NFL Draft Rankings 2014: Defensive Ends

Here’s something I do not understand. The single season sack record in the NFL is 22.5, held by Michael Strahan. Which would mean that the record for sacks per season, when put in per game numbers, would be about 1.4 sack per game. At the same time, defensive ends are being paid exorbitant amounts of money, even for football players. The highest paid defensive player in the league is Mario Williams, a defensive end for the Buffalo Bills at $16 million. And the Franchise tag for defensive ends is set just over $13 million, second highest only to a quarterback. Now bearing all of that in mind, what baffles me is this: Why are defensive ends being paid so much when the best contributes just over 1 sack per game? I know that one sack, timed perfectly, completely changes the outlook of a game, but what guarantee is there that this hypothetical one sack comes at the perfect time? Sure, a defensive end contributes in other aspects of the game, sacks are not indicative of the pressure put on a quarterback on a play-to-play basis, and a defensive end can be highly effective in the run game as well. But at the same time, defensive ends do not lead the league in tackles. It’s the linebackers. If a team decides to run away from a defensive end, there’s not much he can do about that. Linebackers are the ones patrolling across the whole field, and that’s why they end up getting the tackles. My point is this: I would make the argument that linebackers in particular deserve to be paid more than a defensive end.

However, I am not an NFL GM. I would certainly enjoy having that job, but I doubt that’s in my future. Then again, based on their actions in free agency, I could stand to do a better job out in Oakland. But I digress. The point of that rant is for me to say that I think defensive ends are overvalued. And my viewpoint has been reinforced by all of the coverage this year’s draft has had on Jadeveon Clowney. I understand that this is similar to an Andrew Luck of the defense, a ridiculously talented individual player who should be able to step in and change a team’s defense from week 1. I am just saying, temper your expectations. Defensive ends are flashy, they get the sacks and do their dances, but I would make a strong argument that the defensive end is not the most crucial part of a defense. Regardless of my opinion, Clowney will end up being taken most likely within the top 5 picks, and once his rookie contract is up, he will make some serious money.
But enough of that. Let’s get to business

How it works-

I will start each of these posts by examining which teams need the players in question. By in large this is only going to be teams that are in need of a new starting player, not necessarily a backup.

For each player I will provide analysis, statistics from the 2013-2014 season, and a general idea of where I believe they will be taken in the draft.

Things to keep in mind-

The rankings that I post here are based on my observations of the player’s statistics, game tape, and any rumors that leak out to the general public. I make no claims to have insider knowledge into the draft process or any teams overall plan this is merely my own ranking system if I were evaluating these player for any given NFL team.

As with any ranking system, it is all relative. Scouting reports by professionals can differ greatly for the same individual for the same game. So my rankings by no means the definitive order.

I love football. I love the NFL, and college football, and I love sharing what I love with other people. And that is the ultimate point in creating these rankings: To share what I know about the players who will be a part of my favorite football event of the year, namely the draft. Whether you love the draft process as I do, just want to know a little bit more about some of the top college players outside of those at Wisconsin, or are simply interested in who your favorite team could be looking at in May, I want these rankings to be informative.

Now let’s get to it.

