The consensus opinion is that the defensive front-seven talent in the 2011 draft could be special. In Monday's workouts, the immense athletic ability of prospects projected to be drafted in the first few rounds was impossible to ignore.
NFLDraftScout.com's top two defensive tackles -- Nick Fairley (Auburn) and Marcell Dareus (Alabama) -- cemented their elite status, each excelling in his own area of strength. They ran the 40-yard dash in the mid-to-high 4.8-second range even though Dareus outweighs Fairley by almost 30 pounds (319 to 291).
The 40 times are similar, but their workouts in drills were as different as the prospects themselves.
Dareus looked as powerful as he played, punching bags to the ground in turn-the-corner position drills. Fairley impressed scouts with his footwork in linebacker and movement drills. He was more fluid then Dareus dropping back and changing direction.
That's not to suggest Dareus isn't quick for his size; or that Fairley doesn't have NFL-caliber strength. SEC linemen who faced Dareus raved about his quick first step and hands and about Fairley's bull rush and willingness to hold the point of attack.
Both players have the versatility to fit in 3-4 or 4-3 fronts.
Dareus has proven capable of playing inside and outside in Nick Saban's aggressive 3-4 scheme at Alabama, but his skill set also intrigues 4-3 teams looking for a disruptive presence inside.
When asked during media interviews to compare himself to Dareus, Fairley simply said "he's a great player, and I'm a great player."
That's why both will be snapped up in the top 10 next April.
• Three other defensive tackles with top-50 ability -- Marvin Austin (North Carolina), Corey Luiget (Illinois) and Muhammad Wilkerson (Temple) -- also helped themselves, but not to the point that any of them are likely to close the gap on Dareus and Fairley. However, Austin looked like the highly-recruited talent he was at North Carolina before a year-long suspension ended his career. His 4.8 40 and explosiveness in drills could allow a team to forget about the off-field issues to pick him early. Luiget isn't quite in the athletic stratosphere of Dareus and Fairley, but he acquitted himself well with his speed (4.95), movement and strong punch. Wilkerson ran a bit better than expected, coming in right around 5.0 in his 40 and showing some of the same agility his tape portended he would have.
• Kenrick Ellis (Hampton) and Jerrell Powe (Ole Miss) played at the NFLPA All-Star Game in late January, and continued their rise up draft boards by showing athleticism in Indianapolis. Ellis is a massive, 6-5, 346-pound tackle who ran well (5.0 40 time) for his size. He projects as a fine 3-4 lineman who can play on the nose, but also provide some pass rush at five-technique as a second-round version of B.J. Raji or Vince Wilfork. Powe is a 6-2, 335-pound nose tackle, so his 5.2 40s really didn't affect his stock. Scouts appreciated his hustle in drills, however, which emulated his effort on the field -- even if his production wasn't as good in 2010 as it was in 2009. Both players also have off-field issues scouts would have to overlook for either to be selected in the first two rounds.
• The proliferation of 3-4 defenses throughout the league greatly increases the value of 290-pound defensive ends like Cameron Jordan (California) and J.J. Watt (Wisconsin). Jordan has played in a 3-4 base scheme at Cal and earlier in his career played in a 4-3, while Watt moved all over the Badgers' four-man line, which switched to a three-man front in some situations. Watt's 34 reps, 34-inch vertical and 4.84 40 at 6-5 1/2, 290 could land him in the top half of the draft. Jordan could be right there with him; his 4.78 40 and very good quickness in drills give him a fighting chance.
• Purdue star defensive end Ryan Kerrigan has been considered a "try-hard, high-motor" player, which is scouting code for unathletic. But he gained 12 pounds since the Senior Bowl and his weight was 267 in Indianapolis. He outperformed more highly-rated Adrian Clayborn (Iowa) with a 4.67 40 and 31 reps of 225 pounds. Clayborn was no slouch, either, running 4.83 at 281 pounds and hustling through drills. Both players are top 20 quality, and Kerrigan might leap above Clayborn after proving his athleticism.
• Brooks Reed (Arizona) has gotten a lot of comparisons to NFL Defensive Player of the Year Clay Matthews over the past few weeks. He's not quite as athletic as Matthews, but Reed's respectable 4.67 40, ability to change direction fluidity, and quickness in turn-the-corner drills make him a legitimate second-round pick as a 3-4 rush linebacker. Sam Acho (Texas) is another second-round value conversion player who looked strong at the Combine (4.68 40) after a very good Senior Bowl week.
• Workout warriors always seem to pop up during the combine. Two of the top candidates for that dubious distinction are defensive ends Christian Ballard (Iowa) and Allen Bailey (Miami, Fla.). Ballard's play improved in 2010, and everyone knew he was capable of running 4.8 at 283 pounds, but his inability to break down or diagnose plays left him out in the cold in term of making plays. Bailey, too, looks outstanding on the hoof (4.77 40, 27 reps at 285), but like Ballard is inconsistent holding up inside at tackle and lacks the burst and technique to be a consistent edge rusher in the NFL. Both are likely second-round picks, but their game film isn't special.
• The stock of two players who lined up as defensive ends but project as NFL linebackers -- Justin Houston (Georgia) and Akeem Ayers (UCLA) -- went in opposite directions Monday. Houston's 4.68 40 at a well-built 270 pounds was impressive to 3-4 teams looking for strength and speed on the outside, while Ayers' 4.8 times did not convince scouts he's a speed rusher. Some team will value his skills as a 3-4 inside linebacker, however, where he doesn't need to run all over the field.
• Martez Wilson (Illinois) and Von Miller (Texas A&M) entered the combine as NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated linebackers -- Wilson inside and Miller outside -- and they'll leave that way, too. They both stepped up to compete and ran in the mid-4.4 range in the 40 at around 250 and 246 pounds, respectively. Wilson's build and extra inch of height (6-4 to Miller's 6-3) makes him look a bit leaner. Both looked a bit straight-linish in drills, which mirrors what they showed on tape. But the closing speed that allowed them to rack up tackles for loss and sacks at the college level translated in those 40 times.
• Three mid-to-late round linebackers stood out in the Lucas Oil Dome: UConn's Scott Lutrus, West Virginia's J.T. Thomas and Washington's Mason Foster. All three ran in the 4.65-4.70 range and moved with fluidity in drills. Lutrus is a nice strong-side 'backer prospect capable of running with tight ends, though injury and off-field issues could drop his grade. Thomas is tough and productive but doesn't play with great instincts. Foster was one of the most prolific tacklers in the country last season and could sneak into the third round if a team likes his ability.
Chad Reuter is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadReuter.