The Minnesota Vikings are turning over a new leaf on the defensive line. The two defensive tackles will be first time starters in Minnesota.
Sharrif Floyd returns after posting solid numbers as a rookie. The former first round draft pick is expected to take over for current free agent Kevin Williams. The other starter is expected to be free agent signee Linval Joseph. The Vikings gave him a lucrative multi-year contract to plug the middle and stop the run.
The top reserves are expected to be Fred Evans, who has been the backup nose tackle for several years, and free agent signee Tom Johnson. Evans (30 years old) and Johnson (29) are both considered to be role players and not long-term starters.
The other two defensive tackles on the roster are Chase Baker and Kheeston Randall. Both are second-year players with little experience. Baker was signed by the Vikings as a rookie free agent and spent his first season on the team’s practice squad. Last season, he was active for five games, but did not record any statistics. Randall spent his first season with the Miami Dolphins and played in 12 games making eight tackles. Last season, he was on the Cincinnati Bengals roster for two weeks, but did not play.
The Vikings have depth issues at defensive tackle, but may be okay with what they have going forward. Given all the needs this team has, defensive tackle may not be a high priority. Here are the top five defensive tackles as well as an underrated, an overrated and sleeper prospect in the 2014 draft.
No. 1 - Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
Donald has emerged as the clear-cut No. 1 defensive tackle in this draft class. He has tremendous quickness off the ball and straight-line speed. He has the ability to get under the pads of blockers and use leverage to get penetration. He is undersized and won’t fit into all defensive schemes.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 285-pound former Panther finished his senior season with 59 total tackles, 28.5 tackles for a loss, 11 sacks, three pass breakups, 16 quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles and one blocked kick.
No. 2 - Louis Nix, Notre Dame
Nix is a massive, space eating nose tackle. He is a player that can anchor a defensive line and allow the linebackers to make plays against the run. He is not an elite athlete, but possesses good quickness and agility for his size. He has struggled with weight issues and played only eight games last season.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 331-pound former Fighting Irish finished his redshirt junior season with 27 total tackles, two tackles for a loss, two pass breakups, two passes defensed and two quarterback hurries. He has drawn comparisons to B.J. Raji of the Green Bay Packers.
No. 3 - Timmy Jernigan, Florida State
Jernigan has been consistently considered a middle to late first round draft pick. He is a good athlete with the footwork and hands to close running lanes. He is undersized and will not fit into all defensive schemes. Despite his athleticism, he is too slow off the snap. With improved technique, he could become a dominant force for a team that primarily uses a four-man front.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 299-pound former Seminole finished his junior season with 63 total tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, one pass breakup, one pass defensed and two quarterback hurries.
No. 4 - Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
Hageman is a freak athlete and not just for his size. He has position flexibility and can play in any base scheme. He has good hands that he uses to knock down passes or catch them. He is quick off the ball and has the strength to push blockers backward. He must consistently show more drive and dedication to reach his full potential.
The 6-foot-6-inch, 310-pound former Golden Gopher finished his redshirt senior with 38 total tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, two sacks, one interception, eight pass breakups, nine passes defensed, one quarterback hurry, one fumble recovery and two blocked kicks.
No. 5 - Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame
Tuitt has as much upside as Hageman with similar size, strength and athleticism, but is coming off an injury and came into the 2013 season out of shape. He took a step back after dominating in 2012. He has the versatility to play in any base defense.
The 6-foot-6-inch, 304-pound former Fighting Irish finished his junior season with 50 total tackles, nine tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks, one interception, two pass breakups, two passes defensed, 13 quarterback hurries and one forced fumble.
Underrated - Justin Ellis, Louisiana Tech
Ellis stepped up his game as a senior and has the size to dominate the line of scrimmage. He anchors well and is hard to move off the line of scrimmage. He is a prototypical nose tackle with run stuffing skills and a massive frame. He can also play the 3-technique with a good burst on the snap.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 334-pound former Bulldog finished his redshirt senior season with 48 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, one pass breakup, one pass defensed and two quarterback hurries.
Overrated - Ego Ferguson, LSU
Ferguson was a highly recruited high school product, but failed to separate himself from the rest of the Tiger defensive linemen. He has good skills, size and athleticism, but it doesn’t always show up in games and didn’t show up during workouts.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 315-pound former Tiger finished his redshirt junior season with 58 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, three pass breakups, three passes defensed, three quarterback hurries and one blocked kick.
Sleeper - Dominique Easley, Florida
It is hard to imagine a sleeper prospect from a program like Florida, but Easley only played in three games last season. He entered the season as one of the top defensive tackle prospects in the draft before a torn ACL and meniscus ended his final season of eligibility. He is an undersized tackle that explodes off the ball and makes plays in the backfield. If he regains that explosion, he could be a steal in the middle to late rounds of the draft.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 288-pound former Gator finished his senior season with five total tackles, two tackles for a loss and four quarterback hurries.