Teams looking to draft a defensive end in 2014:
Cincinnati Bengals: After losing Michael Johnson in free agency to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bengals could really use a replacement. Even with Michael Johnson, the Bengals could use some help from a defensive end. Though Johnson only accounted for 3.5 sacks last year, losing him means that the only defensive ends left on the roster are Carlos Dunlap, Margus Hunt, and Wallace Gilberry, and out of that, Dunlap is the only one I would trust as a starter for an entire season. In fairness, Gilberry did have a good year with 7.5 sacks, his career number stands at 28. At 29 years old, I am not thoroughly convinced that he will continue that production, let alone increase it. Gilberry and Hunt could potentially be a good tandem, but netting a talented young 4-3 defensive end would be a boon for the Bengals defense.
New York Giants: Two years ago, the New York Giants defense was formidable at the line of scrimmage, featuring Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umeniyora. With Tuck headed to Oakland, the Giants not only lose the team’s sack leader from last year, but JPP is left alone on that defensive line. Since the Giants have yet to acquire a defensive end in free agency that can play across from JPP, it would be a wise decision to draft a defensive end in the first couple of rounds, especially since without Tuck’s 11 sacks last year, the Giants as a team would have been sitting with 23 as a team, easily the worst in the league. The Giants have a lot of holes they need to fill, and defensive end is one that is crucial to their defensive style.
Tennessee Titans: Last year, the Tennessee Titans two starting defensive ends were Derrick Morgan and Ropati Pitoitua, who combined for 10 sacks on the season. By comparison, Jurrell Casey, their defensive tackle, had 10.5 on his own, leading the team. The situation could certainly be worse, but right now the bottom line is that the Titans need help at the defensive end position. Getting pressure up the middle is great, but having your top two ends combine for 10 sacks simply is not good enough. 10 sacks in one season is what one good defensive end should be able to produce. Right now it’s not clear if the Titans will be working with a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense, which could certainly change their outlook on the position, but finding someone to replace Pitoitua could be a wise decision for the Titans’ front office.
Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys really had no choice but to cut DeMarcus Ware, given their cap situation. Now just because it was inevitable does not mean it doesn’t hurt the Cowboys as a team. In a down year, Ware still contributed 6 sacks on the season, putting him third on the team, behind Jason Hatcher and George Selvie. Hatcher is out the door now, leaving just Selvie on the team that was able to surpass 3 sacks. So at this point, it’s not will the Cowboys draft a defensive lineman, but when will the Cowboys draft a defensive lineman. If they pass on a safety in the first round, I would be shocked if Dallas did not draft either a defensive tackle or end. But then again, this is Jerry Jones we’re talking about.
San Fransisco 49ers: Here’s the deal in San Fransisco. Last year the 49ers produced 38 sacks, putting them right in the middle of the pack in that category. This was also with Aldon Smith absent for a few games, but putting that aside for a moment, the 49ers defensive linemen accounted for 12 of those sacks, good for about 32% of the teams total sacks. Now, I understand that since the 49ers run a 3-4 defense the linebackers are the true pass rushers. But even so, Justin Smith is sitting at 34 years of age, Ray McDonald is 29 and has a career high of 5.5 sacks in a single season, and Glenn Dorsey is 28 and has 6 career sacks in 7 seasons. The point of all those numbers? The 49ers need youth and production on the d-line. a 3-4 defense works best when both linebackers and defensive ends are able to get to the quarterback, and right now, I’m not convinced that the line they have is of the same caliber as the rest of their defense. When you are as good as San Fransisco is, there are not many holes, so improving an already stellar defense is something that the 49ers can afford to work on.
Jacksonville Jaguars: It’s kind of embarrassing, really. People have been saying that the Jaguars need a pass rush for the past several years. Jason Babin finally produced something for them this year, with 7.5 sacks, leading the team. But he is 33. The Jaguars are building for the future, and unfortunately for them, Babin is not part of their long terms plans. Andre Branch might be, with only three years under his belt and 6 sacks last season. Then again, he has 7 career sacks. So take that for what its worth. Mark my words, if Jadeveon Clowney falls to #3 and the Jaguars, I cannot see them passing on that opportunity. Their head coach is Gus Bradley, the former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator, and I think he is hurting as much as anyone in the organization that their pass rush is so anemic.
Defensive Ends:
#1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
Height: 6’5, Weight: 266 lbs.
2013 Stats: 3.0 Sacks, 11.5 TFL
NFL Combine: 4.53 40-yard Dash, 21 reps Bench Press
