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NFL Draft Defensive Preview: First Look

Posted Jan 18, 2013

Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro is widely regarded as one of the top prospects at his position in the early evaluation of this year's draft. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

By Matt Feminis
Special to Stlouisrams.com

Continuing an early look at the top draft prospects for 2013 with a look at the defensive talent.

—Defensive tackle

Defensive tackle is one of, if not the deepest, position in this year’s draft class, and several DTs will come off the board in Round One.

1) Star Lotulelei, Utah (6-4, 320) — Double team magnet with brute strength of a nose tackle and quickness of a three-technique. Has Pro Bowl potential to become a devastating interior force at the next level.
2) Sheldon Richardson*, Missouri (6-4, 295) — Active, athletic, disruptive three-technique whose motor, eyes and instincts distinguish him. Will have to alleviate concerns that he’s a one-year wonder, but he broke out in a big way with 75 tackles in 11 games. Impressive athlete.
3) Johnathan Hankins*, Ohio State (6-3, 322) — Stoutly built clogger with the anchor strength and strong hands to hold his own in trench warfare — can stack and shed and dig in against double teams. Limited value as a pass rusher and didn’t make many plays behind the line of scrimmage, but has surprising movement skills and showed improved awareness as a junior.
4) Kawann Short, Purdue (6-3, 315) — Stout and powerful defensive tackle who didn’t markedly improve his stock as a senior, but the tools are there — strong base and hands and quickness to disrupt. Short, who reportedly squats 600 pounds, tallied 15 1/2 tackles for loss, including seven sacks.
5) Jonathan Jenkins, Georgia (6-3, 351) — Coke machine inside with surprising athleticism for a wide body. Primary utility will be on first and second down, but he’ll be coveted by 3-4 teams in need of a young nose tackle to gobble up blockers.

NOTE: Alabama’s Jesse Williams, North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams, Florida’s Sharrif Floyd and LSU’s Bennie Logan will also jostle for position.


—Defensive end

This year’s defensive end crop includes a mixture of impact pass rushers, hot motors, risky picks, wild cards and one-year wonders, but several could wind up first-round selections.

1) Dion Jordan, Oregon (6-7, 243) — Converted tight end who possesses intriguing combination of length, growth potential, athleticism and pass-rush ability. Explosive bender with frightening closing speed. Is just scratching the surface, but potential warrants first-round investment. Will likely miss the Senior Bowl — suffered shoulder injury Oct. 27 against Colorado that required surgery to repair torn labrum.
2) Bjoern Werner*, Florida State (6-4, 255) — Married, German-born, high-motor pass rusher. Shows impact edge burst, attacks with leverage and is relentless. Plays with awareness and has been productive — tallied 29 tackles for loss, 20 sacks and 16 batted passes the last two seasons.
3) Barkevious Mingo*, LSU (6-5, 240) — Unpolished pass rusher with disappointing production, though his freakish talent and high ceiling are undeniable. Long, explosive, flexible and fast. Raw, high-risk, high-reward prospect who will be a first-round pick even though his initial contribution will be limited to pass rushing downs.
4) Sam Montgomery*, LSU (6-5, 260) — You wish Montgomery had Mingo’s physical ability, as he doesn’t profile as an elite sack artist, but he’s a starter-caliber NFL defender end in his own right. Looks the part and has a balanced skill set. As a rusher, caves the pocket and can really run in chase mode. As a run defender, he holds his ground and can stack and shed. Also brings an energetic playing temperament and a revved up motor.
5) Damontre Moore*, Texas A&M (6-4, 250) — Converted linebacker who used momentum from highly productive season to springboard into the draft as a 20-year-old junior. Outstanding one-year production — team-leading 85 tackles, 21 for loss and 12 1/2 sacks. Good initial quickness, lateral movement and pursuit effort, but might be overrated at this stage of the process. 


—Outside linebacker

Georgia’s Jarvis Jones is elite, but the dropoff is steep after him, and you can expect position rankings to fluctuate leading up to the draft, especially with a handful of prospects likely to test very well.

