2014 NFL draft position rankings: Aaron Donald, Louis Nix III lead versatile defensive tackle class
Versatility is the name of the game in the modern NFL, and this is especially true for defensive linemen of any stripe. It's increasingly rare to see any lineman stuck in a single gap -- more and more, collegiate linemen are also shifting from place to place to make their own defenses more versatile and effective, and it's a warmup for the pros.
As such, it's a little tough to split ends and tackles into different rankings -- there are players like Missouri's Kony Ealy who could just as easily be on this list, while Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt may be seen by some as an end. One thing's for sure: The top man on our list this year can bring it, no matter where you put him.
1. Aaron Donald, Pitt: Some may wonder if Donald can be a dominant player in the NFL at 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds, but even a cursory look at his tape should put any concerns to rest. In 2013, he amassed 11 sacks (the second time in his collegiate career he'd done so -- this is no one-year wonder) and led the nation with 28.5 tackles for loss. He blew it up at the Senior Bowl and combine, firmly establishing himself as one of the best overall prospects in the 2014 class, and possibly the best defensive lineman outside of Jadeveon Clowney. The reason is clear -- Donald uses tremendous speed and power to upend blockers and disrupt plays over and over, and his effort is never questioned. He probably projects best as a 3-tech in a four-man front at the next level, but don't be surprised if a more creative coaching staff puts him in multiple positions to succeed -- from end to nose tackle -- and Donald looks great just about everywhere. This is a franchise-defining player in the right system.
Draft projection: Top 10.
2. Louis Nix III, Notre Dame: The 6-foot-2, 321-pound Nix is a more traditional nose tackle. He works very well when asked to soak up blockers in the middle of a front, allowing others to rush through and make plays. But this is no big fatty -- when he's healthy (which he was in 2012, and not so much in 2013), Nix can also disrupt on his own. Two seasons ago, he put up 50 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, pretty impressive for a guy who faces double teams all the time. But his weight fluctuated in the offseason, and he struggled with knee tendinitis at the start of the 2013 campaign, limiting his effectiveness for a while. With the right kind of coaching staff and a strong locker room, Nix could dominate in a B.J. Raji fashion.
Draft projection: Round 1.
3. RaShede Hageman, Minnesota: There are times when the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Hageman looks like the best defensive tackle in this class, and others where he disappears in a relative sense -- and that's the frustration. When he's on, Hageman is a monster disruptor from multiple gaps and angles, and he's just about impossible to stop consistently. When he struggles, Hageman can be penalty-prone and finds himself out of the picture. His best fit in the NFL would be with a team that keeps him fresh in rotational fronts and will work with him on the little things. Because he has the physical potential to be an All-Pro -- he just needs to put it all together.
Draft projection: Round 1.
4. Dominique Easley, Florida: It's a shame Easley has suffered major injuries to both knees through his time at Florida, including one last September that brought his time as a college player to an early close. Unable to show what he could do through the normal combine/pro day process, he had to wait for his own pro day on Thursday, at which he said he's at about 80 percent in his recovery. If he can come back from this latest setback, Easley would be an enormous asset to any NFL team -- if he'd stayed healthy throughout his time with the Gators, his unearthly combination of power and closing speed might have him, and not Clowney, as the name on everyone's mind.
Draft projection: Round 1/Round 2, pending medicals.
5. Timmy Jernigan, Florida State: While some have Jernigan as a lead-pipe first-round prospect, there are things that give me pause. He comes out of his stance too slowly at times, which forces him to take hits from blockers instead of delivering the first strike. He doesn't always play to the power you'd expect from his 6-foot-2, 299-pound frame, and he could use a wider array of hand moves to break up plays. Still, the production is there -- in 2013, Jernigan logged 63 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss for the national champs, and it's quite possible some team will take him in the first round as a 3-tech.
Draft projection: Late round 1/Round 2.
6. DaQuan Jones, Penn State: Jones dropped about 25 pounds before the 2013 season, which was a wise move -- he set career marks with 56 tackles, three sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, and led all Big Ten defensive tackles in quarterback hits. He made first-team all-conference, and coming in at 6-foot-4, 322 pounds at the combine and at his pro day, Jones shows there's a lot to like about his NFL potential. Because he really came on late, it's possible some lucky pro team will take him later than he should be picked, and reap the rewards as Jones continues to develop. Right now, he has a great mixture of strength at the point of attack and ability to penetrate through gaps.
Draft projection: Round 2/Round 3.
7. Will Sutton, Arizona State: Sutton weighed in at 303 pounds at the combine, standing 6-foot-1. But he played much lighter than that through much of his time with the Sun Devils and still showed a lot of power. His ability to deal with double teams and still flip blocks is something that really stands out on tape. He'll have to answer questions about his weight issues at the Senior Bowl (315 pounds was not a good look for him) and the fact that his sack totals dropped from 13 in 2012 to just four last season.
Draft projection: Round 2/Round 3.
8. Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame: Like Sutton, Tuitt had a much better 2012 than 2013, dropping from 12 to 7.5 sacks. More worrisome is the fact that on tape he appears to have long stretches in which he simply doesn't look good in strength battles, and he gets washed out of plays. Add in his injury issues (hernia surgery before the 2013 season, and a fractured bone in his foot that prevented him from doing drills at the combine), and this is a player with some caveats he'll have to overcome. The 6-foot-6, 304-pound Tuitt has a lot of raw ability, but it needs to be channeled correctly.
Draft projection:Round 2/Round 3.
9. Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina: Of course Jadeveon Clowney was the man of the moment in South Carolina's defense, but Quarles was nobody to ignore. The 6-foot-4, 297-pound junior put up 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss, and while you could say this was the product of opposing offenses teeing off on Clowney, the tape shows Quarles has some intriguing qualities as well. He projects well as a hybrid defender at the NFL level -- he'd be a good fit as a traditional end in a 3-4 defense, or excel as a 3-tech moving out to end in a variable four-man front.
Draft projection: Round 3.
10. Justin Ellis, Louisiana Tech: Ellis was an undervalued high school prospect, but after excelling at the WAC and Conference USA levels, he woke up a lot of people with strong performances at the Shrine Game and during Senior Bowl week. Projects best as a nose tackle at this point, but if Ellis dropped about 15-20 pounds from his 6-foot-2, 334-pound frame and mastered a few fundamentals, I think he could be a multi-gap force. He already has the ability to shoot gaps at a surprising level for his size.
Draft projection: Round 3/Round 4.