Building The Cowboys Roster: 2014 Defensive Tackle Prospects

Might the Cowboys find another brave warrior in the 2014 draft? - Grant Halverson

Our series looking at top players at the Cowboys’ position of need in the 2014 draft continues with a look at some college defensive tackle prospects who offer a good schematic fit.

Our 2014 draft series' first two posts looked at collegiate pass rushers and quarterbacks, two positions that project to be blessed with talent and depth in the upcoming selection meeting. Conveniently enough, these happen to be positions where the Cowboys could use an infusion of youth, which is why they kicked things off: I wanted to begin with the optimal concordance of riches and need.

For the rest of July, however, we'll turn to other positions, those in which Dallas needs a similar talent infusion, but where, from this midsummer vantage point, the draft doesn't look to be as strong. Today, we'll look at defensive tackles; in future Mondays (should we cue the Boomtown Rats?), we'll look at offensive guards and tackles.

Before we look at the prospects, an important reminder is in order. Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme is predicated on quickness, and this applies to the interior of the defensive line. He has long preferred quick, undersized tackles who disrupt blocking schemes not with brute strength but with speed and penetration. As a consequence, you won't find Dallas' scouts interested in big, two-gapping DTs. Their leaked 2013 draft board, you might recall, didn't include Johnathan Hankins, John Jenkins, or Montori Hughes, the best of the big-bodied DTs. And the guys who were on the board were all in the 285-305 pound range.

With that in mind, I've limited the following list to players who fit Kiffin's demonstrated player profile. As a result, some top-ranked players who won't appear on this list include Daniel McCullers of Tennessee; Cal's Deandre Coleman and Justin Ellis of Louisiana Tech. Nor will you find End-tackle ‘tweeners, such as Notre Dame's Stephon Truitt, whose best fit appears to be as a 3-4 five technique. That said, several players on this list have, as Jay Ratliff did at Auburn, played defensive end at some point in their collegiate career. I see this as a plus, as they are likely to have sufficient quickness and explosion for defensive coaches to envision them succeeding at end - and its exactly these skills that I believe the Cowboys want in their D-tackles.

Note: Juniors are marked with an asterisk

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Will Sutton, Arizona State (6'0", 280): After a superb junior year, when he registered 63 tackles, 23.5 tackles for a loss, five passes broken up and three forced fumbles and, most impressively, 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, many were surprised when Sutton decided to return to Tempe for his senior campaign.

As you can infer from his listed size and weight, Sutton doesn't boast ideal NFL size, but he makes up for it with elite quickness. He presents a real speed mismatch against guards, and shows the ability to fire by them to collapse the pocket. He is a nightmare to block and, as such, could provide the kind of disruptive presence necessary to drive Kiffin's scheme (he led the Pac-12 with 1.82 tackles for loss per game). Here he is in action against in-state rival Arizona:

With the steady increase in spread offenses in the NFL, quick, penetrating, tackles like Sutton, who can get immediate pressure in a quarterback's face, will increasingly be in demand. He certainly has a lot of the qualities that the Cowboys new defensive system tends to favor. Indeed, CBSSports' most recent mock draft had him going to Dallas with the 19th pick...

*Timmy Jernigan, Florida State (6'2", 298): In 2011, Jernigan came to Tallahassee as one of the nation's top recruits, and quickly made his presence felt as a true freshman who received substantial snaps in the ‘Noles defensive line rotation. Although he largely continued in a reserve role over his first two seasons at Florida State (he's logged only two career starts), Jernigan is considered by pundits to be one of the most talented players on a loaded roster.

At just under 300 pounds, Jernigan is a classic 3-technique, with an explosive first step and the ability to consistently penetrate and disrupt. He stays light on his feet with good movement skills, showing excellent change of direction, smooth hips and good lateral range. He does a nice job using his hands, but needs to sharpen his technique and snap anticipation, which is weak (I noticed that he's usually the last man on FSU's defensive line to "fire out" at the snap). See if you can notice that on tape (against Virginia Tech):

Despite not being a full-time starter in 2012, Jernigan is a candidate for the Outland Trophy, given to the nation's top interior lineman. The three-tech is predicated more on speed and agility than it is raw strength, which nicely fits Jernigan's skill. As a consequence, he could be more effective as a pro than he has been as a collegian.

*Anthony Johnson, LSU (6-3, 305): As a freshman in 2011, Johnson received rotational snaps backing Michael Brockers and Bennie Logan, recording a respectable 12 tackles (three for loss) and a sack. Last season, he totaled 30 tackles (10 for loss), with three sacks and one pass broken up. Now, with both Brockers and Logan (as well as Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery) playing on Sundays, Johnson is poised to be the Tigers' lead dog up front.

He may well prove to be the best of the bunch. Johnson has an impressive skill set: fast (reported 4.8 speed), quick, strong, explosive. Indeed, his elite quickness allows him to jump the "A-gap" almost before the quarterback receives the snap from center.

He's been nicknamed "The Freak" while at LSU because of his size and speed combination. That is saying something considering some of the other athletes the program has produced in recent years including Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne and Barkevious Mingo. Here he is facing off against SEC rival Ole Miss:

While impressive, Johnson can't rely solely on quickness. He'll need to hone other aspects of his game, using leverage, violent hands and the ability to shed and move laterally to succeed at the NFL level. If he adds these to his arsenal in 2013, he'll likely be drafted in the top half of the first round.

Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota (6'5", 310): Hageman came to Minnesota as a top tight end prospect, but switched to the defensive line after his first year in college. Due in no small part to the position switch, he was a back up early in his career; in 2011, he had 13 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. In 2012, he has a breakout year, totaling 35 tackles (7.5 tackles for loss), two passes broken up, one forced fumble and six sacks.

Hageman is now in the 310 pound range, but holds onto his roots as an offensive skill player: he maintains the quickness you'd associate with a much smaller, more athletic player. As with the other players on this list, his game is athleticism and penetration. These skills are on display here, as he goes up against Big Ten rival Wisconsin (and Cowboys first-rounder Travis Frederick):

Hageman doesn't get national attention because he plays in the relative hinterlands, but if he can duplicate his 2012 campaign, he'll be a player even the casual fan will be talking about next April.

Dominique Easley, Florida (6'2", 283): After being one of the most highly recruited players in the nation in 2010, Easley had a breakout sophomore season in 2011, tallying 37 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. However, he tore his ACL in his left knee in the regular season finale against Florida State and had surgery before the Gators' bowl game. In 2012, a rehabbing Easley missed all of spring ball but returned in the Fall and, after a slow start, registered 26 tackles (8.5 for loss), one pass batted down, and a team-leading four sacks.

Easley is strong, fast and disruptive. He is very light on his feet for a big man with lateral burst and flexibility to explode in any direction. Also, Easley has what the Mike Mayocks of the world call "position flex"; he played defensive tackle in 2011 before moving to DE last season. Moreover, the Gators play a hybrid defense, so he has experience as a both 4-3 end and five-technique defensive end in a 3-4. Here he is facing off against SEC rival Auburn:

As long as his knee injury doesn't negatively impact his change of direction skills, Easley has early round potential. Given the body types of the defensive tackles on the Cowboys draft board (Florida State's Everette Dawkins goes 6'2" 292, for example), and his resemblance to another undersized, inside-outside SEC D-lineman (a guy by the name of Jay Ratliff; perhaps you've heard of him?), it wouldn't surprise me to see Easley draw their interest.

Aaron Donald, Pitt (6'0", 275): After recording a pair of sacks as a freshman, Donald had a breakout sophomore season in 2011, with 47 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. In 2012, despite a diminished sack total that caused some pundits to declare that his play had fallen off from its sophomore level, he notched 64 tackles (a stunning 18.5 for loss), 5.5 sacks, one forced fumble and two passes broken up last season, leading the Big East and ranking twelfth nationally with 1.54 TFLs per game - sufficient to earn him first-team All-Big East laurels.

Here he is in action against a Big East rival, Syracuse:

As with the rest of these likely lads, Donald is a tackle-end "tweener." Also like them, he uses explosive burst, quick hands and hustle to make plays more than he does brute strength. He also has a history of position flex, as both a 4-3 DT and 3-4 DE; This season, he'll be lining up at the 4-3 defensive tackle position he played in 2011. If he approaches the production (especially in terms of sacks) he enjoyed that year, expect his name to be read in the first 40 picks.

Best of the Rest:

Khyri Thornton, Southern Mississippi (6'3", 308): Thornton is a versatile lineman who can play in both the 4-3 (as either a strongside end or under tackle) or a 3-4, as a five technique. He has the size the Cowboys like inside, and exhibits good technique and a strong motor, which he kept churning even in the midst of an 0-12 2012 campaign in which he collected 36 tackles (9.5 for loss) and a sack, forced fumble and interception. Thornton has gotten better every year at Southern Miss; if he continues along that trajectory, he'll be much in demand come April.

Calvin Barnett, Oklahoma State (6'2", 300): is a junior college transfer who, in his first season in the Big XII, earned Defensive Newcomer of the Year honors after logging 30 tackles (nine tackles for loss), one sack and a pass breakup. Observers say he playerd better than his numbers, providing a disruptive presence at the point of attack. After a year of experience going against major conference linemen, look for Barnett to get closer to his high ceiling.

Ashton Dorsey DT, Texas (6-2, 295): Like the rest of the guys on this list, Dorsey is not the biggest lineman but more than makes up for his lack of ideal size with impressive athleticism. After a 2012 season in which he tallied 28 tackles, with 10 TFLs, Dorsey is looking to become the next in a long line of Longhorns dominant D-linemen. He'll be a great fit in an NFL 4-3 scheme as a three-technique.

DeMonte McAllister, FSU (6'2", 285): After redshirting in 2009, McAllister had 16 tackles and three sacks in 2010 before bouncing around the über-talented Seminole roster in 2011, playing all over the D-line as well as on the offensive line and on special teams. In 2012, he returned to his natural position and recorded 33 tackles with 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble - enough to put him on the NFL radar.

*Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina (6-4, 293): In 2012, Quarles had a solid sophomore season for the Gamecocks, logging 38 tackles, 8 TFL, and 3.5 sacks while playing in the shadow of All-Universe DE Jadeveon Clowney. He's not the prospect Clowney is (who is?), but Quarles' long frame and raw ability has certainly attracted scouts' interest. Continued improvement will increase the likelihood of his joining Clowney as a draftee next April.

There you have it folks: a gallery of potential Cowboys "rushmen." Any of them strike your fancy? Make you queasy? Go to the comments section and let 'er rip!

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