At the conclusion of Super Bowl XLVII, coaches and scouts across the NFL immediately turned their attention to the 2013 NFL Draft. Team officials are busy this week putting together their initial draft boards ahead of the NFL Scouting Combine. While much attention within each organization goes to the vertical board, which features the top 150 to 200 prospects in the draft, the scouts spend the majority of their time working through rankings on the position-specific or horizontal board.
With coaches and scouts starting to project which players are the best fits for their respective squads, I thought I'd take a look at the top five prospects at every defensive position to give you an idea of the conversations that are taking place in draft rooms across the league.
It's not hard to find capable rushers in the 2013 draft class. From Moore to Ansah, the defensive end position is loaded with athletic edge players possessing the speed and quickness to wreak havoc in the pocket. Werner, a former German exchange student with just two years of high school experience, has a limited football background, but he could be the best of the bunch. Scouts familiar with him rave about his first-step quickness and relentless motor.
The deepest collection of talent in the 2013 class is unquestionably at the defensive tackle position. Lotulelei ranks as the top defensive tackle on several boards across the league, but Richardson is a more talented defender with better athleticism and a higher-revving motor. Their battle will certainly intensify over the coming months as scouts dig deeper into the tape and begin to separate production from reputation. Sylvester Williams and Short were strong performers during Senior Bowl week; their stock will continue to rise during the workout circuit.
The job description for outside linebackers has certainly changed in recent years, with the proliferation of the 3-4 and the use of exotic sub-packages on passing downs becoming increasingly popular with defensive coordinators. Teams want outside linebackers with rush skills and run-and-chase ability. Jones is a dynamic playmaker off the edge with the speed and quickness to create chaos. He totaled 26.5 sacks in two seasons in the SEC, displaying the kinds of game-changing skills routinely associated with top-five talents. Moore has flown under the radar for most of the season, but his spectacular play at the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl has scouts intrigued about his disruptive potential at the next level.
Inside linebackers aren't viewed in the same light as players at higher-profile defensive positions like pass rusher or cornerback, but defensive coordinators still covet athletic playmakers with superb instincts in the middle. Te'o certainly fits the bill, based on his stellar play throughout the regular season. However, a disappointing showing at the BCS National Championship Game led to concerns about his athleticism and mobility. Factor in the saga of the girlfriend "hoax" and scouts might hesitate to entrust the keys of the defense with the Heisman Trophy finalist.
Every defensive coordinator in the NFL would love to have a shutdown corner in his lineup, but cover men with the skills to blanket elite receivers without getting occasional help from a linebacker or safety are tough to find. Milliner has been classified as a shutdown corner, but is truly a solid No. 1 cover man with the capacity to play in any scheme. Trufant has been climbing up the charts following a solid week at the Senior Bowl. Scouts fell in love with his ultra-competitive personality and fluid movement skills.
Versatility is the name of the game at the safety position; scouts are searching for athletic defenders who can play in the box or in space. Vaccaro has shown the athleticism, instincts and ball skills to emerge as the ideal hybrid player in the back end. He has capably covered slot receivers and tight ends while displaying the toughness to be a factor near the line of scrimmage. Thomas is a natural center fielder with exceptional ball skills and instincts.