The name of the game defensively for NFL teams is pressure. If you produce pressure, you have the chance to disrupt the timing of offenses to the same results you saw from the Seattle Seahawks when they baffled the Denver Broncos' record setting unit in the Super Bowl last month. Some teams are blessed with the kind of coaches that will produce pressure through their play calling without putting defenders in precarious situations...but most teams ultimately need their defensive linemen to produce pressure by winning their one on one individual matchups. If your team doesn't have those players on the roster now, fear not...there are a number of highly skilled and highly productive defensive linemen who have displayed this ability in college. Let's take a look at some of the top producers along the defensive line in this year's class. (NOTE: NDT Scouting's Production scores, which will be referenced below, are based on career production per game played and production vs the top 3 teams the prospect faced in each of the last 2 seasons.)
- Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State University: Lawrence, a JUCO transfer who played and started in each of the last 2 seasons for the Broncos, is the most productive Defensive End in the entire class off my scoring system. Lawrence registered an 8.66 out of a possible 9.0. Registering 120 tackles, 34 TFL and 20 sacks in 24 career games (and starts), Lawrence's production is off the charts. His 2.25 TFL+S/game started is second to none amongst regular starters on the FBS level of prospects, which is a testament to his natural ability to get off the snap and penetrate into the backfield. Lawrence combines that first step with surprising discipline in space considering how raw he is on his overall technique, he doesn't crash down the line of scrimmage or get perpendicular to the LOS, he maintains himself square and stays tight to the offensive lineman hip to hip, giving no crease for a back or a QB to pull and run inside of him. Most of Lawrence's "wins" are based strictly on effort and athleticism at this point...but considering he's already producing at an incredibly high level and has tons of room to grow, watch out. Lawrence is a name to watch in Day 2 of the NFL Draft this year.
- Jackson Jeffcoat, University of Texas: Jeffcoat doesn't have the same explosive abilities as the previously mentioned Lawrence, but he's got almost as good of production skills. Jeffcoat scored just behind Lawrence with a 8.58 production score, thanks to 174 tackles, 49.5 TFL and 26 sacks in 40 career games. The most obvious difference is in their sack figures, Jeffcoat only managed an additional 6 in an extra 16 games. But as a run defender, Jeffcoat utilizes solid separation skills and power to reset the LOS and maintain the edge, allowing for easy disengages with would be blockers to be a force in the run game. Jeffcoat won't impress with his explosion, speed or flexibility as an edge player, but very well may project into a 2 down strong side 4-3 DE or a 3-4 Sam linebacker thanks to his competence in the run game. Not being an all around prospect will hurt his value though, so Jeffcoat won't be a good value selection until early on Day 3.
- Ethan Westbrooks, West Texas A&M University: A small school player like Westbrooks really shouldn't be all that much of a surprise when you're looking at his production values. Westbrooks is a similar case to Lawrence in the fact that he wins with his motor and his natural explosion and abilities. Westbrooks (96 tackles, 42 TFL and 23.5 sacks in 28 career games) has an astronomical 2.34 TFL+S/game started. The level of competition is obviously worthy of placing an asterisk on this score, but having watched Westbrooks beat blocks from Division I prospects all week for the East/West Shrine Game (both in practice AND the game) there's a level of carry over here which has eased my concerns. Westbrooks is a sleeper name for Day 2 of the Draft thanks to a relatively thin pass rushing crop and the fact that he is essentially a ball of clay. A coach will want his hands on the natural athleticism he has and I wouldn't be surprised to see Westbrooks pushing for a RD 3 or RD 4 selection when it's all said and done. He's certainly there in my evaluation.
- Jadeveon Clowney, University of South Carolina: The lack of sacks in 2013 was well documented...as was every other would be "concern" with Clowney as a prospect. Don't make this harder than it should be. Clowney is a transcendent prospect. He's a sure fire Top 10 value and there's no way he should get outside the top 3 picks in May. Clowney has 130 tackles, 47 TFL and 24 sacks to his name in 36 career games with the Gamecocks, worthy of an 8.33 career aspect to his talent score. His 2012 production vs. top competition (Georgia, Florida and Clemson) was astronomical: 5.3 tackles, 2.83 TFL and 2.17 sacks per game AVERAGE. His ability to take over a football game was perfectly personified by a single play...that monster hit vs. Michigan in the 2012 bowl game. He actually reenacted that play several times this year, most notably against Tennessee 2 or 3 times. But that's what is so scary about Clowney. He's so fast off the snap that he's in the gap before the lineman has taken his 2nd or 3rd step. It makes him lethal vs. the run and on an NFL caliber squad, Clowney will see more individual one on ones on passing downs to "win" as compared to the constant double and triple teams he received in 2013.
- Aaron Donald, University of Pittsburgh: The TFL+S/game started stat was MADE for Aaron Donald. 3.32 TFL+S per game started in 30 starts is a full one and a quarter more than the next closest Defensive Tackle, period. 95 career combined Tackles for Loss and Sacks, worthy of a perfect 9.00 career production score and an 8.24 overall production score, is an incredible career mark, so much so that it's even 10 higher than the next closest defensive lineman period, which would be Trent Murphy. Donald is a penetration tackle, best suited for a 3 tech in a 4-3 front, although he could potentially be a Jared Odrick type fit in a 3-4 as a 5 tech DE. Regardless, he's an interior player with good burst off the ball and outstanding technique. He shows a variety of moves attacking offensive linemen and his low center of balance and diminutive stature actually play into his advantage as a pass rusher because it's difficult for offensive linemen to get hands into his chest, Donald just plays that low. I would hardly be surprised to see Donald going late in the 20's on draft day, but I think his value is right at the beginning of Round 2.
- Will Sutton, Arizona State University: Will Sutton's career production played out similar to Jadeveon Clowney's in that he was an unstoppable and incredibly productive force in 2012 who received much more attention in 2013 and saw his number decline. His career line (161 tackles, 45.5 TFL and 20.5 sacks) is still impressive for the 51 games he played in (with 40 starts) at the Defensive Tackle position. Sutton's issues in 2013 come down to increased attention, much like Clowney, but Sutton also put on a considerable amount of weight between 2012 and 2013. He did not carry this additional weight well, taking him from being a player in the Aaron Donald mold (they're nearly identical in height) to a player who has over-maxed out his frame and cost himself explosion and agility. Sutton weighed in at the Senior Bowl at 315 pounds...I'd prefer to see him back down around 300 where he can return to the explosive form that was an All-American in 2012. With that said, Sutton still displays good overall skills even with the extra weight, he's just costing himself a chance to be a special penetration pressure player. When the lights were on in 2013 vs. top competition (Stanford twice and UCLA) Sutton STILL showed up, averaging 3.7 tackles, 0.67 TFL and 0.67 sacks in these 3 games. Not quite as notable as his 2012 performances, but still is a main component of his 8.66 career production score. Sutton, like Donald, would be a good value selection early on in Day 2 of the draft.
- Caraun Reid, Princeton University: Reid is a guy who showed very well during the week of Senior Bowl practices, putting himself on the map and then announcing himself with a good performance in the game itself. When you watch Reid, you can't help but wonder how he ended up in the Ivy League. He's very agile, very quick and wins consistently. His career line of 168 tackles, 41 TFL and 20.5 sacks is in line with some of the best at the position, he scored a perfect 9.0 score for his career production. Like Westbrooks, this mark does deserve an asterisk because of the level of competition, but also just like Westbrooks, Reid performed well against better competition during the all star circuit, which has to at least help alleviate those concerns. Early in Day 3, Reid would be a fantastic value selection for a team looking for some interior pressure.
- Kelcy Quarles, University of South Carolina: Some may view Quarles as the beneficiary of having Jadeveon Clowney lining up next to him. It's a legitimate point, but what impresses me the most about Quarles isn't his career numbers (he scored a 6.30 in career production in his 29 starts and 35 career games). His 2013 line vs. top competition (UCF, Missouri and Clemson): 4.3 tackles, 3.25 TFL, 1.83 sacks average. He made mince meat of the best competition that was available on the South Carolina schedule. That kind of penetration production vs. a one on one match up is very hard to ignore. And then you watch Quarles on tape and all it does is re-affirm that he's a legitimate talent. Quarles may very well push for a 1st RD value from me in my evaluation when it is all said and done, he's that good.
Questions? Feedback? You can reach me on Twitter at @NFLDraftTracker or contact me via my website, www.ndtscouting.com.