Now that OTAs and minicamps have wrapped, we find ourselves in the doldrums, that month in the NFL calendar when there's no football. What better time then, to eschew the present and, as all NFL front offices must, take a look forward, to the continuing project of building the Cowboys roster. More specifically, we're kicking off a series of posts that will look at the top college gridders expected to apply for the 2014 draft.
About this time a year ago, I noted that the current NFL has five "Positions of Great Import" - positions at which it is most desirable to have Pro Bowl caliber players. In the 2010-2012 drafts, the Cowboys have acquired young blue-chip talent at three of these: WR, OT and CB. At the other two, they enjoy Pro Bowl caliber players in Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware; unfortunately, both of them are at an age where players' skills at their positions traditionally begin to decline. Given that these are probably the two most important positions on a football team, the team would be wise to invest in quality replacements sooner rather than later.
Luckily, early returns on the 2014 draft suggest that quarterback and pass rusher will be positions of strength. There are several intriguing QB prospects, and a total of 25 defensive ends and outside linebackers are projected to far exceed the combined totals from recent years. So, Romo and Ware's replacements are conceivably on the horizon; now, all the Cowboys have to do is to pick the right one(s).
Who might be some viable candidates at these various positions? In separate posts over the next few days, I'll take a gander at the upcoming draft's top players at a variety of positions, focusing especially on signal callers and pass rushers - and also taking longer looks at positions of continuing need, such as offensive line (OT and OG). Today, we'll look at the top 4-3 defensive ends, startign with the consensus top player in the draft.
Note: juniors are marked with an *
*Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: The 6-foot-6, 256-pound Clowney, a player Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier has said was ready to turn pro coming out of high school, has already been projected as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft. This isn't mere hype; Clowney has a rare skill set, featuring elite speed, strength and athleticism. When tested by coaches the week before South Carolina started spring ball, he vertical jumped 38 inches and, at 274 pounds, clocked a 4.54 forty-yard dash. These anod other numbers have place him at the top of the 2013 "Freaks List," which details the Craziest athletes in college football.
After being a prep superstar, Clowney was the top recruit in the nation and didn't disappoint as a freshman in 2011. He totaled 36 tackles with eight sacks, 12 tackles for a loss and five forced fumbles, enough to garner SEC Freshman of the Year and Second-Team All-SEC selection laurels. As a sophomore in 2012, Clowney was one of the best players in college football. He amassed 54 tackles, 23.5 tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles, two passes batted and 13 sacks, finishing sixth in Heisman Trophy voting.
Clowney has incredible explosion off the snap. He is lightning fast coming off the edge and has the power to shed blocks. Plus, Clowney has already developed an arsenal of pass-rushing moves. In addition, Clowney is extremely strong against the run in taking on offensive linemen. He is a stout defender at the point of attack and maintains his gap. He is the kind of game-plan-wrecker that will keep rival offensive coordinators and quarterbacks up at night. Here are those traits are on display against another probable top ten pick, Michigan OT Taylor Lewan:
While Clowney already is an impact player, the scary part is he has immense upside and seems to be just scratching the surface. Clowney has the physical talent to be a dominant NFL player and many scouts say he is the best collegiate defensive prospect since Ndamukong Suh.
Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas: The son of former Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills' standout Jim Jeffcoat, Jackson signed with Texas as a hotly recruited prospect and emerged as an immediate standout, starting two games as a true freshman and finishing the year with 15 tackles, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
The following season, he had 54 tackles with 16.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks and three passes broken up, earning Second-Team All-Big XII honors. In 2012, Jeffcoat totaled 25 tackles, four sacks, 10.5 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and one pass breakup in his shortened season before suffering a pectoral injury against Oklahoma that necessitated season-ending surgery. Before the injury, many thought Jeffcoat would declare early and be selected during the first round of last April's draft.
On natural ability alone Jeffcoat is a top prospect; he boasts an NFL-caliber burst off the edge, the speed to turn the corner and the agility to drop his hips or shoulder to get pointed to the quarterback. He needs to continue to develop his pass-rushing moves for the NFL; he hasn't developed an arsenal of moves that allows him to provide impact when good blockers neutralize his quickness. In addition, Jeffcoat needs to increase his strength, adding bulk and power to hold his ground against NFL quality tackles (he was overwhelmed in this respect against Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, for example). Here he is in action against Big XII rival Oklahoma State's wide-open offense:
A big year could push him into the first-round discussion. Although he currently tips the scales at about 240, the 6'5" Jeffcoat has the frame to carry 25 or 30 more pounds. Until he gets stronger, his best fit may be as a 3-4 OLB...
Kareem Martin, North Carolina: In 2011, Martin beat out promising prospect Donte Paige-Moss for a starting job, despite the fact that Paige-Moss had enjoyed a productive 2010 season. Martin recorded 20 tackles with four sacks, seven tackles for a loss and six passes batted down, offering more impact, especially early in the season, for the Tar Heels than Jets 2012 first-rounder Quinton Coples. In 2012, he added 40 tackles, 15.5 tackles for a loss, three passes batted, one forced fumble and four sacks, earning Second Team All-ACC honors.
