Jadeveon Clowney is the consensus top defensive end in the draft. (Scott Cunningham for SI)
There is Jadeveon Clowney, and then there is everyone else. That statement may be true of the draft as a whole, so it's no surprise that Clowney stands head and shoulders above the rest of his positional group -- despite claims from at least one other DE that Clowney has been overhyped.
That said, true to form on the 2014 draft class, even though Round 1 options may be limited, there are a bevy of viable contributors to be found deeper in the draft.
Our look at the top 10 DEs:
MORE: 2014 NFL Mock Draft | Top QBs | Top WRs | SI64: Our definitive Big Board
1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: Houston Texans owner Bob McNair (who just happens to hold the No. 1 overall pick this year, by the way) called Clowney "a once-in-every-10-years kind of physical specimen."
Though critics of Clowney continue to question his work ethic, motor and decreased statistical production last season, the ex-Gamecock is hard to ignore when he is on the field. Clowney put on a show at the combine, running a 4.53 40 and showing off a 37.5-inch vertical jump. He then ran circles around former South Carolina teammates Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles at the school's recent pro day.
With the draft finally drawing near, Clowney sits as the odds-on favorite to be the first player picked.
"Coming into the next season after 'The Hit' [Clowney's highlight-reel takedown of Michigan's Vincent Smith], people were talking about sitting out, all of this, all of that," Clowney said. "A lot of people expected stuff that was impossible, like 10 sacks a game, 30 tackles-for-loss. I knew that wasn’t going to happen, of course, but a lot of people expected it. I just went out there and played my game, hard and physical football like I played my last two years there."
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While his stats dipped in '13, Clowney finished his three-year South Carolina career with 47 tackles-for-loss and 23 sacks. No matter where he is drafted, he will enter the 2014 campaign as a heavy favorite to land Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Draft projection: Top three
2. Dee Ford, Auburn: While Clowney struggled to meet expectations last season, Ford flew past the bar set for him. While helping Auburn to the national title game, Ford put an exclamation point on his collegiate career with 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles-for-loss.
At 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, he cannot match the 6-6 Clowney physically. But Ford argues that does not matter.
"I'm better," Ford told Sirius XM NFL during the combine. "Let's put it like this: People like to talk about size all the time; size is pretty much overrated in my eyes. You can look at guys like Robert Mathis, Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller. These are 6-2 guys and under. People are just looking at the fact that he's a physical specimen.
"Honestly, if you watch the film, he plays like a blind dog in a meat market, basically."
For all his bluster and bravado, Ford has no realistic shot at unseating Clowney atop the draft. He may not be far behind, though, when it comes to production as a rookie.
Draft projection: Late Round 1-Round 2
3. Kony Ealy, Missouri: No matter how inconsistent a player's tape might be, NFL teams rarely turn away from overwhelming athleticism. Enter Ealy, a 6-4 edge rusher who has gone everywhere from the top 10 to deep into Day 2 in mock drafts over the past few months.
Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews, a near-lock to land in the top 10 himself, called Ealy the toughest matchup he faced in college: "Real aggressive, big and strong. Mixed up his pass rush moves real well."
Ealy decided to enter the draft a year early following an eight-sack, 14 tackle-for-loss junior year. His size/speed combo could open the door for him to land with a team running a 3-4 defense, in addition to those projecting him at his familiar 4-3 end spot. And at the combine, Ealy measured his game up to that of one of the league's top outside linebackers.
"I compare myself to Aldon [Smith]," Ealy said. "He's a freak athlete. He gets off the ball. He probably had a little more sacks than me in college in my career."
Draft projection: Late Round 1-Round 2
4. Scott Crichton, Oregon State: There will be little panic for teams hoping to find pass rushers in this draft should they miss out on Clowney, Ford or Ealy. That's because the 2014 class runs deep with DE talent -- Rounds 2, 3 and beyond should be chock full of pass rushers capable of stepping in and producing as rookies.
Crichton fits the bill there, even if his best days may be a couple years ahead of him. The 6-3, 273-pound Oregon State product chalked up 7.5 sacks last season and 22.5 over his three-year career. Crichton does not check off the same athleticism boxes that the three names above him do, but he has the strength and experience to be a legitimate Day 2 selection.
Some might argue that Crichton should have stuck it out at Oregon State for his senior year, an argument grounded more in the belief that the ceiling here is much higher than the current level of play. For a team willing to ease Crichton into the lineup, the payoff ought to be huge.
Draft projection: Round 2
5. Trent Murphy, Stanford: Whereas Clowney blew up the combine, Murphy left more questions than answers in scouts' minds due to his performance. His speed (4.86) was fairly average, and his weight-room work (19 reps on the bench press) left something to be desired. As such, not every front office will view him as a worthy Day 2 selection.
The others will look back on what he accomplished at Stanford and disagree. Murphy repeatedly proved to be one of those coveted nose-for-the-football type of players, leading the country in sacks with 15 last season. He, like Ealy, could fit in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, upping his value.
Draft projection: Round 2-3
6. Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas: The 6-3 Jeffcoat may have no choice but to transition to a 3-4 OLB spot in the NFL, despite racking up 13 sacks for Texas last season. Eventually, he should be able to pull off that shift, even if it takes him a little while to round out his game and pack on some pounds.
Fortunately for him, he's carrying a little extra motivation right now.
"Not getting invited to the Senior Bowl has definitely added fuel to my fire," he said back at the combine. "I used it as motivation. I worked my butt off and kept grinding."
The snub was a bit of a surprise, given Jeffcoat's first-team All-America nod and place as Co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Will NFL teams give his game more respect than the Senior Bowl committee did?
Draft projection: Round 3
7. Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State: An under-the-radar guy that NFL fans ought to get to know now -- Lawrence has a legitimate shot to leapfrog several players here and land in Round 1 come May.
A transfer to Boise State in 2012 from Butler Community College, Lawrence recorded 9.5 sacks in his first Broncos season and then 10.5 last year. He also totaled 34 tackles-for-loss, a whopping 20.5 coming in his second and final Boise State season. The 6-3, 251-pounder also fits that hybrid 3-4 OLB/4-3 DE mold, though the former may be a better path out of the gate.
Draft projection: Late Round 1-Round 3
8. Marcus Smith, Louisville: Another DE enjoying some positive buzz at just the right time. Smith actually landed at Louisville as a three-star quarterback recruit before moving to linebacker, then eventually to an end spot. The switch was a brilliant one -- Smith was named the AAC Defensive Player of the Year last season thanks to 14.5 sacks.
Draft projection: Round 3
9. Kareem Martin, North Carolina: A lot to like here for NFL teams, starting with Martin's 6-6 frame. While GMs may not seek out height at the DE spot like they tend to at the quarterback position, Martin figures to get a bump on draft boards as result of his size. The 11.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles-for-loss he had last season with the Tar Heels won't hurt. Martin falls a little more into the developmental-prospect category than the eight guys above him, but he has the skills to be a situational pass rusher as a rookie if nothing else.
Draft projection: Round 4-Round 5
10. Ed Stinson, Alabama: A personal favorite of mine in this draft, Stinson's stats -- 5.5 sacks over four seasons -- certainly do not jump off the page. The 6-3 former Alabama lineman, however, makes up for his lack of QB pressures by doing an admirable job holding the edge. He would be an ideal fit for a team hoping to land a 3-4 DE, someone capable of helping to stuff the run on early downs before ceding a spot to a pure pass rusher later.
Draft projection: Round 5