1) Jarvis Jones*, Georgia (6-3, 241) — Has been a fixture in this blog since the summer and is widely regarded as one of the few elite talents available. Medical “green light” will be key, but assuming he checks out, he’ll be drafted highly and expected to make an immediate impact as a 3-4 rush linebacker. Has everything you want in terms of explosion, violent hands, athleticism, bend, striking ability, etc.
2) Arthur Brown, Kansas State (6-1, 231) — Relatively overlooked because of Manti T’eo hype machine and Jarvis Jones’ sack numbers, but Brown was one of the nation’s best linebackers. Played the middle in college, but projects as an undersized, athletic, run-and-hit ’backer in the pros. Success of Buccaneers second-rounder Lavonte David helps Brown’s stock, though he isn’t as instinctive.
3) Khaseem Greene, Rutgers (6-1, 230) —Converted safety and tackling machine who will be a 24-year-old rookie. Short, athletic, run-and-hit “Will” linebacker with agility, flexibility and closing speed. Overpowered when linemen get on top of him, but is productive when protected. Has four-down utility.
4) Chase Thomas, Stanford (6-4, 248) — Durable team captain with experience as a stand-up, rush linebacker. Exhibits limited body power and is just an average athlete in space, but plays with leverage, awareness and effort. Is quick off the snap to knife gaps and has good movement skills and active hands to keep working to the quarterback.
5) Gerald Hodges, Penn State — High school wrestling standout who didn’t attract the same attention as some teammates, though he plays on his feet, is agile and bends well — redirects and accelerates smoothly and has good speed and range. Needs to get stronger and learn to use his hands more violently to shed blockers, but has starter-caliber athleticism and tackling ability to project as a 4-3 “Will” linebacker with four-down utility.


—Inside linebacker

Georgia junior Alec Ogletree is the class of the inside linebackers athletically, and Manti Te’o’s recent revelation could throw a wrench into things, but this grouping is thin and top-heavy.

1) Alec Ogletree*, Georgia (6-3, 232) — Most physically gifted inside linebacker in the draft. Highly athletic, rangy, agile, loose-hipped defender who can really run and leap and figures to test very well.  However, missed 10 games the last two seasons and leaves you wanting more on tape — see-and-go reactor who needs to play with more intensity, physicality and consistency to fulfill his potential.
2) Manti Te’o, Notre Dame (6-2, 255) — Has been overrated in the media thanks to Notre Dame hype machine and unique narrative, and played poorly against Alabama in the BCS Championship (missed tackles and was bullied by a menacing offensive line with future pros across the board). At the end of the day, however, Te’o is a darn good linebacker, a thumper who should be a Day One starter and long-term fixture for the team that drafts him.
3) Kevin Minter*, LSU (6-2, 245) — Solid, if unspectacular All-SEC performer who amassed 130 tackles (15 for loss) in 2012. Knee bender who can scrape and flow, but also steps downhill, fills gaps and has take-on strength. Draft value buoyed by positional scarcity more than exceptional athletic traits — underclassman with talent comparable to players drafted in third/fourth round.
4) Michael Mauti, Penn State (6-2, 232) — Instinctive, competitive, intense ’backer in the mold of traditional, old-school Penn State linebackers, though he is not as athletic as Cowboys 2010 second-rounder Sean Lee. Very average suddenness, foot speed and flexibility. Suffered torn right ACL in 2009 and torn left ACL in 2011.
5) Jon Bostic, Florida (6-1, 246) — Durable team captain who played for three different defensive coordinators at Florida, including current Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, and was mentored by Patriots ILB Brandon Spikes. Good knee bend and agility to slip blocks. Drops competently in zone and shows awareness. Lacks ideal height (can be blocked out by larger linemen) and foot speed and production was just average.


—Cornerback

There is no top-5, shutdown type available this year, and David Amerson’s descent means there might not be more than two corners worthy of a first-round pick.

