3-4 team to cut this fall and should work on his way onto the field.
Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter