Top fantasy prospects: Defensive line

BY foxsports • April 18, 2011

As the fantasy realm continues to evolve, owners are working to expand the list of viable players and mirror “real” football as closely as possible.

Each year, more leagues embrace the IDP concept and try to translate the big hits, tackles and sacks into fantasy gold. This year’s draft class includes a number of big hitters off of the edge who will make an immediate impact.

Celebrate the “swim moves” and videos of head slaps past. Let’s break down the top defensive linemen in this 2011 NFL Draft class.

1. Robert Quinn, North Carolina

Following a strong 2008 season, Quinn absolutely terrorized the ACC in 2009 (had 19 tackles for loss and 11 sacks). With national interest growing and his draft stock rising, Quinn was suspended for accepting extra benefits and missed the entire 2010 season.

The suspension may force scouts to ask the extra question, but Quinn has an outstanding medical issue to consider as well. Quinn was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in 2007 and continues to be monitored.

At nearly 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, Quinn has the size to handle his own on the edge. He possesses great burst off of the line and range. The loss of his 2010 season stunted his development in the short-term, but the raw skills are there for him to be a dominant force.

2. Da’Quan Bowers, Clemson

Bowers registered a ridiculous final season at Clemson, posting 25 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. He stands 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, capable of taking on blockers in the running game while possessing the foot speed to beat tackles on the edge. Bowers does enter the draft with questions about his surgically-repaired right knee. If the knee checks out, he has the potential to produce a double-digit sack total and contribute immediately.

3. Cameron Heyward, Ohio State

Heyward was on the national stage during his entire career at Ohio State. He amassed 37.5 tackles for loss in his career and commanded double-teams (he stands nearly 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds), thereby opening opportunities for teammates. Heyward played the passing lanes well and often chased down plays from the backside.

4. Jabaal Sheard, Pittsburgh

Sheard was named Big East Defensive Player of the Year following his 52-tackle, nine-sack senior season (had 14.5 tackles for loss). He’s an exceptional speed rusher off the edge who anticipates the snap count. Sheard’s motor keeps running and closes out plays, often delivering big hits with an eye on generating turnovers. He needs to put on weight to become a better run defender at the next level, but he’s a disruptor.

5. Aldon Smith, Missouri

Smith started two seasons for the Tigers and has all of the physical tools to become a premier pass rusher at the next level. Like Bowers, Smith comes to the draft with some concerns about his health, as his play was impacted by a broken leg in 2010. On the other hand, he worked tirelessly to get back on the field and contribute for Missouri.

Smith has an exceptional first step off the line and the close-out speed to finish plays. During his two seasons, Smith was slotted all over the field. He can speed rush off the line and work in coverage.

6. Cameron Jordan, California

Jordan earned a First-Team All-Pac 10 selection in 2010 after recording a career-high 62 tackles with 12.5 tackles for loss. He seemingly knows the snap count and gets consistent, persistent pressure at the point of attack and excels at disrupting opposing running games. Jordan keeps his hands free and works to extend his arms and take away passing lanes.

He demonstrates good technique at the line and plays through the whistle, often chasing down plays from behind. Jordan’s size and speed combination likely gets him selected early.

7. Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue

Kerrigan was a dominant three-year starter for the Boilermakers and unanimous All-American selection in 2010 after racking up 26 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks. Kerrigan is a power rusher with great speed off the edge. Standing 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, Kerrigan has the ability to get a push off the line to disrupt running games and does well to keep disengaged in order to pursue the play.

8. Christian Ballard, Iowa

Ballard worked at both defensive end and tackle in his final two seasons at Iowa and was an honorable mention All-Big 10 performer in both seasons. He stands nearly 6-foot-4 and 280-285 pounds and is capable of overpowering opposing linemen and can beat them off the snap with a quick first step. Ballard played against strong competition in the Big 10 and grew as an all-around player alongside Adrian Clayborn in 2010.

9. Nick Fairley, Auburn

Fairley ascended to the starting lineup last season for Nick Saban and turned in a dominant season. He piled up 24.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks while disrupting opposing running games. The scary thought is that Fairley’s still a work in progress. He did not qualify academically out of high school and played only two years at Auburn after transferring from a junior college.

Fairley stands nearly 6-foot-4 with a huge frame. He has a great first step and explodes into linemen and ball carriers. In fact, Fairley’s quickness and power combination is almost freakish given his size. He’s obviously battled-tested, having cut his teeth in the SEC and plays with a mean streak.

10. Adrian Clayborn, Iowa

Clayborn was a two-time First-Team All-Big 10 performer for the Hawkeyes. His 2009 numbers were positively mind-boggling (had 20 tackles for loss, 70 tackles and 11.5 sacks), leaving many to wonder why he returned for the 2010 season. Facing consistent double-teams, his stats dropped off markedly (had seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks).

Clayborn gets off quickly at the snap and plays well against the run. He plays aggressively through the echo of the whistle and wraps ball carriers well. Clayborn isn’t a speed rusher. His is the power game, and that’s the big question facing Clayborn at the next level. He has a condition called Erb’s Palsy that weakens his shoulder.