Pass rushers are always coveted at a premium on draft day. General managers and scouts spend countless hours poring over game tape looking for disruptive edge players with the speed, power and burst to pummel quarterbacks in the backfield.
While South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is considered the crown jewel of the 2014 NFL Draft class, scouts are still undecided on which pass rusher is next in line to come off the board. Missouri's Kony Ealy and Auburn's Dee Ford are viewed as the next candidates on most boards, but differences in their physical statures and playing styles could impact how they're ranked in the minds of evaluators around the league.
Given a little time to study both prospects on tape, here's my take on the debate scouts are waging in several NFL war rooms:
The case for Ealy:
It's hard to find long, rangy pass rushers with explosive first-step quickness and closing burst. Measuring 6-foot-4, 273 pounds with 34 1/2-inch arms, Ealy is a natural playmaker with the physical attributes to develop into a great pass rusher as a pro. Although he displays raw, unrefined technique and fundamentals, Ealy has a knack for getting to the quarterback off the edge. He amassed 9.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss as a junior despite being a bit one-dimensional in his approach. Ealy relies on his speed and quickness to defeat opponents off the edge instead of using a wide array of moves to win at the line of scrimmage. Sure, he has been successful against SEC competition, but he must develop a backup pitch to win consistently as a pro.
The case for Ford:
Ford was the most impressive defensive prospect at the Senior Bowl. He dominated a number of elite offensive tackles with his remarkable first-step quickness and snap-count anticipation. More important, Ford displayed the ability to bend and burst around the corner to create havoc (and turnovers) off the edge. Ford's impressive exhibition matched the production (10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in 2013) I witnessed on game tape when the Auburn standout imposed his will on opponents down the stretch. He stood out in games against Texas A&M, Georgia, Ole Miss and Florida State, while showcasing the potential to wreak havoc on opponents as an edge rusher. Thus, teams employing hybrid schemes built around quick edge defenders could have a big grade on Ford despite his less-than-ideal dimensions (Ford measured 6-2, 252 pounds with 32 7/8-inch arms) and inconsistencies defending the run.
The debate between Ford and Ealy comes down to whether teams place a greater emphasis on production or potential. While Ford is a more productive player at this stage of his career, the immense talent and potential of Ealy will tempt coaches searching for an intriguing developmental prospect. In addition, Ealy's length and athleticism will make him a better fit for teams running a 4-3. However, I believe Ford is a better prospect and should be a terrific player in a scheme that allows him to hunt the quarterback extensively. Although he lacks the ideal physical dimensions some teams prefer, I'm confident he will develop into a double-digit sack artist as a pro.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.