Richner: 2014 Top DTs

Last Updated: 1/18/2015 8:58 PM ET
The defensive tackle position is starting to become a specialized position. There were seven players who were labeled as defensive tackles coming out of college who registered double-digit sacks last season. While historically the defensive tackle position is viewed as one that stops the run and clogs the middle, it has evolved into a weapon that teams can utilize that creates havoc up the middle and into the quarterback's pocket.

The defensive tackle group is split into two sections. The first section is the top run stuffers in this year's class. These players are limited in their pass-rushing ability, yet they hold their point of attack and are at the top of the class in terms of shutting down their opponent's interior rushing attack. The second group consists of the top interior pass rushers. These players have shown they can be a consistent force as interior pass rushers.

One statistic that I incorporate is Impact Points. This is based on a formula I created that calculates a defensive tackle's point value based on total tackles, tackles-for-loss, sacks, forced fumbles, blocked kicks and their team's overall rush defense.

Run Stuffers

1) DaQuan Jones (Penn State): A mountain of a defensive tackle at 6'4” and 322 pounds, he is the same size and weight as last year's standout rookie, Star Lotulelei. He is more adept at occupying blockers, which allows his linebackers the ability to roam free and make plays.

Jones's greatest value is playing against the run. Last season, as one of the few standout players on defense for Penn State, Jones helped lead a unit that allowed an average of 132.92 rushing yards per game and only 16 touchdowns. Opponents had a hard time getting to the second level against Jones; in a lot of cases, opponents would have to run a number of plays to the outside of the tackles to avoid running at him.

In 46 career games, Jones had 70 tackles, 15.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks. With his size, some opponents underestimated Jones's physical ability to attack the quarterback. Last season, however, he recorded 18 quarterback pressures, third highest amongst this year's defensive tackle class. While his overall pass-rushing numbers leave a lot to be desired, Jones shouldn't be seen only as the next great pass rusher; he should be viewed as a player that can step in and take away an opponent's interior rushing attack.

For his career, Jones had 21 impact plays in 46 career games, an average of 0.64 impact plays per game.

Big, athletic nose tackles who can occupy blocks and shut down opponents rushing attack don't come around very often. He can be a difference-maker for a team, he would be a steal as second or third round selection.

2) Timmy Jernigan (Florida State): All dominant college football programs have their specialized position groups. Think of USC's rushing attack and Alabama's defensive secondary. Just maybe we are seeing the same thing in Florida State's defensive rushing attack. Since Jimbo Fisher took over in Tallahassee, Florida State has not ranked below 29th in the country in rush defense, and they have held opponents to just 2.94 YPC during this time.

This dominating force for the Seminoles is led by Timmy Jernigan, a lighting-fast defensive tackle who stands at 6'2” and weighs 299 pounds. He is able to take advantage of his speed and quickness to blow by defenders and create havoc in the backfield. For his career, he has 105.5 tackles, 25 TFL, 8.5 sacks and one PD.

Last season Jernigan led a defensive unit that held opponents to just 1,747 rushing yards, 3.26 YPC, 134.38 YPG and seven rushing touchdowns. He moves like a linebacker, and he's quick to shed or sidestep blockers and attack the gap. Displaying solid technique and understanding leverage, he can take on blockers and hold his ground.

For an NFL team that prides itself on speed versus power, Jernigan is the type of player they will focus on. He has room to improve as a pass rusher. He had just 11 quarterback pressures in 298 snaps last season. For his career he only had 34.5 career impact plays, an average of just .86 plays per game.

Jernigan compares both in terms of scouting and statistical analysis to current San Diego Charger Corey Liuget.

3) Louis Nix III (Notre Dame): At times Nix can be an immovable force along the defensive line, taking on two and three blockers without giving up an inch. At 6'2” and 331 pounds, he can anchor a defensive front seven and play in a two-gap system, or be perfectly suited as a nose tackle in a 3-4 defensive scheme.

He was healthy till the end of last year when he missed five games due to a torn meniscus. He had surgery in November and shows no lingering ill effects from it.

His weight has fluctuated during his time at Notre Dame. Scouts were not impressed early last season, when some felt he showed up overweight. He failed to show that he could play at the same consistent level he showed in 2012, but he does possess the quickness and speed to track down ball carriers.

Notre Dame was dismal against the run last season, giving up 2,184 yards, 168 YPG and 4.18 YPC. While he missed some games, Nix proved his worth in limiting the number of his opponents' rushing touchdowns to just 13 last season.

His stats don't speak to an elite type of talent, though. For his career he had 82.5 tackles, 14 TFL, 2.5 sacks, eight PD and one forced fumble. Limited in terms of pass-rushing ability, Nix III's primary pass-rushing move is a bull rush. With his quickness, he should develop a couple of countermoves.

