From occupying multiple blockers to creating room for fast-flowing linebackers to generating a pass rush, the line is the most pivotal part of a defense.
Given the importance of winning the line of scrimmage, coaches and scouts are scouring for difference makers. Luckily for them, this year's draft class has a host of impact players.
The increasing popularity of the 3-4 has thrust potential five-techniques into prominence, and this year's group is lead by California's Cameron Jordan, Wisconsin's J.J. Watt and Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson. Each are unique talents capable of playing over the top of tackles in 3-4 systems. They are strong enough to hold up against double teams in the running game, but also can rush the passer. Given the difficulty in finding that combination versatile, the trio figures to come off the board early.
The depth of this defensive line class goes beyond the ends.
Auburn's Nick Fairley and Alabama's Marcell Dareus are the top interior defenders. Both are disruptive playmakers with the ability to make an impact against the run or pass. Illinois' Corey Liuget, Oregon State's Stephen Paea and Baylor's Phil Taylor are in the next tier, while others like North Carolina's Marvin Austin are pushing to move up.
4-3 defensive ends
1. Da'Quan Bowers, Clemson: He is an athletic edge player with exceptional physical tools. He comes off the ball with explosive first-step quickness and shows outstanding athleticism while slipping past blockers in the pocket. He cleverly uses a combination of speed rushes and power moves to create consistent pressure off the edge. Bowers' ability to mix speed and power also allows him to be a dominant force against the run. He is strong and stout against runs to his side, and flashes outstanding closing quickness while chasing runners down from the backside. Given his immense talent and playmaking ability, it is not surprising that he is one of the most coveted edge players in the draft.
Possible landing spots: Carolina, Denver, Buffalo
2. Robert Quinn, North Carolina: He missed all of 2010 due to an NCAA suspension for improper benefits, but he still ranks as one of the top pass rushers in the draft. He is an outstanding athlete with explosive speed and quickness. He overwhelms offensive tackles with his initial burst and closing quickness. He combines his natural athleticism with excellent hand skills and a relentless motor. He routinely wins on second and third effort, and his persistence eventually wears out opponents. As a run defender, Quinn shows good strength, power and awareness. He effectively stacks the blockers at the point of attack and quickly works through traffic to get to the ball. Although his missed season certainly stunted his growth as a player, his outstanding athleticism and physical gifts should shine in workouts and push him up draft boards.
Possible landing spots: Buffalo, San Francisco, Tennessee
3. Adrian Clayborn, Iowa: He is a talented edge rusher with outstanding quickness, athleticism and movement skills. He shows good initial quickness off the ball and uses an array of athletic rush moves to get free off the edge. He complements his impressive athletic skills with a solid array of rush moves that makes him difficult to handle in isolated matchups. As a run defender, he is an outstanding pursuer from the backside with the speed and quickness to create disruption in the backfield. Although he occasionally struggles against runs in his direction, he flashes the strength to hold the point and make the play for a minimal gain. Given his exceptional talent and intriguing skills, Clayborn is an interesting prospect capable of making a surge up draft boards with a strong showing in Indy.
Possible landing spots: Minnesota, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay
4. Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue: He is a productive high-motor rusher with exceptional skills. He shows outstanding initial quickness, and his combination of athleticism and superior hand skills routinely allows him to defeat blockers off the edge. His disruptive nature off the edge is problematic for opponents not prepared to match his energy and effort. Kerrigan's hustle also shines as a run defender. He works to quickly shed blockers at the point of attack, and his willingness to chase from the backside often results in big hits and turnovers. With a blue collar game built on hustle, grit and determination, Kerrigan is an ideal base end in a 4-3 scheme.
Possible landing spots: Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Seattle
5. Aldon Smith, Missouri: He is a long, rangy defensive end with good athleticism and quickness. He shows outstanding initial quickness and agility, and often defeats blockers immediately at the line with his explosive get-off. He isn't polished with his hands, but his burst and movement skills allow him to routinely win as a pass rusher. Although his stats were down from a season ago, he repeatedly flashed big-time ability when moved inside in rush situations. As a run defender, he flashes potential, but needs to play with better leverage and pad level at the point of attack. He is easily moved off the ball when he pops up out of his stance, and he has problems getting free when engaged. Against runs away, he shows exceptional speed and quickness while pursuing from the backside. He routinely runs down ball carriers while working down the line of scrimmage. Overall, Smith has impressive talent and potential, and a strong showing at the combine could send his stock soaring as an intriguing defensive end/3-4 rush linebacker.
3-4 defensive ends
1. Cameron Jordan, California: He has surged up draft boards after emerging as a dominant force at the Senior Bowl. He was nearly impossible to contain in individual and team drills when working from the defensive tackle or end position, and his film from his final season at Cal reflects that same ability. He is a fluid athlete with good size, speed and quickness. He shows good first-step quickness and has the ability to play with power or finesse at the point. He cleverly works angles to his advantage and combines his agility with violent hands. He effectively uses an assortment of moves to quickly win battles at the line. Against the run, he can stack against single or double teams, and his ability to create penetration is impressive. Throw in a non-stop motor that results in numerous negative plays, and it's easy to envision Jordan becoming a difference maker as a pro.
