The NFL's evolution into a passing league has altered the way that defensive coaches approach the draft.
Rather than build their units under the premise of being strong in the middle, teams place greater emphasis on the edges in an attempt to impact opposing quarterbacks. As a result, defensive end has become the most important position on defense, with every team looking for a dynamic pass rusher.
A dominant defensive end can change momentum with a critical sack, forced fumble or quarterback hurry. Just look at the elite defenses around the league, and you will find at least one dominant edge rusher.
I witnessed the difference that a top pass rusher can make on a franchise during my time with the Carolina Panthers. The team picked Julius Peppers with the second overall choice of the 2002 NFL Draft after a 1-15 season. He instantly reversed the team's defensive fortunes by amassing 12 sacks, one interception and five forced fumbles on the way to receiving NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
This year's draft is littered with defensive ends capable of making contributions as rookies, but they should be categorized according to their scheme fits. End responsibilities vary according to 3-4 or 4-3 system, and that ultimately will decide the value a team assigns to each player.
Edge players in four-man fronts are expected to get after the quarterback and provide a stout presence against the run. They must possess the size, strength, athleticism and quickness to beat offensive tackles with force or finesse. Although defensive coordinators prefer an edge prospect capable of making an impact against the run and pass, most would opt for a pass rusher over a run stopper.
Defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme are expected to man the five-technique position, which places them in an outside shade position over the offensive tackle. While coaches covet a defensive end that can get after the passer, five-techniques are required to have a stronger presence against the run as two-gap players. Given the demands of the position in the 3-4, these ends typically has more size and length than their 4-3 counterparts.
Looking over the list of first-round possibilities, I would place North Carolina's Robert Quinn, Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, Missouri's Aldon Smith and Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan as defensive ends with the skills to thrive in a 4-3. Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Cal's Cameron Jordan and Ohio State's Cam Heyward appear to be great fits in a 3-4 system, despite spending their respective collegiate careers as edge players in 4-3 schemes.
Let's look at the challenges that scouts face in evaluating this year's crop of defensive ends:
Quinn is one of the best pass rushers in the draft, despite missing his final season while serving an NCAA suspension. He routinely defeats offensive tackles by using a combination of speed, quickness and power that is complemented by exceptional leverage.
Quinn's ability to bend and burst while maintaining his speed is rare, and he'll be nearly impossible to block when he learns better hand-to-hand combat skills. Although he needs to be a stronger presence against the run, Quinn's natural pass-rush skills make him the top defensive end in the draft.
While scouts will worry about rust, Quinn's solid showing during workouts alleviated some concerns. He might take some time to refine his moves and rediscover his feel for the game, but Quinn's tools are so impressive that someone will gamble on his immense potential with an early selection.
Bowers was regarded by most teams as the top defensive end prospect until medical concerns and a subpar workout hurt his status. However, scouts with extensive experience studying Bowers' game point out his size, power and athleticism as blue-chip traits.
Bowers can play with power or finesse and shows a knack for getting to the ball. He emerged this season, leading the nation with 15.5 sacks behind an assortment of moves. Even though his motor and hustle could be called into question, his production stands out on tape and is enough to warrant Bowers a high grade on most boards.
Looming concerns regarding Bowers' knee have plummeted his value. Since there is a question about his potential longevity, some teams are skeptical about investing a high pick. Given his health status and long-term prognosis, Bowers' draft stock could be determined by a team's medical personnel.
Smith's freakish athleticism has captivated scouts, but his pass-rush skills are what put him among the top defensive end prospects. His first-step quickness and burst is remarkable. He also shows balance and body control turning the corner while pursuing the quarterback.
While he lacks the strength to routinely defeat blockers with power moves, Smith has the arm length and hand quickness to become a dominant edge player if he refines his skills. As a run defender, he has the quickness to slip into cracks against runs to and away from his side, but he needs to play with better leverage more consistently.
Scouts point to Smith's unpolished game as his weakness, but that won't be enough to deter teams from selecting him early. His upside and potential are too great for teams in need of a pass rusher to bypass. Look for Smith to come off the board sooner rather than later in Round 1.
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Kerrigan might be the most disruptive end prospect based on his track record. A relentless rusher with strength and sneaky athleticism, he routinely fills up stat sheets with sacks, forced fumbles and tackles for loss.
Kerrigan's instincts, awareness and non-stop motor rate near the top of the charts. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to identify another rusher in the draft who makes a bigger impact for his respective team. Against the run, Kerrigan shows strength and power while holding the point of attack. His superior hand skills allow him to fall in on a number of plays.
Some scouts suggest that Kerrigan's ceiling is lower than others based on natural talent. However, his production against top competition renders it a moot point. He has been too good for too long to not have success as a pro. Kerrigan's blue-collar mentality will make him a solid contributor in a four-man front.
Watt has moved up draft boards after surprising scouts and coaches with his athleticism in workouts. His quickness, agility and movement skills are much better than anticipated after watching the film.
Watt's success goes beyond effort. He overwhelms blockers with his strength, and his relentless approach results in a number of disruptive plays. As a run defender, he uses strength and leverage when taking on single and double teams at the point of attack. He fends off blockers well with his hands and finds a way to get in on tackles late.
Watt's workmanlike game doesn't wow, but his consistent production and impact stands out. His non-stop motor and superior physical and mental toughness wear down opponents. He is the kind of player whom every defense needs on the line. Given his fit as a five-technique in a 3-4, Watt is certain to be coveted in the draft.
Jordan boosted his stock by dominating at the Senior Bowl three months ago. His quickness, athleticism and polished hand skills made him seemingly impossible to block in individual and team drills, and he emerged from the game as one of the top defenders.
Jordan's film also validates his elite status. He flashes a combination of quickness and burst that allows him to beat blockers on slants and stunts, and he is capable of thriving in a one-gap system that places a premium on penetration. Jordan is stout against the run and has the ideal frame (6-foot-4, 287 pounds) to take on double teams at the point of attack. He plays with leverage, and his wide base makes him difficult to move off the ball. Plus, he shows a strong nose for the ball and is relentless in his pursuit from the backside.
Jordan had some problems against USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith, which raises issues about his ability to hold against power players. Scouts remain excited about Jordan's upside as a five-technique, but questions about his rush skills and overall toughness remain. While he helped address worries about his ability to get after the quarterback during the Senior Bowl, Jordan will need to convince teams that his jovial personality masks a ferocious warrior during his private visits. If he can address that concern over the next week, Jordan should come off the board in the middle of the first round.