Talented crop of D-linemen could end QB run at top of draft

The defensive line figures to dominate the early stages of the draft with as least 10 players carrying first-round grades coming out of the NFL Scouting Combine.

Teams are clamoring to identify the right player to match their needs. Although the fit within the scheme ultimately determines where a player comes off the board, the impact of a stellar workout in front of coaches and scouts can swing the pendulum.

While several players took advantage of the big stage, Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers was unable to use the forum to cement his case as the potential No. 1 overall pick. He missed the workout while recovering from knee surgery, and his absence opened the door for Alabama's Marcell Dareus, Auburn's Nick Fairley and North Carolina's Robert Quinn to make a run at the top spot.

Dareus and Fairley, in particular, turned in impressive workouts in Indianapolis. The buzz created by both performances will certainly make teams at the top of the draft rethink their respective boards.

As dominant interior players with size, strength and power, Dareus and Fairley have shown the ability to take over games, and that potential was verified in their workouts. Dareus, who measured in at 6-foot-3, 319 pounds, displayed better than anticipated agility, balance and body control for his size. He quickly maneuvered through the bags and flashed a burst to finish. Throw in the sound technique that he displayed on tape, and he looks like a safe selection as a top pick.

Fairley measured in a little shorter than anticipated (6-4, 291 pounds), but was fluid and agile in his movements. He easily flipped his hips in transitions, and shows an explosive burst to close. His impressive display of athleticism shows up on tape, with him possessing all of the physical tools to be a difference-maker as a "three-technique" in a 4-3 system.

The No. 1 pick is normally reserved for a quarterback (taken with first overall selection in eight of last 10 drafts), but a deep and talented defensive line class threatens to change the trend. If the performances put on at the combine are any indication, then several teams at the top of the draft will find players capable of reversing their fortunes.

Here are some of the top performers from the combine:

Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina

Quinn entered the combine rated as one of the top pass rushers despite missing the 2010 season following an NCAA suspension. Without work on film from last season, he needed a strong showing to prove where he was athletically. Although his workout in Indy didn't necessarily blow scouts away, he left many intrigued with his talent and potential. He has a rare bend-and-burst ability when turning the corner on rush moves and being able to win with leverage is a testament to his wrestling background (Quinn was a high school state wrestling champion). If he can continue to show signs of shaking off the rust from his extended absence from the game, Quinn could make a serious run at being the top pick in the draft.

J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin

After wreaking havoc on the Big Ten as a high-motor rusher, Watt was expected to function as a blue-collar 3-4 defensive end. However, scouts are quickly changing that expectation after watching his exceptional combination of size, strength and athleticism at the combine. At 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, Watt clocked a 4.84 in the 40-yard dash, and recorded outstanding numbers in the athletic drills (37-inch vertical, 10-foot broad jump, 4.21 short shuttle and 6.88 three-cone). Those impressive measurables were matched by a position-specific workout that showcased his underrated movement skills and agility. With a workout that surprised scouts and coaches, Watt is now viewed as a possible top-10 pick.

Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue

Kerrigan has been lauded for his non-stop motor and rush skills, but his workout revealed a far more impressive athlete than anticipated. He was quick and explosive, and showed surprising fluidity changing directions in drills. That agility and body control makes Kerrigan an intriguing option as a potential 3-4 outside linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end. With an outstanding set of numbers to validate his athleticism (4.71 in the 40, 33 ½ vertical, and 10'2" broad jump), Kerrigan has all of the tools to blossom into a double-digit sack artist as a pro.

Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri

The freakishly talented Smith had flown under the radar prior to the combine despite a stellar career at Missouri. However, his spectacular workout confirmed his immense potential. He is quickly becoming one of the more intriguing prospects in the draft. At 6-4, 263 pounds with a long, lean frame, he looks like a basketball power forward in his movements. He gracefully changes direction in space and shows body control coming to balance before making breaks. In rush drills, he frequently displayed his athleticism by flying off the ball, while also displaying the balance to burst and bend around the corner without losing speed. His ability to put all of his traits together in drills suggests that his penchant for getting to the quarterback will translate well at the next level.

Cameron Jordan, DE, California

After dominating the competition at the Senior Bowl, Jordan needed to validate his quickness and athleticism with a strong workout. Although his overall numbers ranked around the middle of the pack, his 1.69-second 10-yard split in the 40 is indicative of his remarkable first-step quickness. He complements his initial burst with balance and body control that belies his big frame (6-4, 287 pounds). Given his combination of quickness, athleticism and proven rush skills, Jordan continues to climb up the charts as an intriguing 3-4 defensive end.

Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama

His ascension to the top of several draft boards is not a surprise after watching him at the combine. At 6-3, 319 pounds, Dareus was 28 pounds heavier than Fairley (his main competition atop the draft at defensive tackle), but recorded a quicker 10-yard split (1.66 to 1.76) in the 40 and looked surprisingly nimble in drills. His combination of balance, body control and quickness is impressive for a man of his size. With that kind of agility to go with the power and strength that he displays on tape, Dareus left Indy looking like the complete package.

Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn

He entered the combine regarded as the potential No. 1 overall pick, and he did little to detract from that lofty expectation. He glided through agility drills like a dancing bear, and shows uncanny balance and body control for his size. After he easily moved through a complex series of movements in rush drills, it is clear why he dominated interior blockers with his combination of power and finesse. Few defensive tackles possess his talent and athleticism, so it is hard to imagine teams bypassing this Warren Sapp-like talent at the top of the draft.

Marvin Austin, DT, North Carolina

After using a strong showing at the East-West Shrine game to re-emerge as a top prospect, Austin continued to help his stock by putting on a spectacular performance in Indy. He proved that he wisely took advantage of his time away from the game by posting impressive numbers in the bench press (38 reps) and broad jump (9'9") while measuring in at 6-1, 309 pounds. He looked explosive and powerful in drills, showing excellent first-step quickness by clocking in at 1.63 in his 10-yard split in the 40. Although his game is still a little rusty following his season-long suspension, Austin has quickly made up ground on the competition.

Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa

As one of the most talented pass rushers in the draft, Clayborn was expected to blow up the combine. He lived up to the hype by ranking near the top in most of the athletic and agility drills for defensive linemen. His explosiveness was not only revealed in his 1.66 10-yard split, 33 vertical and 9'5" broad jump, but also in rush drills. He showed balance and body control turning the corner, and flashed a burst to finish. His quickness shows up on tape, so his workout only confirmed his potential. If he can impress coaches in a more refined position-specific workout at his pro day on March 21, he could be one of many defensive ends to come off the board in the first round.

Brooks Reed, DE, Arizona

He has quietly emerged as a viable early-round prospect following a sensational postseason that included dominant performances at the East-West Shrine Game and combine. He showcased his speed with a 4.68 40 and 1.62 10-yard split. Reed also flashed good change-of-direction quickness by blazing the short shuttle with a sub-4.3 time. Throw in the body control, non-stop motor and rush skills that he displayed on tape and in drills, and there is a lot to like about Reed as a potential edge rusher in a 3-4 scheme.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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