Alright, first things first. Clowney’s stats plummeted this season. A year ago he had 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss of TFL, along with the tackle from the Outback Bowl that caused Twitter and every other social media outlet to explode. The thing is, stats are not necessarily the best indicators of what a player is capable of. I know I use the sack statistic a lot in my team evaluation and when I was talking about the position as a whole, but the bottom line is that Clowney was still disruptive this year, despite his low numbers. He had low numbers for two reasons: A. He did not try his hardest all the time. But more on that later. B. Teams ran away from him. I don’t know that I can say how important that is. When teams decide to completely shift their offensive attack because of one player, that is huge. And that’s what happened from time to time with Clowney. He may not have had the impressive numbers, but forcing the offense away from him means that the South Carolina defense can throw extra players to the opposite side, and give them much better chances to stop their opponents. So while the numbers are not there, that does not mean Clowney did not impact the offense. Fun fact: Clowney had 4 pass deflections this year. It might have gone up from 2, but still. Improvement in what is quickly becoming a necessary trait for defensive ends.
So now to the Combine. Everyone freaked out and started crowning him the greatest defensive prospect in a generation after his 40 time. Honestly, I was not that impressed. Clowney running a 4.53 40 is not news. We knew he was immensely athletic. If he had run a 4.7, that is news. A 4.53 40, while highly impressive, is not a revelation, it is a confirmation. And furthermore, I was disappointed in Clowney otherwise at the combine. He only did the bench press 21 times. Granted he was hurt by his long arms, which make it so he has to use more energy to do one rep than a short-armed person, but based on the strength we have seen from him, I expected more. In addition to that, he did not do the positional drills, due to a hip flexor injury. Yet he still ran the 40, and was a top performer in the vertical and broad jump. So from my perspective, this says Clowney will only do the drills he wants to do. Not a great look for a man who has had his work ethic questioned for the entire season. I’m just saying.
Lastly and most importantly, let’s go to the tape. When I watch Clowney play, everything you hear about him comes to life, both the good and the bad. I see him take plays off, I see him jog after the runner gets past him or if he feels someone else is going to get the tackle. The questions about his work ethic are perfectly valid, based on what you see on his tape. And when Auburn’s Dee Ford says that Clowney “plays like a bull in a china shop”, meaning that he is all strength no technique, I see that too. More than once Clowney will go at the linemen with physical force, with mixed results, even against lesser tackles. go to the Clemson game, one on one with the left tackle, is not able to get consistent pressure with pure force, he can get moved around and taken out of a play, particularly when he is double teamed. But then you see the flashes. You see why everyone says he’s the best defensive prospect in years. When he actually uses techniques, like a swim move, he’s unstoppable. He runs through double teams by combining that speed, strength, and technique, and you see what happens when he goes all out on a play. He becomes one of the most disruptive forces on that football field. I sincerely hope that Clowney goes somewhere that can bring out his talent all the time, because that would be an absolute treat for every NFL fan. Except those of the team he faces.
At the end of the day, Clowney is projected as the #1 overall pick, and I get it. I see what everyone talks about on tape, and his athletic numbers at the Combine. But I would not take him with the first pick. You cannot afford to miss on the first round guy, and with the motivational questions surrounding him, accentuated in my mind with his Combine decisions, I could not in good conscience draft him first overall. If I needed a defensive player that badly, I would take Khalil Mack, and I am not alone in that opinion. But at the end of the day, Clowney might be the first name called on May 8th. I honestly do not know. But I doubt he goes outside of the top 5. Then again, maybe he should. Against Clemson, he missed a tackle, and charged after the guy with all his might. Maybe slipping a little bit could bring that kind of effort out of Clowney on every play. Only time will tell.
Final Decision: Top 5 Pick
#2. Kony Ealy, Missouri
Height: 6’4, Weight: 273 lbs
2013 Stats: 8.0 Sacks, 14.0 TFL
NFL Combine: 4.92 40-yard Dash, 22 reps Bench Press
Looking just at his numbers, Ealy is a guy that is improving every year. Last year he finished with 3.5 Sacks, 10.0 TFL, 7 Deflected Passes, and 1 Force Fumble. This year, his  sacks more than doubled to 8.0, his tackles for loss increased, he had one fewer pass defended, and he had 3 forced fumbles. So essentially, last year was a precursor to his breakout season. What is also impressive about Kony Ealy’s stats is that he put up these numbers next to Michael Sam, who ended the season as Co-Defensive Player of the Year for the SEC. Despite Sam having more sacks and TFL, there is a general consensus that Ealy is the more disruptive overall player. One could argue that Ealy only produced his numbers because teams were game planning around Michael Sam, but I would say that the reverse is true. Michael Sam has talent, but looking at the numbers from last year, Ealy had more indicators of an impending breakout, so I would say that Sam benefited from playing next to Ealy.
As for the combine, no one is going to touch Clowney’s numbers, but we already knew that. It would be almost impossible, given how ridiculous Clowney was. In any case, Ealy still performed well. Defensive ends do not usually need to use their top speed, so while speed is nice, it is not essential for a defensive lineman. Like Clowney, I was a little underwhelmed by Ealy’s bench press, but technique is just as important as power in a pass rusher. Ealy was the top performer in the 3-cone drill, beating the next closest player by 0.14 seconds, quite a respectable gap. The point is, it was not a stellar combine, but Ealy put up solid numbers that no one will scoff at.
