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Top defensive player thumbnails for NFL draft

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RALPH D. RUSSO | May 3, 2014 09:48 AM EST | AP


A brief scouting report on some of the top defensive players available at each position in NFL draft, which will be held May 8-10 in New York.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Group is short on edge pass rushers but seems to be deep on run-stuffers.

JADEVEON CLOWNEY, South Carolina (6-foot-6, 266 pounds). Production fell off after spectacular sophomore season for defensive end. Finished last season with 11 1-2 tackles for loss and three sacks after getting 23 1-2 and 13 in 2012. Most talented and athletically gifted player in draft. Blazing fast for size. Moves fluidly. Plays with power, gets off line quickly and can chase down running backs from sideline to sideline. Some questions about playing with consistently high effort and he needs to develop more pass rushing technique, but he's likely No. 1 pick.

Projection: Top five.

AARON DONALD, Pittsburgh (6-1, 285). As productive as any college defensive player last season, and has hardware to back it up. Defensive tackle won Bronko Nagurski Award as national defensive player of year, and Outland and Lombardi trophies as top lineman after leading country in tackles for loss with 28 1-2. A bit undersized and there are some complaints about ability to anchor down against double-teams, but instincts, quickness, technique and tenacity have more than made up for any physical shortcomings.

Projection: Top 10.

LOUIS NIX III, Notre Dame (6-2, 331). Left knee injury limited him to eight games last season, but was one of best nose tackles in country in 2012, helping Fighting Irish reach national title game. He had 50 tackles that season, and only 27 last season. Size, strength and power are textbook for position. Conditioning could be issue; needs to keep his weight down.

Projection: Middle of first round.

STEPHON TUITT, Notre Dame (6-5, 304). Like his teammate Nix, was not quite as productive in 2013 as 2012 and battled nagging injuries. Defensive end finished with 7 1-2 sacks last year. Good tackler, strong against run and has excellent size and strength. Doesn't project to being big-time pass rusher.

Projection: Middle of first round.

TIMMY JERNIGAN, Florida State (6-2, 299). Anchored Seminoles' defense at nose tackle and made plenty of plays from middle with 11 tackles for loss and four sacks. Gets into backfield and provides good pass rush with quick hands. Size is less than ideal and conditioning needs work to stay on field more often.

Projection: Middle-late first round.

RA'SHEDE HAGEMAN, Minnesota (6-6, 310). Became starter as junior and was one of best defensive tackles in Big Ten as senior last season. Chosen team MVP with 13 tackles for loss, eight passes defended, an interception and two blocked kicks. Impressive athlete, but not as dominant a player considering his physical tools.

Projection: Possible late first round.

DEMARCUS LAWRENCE, Boise State (6-3, 252). Had 20 sacks in last two seasons at Boise State. Has skills of potential double-digit sack defensive end or outside linebacker in NFL.

Projection: Possible late first round.

Other early-round possibilities: Kony Ealy, Missouri; Dee Ford, Auburn; Scott Crichton, Oregon State; Marcus Smith, Louisville; Daniel McCullers, Tennessee; Kareem Martin, North Carolina.

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LINEBACKERS: Like running back, it's a position that has been de-emphasized in NFL, unless you're a pass rusher. Plenty of depth and a few potential stars.

KHALIL MACK, Buffalo (6-3, 251). Four-year starter who became one of best linebackers in country. Last season had 10 1-2 sacks, three interceptions, five forced fumbles and scored two touchdowns. Potential every down linebacker with ability to be hellacious pass rusher and sideline-to-sideline force. Hard hitter and excellent athlete. Only knock was a few lackluster performances and at times he seemed to try too hard to make big plays.

Projection: Top five.

ANTHONY BARR, UCLA (6-5, 255). Moved from offense to defense after two years in college and finished with 23 1-2 sacks in two seasons playing outside linebacker in 3-4 defense. Fast first step and explosive pass rusher. Speed and quickness player. Strength and power need improvement. Feel for game and ability to read plays is still developing, but is top-10 talent.

