Earlier, we took a look at the prospects on the offensive side of the ball who are gaining momentum as the NFL Draft creeps to less than a month away. Today, we once again use our network of NFL Draft analysts to examine which players on defense you should keep an eye on ...
Defensive End (Josh Norris - RotoWorld):
With good reason, defensive end prospect discussions usually start with pass rush ability. Ends who can beat a left tackle on the edge while gracefully turning the corner deserve a lot of credit but frequently overshadow the tenacious, physical rushers opposite them. Tennessee's Malik Jackson fits the latter. I prefer Jackson at left defensive end in a 4-3 where he can burst off the edge or use persistence and power to create penetration against right tackles. After transferring from USC at 250 pounds, Jackson has efficiently bulked up to 290. Jackson said himself that he is working toward appealing to 4-3 teams at defensive tackle (where he played his senior season) and has the length (6-5 33.5-inch arms) to add even more mass. This kind of positional flexibility would have once drawn a "tweener" label. Instead, it is now considered positive versatility since Jackson consistently wins at any spot along the line and should fit in the mold of a Jason Jones, Kendall Langford or Chris Canty. The fact that Jackson has steadily gained weight shows me he can be molded into whatever role his future team chooses. Sure, he is not a bender around the edge with acrobatic positioning and could improve his pad level, but Jackson constantly uses counter moves and persistence to disrupt the backfield.
Our Take: Jackson is one of the more intriguing prospects at the defensive end spot because of his versatility. As pointed out above, his ability to take on a Jason Jones-like role for Jim Washburn is a very attractive idea. He did a lot of things that caught stood out in Mobile at the Senior Bowl and watching him more on tape should only solidify his status. Surprising as it may seem, Jackson could come off the board as early as the second round.
Defensive Tackle (Tommy Lawlor – Scouts Notebook):
North Carolina State defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy is far from a household name, but there is a reason he was invited to the Scouting Combine: NFL teams are fascinated by his combination of size and athletic ability. Sweezy had a good workout in Indianapolis and then helped himself even more at his pro day. Sweezy, 6-5, 296, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.84 seconds. He's not just a workout warrior. Sweezy's speed shows up on game tape. He had 10.5 sacks and 20 tackles-for-loss in his career. 4-3 teams will like him as a three-technique player (think Cullen Jenkins) and 3-4 teams will like him as a defensive end. Sweezy is a late round prospect, but could develop into a good rotational player at the NFL level.
Our Take: Sweezy's versatility surely makes him an attractive options to teams late in the draft. A good run defender with a high motor and violent hands, he would be a good fit for almost any scheme. A personal favorite, he will be a good addition to a roster in the latter stages of draft weekend or as a priority free agent.
Linebacker (Dane Brugler – CBS Sportsline):
A player who has risen in the eyes of scouts perhaps more than anyone during the pre-draft process is Arkansas State'sDemario Davis. He had a good, not great, senior season, but really impressed at the NFL Scouting combine and during pro day workouts. At 6-2, 235, Davis ran in the mid-4.5's in the 40-yard dash and posted 32 reps of 225-pounds on the bench press, adding very positive numbers in the vertical jump (38.5 inches), broad jump (10'4"), 3-cone drill (7.19 seconds) and short shuttle (4.28 seconds). Based off the game tape, he is more of a reactor than anticipator at this point in his career and he needs to continue to develop his instincts to sniff out plays. But Davis flies all over the field like a missile with a strong core and the quick first step required to attack plays decisively. He doesn't always play assignment-sound football and is best suited for a zone-heavy scheme that allows him to freelance and roam, but, at worst, he looks like a key special teams player with future starting potential. It wouldn't shock me to see Davis come off the board on the second day of the draft.
Our Take: Davis stood out in Mobile at the Senior Bowl, and since then has seen his stock rise. While he's not the biggest prospect, he's experienced, had a productive career, is a reliable tackler and is more than athletic enough to be an impact player at the next level. The projection of second or third round for Davis, while surprising, is not farfetched at all. .
Cornerback (Aaron Aloysius – Draft Breakdown):
With the NFL becoming more and more of a passing league, teams are increasingly eager to stock up on talented cornerbacks. One prospect who should benefit from the strong demand at the position is South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore. Indeed, Gilmore already has been the subject of much draft season buzz. The Gamecock corner had an excellent NFL Scouting Combine, running a better than expected 4.4-second 40-yard dash, as well as posting excellent short shuttle (3.94 seconds) and 3-cone (6.61 seconds) times. In addition, Gilmore looked fluid and explosive in position drills. A feisty competitor on the gridiron, Gilmore's more than willing to stick his nose in the run game. The lengthy corner also possesses good ball skills, picking off four passes last year. Gilmore will occasionally get caught playing overly aggressive and bite on double moves, but his fast 40 time shows that he possesses the recovery speed to conceal some of his mental hiccups. With some improvements in his footwork, he should be able to exhibit more of the top-notch burst and athleticism he displayed in drills. As a result, many have become intrigued with Gilmore's upside. Some scouts even have him rated as the No. 2 cornerback in this class, ahead of Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick. Whether or not he eclipses Kirkpatrick, Gilmore's stock now appears to be firmly set in the first round.
Our Take: Gilmore had some consistency issues in 2011 and was known to give up a big play or two, but his versatility and abilities in zone coverage will make him an attractive option to needy teams in the first round. His ability to also serve as a return man could also be of interest to a team like the Eagles, who could be looking for some extra explosiveness on special teams as well. Gilmore has good size and athleticism, and is the type of high-character player who would be a great addition to any locker room.
Safety (Dan Shonka – Ourlads):
One safety whose name has been making the rounds in draft circles is Markelle Martin from Oklahoma State. The 6-foot, 207-pound prospect was a three-year starter for the Cowboys, and is interchangeable as a free or strong safety. Martin has the ability to key and diagnose plays quickly, and is an explosive hitter when he breaks on the ball well. However, he's not always under control and has been known to get some untimely penalties. A physical player in the secondary, Martin makes his presence felt. Though he is a bit stiff in the hips, he plays the ball well in the air and has the speed and range to overlap the cornerback down the field. While his buzz has been quiet this spring because of a knee injury, Martin is a name to keep an eye on the future.
Obviously everyone is also talking about Mark Barron from Alabama. Another three-year starter who has a ton of special teams experience, Barron has built quite a resume during his time with the Tide. A full-contact player with a nose for the ball, he is a heavy hitter who is aggressive and active in his play. Barron gets downhill quickly to fill running lanes and force the point quickly. Barron is well-schooled in disguising coverage, and if he takes a bad angle he has the athleticism to recover and possesses the closing burst to make a play. A leader and communicator in the secondary, Barron is very animated in getting his teammates lined up. Barron also didn't participate at the NFL Scouting Combine because of injury, though in his case it was because of a double hernia surgery.
Our Take: There's little doubt that Barron will be the first safety to come off the board. While he is a bit stiff in the hips, he's a physical downhill player with an outstanding football IQ. A player of his stature and his inteligence won't last long on draft day, but how early will he come off the board? The general consensus in mock drafts is that Barron will hear his name called at some point in the middle of Round One. Martin is a different story, and likely will come off the board in the middle rounds of the draft, perhaps as early as the third round.