One thing that we have learned from Steve Keim in his second full draft season as the Arizona Cardinals’ GM is that he believes in building along the lines.
He has stated that the Cardinals would like to get younger, longer and more athletic, and that should be a possibility for them throughout the draft this year.
You just have to figure out whether or not a player can be used as a 3-4 defensive end in order to see if they have a “fit” in Arizona’s defense.
While some of these players (Kareem Martin for instance) are not necessarily true interior defensive linemen, for the sake of the Cardinals, someone like him would be looked at as a potential fit at 3-4 end, and for that reason will be graded as such.
Interior Defensive line:
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh – 6-1, 285lbs.
Maybe the most athletic defensive tackle prospect to come out in years, the undersized Donald is a handful for opposing offensive linemen.
Donald plays the game with an explosiveness that is rare to see anywhere on the football field, and engages and disengages before the offensive guard knows what hit them.
Donald has extremely active and heavy hands and uses them well in both pass rushing and the run game.
There are concerns with his size and whether or not he can hold up throughout the game and in run-heavy scenarios, but his ability to provide pressure in the gaps and his natural strength at the point of attack should quell those concerns.
Ra’Shede Hageman, DL, Minnesota – 6-6, 310lbs.
Hageman gets the defensive lineman label because of the versatility he has shown while playing for the Golden Gophers.
A former tight end, Hageman has the requisite short area quickness and agility to make plays along the line. He displays a jolting punch, and uses his 34 ¼ inch arms to keep offensive linemen off his body against both the run and the pass.
When he plays with good leverage he has a great anchor against double teams and can win any one-on-one battle against any lineman from any position.
The problem with Hageman in both the run and the pass is that he can disappear at times — not like he is taken out of the play by a better player — but he just seems to be a body on the field with no direction.
If Hageman can figure out consistent leverage and keep his motor running he would have been the best defensive linemen in this draft.
Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame – 6-2, 331lbs.
Nix is the best player tweeter in the draft, and while that doesn’t make him a great player, he is entertaining as hell.
Nix has the prototypical size for a nose tackle and plays with a great motor. He wins with excellent hand use and a quick first step off the line that makes him a threat against the run and the pass.
The defensive lineman understands how to keep his hands on his blocker and keep pursuit, but also knows how to leverage his opponent and stalemate for a win if he can’t make a play. His play recognition is what sets him apart from most other defensive line prospects.
Nix can struggle with leverage and despite his quick first step, isn’t a threat going side to side. He can be a non-factor in the game if ran away from, and coming off a knee injury could be in even more trouble with his athleticism.
Kareem Martin, DE, North Carolina – 6-6, 278lbs.
Martin is a massive, long-limbed defensive end prospect with off-the-charts athleticism and the ability to add weight and get stronger.
He has experience rushing the passer from a variety of roles and has shown the ability to win in the run game with his length and athleticism.
Martin has to get more consistent in his technique, his hand usage and ability to disengage and work down the line.
If he is going to be in play in a 3-4 defense, he’ll have to gain some weight and get a little stronger.
Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame – 6-6, 304lbs.
Tuitt was a force to be reckoned with his sophomore season at Notre Dame, looking like one of the best defensive prospects in the nation. Then his junior year came and he struggled with his weight, consistency and making plays.
Tuitt is a mammoth and athletic prospect, with prototypical size of a 3-4 defensive end. He plays disciplined against the run, understands his assignments and can be a force rushing the passer as well.
Tuitt plays with good leverage and shows the ability to bend the edge at times when in a straight pass rush situation.
Tuitt has a problem with keeping his pad levels down and doesn’t play nearly as physical with his hands as he should for his size and build.
DaQuan Jones, DT, Penn State – 6-4, 322lbs.
Jones is a little less heralded than the other players in this list, but he finds a way to win consistently.
He is a prototypical defensive tackle in the run game, holds up in gaps, keeps his teammates free to make plays and understands how to disengage and make plays off of blocks.
Jones has experience playing all along the line as a nose tackle, a three technique and a five technique, meaning he is scheme versatile.
He flashes a good, strong bull rush and will throw in a swim move at times, but is by no means an interior pass rushing threat.
A throwback defensive lineman, Jones seems like a run stopper only early on in his career and his limited athleticism makes him not as attractive as other prospects.
Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State – 6-0, 303lbs.
The Sun Devil senior was a force his junior year and took a giant step back his senior season.
Sutton plays with an uncanny ability to get off the line and engage with the offensive linemen and when he does, he uses strong hands and wins consistently with the ability to stand defenders up, disengage and get to the ball.
He plays with a low center of gravity and great pad level and is an aggressive and destructive force in both the pass and run game…when he plays at a lower weight.
Sutton played at a higher weight his senior season at the request of his coaching staff and his play suffered.
His lack of ideal length makes it easier for offensive linemen to get into his body and drive him off the ball if he doesn’t win early, and he may not be more than a three technique in a 4-3 scheme because of it.
Dominique Easley, DT, Florida – 6-2, 288lbs.
Easley may be the most dominant defensive linemen in this class if not for the fact he’s had two ACL surgeries in the last two years.
If he can stay healthy, he’s an explosive, physical lineman who knows how to get into offensive linemen and then get off blocks and make plays.
He is an elite athlete off the ball when healthy and uses that athleticism to shoot the gap and make plays in the pass game and run game.
Easley is an overly aggressive interior defender who can make plays from any position on the defensive line, but with his wounded knees, who knows for how long he can be effective, or if he can ever be that explosive again.
Best of the rest:
Kelcy Quarles, DT, South Carolina – 6-4, 297lbs.
Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU – 6-3, 315lbs.
Justin Ellis, DT, Louisiana Tech – 6-2, 334lbs.
Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State – 6-2, 299lbs.