Bowers' knee raises questions


(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)

In those rooms where NFL scouts gather at this time of the year to hammer out their final evaluations of the prospects available in the upcoming draft, it is known as the Planet Theory. The Planet Theory states that since there are a limited number of athletic big men on the third rock from the sun, any NFL team looking to get one from a particular draft better step up early and make the choice.

The year 2011 A.D. is about to test the Planet Theory, because there is a veritable bounty of athletic big men just waiting to be selected by team interested in adding one.

Estimates are that as many as eight defensive ends could be among the opening 32 picks come April 28, and when the defensive tackles are included in the forecast the number of potential No. 1s rises to 13. The one remaining question regarding the defensive ends is, who will be first?

Some early mock drafts focused on Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers being the first defensive end selected, and some of those even saw him as the No. 1 overall pick. But the supposedly minor knee surgery Bowers had after the season on his meniscus not only prevented him from working out at the Combine, but his Pro Day on April 1 wasn't all that impressive either. There have been a lot of conflicting reports and conjecture about Bowers' health, and in a draft where there are other alternatives for teams looking for defensive ends there figures to be less incentive to gamble.

But if healthy, Bowers (6-foot-3, 280-pounds) would be a fine addition to any team, because he has the skills to line up in either a 4-3 or a 3-4, he showed mental toughness in dealing with the sudden death of his father right before the start of the 2010 season, and he will be a 21-year-old rookie in the NFL.

If teams shy away from Bowers because of the knee, North Carolina's Robert Quinn could be the first defensive end chosen, unless Quinn is picked by a 3-4 team and then he technically would be competing with Texas A&M's Von Miller as the first outside linebacker drafted.

Quinn (6-4, 265) started 12 games as a freshman in 2008, and then he led the ACC in 2009 with 19 tackles for loss while adding 11 sacks. What the NCAA determined were improper dealings with an agent caused him to be suspended for the entire 2010 season, and so he will be even more of a projection than most. One of the concerns about Quinn is whether he can be more than just a pass rusher, but if he's good enough at that whatever team picks him will be just tickled.

After these two comes a group that includes Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, California's Cameron Jordan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Ohio State's Cameron Heyward, Miami's Allen Bailey and the two defensive ends from Pitt – Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard.

Watt (6-5, 290) started his college career as a 228-pound tight end at Central Michigan, but he left there to walk-on at Wisconsin. He became a starter for the Badgers in 2009, and in 13 starts in 2010 he had 21 tackles for loss, seven sacks, eight batted passes, one interception, three forced fumbles and three blocked field goals.

Jordan (6-4, 287) is that rare college defensive lineman with experience as an end in a 3-4. He's a good athlete for his size, and his father, Steve, was a six-time Pro Bowl tight end for the Minnesota Vikings.

Clayborn (6-3, 281) was the top defensive end entering the 2010 college season, and some thought he was going to enter the draft last April after winning the MVP award in the Orange Bowl for his performance against Georgia Tech. Clayborn might slide because he has Erb's Palsy in his right arm stemming from a difficult birth, a condition that will hamper his strength.

Bailey (6-3, 285) started all 13 of Miami's games in 2010 as a defensive end who sometimes moved inside on third downs. He led the team with seven sacks and added 11 tackles for loss.

Kerrigan (6-4, 265) is a dream-come-true for teams that like to make picks based on college production. In 2010, Kerrigan had 26 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles. An academic All-American as well, Kerrigan had at least one sack in nine of 12 games, and one tackle for loss in 11 of the 12 games.

Heyward (6-5, 295) was a four-year starter on Ohio State's defensive line, where in 45 games he had 157 tackles, 34 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, and an 80-yard interception return against Miami in the 2010 opener. He is the son of Craig "Ironhead" Heyward.

Number drafted: 24
Picks by round: 4 in the first; 2 in the second; 2 in the third; 3 in the fourth; 4 in the fifth; 4 in the sixth; 5 in the seventh
Highest pick: Brandon Graham, Michigan, Round 1, 13th overall, by Philadelphia
Biggest impact: Carlos Dunlap, Florida, Round 2, 54th overall, recorded nine sacks in 12 games for the Cincinnati Bengals.

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