Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - After highlighting the top offensive linemen in the nation a week ago, it's time to switch to the other side of the ball and talk about those players whose job it is to make plays along the defensive line.
Here are the top defensive linemen at the FBS level heading into the 2014 season:
VIC BEASLEY - Clemson's ferocious defender found his name on numerous All- America teams after destroying the competition to the tune of 44 total tackles, 23 tackles for loss, 13 sacks and four forced fumbles as an All-ACC first-team honoree. The production from the 6-foot-2, 235-pound rush specialist wasn't surprising considering he put up eight sacks and sophomore All-America honors in 2012. What was surprising was Beasley's decision to forgo the riches of the NFL to return to Clemson for the 2014 campaign. He would have almost assuredly been a first-round selection in the 2014 draft, but instead will jockey for position amongst the top 10 in 2015 should he have another big season in Death Valley.
RANDY GREGORY - It didn't take long for Gregory (6-6, 245) to make a name for himself at Nebraska. The junior college transfer started 10 games in his first season with the Cornhuskers, finishing 2013 with 66 total tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. He was an All-Big Ten first-team selection, finishing first in the conference in sacks and second in the league in TFL. Gregory's first season at the FBS level was so successful that several draft experts see him as a top-10 talent come 2015. By looking at his sample of work, it isn't hard to justify.
SHILIQUE CALHOUN - This Michigan State Spartan racked up the numbers along with awards in 2013, as Calhoun (6-4, 257) was named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and tabbed a second-team All-American while picking up All- Big Ten first-team honors. On one of the nation's premiere defenses, Calhoun stood out, with 37 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, one interception and four fumble recoveries. A big-time playmaker, Calhoun will be asked to assuage the loss of some serious talent on the Spartans' defensive side of the football. His ability to do so could go a long way in determining if he remains in East Lansing past this season.
NOAH SPENCE - Is the Big Ten stockpiling quality pass rushers? Ohio State has its own budding star in the form of the 6-3, 252-pound Spence. He racked up 52 total tackles, with 14.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks as a sophomore in 2013, but was suspended at the end of the season for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. He appealed a one-year suspension and it was reduced to three games, starting with last year's bowl season and includes the first two games of the 2014 campaign against Navy and Virginia Tech. Expect Spence to hit the ground running once he does get on the field and make up for lost time. If he stays clear of any controversy this season, the numbers will be there and the NFL will beckon.
CEDRIC REED - Texas took it on the chin in this year's NFL Draft as there wasn't a single Longhorn taken over the three-day event. That will change in 2015 as the 6-6, 258-pound Reed is the complete package coming off the edge. He put up some monster numbers as a junior in 2013 (his first season as a starter), posting 79 total tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, en route to All-Big 12 first-team honors. He certainly benefited from having Jackson Jeffcoat creating mayhem on the other side, but the relationship was symbiotic. Charlie Strong has a fastball in the form of Reed and will feature him prominently this year. Heading into his final season in Austin, Reed's star is rising and his NFL Draft stock with it.
HONORABLE MENTION: Trey Flowers (Arkansas), Lorenzo Mauldin (Louisville), Mario Edwards (Florida State), Leonard Williams (USC) and Joey Bosa (Ohio State).
MICHAEL BENNETT - He isn't the biggest guy on the block (6-2, 288), but Ohio State has a true leader in Bennett. A playmaker on the field, this Buckeye is a key cog along the defensive line, playing alongside other stars like the aforementioned Spence and Bosa. Bennett's game is speed and he used that last season to amass 42 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Penetrating and disrupting plays before they can develop is a necessary skill set at the next level and those who excel in that regard usually hear their names called fairly early in the draft. With another solid season, Bennett has a chance to join that group.
CARL DAVIS - If it is size you're looking for on the inside, the 6-5, 315-pound Davis has plenty of it. Iowa's big man in the middle, Davis was an All-Big Ten second-team selection in 2013, finishing with 42 total tackles. The Hawkeyes are a bit short on experience behind the defensive line heading into 2014 and Davis could really be a factor from a leadership standpoint. He has worked extremely hard to get to this point in his career with flashes of brilliant play along the way. If he finds consistency in that area, Davis should solidify himself as a player on most, if not all NFL scouts' radar.
LUTHER MADDY - An All-ACC third-team selection in 2013, the 6-1, 291-pound Maddy started all 13 games for Virginia Tech last season, amassing 55 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. With Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald and Florida State's Timmy Jernigan moving on, Maddy may be the best defensive tackle in the ACC this year. He continues to get better with his play up the field, and with another step in the right direction in 2014, Maddy can bolster an already solid NFL-caliber resume.
GRADY JARRETT - Pushing Maddy for ACC supremacy at the tackle position will be Clemson's Jarrett (6-1, 295). An All-ACC honorable mention selection in 2013, Jarrett was extremely productive, racking up 83 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, two sacks and two fumble recoveries. Jarrett, a former two-time Georgia heavyweight wrestling champion, has more than made up for his lack of height with grit, determination and a great feel for the game to constantly win battles at the line of scrimmage. Clemson's defensive line may rival any in the country in 2014 and Jarrett is a big part of that.
DANNY SHELTON - A true nose guard at a stout 6-1 and 327 pounds, Shelton has been a fixture in the middle for Washington the last couple seasons. The big man recorded 52 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks last season, while earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors. He isn't a slashing defender who penetrates and makes plays upfield, but rather an immovable object inside with the ability to hold up at the point of attack and occupy space so others can make a play. Shelton isn't getting a lot of national attention, but that could change in 2014.
HONORABLE MENTION: Gabe Wright (Auburn), Brandon Ivory (Alabama), Tyeler Davison (Fresno State), Leon Orr (Florida) and J.T. Surratt (South Carolina).