In 347 pass-rushing opportunities last season, he only had five quarterback pressures. For his career he had 25.5 impact plays, an average of .75 impact plays a game.

4) Kelcy Quarles (DT, South Carolina): Only a junior, Quarles has two years of experience along the defensive line for South Carolina. At 6'4” and every bit of 298 pounds, he can occupy space, and he has the strength to hold his ground while taking on multiple blockers.
His effort level seemed to drop later on in games, so he will need to work on his conditioning and maintaining a consistent effort throughout an entire game. He had the opportunity to play alongside one of the most feared defensive linemen in college football, Jadeveon Clowney. So while opponents were concentrating on stopping Clowney most of the time, Quarles was left alone in one-on-one situations.

In 35 career games played, he had 85.5 tackles, 23.5 TFL, 13 sacks and one PD. Quarles and his defensive teammates held opponents to an average of 153.85 rushing yards per game and only surrendered 16 rushing touchdowns last season.

For his career, Quarles had 37.5 impact plays, an average of 1.07 impact plays per game.

Quarles is a good athlete and a quality prospect, but I believe he needs another season to refine his technique and show he can be a dominant force. If a team is willing to be patient and improve his conditioning, they might be getting a steal later on in the draft.

5) Jay Bromley (Syracuse): A three-year starter for Syracuse, Bromley had a breakout season in 2013 with nine sacks. A wide-bodied one-gap defender at 6'3” and 306 pounds, he is able to take on double doubles with ease. He has the strength to shed blockers and the speed to track down ball carriers from behind. He is able to hold ground and not be redirected. His ability to play in a one-gap system makes him suited for a defensive tackle spot on a team that runs a 4-3 defensive scheme.

In 50 career games, he had 96.5 tackles, 26 TFL, 13 sacks, one PD, three FF and one blocked kick. While his pass rushing abilities improved remarkably this past season, he was not consistent in his production over the last three years. He may have just scratched the surface in this department, but his true value will come as a run stuffer.

Bromley has excellent quickness off the line of scrimmage; he was routinely one of the first players out of his stance, helping Syracuse hold opponents to 1,786 rushing yards, 137.38 YPG, 3.81 YPC and 19 rushing touchdowns last season.

For his career Bromley had 46 impact plays, an average of .92 impact plays per game.

While he may not be a long term starter, he has excellent value as a rotational defensive tackle similar to Clinton McDonald, who played an important role for the Seattle Seahawks last season in stopping the run and applying pressure on the quarterback.
The Best of the Rest Run-Stuffers

6) Derrick Hopkins (Virginia Tech): Career impact plays: 45.5; Impact plays per game average: .88

7) Calvin Barnett (Oklahoma State): Career impact plays: 23: impact plays per game average: .88

8) Tenny Palepoi (Utah): Career impact plays: 20: Impact plays per game average: .83

9) Beau Allen (Wisconsin): Career impact plays: 33: Impact plays per game average: .63

10) Ego Ferguson (LSU): Career impact plays: 14: Impact plays per game average: .37

Pass Rushers

1) Aaron Donald (Pittsburgh, DT): Donald is the most complete and dominant interior pass rusher that has come into the draft since Ndamukong Suh. He is truly a once every five-to-ten-year type of player who can instantly upgrade any team's interior pass rush.
Donald is a powerful running, stuffing, quarterback-hunting defensive tackle, who was the dominant defensive tackle in college football and led all defensive tackles last season, averaging .85 sacks per game. He had 11 sacks last season, but more than just sacking the quarterback, he had an outstanding 45 quarterback pressures, more than double the second-place defensive tackle.

Showcasing some amazing power, he is able to punish opposing linemen. He had 11 sacks in 2011 and 5.5 sacks in 2012. Some scouts are worried that because of his size—just 6'1” tall and 285 pounds—he is not stout enough to hold the point of attack in the NFL. Anyone who believes this is just flat out wrong. Donald has dominated in every which way possible during his career.

In 51 career games he had 148 tackles, 66 TFL, 29.5 sacks, 11 PD and six forced fumbles. His career numbers in sacks, tackles for loss and pass deflection lead all defensive tackles in this year's draft class.

With the speed and agility to knife into the opposing backfield, his fastest sack while blocked last season was 2.19 seconds. He utilizes his speed and power well, collapsing the pocket and causing chaos in the backfield.

For his career Donald had 115.5 impact plays, an average of 2.26 impact plays per game, both numbers being top amongst all defensive tackles.

Donald is a rare combination of all the measurables one desires from a top-tier defensive tackle. Statistically he compares to Suh, athletically he compares to Geno Atkins. If he is as good as either one of these All-Pro players, some team will be very happy to have him on its roster versus having to go against him.

2) Caraun Reid (Princeton): The number one rule on all small school prospects is that they must dominate in college. Reid was flat out dominating at Princeton, and not just for one season, but throughout his entire college career. At 6'2” and 302 pounds, he is an ideal size for a defensive tackle position in a 4-3 defensive scheme. Reid has certainly captured scouts' attention with his measurables and production.

