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DE draft class crowded but clouded behind Clowney

Posted Apr 15, 2014

A good portion of the intrigue leading up to the NFL Draft has centered on whether South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will be the No. 1 overall selection.

A more intriguing question might be who the second defensive end drafted will be – and so on, and so on.

Clowney will undoubtedly be picked close to the top of the draft, but which defensive end will be chosen next in the first round – and how many more will go in the first round – will be worth watching.

Six consecutive drafts have featured at least four defensive ends taken in the first round, with every draft producing at least one high-impact player. The streak started with Chris Long in 2007, then continued with Brian Orakpo, Jason Pierre-Paul, J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn and Chandler Jones. The jury is still out on the 2013 class, though Ziggy Ansah started strong by leading all rookies with eight sacks for the Detroit Lions last season.

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Clowney figures to be an impact defensive end in this draft, but what then? The streak of six drafts with at least four in the first round could be in jeopardy.

"I'm not worried about the rounds right now," Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy said. "But to be honest with you, and it might sound a little cocky, I believed that I could be a first-round pick when I first got to Mizzou."

Ealy is one of a few defensive ends that could be selected after Clowney and one of several that could go in the first round, but there are no sure bets. Auburn's Dee Ford appears to be the most likely to challenge Ealy for the title of second defensive end taken, but a team could fall in love with the perpetually-revving motor of Oregon State's Scott Crichton and snag him before Ealy or Ford.

"I've worked on my craft these last couple years and I feel like I have improved and progressed as a defensive end using my hands, using my power, my speed," Crichton said. "I feel like I'll make an impact right away."

And there are still more potential early picks at defensive end, some of whom seem almost sure to be taken over the first two days – which encompasses the first three rounds – of the draft.

It's anyone's guess where a promising player like Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt will land. Tuitt was slowed by hernia surgery last season, and his hopes of going in the first round were further clouded by recent surgery for a stress fracture in his foot.

"It was a major setback for me," Tuitt said of the hernia, "but I've been able to get back and I'm ready to roll."

There are other interesting prospects, like Boise State's Demarcus Lawrence and North Carolina's Kareem Martin, who are expected to help push the position toward having 10 or more players picked in the first three rounds for the seventh time in the last eight drafts.

But the lone exception was last year, and this year could mark the first time since 2007 that at least four defensive ends are not selected in the first round.