Four of the last five No. 1 players in the Rivals100 have been defensive ends, which not only showcases the importance of the position and harassing the quarterback in pass-happy offenses, but also speaks to the athleticism of bigger defensive prospects. From Ronald Powell and Jadeveon Clowney in 2010 and 2011 to Robert Nkemdiche and now Da'Shawn Hand in 2013 and 2014 respectively, the question has been asked many times -- how does Hand stack up to the rest?
Let's start with Hand's strengths. At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, Hand is extremely athletic and agile and he's so hard to knock off balance. He's hard to get your hands on, but even if you do, he has an amazing knack to either keep his balance or recover very quickly to put himself back in the play. Hand is quick off the snap, he is an excellent outside pass rusher and he has the ability to make himself skinny on inside rushes. He's sneaky strong, stronger than it appears he should be in pads and he holds the edge well against the run. He's adept at shedding blocks at the proper time to make plays and he has an excellent motor that allows him to run down plays to the opposite side of the field.
THE HAND FILE
Da'Shawn Hand Position: Defensive end
School: Woodbridge (Va.) Senior
Hand has great feet and is extremely nimble, which allows him to avoid getting caught up in the wash. We've seen his versatility, playing defensive tackle and standing up at times. He could be a linebacker in the right system or a strongside or weakside defensive end who could play numerous techniques. A hybrid role is a distinct possibility.
So there you have many of the reasons that more than 90 programs offered Hand a scholarship. But our other No. 1 prospects also had a ton of offers. So how does he compare to each?
Ronald Powell, class of 2010: Out of Powell, Clowney and Nkemdiche, Hand reminds me the most of Powell out of high school, though Hand is bigger and stronger. Powell was an elite athlete coming out of high school and could have played defensive end, linebacker or tight end in college and Hand could do the same. Simply put, both are just freak athletes and more versatile than the others. Powell is playing linebacker at Florida and has had some injury issues that have slowed his progress, but he is starting to come into his own on a very good defense. Both players were considered slightly undersized at their positions, but their versatility overshadowed that and the ability to plug them into multiple defensive sets made them special.
Jadeveon Clowney, class of 2011: There were comparisons between Hand and Clowney after Hand's sophomore season, but those pretty much ended when Hand was forced to play defensive tackle for much of his junior season and lost a year of development as a defensive end. Clowney is head and shoulders above Hand and the rest when it comes to freak athletic ability as a pass rusher and from a physical standpoint. Simply put, he is as special at his position as it gets. Clowney was longer than Hand, got off the snap much quicker and he intimidated opponents much more. He was also stronger and when he played defensive tackle at times, he was more dominant. This is no slight on Hand, because there hasn't been a defensive end I've seen who can compare to Clowney. The most interesting part here is that Clowney had an amazing motor just like Hand. He consistently ran plays down and made a few amazing plays running down running backs and wide receivers 30+ yards down the field. However, that motor isn't evident this year at South Carolina for Clowney. It's doubtful that will be the case with Hand.
Robert Nkemdiche, class of 2013: Nkemdiche is much bigger than Hand. Despite being listed at 260 pounds, he looked closer to 280 and has defensive tackle size at defensive end. Nkemdiche was stronger at the point of attack, handled bigger players straight up much easier and delivered a bigger blow when he arrived. He also had a good motor, not quite as high as Hand, but he was a hustler. Nkemdiche wasn't as quick off the snap and despite some talk of playing linebacker at Alabama when the Tide were a serious contender, it is doubtful he could handle players in space like Hand. Hand is more versatile than Nkemdiche and much more athletic. It's hard to compare the two because of the huge size difference; it's almost like comparing two players that play different positions.
Who's the best?: So now for the question I get asked all the time -- what is the order of the four in my mind? Having seen all of them on film and in person, I would take Clowney first easily, followed by Hand, Nkemdiche and Powell. I think Clowney is in a class by himself, at least coming out of high school, and Hand is more athletic and versatile than both Nkemdiche and Powell. There are many factors that play into how a prospect develops including work ethic, injuries, off-field issues, etc., and no one can truly predict how good a player will be until he starts competing in college. However, every one of our No. 1 players has spent time in the NFL aside from Powell, Clowney, Dorial Green-Beckham and Nkemdiche, who are still in college. It's a safe bet all of these players will someday wear an NFL uniform, whether it be for a stellar career like Adrian Peterson or solid careers like Ernie Sims and Percy Harvin. Soon we will name our initial No. 1 for the class of 2015. Will it be yet another defensive end? Stay tuned.