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The evolution of the defensive end in the NFL seems to have led us to a position that is impossible to singularly define.

There are the in-vogue hybrid defensive ends, which can line up in 4-3 fronts and play the orthodox way. Then again, they could also drop back into coverage or play off the ball as an outside linebacker, often times in a 3-4 scheme. There are the situational pass-rushing ends and the two-down, run-stopping ends. And in a 3-4 front, ends are primarily tackle-sized road blocks designed to hold blockers off heat-seeking linebackers.

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The position has been colored gray by the varying responsibilities, but for the purpose of this exercise, we're going to focus primarily on ends who play with their hands on the ground and will hardly ever be used or even considered to play any other position on the perimeter. We're also going to explore the defensive tackles, a limited group that could have significant impact at the top of the draft but provide little more than initial help in rotations after the first handful of players are selected.

This is an overall look at the defensive grunts, some of whom could emerge as stars, but at the outset of their careers will be utilized more as spokes in a wheel instead of the cog.

At defensive end, LSU's Tyson Jackson and fellow SEC product Robert Ayers, from Tennessee, are the only players projected to be chosen in the first round of the April 25-26 draft. Their hybrid peers figure to dominate at the position, but Jackson and Ayers fill roles for teams needing to firm up the defensive line with stout, three-down players who can stop the run as well as provide pressure in the pocket.

Besides providing toughness and size, being able to avoid using certain substitution packages as they relate to the defensive ends allows teams to hide schemes or plug in players at other spots without disrupting the flow of a player who is getting into a rhythm. While some players thrive as specialists, others need to remain involved in the game to retain their focus and gain advantages over offensive tackles that don't come out of games because of run or pass situations.

Jackson, who weighs nearly 300 pounds, could be effective as a 3-4 end, where his size and athleticism may be best utilized. Fewer and fewer 4-3 teams use such massive ends, especially on the pass-rushing right side, unless they move them inside to a tackle spot in passing situations.

Ayers had a great senior season and has helped himself in pre-draft workouts. He is more of a traditional 4-3 end at 272 pounds. If it weren't for the influx of hybrid types, he could be a top-20 pick. Ayers could still go that high, but also could slip into the early second round.

Draft discussion
With a top-heavy crop of DE/DTs led by B.J. Raji, is it a good idea to reach for one of the elite prospects? NFL.com's Gil Brandt and Steve Wyche debate the idea. Read more...

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Other intriguing prospects at defensive end include Utah's Paul Kruger, Georgia Tech's Michael Johnson, San Jose State's Jarron Gilbert, Texas A&M's Michael Bennett and Cincinnati's Connor Barwin, who is an ultra-hybrid as a DE/OLB and possible tight end.

The defensive tackles are regarded as one of the thinnest position groups in the draft because of the drop-off after Boston College's B.J. Raji, Mississippi's Peria Jerry and Missouri's Evander "Ziggy" Hood. While all three could go in the first round, Raji is the only projected surefire bet.

Raji is one of the most talented players in the draft and could even be a top-five selection to Seattle (No. 4) or Cleveland (No. 5). He isn't expected to fall past Denver (No. 12), which is trying to shore up one of the worst defenses in the NFL.

With Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Indianapolis in serious need of help on the defensive interior, Jerry and Hood seem like perfect fits. Both are similar in that they are relentless scrappers who can generate penetration in the running and passing games. Their versatility and size (300-plus pounds) are attractive to teams that not only have voids to fill, but are also looking to get bigger.

From there, the defensive tackle options narrow to situational players like USC's Fili Moala, who will likely operate best in situational packages. Teams tend to de-value those players somewhat and though Moala and Boston College DT Ron Brace likely will be selected in the second round, most of the remaining defensive tackles aren't expected to be chosen until Day 2 of the draft (Rounds 3-7).

Top 5 defensive ends
Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
1.
LSU
6-4
295
1

Analysis: Jackson isn't necessarily a pass-rushing end, but he does make plays behind the line of scrimmage. He is more of an edge-setter who can keep linemen off linebackers, which is why he could be appealing to a team that plays a 3-4 front. He played end in a 4-3 in college and has the size and toughness to line up at defensive tackle for teams that like to roll three defensive ends.

NFL landing spot: San Diego and Denver are teams that play the 3-4, while New Orleans is a 4-3 team that could utilize Jackson's abilities and develop him into a fearsome player.

  Video: Tyson Jackson


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
2.
Tennessee
6-3
272
1-2

Analysis: What has NFL teams excited about Ayers is that he seems to be far from reaching his ceiling. Ayers also projects as a three-down end who won't have to come off the field in substitution packages on pass/run downs. His postseason workouts have piqued a lot of interest, though he might not go in the top half of the draft.

NFL landing spot: Denver, Detroit, Miami and Tennessee could use a player with tremendous upside like Ayers.