1) Dee Milliner*, Alabama (6-1, 199) — Opened the season with five tackles, four pass breakups and an interception in nationally televised blowout of Michigan, and maintained high level of play through the Crimson Tide’s national championship. Scheme-versatile cover man with all the tools to be a No. 1 corner in the NFL, including terrific ball skills.
2) Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State (6-2, 185) — Thorpe Award winner who looks and plays the part — long, fluid and field-fast with a well-rounded skill set. Can mirror and run vertical in man coverage, displays keen awareness and reactions in zone and has terrific ball skills to break up or intercept throws. Logged 26 pass breakups and 16 interceptions in three-plus years as a starter, and projects as a No. 1 corner.
3) Logan Ryan*, Rutgers (6-0, 190) — Well-built, productive, scheme-versatile cornerback who is light on his feet and aggressive in run support (physical tackler). Possesses starter-caliber length, speed, agility and ball skills, and should contribute readily on special teams. Totaled 28 pass breakups and seven interceptions the last two seasons, and notched 87 tackles as a junior.
4) Xavier Rhodes*, Florida State (6-2, 217) — Rare size and length for the position — physical prototype for press-man cornerback. However, has not been model of consistency and career ball production is average. Lacks elite top-end speed and transitional quickness. Could be viewed as a safety depending on how he works out, though too often is reticent to set a hard edge in run support.
5) David Amerson*, North Carolina State (6-3, 194) — One of most enigmatic players in the country this fall. Entered the season looking like a lottery pick, but looked inconsistent, undisciplined and distracted, exposing himself to scrutiny regarding tweener traits. Despite disappointing junior season, opted to jump for the NFL anyway, and NFL teams will have to decide whether Amerson the finished product is closer to the 2011 version — a fluid, ballhawking, first-round talent — or the undependable 2012 version. Tallied 35 pass breakups the last two seasons, including 18 interceptions.


—Safety

Safety position can be slim pickings some years, but 2013 isn’t one of them, as several starter-caliber prospects are available, including a few with potential to become impact defenders.

1) Matt Elam*, Florida (5-10, 202) — Younger brother of Chiefs safety Abram has endured tragedy on his road to the NFL, but continues the parade of Gators safeties into the league. Active, athletic, aggressive strong safety who flies around and craves contact — stands out on tape. In two years as starter, notched 22 tackles for loss from safety position and defended 18 passes, including six interceptions. Physical, competitive, intense defender with potential to start as a rookie.
2) Kenny Vaccaro, Texas (6-1, 218) — Doesn’t have special playmaking highlight reel, but his skill set is difficult to find and is in demand in today’s game. Versatile and highly athletic, Vaccaro has the size and striking ability of a strong safety and the movement and cover skills of a free safety. Can be used in a variety of ways and will help to disguise coverage at the next level. Shouldn’t last very long into the second round, if he’s even available on Day Two.
3) Tony Jefferson*, Oklahoma (5-11, 212) — As stated in our recent “Preseason Top 25 Revisited,” Jefferson’s draft position could be significantly influenced by measurables, particularly if he’s closer to 5-9 than 5-11 and 4.6 than 4.4. Based on tape, however, he’s an instinctive football player with some interchangeable safety skills and should be a long-term starter if used properly. Led the Sooners with 119 tackles and is most effective playing downhill.
4) Eric Reid*, LSU (6-2, 212) — Looked like a rising star as a sophomore, but didn’t have a dominant season in 2012 when he too often lapsed in coverage and generally was disappointingly inconsistent. Needs to shore up his tackling and play with discipline and dependability. Flash player who likely would’ve improved his draft stock by returning to LSU, but has athleticism, instincts, striking ability, range and ball skills to become a Pro Bowler. 
5) Phillip Thomas (6-1, 215), Fresno State — Missed the 2011 season because of a broken leg and dislocated ankle, he’s one of the best players you haven’t heard of thanks to his relatively limited exposure on as a West Coast, “mid-major” prospect. Lacks elite suddenness and top-end speed, but has good size and instincts and is an aggressive ballhawk who can function in the box or in coverage. Was one of the top playmaking safeties in the nation as a senior.

 

*Rankings are the opinion of draft analyst Matt Feminis and in no way reflect the views of the St. Louis Rams.

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