NFL Draft Preview: Defensive End

Posted Apr 14, 2011

For a defense predicated on pressuring the quarterback, there is perhaps no position more important to the Rams’ scheme than defensive end.

And in 2010, no revelation of the Rams’ turnaround was more timely and important than the work turned in by the team’s collection of ends.

Leading the way was a pair of stirring performances by starters Chris Long and James Hall.

In his third season in the NFL, Long enjoyed a breakout season that made him one of the league’s most consistent pass rushers. When all was said and done, Long was second on the team with 8.5 sacks but ranked among the league leaders in quarterback hits and pressures with a combined 37.

Back at his more natural left end position, Long figures to improve on his strong 2010 with an even better 2011.

And Long is quick to give a lot of the credit for his development to the man who served as his bookend and mentor. Hall enjoyed a career renaissance in 2010, leading the Rams with 10.5 sacks and chipping in 19 combined quarterback hits and pressures.

At 34, Hall proved to have plenty left in the tank and even continued to show his versatility by moving inside on occasion.

Beyond the starters, the Rams got valuable contributions from C.J. Ah You and George Selvie.

Ah You’s performance came as a bit of a surprise on the heels of his return from a season-ending knee injury in 2009. But he answered the bell as a third-down pass rush specialist as he was fourth on the team with four sacks and 10 quarterback hits and pressures while also showing the versatility to move inside.

As a seventh-round choice, Selvie impressed coaches with a strong preseason before he was put on the sidelines early with a foot injury. Selvie pushed through and contributed 1.5 sacks and five quarterback hits while also proving solid against the run.

Joining Selvie in returning to the fold in 2011 is fellow rookie Eugene Sims, who was a sixth-round pick last year. Sims worked mostly on special teams when he was active on game days but has a quick first step that has coaches believing he could contribute soon.

Despite all of that production, the Rams could certainly still be in position to use a pick – even possibly their first pick on another pass rusher.

In Spagnuolo’s defense, you can never have enough guys capable of getting after the quarterback and with Hall’s advanced age, the need might be greater than perceived. Considering the stunning depth at the end position in this year’s class, the value of a pass rusher with the 14th pick might just match up with that need.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock has eight defensive ends with first round grades and it’s entirely possible all of them will be off the board at the end of the first round.

The interesting part of that talented class, though, is that none seem to stand out above the rest. There’s so much uncertainty, that it’s possible that any of the ends could be on the board for the Rams at No. 14.

Early in the draft season, Clemson’s Da’ Quan Bowers was considered the best of the bunch and the likely No. 1 overall pick. Concerns about Bowers’ knee have pushed him down, though and it remains to be seen where he will go.

If indeed Bowers isn’t the first end to hear his name, it’s likely that North Carolina’s Robert Quinn will.

Quinn paid a pre-draft visit to St. Louis on Tuesday. After sitting out last season because of NCAA suspension, Quinn is a little bit of an unknown but there’s no doubting he’s the best pure athlete among the top ends in the draft.

In 2009, Quinn posted 11 sacks and was a terror for opposing offensive tackles. Not yet 21, Quinn has tremendous upside and could go in the top five or even fall to the Rams depending how teams view his absence from football last season and a benign brain tumor that was discovered in high school.

After Bowers and Quinn, there’s a group of interesting players who are known more for their versatility than anything else.

Cal’s Cameron Jordan and Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt are viewed by many as perfect fits as ends in a 3-4 defense but there are plenty of people that believe they could play end in a 4-3 or even three-technique tackle in that scheme.

Jordan also visited St. Louis on Tuesday and his versatility would make him an valuable fit in the Rams’ defense.

There’s also a pair of local options in Mizzou’s Aldon Smith and Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn (a St. Louis native) that could be on the Rams’ radar come draft day.

Smith visited St. Louis as well and has plenty of raw upside potential that could eventually turn him into the best of the bunch.

Clayborn has great size (6’3, 287 pounds) and the ability to play inside and out as well.

Should the Rams opt to pass on the available ends in the first round, they could still look to find another pass rusher in the later rounds.

Pittsburgh’s Jabaal Sheard also paid a visit to the Rams and figures to come off the board in the second or third round. Sheard is one of the most explosive talents at the position in the draft and can get after the quarterback as well.

Other players of interest at the position include Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan, Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, Iowa’s Christian Ballard, Texas’ Sam Acho and Miami’s Allen Bailey.

Defensive Ends

1. Robert Quinn, North Carolina – An athletic dynamo who posted a great performance at his pro day and has all the tools to be a pass rushing force at the next level.

2. Da’ Quan Bowers, Clemson – Knee injuries have caused plenty of concern about Bowers but in terms of pure talent, he’s one of the draft’s best defensive ends.

3. Aldon Smith, Missouri – Some think Smith is better suited as a 3-4 standup linebacker but he has the tools to be just fine with his hand down. Raw but with unlimited upside.

4. Cameron Jordan, California – Versatile and talented, some believe Jordan is best suited as a five-technique in a 3-4 defense or as a three-technique tackle in a 4-3 defense. Jordan can play just about anywhere on the line and comes from good bloodlines.

5. J.J. Watt, Wisconsin – Like Jordan, some believe he’s best suited to a spot in a 3-4 but Watt is a better athlete than he’s given credit for, is relentless rushing the passer and has a motor that never stops.

Sleeper: Greg Romeus, Pittsburgh – Overshadowed by Sheard for most of 2010, Romeus was once considered one of the draft’s top prospects at end. Now, he’s sort of a forgotten man much like current Ram George Selvie. Romeus has prototypical size for the position but injuries bumped his stock down and he could become a steal should he go in the middle rounds.