by Matt Waldman
Jadeveon Clowney is one of the headliners of the 2014 NFL Draft, but defensive end is not this year’s marquee position. One of the predominant reasons is the current prevalence of the 3-4 scheme in the NFL. A true 4-3 end capable of stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback at an equally high level has always been a rarity. While it’s possible that a team with a 3-4 scheme drafts Clowney and converts him to outside linebacker, the fact that the South Carolina defensive end has the potential to develop into a superstar 4-3 end is enough for him to earn top-five consideration in any draft class.
Remove Jadeveon Clowney from the equation and this class of defensive end prospects is not an exciting one. However, the NFL isn’t comprised solely of superstars. Teams still derive value from players that do one thing well. The popularity of the 3-4 defense, plus 2-to-3 years of development time, could make several of these defensive end prospects valuable contributors.
The names I’ve seen at the top of most draftniks’ lists lack the all-around game required of a 4-3 end. Most of these players will have to make some kind of switch. Some will move from defensive end to outside linebacker, others will become 3-4 ends, and a few might earn a shot at 4-3 defensive tackle. With time, some of these players have the potential to help an NFL defense -– and a few may even blossom into viable 4-3 ends.
This week, I’m not profiling any of the defensive end prospects that I believe an NFL team will convert to outside linebacker. This is strictly a list of potential 4-3 and 3-4 ends. Here are my thoughts on five of these future rookies. One of them is not high on many lists, but he has the potential to develop into a quality 3-4 end.
Kony Ealy, Missouri: While it's possible a team turns Ealy into an outside linebacker, at 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, the Tigers end has the athleticism of a 4-3 end. He has a strong get-off and he’s agile for his size.
At this stage of his career, Ealy does a lot of work as the backside defensive end against the run. Missouri asks him to sift through traffic and chase down the ball carrier.
This agility has helped Ealy develop an effective inside move as a pass rusher against offensive tackles. However, the junior’s repertoire at this stage of his career is too reliant on his quick first step paired with a swim move.
An encouraging note is that Ealy has flashed another move in some games, but he hasn’t come close to mastering it at this point.
The moves are important, but the first thing Ealy will need to address is his pad level. He’s too high during his get-off and offensive linemen have an easy time immobilizing the young end at that level.
This issue also prevents Ealy from learning how to take the corner. His pad level has to be low enough for him to learn to bend the corner. At this point, Ealy’s alternative to a swim move is a bull rush with high pad level and it only works against lesser prospects he can overpower.
Many of these techniques are skills Ealy can develop with work. However, I do have concerns about his mental and emotional approach to the game. He plays with an edge, which many teams will like, but he goes over that edge too often and commits stupid penalties with late contact at the sideline or instigating conflict after the whistle.
Where he struggles is run diagnosis. He can get overzealous attacking inside and it leaves the back side prone for gains on the ground.
Ealy flashes some skill to stack and shed (stand up an opponent with a punch and rip them aside as the ball carrier arrives within his gap), but he has to finish better.
I believe Ealy can become a decent NFL player, but his production is steeped in plays that aren’t a product of pro-caliber skill. Too many of his sacks come from secondary pressure cleaning up the play or taking advantage of a busted assignment where his speed is too much for a quarterback to avoid.
In the run game, Ealy is too much of an ankle-biter as a tackler. He needs to develop the skills and understanding of opponents' tendencies to earn angles where he can is in better position to deliver flush hits above the knees. At this point Ealy leans too hard on his agility and he’s often making attempts from odd angles to get contact.
Ealy can be disruptive, but right now he’s not a disrupter. It’s the difference between making a team and making a starting lineup as a 4-3 end. I think his conceptual gaps will make it difficult for Ealy to become an effective 3-4 end or outside linebacker.
Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame: Tuitt, like Ealy, is another popular name at the top of draftniks’ lists. At 6-foot-6, 312 pounds, Tuitt is a nimble bulldozer who is strong at the point of attack and can finish after he stacks and sheds an opponent.
When he uses his hands and beats an opponent clean, he’s fast enough up the middle to get pressure up the middle.
In fact, he flashes some nice work with his hands.
However, there’s a huge difference between "nimble" and "explosive," and Tuitt consistently appears as if he’s running uphill in sand when earning one-on-one opportunities against tackles.