  Video: Robert Ayers


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
3.
Utah
6-4
263
2-3

Analysis: Kruger played just two seasons after returning to school following a Mormon mission, but his overall lack of experience doesn't overshadow his talent, maturity and flat-out ability to play. He could begin his career as a situational pass rusher, but he's tough enough to be moved around to both end spots, where he could help generate matchup problems for a creative defensive coordinator.

NFL landing spot: If Green Bay goes nose tackle or offensive tackle in the first round, he'd be a perfect fit at defensive end with the team's second- or third-round pick because he projects to add at least 15 pounds. However, he seems better suited for teams that play a 4-3 front like Atlanta, Buffalo, Chicago, Carolina or New Orleans.

  Video: Paul Kruger


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
4.
Georgia Tech
6-7
266
2-3

Analysis: Johnson is a rare athletic specimen whose stock briefly surged after the combine and some private workouts. Then teams looked at the film again and saw a player who has yet to live up to his potential. Johnson will likely be a situational pass rusher who may occasionally drop into coverage, but he is viewed as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end.

NFL landing spot: The Cardinals love tall, rangy players that they can move around in their multiple-front, hybrid 3-4 scheme. Buffalo, Chicago, Washington and Atlanta are also good fits.

  Video: Michael Johnson


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
5.
San Jose State
6-5
288
3-6

Analysis: Gilbert was on the radar of some teams, but then a YouTube video of him jumping out of the shallow end of a swimming pool and landing on his feet drew attention like moths to a flame. Gilbert has continued his ascension with postseason workouts. He was also a productive player and added 40 pounds throughout his career, showing the ability to play both end spots. He could suit up in a 3-4 or 4-3 front. Texas A&M's Michael Bennett (6-4, 274) is another top-five defensive end talent who falls in the same projected draft range.

NFL landing spot: Denver, New Orleans, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Chicago like ends with length and some ability to get push.

  Video: Jarron Gilbert


Top 5 defensive tackles
Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
1.
Boston College
6-2
337
1

Analysis: Raji is the elite defensive tackle of this year's class. He doesn't have as much hype as Glenn Dorsey did last year, but he could be drafted as high as Dorsey (No. 5) and potentially have a long, successful career. He is being eyed by 3-4 teams that want a player who can hold the point of attack and reset the interior line of scrimmage, as he did during a spectacular senior season. He could also be the inside tackle in a 4-3 front, as he was in college.

NFL landing spot: Cleveland is a long shot because of Shaun Rogers, but the pairing could be a rotational force. Raji probably won't slip past Green Bay or Denver, as both are re-tooling their 3-4 fronts.

  Video: B.J. Raji


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
2.
Mississippi
6-2
299
1-2

Analysis: Jerry is a high-motor player whose ability to penetrate the line of scrimmage in college was uncanny. Double-teamed or not, Jerry was able to have his way. His 32 tackles for loss the past two seasons -- a staggering number for a defensive tackle -- proved it. Jerry's skill set best translates to a 4-3 front, where he could be used more in gap alignments rather than head-on sets.

NFL landing spot: Tampa Bay, with the free-agent departure of Jovan Haye, is in significant need, and Jerry seems to be an ideal fit for its scheme. Atlanta and Indianapolis could also be in play.

  Video: Peria Jerry


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
3.
Missouri
6-3
300
1-2

Analysis: Hood has improved his stock with postseason showings at the Senior Bowl, combine and private workouts. His relentlessness and willingness to do what's asked of him are strengths that have been complemented by positive feedback after character interviews. Hood can play in a variety of fronts, but he may be best suited in a 4-3 scheme because of his ability to break through double teams and get into the backfield.

NFL landing spot: Atlanta and Indianapolis are in desperate need of defensive tackles, with the Colts having the more pressing need to bolster the position.

  Video: Evander Hood


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
4.
Boston College
6-3
330
2-3

Analysis: Brace paired with Raji to make a formidable interior wall in Boston College's 4-3 front. Brace could be better suited as a nose tackle in a 3-4 set because he has limited mobility, but can hold the point of attack. Good workouts at the Senior Bowl and combine have eased some concerns about his ability to play in space. Repeated back issues have prompted some durability concerns.

NFL landing spot: New England, Green Bay, Denver, Arizona, Carolina and Atlanta could all use Brace to keep blockers off of linebackers.

  Video: Ron Brace


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
5.
USC
6-4
305
2-5

Analysis: There's a good reason why USC has three linebackers who made enough plays to be considered top-level draft picks: Moala kept blockers away. Though he has the frame to be more of a pass-rushing tackle, Moala doesn't have great forward speed and is more of a run-stuffing player. He might be a two-down tackle who gets pulled out in passing situations, especially for teams like the Rams, Giants and Falcons, who move defensive ends inside on long down-and-distance plays.

NFL landing spot: Tennessee, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and St. Louis.

  Video: Fili Moala


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