The 6-6, 265 pound Martin has ideal NFL size to go with excellent speed and good overall athleticism. He is a physical player who battles offensive tackles. That said, he hasn't developed into the top-flight pass rusher that coaches and draft observers have hoped he might. Take a look at him in action against in-state rival NC State:
Observers note that Martin has the requisite tools and, if he can put it all together, could vault Jeffcoat for the rights to the top senior DE and into the first-round discussion in 2014.
Morgan Breslin, USC: In 2012, Breslin, a junior college transfer, stepped into a starting role when Devon Kennard was lost to a preseason injury, and set the Pac-12 ablaze with 62 tackles (19.5 for loss), 13 sacks, four passes batted and a forced fumble, earning a second-team All-Pac-12 nod.
An undersized (6'2", 260) pass rush specialist, Breslin relies on NFL-quality explosion and agility to turn the corner quickly and get into the backfield - and possesses the closing speed to speedily track down rival QBs. As his size suggests, Breslin struggles holding the point and can be swallowed up in the run game, but is a huge threat in obvious passing situations and can be a nightmare for right tackles trying to get out in pass protection.Wanna see? Check him out against the prolific Stanford offense:
Breslin seems to treat every play like it is a passing play, but he is particularly dangerous in obvious passing situations when he has the freedom to get after the quarterback.
James Gayle, Virginia Tech: Like Jeffcoat, Gayle boasts NFL bloodlines; his uncle, Shaun, played defensive back for the great mid-80s Chicago Bears defenses. Unlike Jeffcoat, Gayle wasn't highly recruited out of high school. After redshirting in 2009, Gayle spent the 2010 season as a back-up defensive end, registering 13 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks. In 2011, Gayle had his best season, notching 38 total tackles (12.5 for loss) and a team-high 7 sacks, earning Second Team All-ACC honors. In 2012, he was awarded All-ACC laurels for the second consecutive season, after registering 43 tackles (11 tackles for loss), five sacks and 27 quarterback hurries.
Gayle is athletically gifted, joining Clowney on the 2013 "Freaks List" after vertical jumping 39.5 inches (at 269 pounds) to go with a 400-pound bench press and a 4.6 second clocking in the 40. As these numbers indicate, Gayle has natural burst, explosiveness, flexibility and raw power. What he must do now is to refine them by developing his pass rush moves to win one-on-one battles when he doesn't gain a step off the snap and become more creative in keeping rival blockers guessing. You can see these traits here, where Gayle is locked up against Florida State:
Trent Murphy, Stanford: On a gritty 2012 Stanford defense that lead the nation in sacks (56) and tackles for loss (1204) Murphy was arguably the best player, totaling 56 tackles (18 tackles for loss), with 10 sacks, four passes broken up, one interception and a forced fumble. His ten sacks were the most by a Stanford player since 2004, while his 18 TFL marked the Cardinal's highest total since 2000. Here he is leading the way in 2012's best defensive performance, Stanford's 17-14 upset of high-flying Oregon:
Murphy is a very big 3-4 rush linebacker, which leads many to believe he may transition to playing defensive end in the NFL. Murphy has great explosiveness off the snap and gets to the quarterback with a strong, aggressive bull rush move. He doesn't have elite bend around the edge but uses his aggression and high motor to get to opposing signal callers.
*Scott Crichton, Oregon State: As a redshirt freshman in 2011, Crichton had six sacks, six forced fumbles and 74 tackles, 14.5 of which were for a loss, the second highest total in the Pac-12. That number jumped to in 2012, a campaign that saw him add nine sacks, 17 tackles for a loss, 44 tackles and a forced fumble, enough to earn First-Team All-Pac 12 laurels - the first Beavers defensive lineman to be selected First Team since Stephen Paea in 2009.
Crichton has a quick get-off, gets defenders off balance with his burst and does a good job of clearing his inside arm and bending to turn the corner. But what might endear him to Jason Garrett is his effort level: Crichton plays with a high motor that allows him to make plays all over the field (indeed, this needs to be paired with better endurance, as he tends to wear down late in games). These can be seen here, against UCLA:
Crichton is too reliant on a limited palette of rush moves, choosing either up field speed or a bull rush. Granted, he explodes so fast off of the line that even his bull rush is effective when he gets offensive tackles on their heels, but he'll need a much more expansive repertoire against NFL tackles.
*Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State: Like Clowney, Lawrence hails form South Carolina. There must be something in the water down there because, aside from Clowney, Lawrence may be the most talented of this DE bunch. In 2012, his first season after transferring from Butler Community College, Lawrence made 48 tackles, one interception, recovered two fumbles - one of which he returned 25 yards for a touchdown - and blocked a kick. He lead the team with 13 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks and was named first-team All-Mountain West.
The 6'4″ 244-pound Lawrence has an outstanding burst around the edge dipping his shoulder and looping around the pocket and his quick feet often keep offensive lineman off balance, making it easy to attack and get around them. His non-stop motor helps race down ball carriers often from the opposite sideline, and he is especially gifted at mirroring the quarterback and then exploding into the backfield to attack. Check him out against Wyoming:
Despite his promising athleticism, there's a chance the Cowboys wouldn't even have Lawrence on their board. He missed the team's bowl game against Washington after a violation of team rules. It was the second time Lawrence was suspended in his lone season at BSU.
There you have it folks: a gallery of potential Cowboys "rushmen." Any of them strike your fancy? Make you queasy? Go tot he comments section and let 'er rip!
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