While the level of competition might not have been up to par with the likes of the major conferences of college football, Reid dominated his opponents and crushed their hopes of a rushing attack. Last season Princeton held opponents to just 1,221 rushing yards, 122.1 rushing yards per game, 3.3 yards per rush and a paltry eight rushing touchdowns.

In 43 career games, Reid had 120.5 tackles, 41 TFL, 20 sacks, 10 PD and two forced fumbles. A skilled special teams player, he has seven career blocked kicks. With 95 career impact plays, Reid averaged 2.21 impact plays per game throughout his career, second highest amongst defensive tackles in this year's draft class.

Reid will have to work on his technique; in a number of cases he relies on his sheer athletic ability to beat his opponent. He will also have to answer questions about his ability to play against top competition. With time, though, he should develop into a complete player capable of dominating in the NFL.

3) Will Sutton (Arizona State): Sutton has long been on my radar as a top prospect at the defensive tackle position. He is a versatile defender who can move to any location on the line of scrimmage and still be a force. He decided to return to school even though some scouts believe he could have been a late first-round pick last year.

Last season his average snap-to-QB hit time was 2.92 seconds, one of the fastest in the nation for a defensive tackle. A high-energy type of player, he never seems to give up on a play and will always give his best effort regardless of the score.
In 51 career games he had 127.5 tackles, 45.5 TFL, 19.5 sacks, nine PD, four FF and one interception.

Against Stanford last season, he had a tough time against a physical offensive line. He was routinely pushed away from his gap responsibility. On designed run plays to Sutton's area, he gave up over a hundred yards and was run over for one touchdown.

He will have to show scouts that he is more of a three-down lineman and not just an interior situational pass rusher. He reminds me of current Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett.

4) Dominique Easley (DT, Florida): Most disruptive defensive tackles weigh in at around 315-320 pounds and use their power and strength to manhandle their opponents. Dominique Easley is quicker than almost any lineman in college football, and he uses his speed to his utmost advantage. He is able to wreak mayhem on his opponents' running games.

Against Miami (FL) this past season, Easley had one TFL for minus three yards on the game according to the official box score.

Unofficially he was a disruptive force from the first snap to the very last. Easley had three quarterback pressures and two quarterback
hits, with an average time of 3.41 seconds. In his lone tackle for loss, he was able to split the center and guard and tackle the running back in 1.22 seconds. He also caused three offensive holding penalties, two of which negated big plays for the Miami offense.

Miami ran away from Easley with their 28 rushing attempts for 50 yards in the game. Miami only attempted seven designed runs towards Easley's gap, resulting in an average of 3.43 yards per carry. He is able to get off the line of scrimmage so quickly that some SEC coaches have said he is the most difficult interior defensive lineman to block in the whole conference.

A bit of a tweener, I think he is best suited to be a 4-3 defensive tackle. He could be used as a pass rusher similar to current Seattle Seahawks DT Michael Bennett, who led the Tampa Bucs in sacks last season with nine.

5) Ra'Shede Hageman (Minnesota): Labeled an athletic defensive tackle with 10 career sacks to his resume, Hageman has had an up-and-down season. He has used his large frame (6'6” and 311 pounds) to his advantage in blocking two field goals and utilized his length and long arms to knock down 10 passes in his career.

Hageman was not a three-down lineman this season, though, after having played in roughly 65 percent of the defensive snaps last season.

He is more raw potential than a finished product at this stage in his development. Against Iowa, he was blocked with just a single offensive lineman. He was consistently stonewalled and outright manhandled when he went up against Michigan's left tackle and pre-season All-American, Taylor Lewan. While he showed consistent effort throughout the game and tried a litany of pass-rush moves, nothing he attempted seemed to have much traction.

Against the run this season, Minnesota gave up 2.056 rushing yards, 158.15 YPG, 4.54 YPC, and 19 rushing touchdowns. Being a big bodied, quote “run-stuffer” that many are labeling him Hageman allowed a high number of rushing yards and yards per carry last season.

For his career Hageman had 53 impact plays, an average of 1.18 impact plays per game. On pure potential, he will most likely be drafted a round or two higher than what his production indicates. I just wonder why a player with the combination of his size and athletic ability didn't produce at the consistent level of other elite defensive tackles.

Best of the Rest

6) Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame): Career impact plays: 53.5: Impact plays per game average:1.53

7) Kerry Hyder (Texas Tech): Career impact plays: 67: Impact plays per game average: 1.37

8) Brent Urban (Virginia): Career impact plays: 37.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.14

9) George Uko (USC): Career impact plays 38: Impact plays per game average: .97

10) Bruce Gaston (Purdue): Career impact plays: 53.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.07