The best D-line class in history burned rubber in Indy at the Combine.
This year’s D-line class is arguably the best in NFL Draft history, and the 300-pound trench-warriors could take up space like no group ever — with half of the first round potentially suffocated by D-linemen.
The heavyweights have weighed in, lifted, run, jumped and explained themselves at the podium and in individual team meetings. But whose draft stock is on the fast track now that Indy is over?
Da’Quan Bowers (6’3”, 280)
4-3 DE, Clemson
The Bronko Nagurski Award winner and ACC Defensive Player of the Year did not work out at the Combine due to arthroscopic knee surgery performed in January. But the big man did speak — and he spoke well. He’s been the top cat since high school and the South Carolina should slide right in to “replace” Julius Peppers on the edge in Charlotte.
“It’s definitely a goal. I don’t think anybody here doesn’t have a goal to be the No. 1 pick,” said Bowers, during his media session at the Combine in Indy.
Marcell Dareus (6’3”, 319)
3-4 DE, 4-3 DT or 3-4 NT, Alabama
There is not a more versatile lineman in the draft; Dareus played 5-technique end and some nose tackle in Nick Saban’s 3-4 scheme at Bama and clearly has the quick feet, strong hands and overall athleticism to play 3-technique tackle in a 4-3 defense.
The Defensive MVP of the Crimson Tide’s national title game victory over Texas — who TKO’d Colt McCoy and scored a defensive TD at the Rose Bowl that night — should be one of the first two of three names called by Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Nick Fairley (6’4”, 291)
4-3 DT, Auburn
Not as physically impressive in shorts during drills at the Combine as many would have liked. But, as they say, “the eye in the sky don’t lie” and the big man was 1b. to Cam Newton’s 1a. on the list of reasons Auburn won it all this season.
Work ethic is a concern but on-field decision-making and reckless dirty play are also potential red flags for a player who was once rumored to be in the mix at No. 1 overall but has since settled in as “only” a top 10 pick.
Robert Quinn (6’4”, 265)
4-3 DE or 3-4 OLB, North Carolina
Missed the entire 2010 season due to NCAA suspension for accepting illegal benefits. Quinn ripped off a 4.73 in the 40-yard dash while looking as cut and quick as any prospect in Indy. Already viewed as a top-10 talent, NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock thinks Quinn is “as good a natural pass rusher as I’ve ever seen.”
Marvin Austin (6’2”, 309)
4-3 DT, North Carolina
The tweeting tackle also fell into the UNC tar trap and was suspended for the entire 2010 season after taking trips — including a high profile visit to South Beach — that were paid for by an agent.
“I messed up a great situation,” said Austin, at the East-West Shrine Game. “It was my fault.”
Austin showed off his rare blend of power (38 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, the second-best effort on the bench this year), speed (4.8 in the 40-yard dash) and explosiveness (1.63 10-yard split in the 40) in Indy. The “Anchorman” was in tip-top shape at the Combine and could bull rush his way into the first round.
Ryan Kerrigan (6’4”, 267)
3-4 OLB or 4-3 DE, Purdue
A proven hand-down end who showed off enough fluidity in his backpedal, hips and lateral moves to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 — possibly making a Mike Vrabel-type position switch at the next level. Kerrigan also posted the second-best broad jump (10’2”) among D-linemen and looked faster than his 4.67 in the 40, thanks to his apparently Packer-approved long locks.
J.J. Watt (6’5”, 290)
3-4 DE, Wisconsin
Already seen as arguably the top 5-technique 3-4 end in the draft, the big Badger was a workout warrior at the Combine — with a 37” vertical leap (second best among D-linemen), a 10’ broad jump and 34 reps on the bench. That cha-ching sound will echo from Indy to Madison to whatever city Watt ultimately pays the high first-rounder.
Cameron Jordan (6’4”, 287)
3-4 DE or 4-3 DE, California
The son of six-time Pro Bowl tight end Steve Jordan ran out of the shadow of his father — if he hadn’t already long before arriving in Indy. With a big frame, long arms (35”) and huge hands (11 1/8”), Jordan has all the makings of a 3-4 end but showed enough speed (4.85 in the 40) to possibly play 4-3 end as well.
Stephen Paea (6’1”, 303)
4-3 DT or 3-4 NT, Oregon State
Paea broke the NFL Scouting Combine record on the bench press, with 49 reps of 225 pounds — breaking the previous record of 45. Unfortunately, lifting and interviewing were all Paea was up for following offseason knee surgery. Born in New Zealand and raised in Tonga before moving stateside at 16, Paea’s bench press prowess in the weight room translates to a powerful punch “in a phone booth” against opposing O-linemen.
Cameron Heyward (6’5”, 294)
3-4 DE, Ohio State
The son of Saints power back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward has some of his old man’s moves — albeit as a pass-rusher, not a running back. Heyward is a classic “high floor” guy whose “ceiling” is about where it’s going to be. That said, Heyward is a hard-working, blue-collar professional who should be able to slide right into a championship-caliber defensive line rotation and absorb a playbook quicker than the average rookie. Hard to imagine this Buckeye did anything other than wow coaches and executives during Combine interviews.