In watching Ealy’s film, the more I watch him, the more I like him. He has a great first step right off the snap, and gets right into the teeth of the offensive linemen. Good size of both power and technique, you can see both being utilized while he is on the field, although admittedly both could stand some more improvements. Strength wise he is in a good spot, but he could bulk up a bit more, which would probably put him in more of the 3-4 DE range, which is his current projection. What I really love watching in Ealy is his motor. He is always around the ball, closes with good speed on the ball carrier, and plays to the whistle, something that cannot be said of another end on this list. One play against Florida, Ealy ran all the way across the field horizontally to tackle the running back for no gain. Quite impressive, I must say. And going back to his numbers, there are more than a few times that Ealy was the first to get pressure, but he ended up pushing the quarterback into Michael Sam’s waiting arms. So realistically, Ealy could have had even more impressive stats. But scouts will certainly notice who disrupted the quarterback first, and that was Ealy.
Alright, bottom line is this: Kony Ealy is a talent player, and a complete package at defensive end. There is room for growth and improvement, but even now, Ealy stands to be a first round pick, most likely mid to late round. No one will confuse Ealy and Clowney, but I think Ealy may end up providing great value, as he is overshadowed by Clowney. Keep an eye on Kony Ealy, I have a feeling that he will be producing some impressive numbers once he gets to the NFL level. The 49ers selecting Ealy would be a great fit, but first he has to fall to 30th overall.
Final Decision: First Round
#3. Scott Crichton, Oregon State
Height: 6’3, Weight: 273 lbs.
2013 Stats: 7.5 Sacks, 19.0 TFL
NFL Combine: 4.84 40-yard Dash, 24 reps Bench Press
The numbers on Crichton show a player who has been highly productive for Oregon State for the past three years. In three years as a starter for the Beavers, Crichton was able to accumulate 22.5 sacks, 51.0 TFL, 10 forced fumbles and 9 pass deflections. His numbers this year are down slightly from where they were as a sophomore, but they are still respectable and are really not a concern. Crichton’s overall numbers speak to a consistent force on the defensive side of the ball, and that is exactly what Crichton is capable of being.
At the NFL Combine, Crichton was in a similar boat to Kony Ealy; he did not have a great combine, but he still performed well and teams will be interested in him. Unless he said something in the interviews, Crichton did nothing to hurt his stock at the Combine, and I have not heard anything about his interview process. His 40 time was good enough for a lineman, and his bench press was better than Ealy and Clowney, but still outside the top performers. Watching his on-field drills, Crichton seemed disappointed in himself occasionally, especially after the broad jump, perhaps he was expecting more of himself, which is not a bad thing. In any case, I liked his footwork, he changed direction well, but he moved in space with a little bit of stiffness, and there were times it looked like he was pushing the limits of his athleticism. By that I mean there were a couple of moments when he was running and turning, and came close to taking a tumble. If that was him moving with maximum effort, he looked good, but it also reinforced the opinion of a lot of scouts: he is a work in progress that has a lot of potential.
Lastly but most importantly, look at Crichton’s tape. When I am watching him, there are three things I love about the guy. First, he has a good first step and burst from the snap, which helps him cause disruption faster. Second, his power is quite impressive. The strength I see when watching him seems greater than the bench press he put up, but that is a different matter. The point is that he can overpower opposing tackles with ease at times. And three, if there was such a thing as a ball-hawking defensive end, Crichton would be it. Does a fantastic job attacking the ball and tackling the ball carrier at the same time, which is tremendous. But Crichton has his flaws, just like anyone else. He really needs that first step to get pressure. If he does not get a good push, too many times I saw him get moved around by the opposing tackles, and he was unable to cause any pressure on the quarterback. The first step is crucial. Fortunately for him, he is pretty good at in, and hopefully in the NFL, he can continue to improve on it. Apart from that, I never saw Crichton use technique. No swim moves, no rips, spin moves, nothing. Just raw, physical force. Which worked for him in the Pac-12, but I doubt will work in the NFL. He will need to develop some kind of finesse move if he wants to be able to succeed at the next level. And lastly, he was completely dominated by double teams. Whether it was a tackle and a guard or the guard and center, if two guys are covering Crichton, he was completely ineffective.
I like Crichton, but, he is a work in progress. If Dallas does not go to the defensive line in the first round, I would say they will keep a close eye on the Oregon State product, because he could be a good fit for their 4-3 defense, once he gets a little experience under his belt. No one is talking about Crichton in the first round, and I would not expect him to go that high. But given that he is one of the best defensive end prospects in the draft, despite his flaws, I would look for him on Day 2, most likely the second round.
Final Decision: 2nd Round
#4. Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame
Height: 6’5, Weight: 304 lbs
2013 Stats: 7.5 Sacks, 9.0 TFL
NFL Combine: 31 reps Bench Press
