Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt is the second-ranked defensive end on the board. / Getty Images
RISING STOCK: Arkansas State’s Ryan Carrethers didn’t test well physically because of his size (6-11/4, 337), but when teams re-checked his videotape, they saw a good motor and prospect to play 3-4 nose tackle.
FALLING STOCK: South Carolina’s Kelcy Quarles put up big numbers (91/2 sacks) for an interior rusher last season, but he’s a limited athlete, and his 2013 season might have been the product of the attention offenses paid teammate Jadeveon Clowney.
SLEEPER: UConn’s Shamar Stephen isn’t much of a pass rusher (five career sacks) but has raw talent and size (6-5, 309) and the ability to play nose tackle and end in a 3-4 scheme.
Ted Thompson places a premium on athletic big men, so never rule out that the Green Bay Packers’ general manager will take a defensive lineman with a prime draft pick.
Defensive line isn’t among the Packers’ greatest needs entering next week’s NFL draft, but there’s always the chance Thompson will pick one early, especially if he trades back from No. 21 overall to later in the first round or early in the second.
By the time the 21st pick comes up, there might be only one player off the board who would be a lineman in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme: Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald. He’s the best inside pass-rushing prospect in this draft and probably will go in the top 15 picks. Pass rushers such as Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina and Khalil Mack of Buffalo, both likely top-five picks, are outside linebackers in the 3-4.
That could mean three or four prospects from this weak defensive line class will be available at No. 21 and generally carrying grades of late first-rounders to second-rounders: Minnesota’s gargantuan but underachieving Ra’Shede Hageman; Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III, both of whom have had weight issues; and Florida State’s undersized Timmy Jernigan.
Jernigan, at 6-foot-15⁄8 and 299 pounds, doesn’t have the length or inside pass-rush talent to appeal to 3-4 teams as an end, though he might play the run well enough to be a nose tackle. Hageman (6-57⁄8, 310) and Tuitt (6-5½, 304) have prototypical size and athleticism for 3-4 ends, and Nix III (6-23⁄8, 331) is a ready-made anchor at nose tackle for a 3-4 scheme.
“It will be interesting where the nose tackle Nix goes,” one longtime NFL scout said. “I think Nix is the best nose tackle in the draft. If you’re looking for that, I don’t have a problem with him at 21.
“The Minnesota kid is a 3-4 defensive end. There’s times where — you watch the Northwestern game, you draft him in the top 10. Then there’s other games where he’s not as good. He’s a 3-4 defensive end. The Tuitt kid is as well. He played better two years ago than this last year. I’m not as high on him as I should have been. If I had to rank them, it would be Nix, Hageman, Tuitt.”
The Packers’ immediate need for a defensive lineman vanished in the offseason when they re-signed B.J. Raji and turned to free agency for outside linebacker-defensive end Julius Peppers and former Minnesota Vikings lineman Letroy Guion.
However, Raji and Guion signed one-year deals, and the 34-year-old Peppers’ four-year contract is in effect a year-to-year deal. So two or perhaps all three could be gone after next season, meaning Thompson might be open to hedging by drafting at that position this year. With greater immediate needs at safety, inside linebacker, tight end and receiver, that’s not likely, at least with a high pick, but it is plausible.
NFL teams are hesitant to draft defensive lineman in the first round unless they’re fairly accomplished pass rushers, so that could hurt Nix’s chances. He had only 2½ sacks in three seasons at Notre Dame and missed five of the final six games last year because of a knee meniscus cartilage injury. But some scouts see some ability to collapse the pocket from the front.
“(Nix) may go higher than Tuitt,” said a scout who gave Raji a high grade coming out in 2009. “I like Nix. Nix is perfect for a 3-4, but he’s good enough for a 4-3, too. He only had two sacks in his career but he’s talented. He’s a B.J. Raji-type guy.”
Tuitt at around 300 pounds had an eye-catching 13 sacks in 2012 and 7½ last season.
“I really like him,” another scout said. “As a pass rusher, some people say he’s stiff; he’s not. He’s really a big, talented guy.”
Hageman probably has the best physical traits and talent of the group, but his play was the worst.
“He’s a boom-or-bust guy,” an aforementioned scout said. “He’s got all the measurables, but when you watch him play, he’s very disappointing.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.