Projection: Top 15.

C.J. MOSLEY, Alabama (6-2, 234). SEC defensive player of year and Butkus Award winner as nation's top linebacker in 2013. Made 215 tackles in final two seasons. Leader and field general of one of best defenses in nation. Always around ball. Great instincts and fundamentally sound tackler. Not used much as pass rusher and coverage skills need work. Improve those a bit and he's every-down star.

Projection: Middle of first round.

RYAN SHAZIER, Ohio State (6-1, 237). Led Big Ten with 134 tackles and 22 1-2 stops for loss from weak side linebacker spot last year. Fast and finds way into backfield, using athleticism to avoid blockers. Could be used as pass rusher and has tools to be good in coverage. On thin side, so he can be knocked around at point of attack.

Projection: Possible late first round.

Other early-round possibilities: Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech; Trent Murphy, Stanford; Adrian Hubbard, Alabama; Kyle Van Noy, BYU; Christian Jones, Florida State.

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DEFENSIVE BACKS: NFL teams can never get enough cornerbacks, though this year's class is spotty. At time when more emphasis is being placed on safety play, there are some potential first-rounders.

JUSTIN GILBERT, Oklahoma State (6-0, 202). Had five interceptions as sophomore, none as junior and seven last season. Returned two interceptions for touchdowns in 2013. Cornerback finished career with six kickoff return touchdowns. Good size and closing speed. Playmaker when he gets ball. Could make immediate impact as return man. Tackling and run support need work and sometimes he makes mistakes trying to make big play, but he's got lock-down ability.

Projection: Top 15.

DARQUEZE DENNARD, Michigan State (5-11, 199). Won Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back last season to cap stellar career at cornerback. Had four interceptions, 62 tackles and 10 passes defended in 2013. Played plenty of man to man in college and excelled at it. Good though not elite speed. Not much zone experience and needs to get stronger against run.

Projection: Middle of first round.

CALVIN PRYOR, Louisville (5-11, 207). Became starter at safety midway through freshman season and quickly became leader of defense. Finished with seven career interceptions. Made 175 tackles in final two seasons. Big hitter who finds ball quickly and excels at taking it away. A bit undersized, though he plays big. Can be overly aggressive and undisciplined.

Projection: Middle of first round.

HA HA CLINTON-DIX, Alabama (6-1, 208). Missed couple of games last season because of suspension for breaking NCAA rule. Otherwise his first season as full-time starter at safety was excellent, with 51 tackles and two interceptions. Rangy and hard hitter, with good ball skills. Plays with discipline, though is not especially fast or athletic.

Projection: Middle to late first round.

KYLE FULLER, Virginia Tech (6-0, 190). Sports hernia cost the cornerback a chunk of last season, but was excellent when full speed. Broke up 10 passes and made two interceptions.

Not an elite athlete but very solid and makes up for some speed and strength shortcomings with good technique and instincts.

Projection: Middle to late first round.

JASON VERRETT, TCU (5-9, 189). Played much of last season with a shoulder injury but was still good enough to share Big 12 defensive player of the year honors. Had 14 passes defended and two interceptions.

Fast and quick, but undersized which could lead to a career as a slot corner.

Projection: Possible late first round.

DEONE BUCANNON, Washington State (6-1, 211). Four-year starter at safety who had a huge senior season, playing on poor defense. Led the Pac-12 in tackles (114) and interceptions (six).

Imposing athlete. Big and fast. Crushing hitter. Coverage skills needs work and can miss tackles going for big hits.

Projection: Middle-late first round.

Other early-round possibilities: Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois; Marcus Robinson, Florida; Rashaad Reynolds, Oregon State.

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Notable punters and kickers: Kirby Van Der Kamp, P, Iowa; Pat O'Donnell, P, Miami; Cairo Santos, K, Tulane; Chris Boswell, K, Rice; Tom Hornsey, P, Memphis.

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