Thursday, December 18, 2014

Kempski's Corner: Defensive line, linebacker and cornerback prospects at NFL Draft Combine

On Monday and Tuesday in Indianapolis, the defensive players will be on display in front of NFL decision makers. The defense will of course be of major importance to the Eagles, who have work to do to get better on that side of the ball. Defensive linemen and linebackers will work out on Monday, while defensive backs will compete on Tuesday.

Kempski's Corner: Defensive line, linebacker and cornerback prospects at NFL Draft Combine

On Monday and Tuesday in Indianapolis, the defensive players will be on display in front of NFL decision makers. The defense will of course be of major importance to the Eagles, who have work to do to get better on that side of the ball. Defensive linemen and linebackers will work out on Monday, while defensive backs will compete on Tuesday.

In case you missed the two previous Combine previews, they can be found here:

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A preview of Days 3 and 4 at the Combine:

Defensive line

The defensive line is probably the Eagles' biggest strength on the defense, and it's also the youngest defensive line in the NFL

In the middle, Bennie Logan filled in nicely at NT last season, and the Eagles think Logan can develop into a dominant NT, according to Reuben Frank of CSNPhilly. It's worth noting that in the playoffs, the Saints moved the Eagles' defensive line around in the run game, although the Eagles were effective against the run for the bulk of the season. The Eagles do lack depth at NT, so a player could still be added in FA or later in the draft even if the Eagles are convinced that Logan will be the dominant player they say he is.

At DE, the Eagles have a nice mix of young talent. This is a low priority position in terms of "need," however, it's never a bad idea to load up on players in the trenches. The Eagles were paying close attention to defensive linemen at the Senior Bowl.

The Top 10 lists for DTs and DEs begin to get a little murky, because draft guys continue to list players simply as "DE" or "DT." despite their different roles in 4-3 and 3-4 defensive schemes. At DE, the consensus #1 defensive lineman is Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina, and then there's a big drop to Kony Ealy of Missouri.

One player to watch is Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman, a 6'6, 310 pound monster who can play multiple positions along the line. Hageman is expected to test well at the Combine. Here are lists from Mel Kiper of ESPNCBS, and The Sideline View.

Outside Linebackers

While an edge rusher isn't as glaring a need as safety, it is important to factor in the importance of the position. Premium edge rushers are extremely valuable and highly sought after players. Think of them in terms of importance to a defense similarly to the way you think of the importance of the QB to an offense. Any team that doesn't have a stud edge rusher will typically continue to look for one until they do. And the Eagles most certainly do not have a stud edge rusher.

The two consensus best edge rushers in this draft are Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr. Both will probably be long gone by the time the Eagles pick, but if one slides into say... the mid teens... either one could be a target in a move to trade up.

Undersized but explosive speed rusher Dee Ford is a possibility at 22. Tommy Lawlor of Iggles Blitz profiled Ford in depth.

Again, these ranking are little screwy because some are being thought of as 3-4 OLBs, and others are being though of as 4-3 OLBs:

Inside Linebackers

Inside linebacker is an interesting position to watch for the Eagles this offseason. DeMeco Ryans seemingly had a solid season for the Eagles at ILB, but was he leaving plays on the field? In the 3-4, the linebackers are expected to make more impact plays than linebackers in a 4-3. Ryans is a smart player and a respected leader, but would a more athletic player make more plays in Billy Davis' defense? The Eagles will have to weigh that when they consider the future of the ILB position.

Complicating matters for Ryans is that he's scheduled to make $6,900,000 in 2014. There's almost no way he'll see that amount in full. If/when the Eagles ask Ryans to take a pay cut, how much will they insist on, and will Ryans be receptive to the idea?

The Eagles were busy chatting up inside linebackers after Senior Bowl practices, and could view it as a priority position.

C.J. Mosley of Alabama is the consensus #1 ILB. One very intriguing player to watch at the Combine is Christian Jones of Florida State. Jones is highly athletic and versatile -- He can run, cover, tackle, and rush the passer. Another player to watch is Wisconsin's Chris Borland, who was as fun to watch on tape as any ILB in this draft:

Cornerback

The Eagles are in OK shape in terms of starting corners heading into the 2014 season. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are average starters, which is fine in the short term, and Brandon Boykin is excellent in the slot. However, the Eagles have virtually nothing in the way of depth at CB, and must address it at some point doing this offseason. Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard are the consensus top 2 CBs, with TCU's Jason Verrett lingering behind them.

Safety

This shouldn't need much explanation. Patrick Chung was a disaster this year at safety, Nate Allen is a free agent, and while Earl Wolff showed glimpses that he may become a good player, he's not someone who should be considered a sure thing at this stage of his career. Safety is the most glaring, obvious need on the team, and one the team is likely to address both in free agency and the draft.

The top 2 consensus safeties are Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama and Calvin Pryor of Louisville, in whatever order you prefer. I happen to disagree with that sentiment, and think that the undersized but incredible Florida State playmaker Lamarcus Joyner is the best safety in this draft. Joyner is a punishing hitter, a great blitzer (5.5 sacks in 2013), and great in man-to-man on slot receivers. Another similar player to Joyner (minus the extreme physical play) is Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois, who is also a safety that can drop down and cover slot receivers.

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