Alright, so Stephon Tuitt. He could be placed in with the defensive tackle prospects, based on his Combine weight and how he played this season, but I am putting him at defensive end because a year ago, he was extremely productive as an end, and the rumors are that he is slimming down to stay at the end position, so the height and weight I have him listed at may not be accurate, but I am just using the Combine numbers for consistency. Anyway, this year Tuitt’s numbers dipped, because he injured his knee during the season, and he fell to 7.5 sacks from 12.0. If Tuitt had left school last year, he would have been a first round pick. With 12 sacks and 3 forced fumbles at his size, I have no doubt Tuitt would have been selected in the middle of the first round. But he did not. He stayed, and now with injury concerns and questions about where exactly he fits into a defensive scheme, his stock has fallen. Some say he could play tackle and end and love the versatility, others would prefer him to have one definitive spot. But that is all irrelevant. As far as Tuitt’s numbers go, he was able to put up respectable numbers despite the injury, and he may have had the chance to challenge Justin Tuck’s single season sack record at Notre Dame (Tuck had 13.0 in one season).
Tuitt did not participate in the Combine activities outside of the Bench Press because of a foot injury. Still, with 31 reps, as we work our way down this list, players are getting better and better in the bench press. But since he did not do much, there’s really not much to say about Tuitt’s Combine. I suppose checking in at 304 lbs was concerning for some scouts, 304 may be a bit heavy for a defensive end, if that truly is what he wants to play.
One of the big things that stands out to me when I watch Tuitt on tape is that he played like he was out of shape this past year. And frankly, he was. He was being moved around too easily, the power was not as evident but still present, and he was all around less effective than he was a year ago. So I went back to last year’s tape, and there you see why everyone loved him. I would not go so far as to suggest that he is an instant starter or even a finished product, but the talent is certainly there. Strength is his main calling card, and he uses it well. A year ago he was also able to use a swim move to get through the linemen, but I did not see it as much in this year. Bottom line, his sophomore year is the one to watch for what Tuitt can be. This year factors in and will drop his stock in my opinion, but if he is serious about slimming down and sticking at defensive end, then he could end up as one of the most disruptive pass rushers from this draft class, and could make a front office look smart if they work Tuitt out correctly.
As I have said before, Tuitt a year ago would have been a lock for a first round pick. Not the case anymore, not for me. Someone might fall in love and take him in the later part of the first round, but my guess right now is that Tuitt looks like a 2nd Round prospect, the guy with 1st round potential, but due to external concerns, falls and ends up as a work in progress. But if Tuitt matures and gets back to the form he had as a sophomore, he will end up as a steal for the team that drafts him.
Final Decision: Round 2
#5. Trent Murphy, Stanford
Height: 6’5, Weight: 250 lbs
2013 Stats: 15.0 Sacks, 23.5 TFL
NFL Combine: 4.86 40-yard Dash, 19 reps Bench Press
I have Trent Murphy down at #5 despite having the most sacks of anyone on the list partially because I am not positive where he ends up in the NFL, he could be a defensive end or an outside linebacker, depending on the scheme, and partially because I think he will need some time to either bulk up or simply adjust to the NFL. Either way, looking just at the numbers, Trent Murphy was phenomenal last year. He set new record for himself in sacks and tackles for loss, impressive already given that a year ago he had 10 sacks and 18 TFLs. So bottom line, we know Trent Murphy can produce numbers, and realistically, if you can do that, someone will take a chance on you in the NFL.
Looking at his combine, Murphy was grouped in with the linebackers, but as I have said, he could end up anywhere depending on the scheme in the NFL, but one way or another, he will end up as a pass rusher. In any case at the Combine he looked good in the on-field drills moving around, and he ended as a top performer in the three cone drill. But for his 40-yard Dash, he ran upright, which hurt his overall speed. As a pass rusher, he will not have to run 40 yards straight frequently, but a good burst would have been good for scouts to record.
In his tape, it is apparent that Murphy’s specialization is in pass rushing, specifically speed rush. He does not have great strength on tape or in the weight room, evidenced by his 19 reps on the Bench. Therefore, he has to rely on his speed and using different techniques to get to the quarterback. He does both of these well, which confirms the 15 sacks he had in the season. You see better speed on tape than at the Combine, but ultimately if Murphy can produce, he will get drafted. However, when that speed fails him and he ends up one on one with an opposing tackle, Murphy struggles. A lot of that comes back to Murphy’s own strength and size, both of which are somewhat lacking.
The thing with Murphy is that he is talented, and he will get drafted. Depending on where he goes though, he may need to bulk up to play defensive end, especially in a 4-3 defense, but if he can do that, then I think he will be a productive player in the NFL. Right now, I would really only trust Murphy to come in on blitz plays, letting him do exactly what he does best, and at the moment Murphy is not a three down defensive end, but he has the talent to do it. This is a day 2 guy. Round 2 or 3, depending on who drafts him and for what position. Right now, I will go with 2nd round just based on stats and the fact that rush ends do still have high value.
Final Decision: 2nd Round
That does it for defensive ends, next week I will cover defensive tackles.
By Mike Veldhuis