Moreover, Tuitt lacks the ability to bend around the corner. His lower body does not appear strong enough to support his current frame, which is top-heavy.
This top-heavy frame and its issues are apparent when watching Tuitt attempt to change direction as an edge rusher. Because his lower body lacks the strength to support his upper body at harder angles, Tuitt is prone to slipping. Here’s another example.
Even when Tuitt displays a fine pass rushing move, he lacks the quickness and agility to make the most of it.
If Kony Ealy executed this move, the outcome would be a sack. At this point, I believe Tuitt’s best shot to develop into a viable NFL contributor is as a 3-4 defensive end or 4-3 defensive tackle with the potential to rush the passer. Either way, he has to get stronger and/or leaner without sacrificing too much weight, so he can change direction and maintain his balance.
Scott Crichton, Oregon State: I asked Rotoworld’s Josh Norris to name me a defensive end that he liked in this class and his answer -– albeit a lukewarm response -– was Crichton. I get it, the 6-foot-3, 265-pound, Oregon State defender projects as a true 4-3 end and he flashes moments on the field that foretell a player with the talent to develop into an NFL starter.
He’s a smart player who often possesses a feel for the game. Unlike Ealy, Crichton is much better at maintaining gap discipline rather than bombing the backfield on every play.
He’s also much better at reading opponent attempts to cut him. Crichton’s ability to avoid the cut and stay in the play is on display with this pass attempt where he forces the quarterback out of bounds.
At the same time, Crichton faced his share of double teams and he demonstrated a lack of hustle that might be a product of fatigue. This two-play sequence against USC results in a long gain and a touchdown. Crichton could have prevented either one if he had the energy and/or hustle to take advantage of a good angle after his initial battle with his opponent.
Crichton is by no means out of shape, but if he wants to elevate his game to another level, developing another plane of stamina should be high on his list of post-college goals.
Crichton also has the potential to develop a bull rush. He often gets his hands under his opponent's pads and flashes a good first strike.
At this point, it’s just flash without consistent substance. Crichton has a good inside move and he often uses his hands well to split a double team. However, he lacks that extra strength and leverage to move tackles around.
This defensive end prospect will only maximize his potential if he can learn to bend around corners as a pass rusher. These two plays are perfect examples of a defensive end who has set up the opportunity to bend the corner and reach the quarterback, but doesn’t.
Some players lack this flexibility. If that’s the case for Crichton, his upside will remain limited. If he develops that bend, he could become a player capable of double-digit sacks every year.
Trent Murphy, Stanford: This 6-foot-6, 261-pound redwood has some burst to penetrate. But, like most trees, he doesn’t bend too far without breaking.
Murphy relies heavily on dipping to an angle and using the swim move. There is evidence of Murphy working on a spin move, but his final steps aren’t as fast as his first. It's a problem evident on most of his plays, actually.
A lot of Murphy’s production comes on longer-developing plays or situations where he’s cleaning up as secondary or tertiary pressure.
Brent Urban, Virginia: The Cavaliers’ 4-3 defensive tackle played a season under former NFL coach Al Groh as a 3-4 end. That is where he fits best in the NFL. At 6-foot-7, 295 pounds, he’s likely too long and lean for a defensive tackle, but also not fast or flexible enough to develop as a 4-3 end.
What he has is height, power, and a good first step. At this point, he often puts these assets to good use against the run. Note the strong punch on this play.
Then watch Urban keep his feet in trash, stay square to the ball carrier, and make the play on this attempt.
He often integrates his skills well enough to generate a push, stack and shed, and finish the play. Those long arms don’t hurt, either.
What he does best in the passing game is bulldoze the pocket with the hope of getting his arms in the air to deflect passes.
Urban still needs to get stouter at the point of attack because too often he’s moved off his spot.
If he gets stronger and improves his technique, it will go a long way towards hiding one of his greater weaknesses, which is a lack of closing burst to finish plays.
As you can see, he starts well. In most of these highlights, Urban demonstrates a good first step, but the finish isn’t there. A 3-4 team can make him a more finished product, Urban has the build and basic football acumen to make a fine supporting player on a good defense.
In most cases, that’s the diagnosis for all of these defensive end prospects: supporting actor rather than leading man.