Possible landing spots: New England, San Diego, Washington
Cream of the crop
Draft analyst Mike Mayock has studied the game film closely to reach the conclusion that this year's crop of defensive end prospects is the best he's ever seen. More...
2. J.J. Watt, Wisconsin: He is a hard-working defensive end with outstanding size and length. His combination of height and arm length makes him an ideal candidate to play at the five-technique, but his motor, tenacity and toughness set him up for success. He outworks blockers at the point of attack, and his relentless effort routinely results in disruptive plays. As a pass rusher, his game is built on power and force. He attacks blockers with his hands and quickly uses an assortment of power moves to shed shortly after engagement. He combines those skills with a fanatical desire to the quarterback. His sacks are often the result of winning on second or third efforts, and that determination overwhelms blockers by game's end. Against the run, Watt shows good strength and power at the point. He stacks and sheds quickly, and flashes sound instincts in finding the ball. Although there are others rushers in the draft with more athleticism and pizzazz, Watt's overall combination of skills will make him a coveted prospect.
3. Muhammad Wilkerson, Temple: He is a versatile defensive end with the skills to play anywhere along a "30" front. He is strong and stout against the run, and shows outstanding instincts finding the ball. His ability to stack and hold the point frees others to make plays, but he also flashes playmaking ability when facing isolated matchups. As a pass rusher, he uses his rare combination of size, strength and athleticism to defeat blockers with an assortment of power moves. He uses his hands well upon engagement, and his quick push/pull move often takes blockers by surprise. While most talented defenders have yet to develop solid hand skills at this stage of their development, Wilkerson's ability to win battles with an assortment of moves puts him ahead of others at his position. If he shows those skills in drills, he could slowly creep up boards across the league. Possible landing spots: New England, N.Y. Jets, Green Bay
1. Nick Fairley, Auburn: He is one of the most disruptive defenders in the draft, and his penchant for playmaking led Auburn to the BCS Championship. He overpowers blockers with his size and strength, and he was nearly impossible to block without a double team. Against the run, he shows outstanding instincts and awareness while quickly diagnosing plays at the line of scrimmage. He reads quickly on the run, and his ability to locate the ball is remarkable. Fairley shows exceptional skills as a pass rusher. His natural talent is overwhelming, but his aggressive approach yields big results. He attacks blockers at the line of scrimmage and uses his strength or quickness to overpower them when they rock on their heels. Although he needs to do a better job of using his hands to disengage, it's hard to dispute his outstanding production against elite competition on a weekly basis. If he can answer questions about the occasional lulls in his play, he could cement his status as the top player on most boards.
Possible landing spots: Carolina, Denver, Cincinnati
2. Marcell Dareus, Alabama: He is an impact interior defender with exceptional physical tools. He is a big body with outstanding strength and power. He bullies blockers at the point and routinely creates a push up the middle against single or double teams. As a pass rusher, Dareus is a polished technician with good hand skills and awareness. He quickly wins at the point of attack and shows impressive quickness getting to the quarterback. Although he hasn't racked up gaudy numbers as a pass rusher throughout his career, he possesses the skill set and fundamentals to be a disruptive interior rusher. Given his impressive physical tools and polish, Dareus is an attractive prospect who could make a late surge up the charts as scouts spend more time studying his tape.
Possible landing spots: Denver, Cincinnati, Cleveland
3. Corey Liuget, Illinois: Liuget has exceptional size, strength and power. He is strong and stout at the point of attack and shows hand skills when disengaging from blockers. His ability to quickly shed after contact allows him to make disruptive plays against the run. As a pass rusher, he is more of a pocket pusher than a polished rusher. He routinely pushes blockers into the quarterback's lap, and the harassment up the middle leads to errant throws. While he might never develop into a double-digit sacker from the interior, his size, presence and disruptive run skills will make him a highly coveted interior defender.
Possible landing spots: Houston, Seattle, Chicago
4. Stephen Paea, Oregon State: He is a disruptive interior defender with outstanding speed and quickness. He explodes off the ball and routinely defeats blockers with his first-step quickness. He shows exceptional agility, balance and body control on his rush attempts, and his superior hand skills allow him to win quickly at the line. As a run defender, he relies on his quickness and athleticism to slip under blocks to track down runners in the backfield. His ability to create disruption from an inside position makes him an attractive prospect for teams employing movement-based pressure schemes. If he can display a good combination of athleticism and strength in workouts, he will make some teams looks past his less-than-ideal height for the position.
Possible landing spots: Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta
5. Phil Taylor, Baylor: He is a mountain of a man with outstanding skills as a run stopper. He shows excellent strength and power at the point of attack, and his ability to stalemate double teams frees others to make plays. When isolated against the run, he whips blockers with his power and superior hand skills. His ability to quickly disengage allows him to produce negative plays in the backfield. Although his energy and production declines dramatically when his play count reaches high levels, he shows flashes of dominance when he is fresh to begin drives. As a pass rusher, Taylor is more of a pocket pusher, but he occasionally gets in on the quarterback due to his brute strength. While he will never develop into a double-digit sack artist as a pro, he could be a serviceable pass rusher on early downs. After climbing up draft boards following his solid performance at the Senior Bowl, Taylor can continue his ascension with a strong showing in Indy.