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A look at the top-ranked defensive ends in Rivals.com history

CLASS OF 2019 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | State | Position | Team

CLASS OF 2020 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | State | Position

The off-season is a time for reflection and at Rivals.com we thought it would be interesting to take a look at our highest ranked players in history by position. Today we look at the defensive ends led by the best player I’ve ever seen in high school.


Jadeveon Clowney - No. 1, 2011

Recruiting: Clowney picked South Carolina over Clemson and Alabama 12 days after National Signing Day. After a late visit to Clemson, the Tigers almost won out, but he picked the Gamecocks in the end.

Overview: In three seasons at South Carolina, Clowney finished with 129 tackles and 24 sacks. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Already a two-time Pro Bowl selection, Clowney has 158 total tackles and 20 sacks in his career after dealing with some early injuries.

Farrell’s take: The best player I’ve ever seen in high school at any position, hands down. Clowney’s film is the thing of legend and seeing him in person was equally impressive. I’ve never seen a defensive lineman who anticipated the snap count better and had a better first step. I saw Clowney dominate at defensive end and defensive tackle and his performance in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas, where I think he drew seven holding penalties, is the stuff of legend.

Robert Nkemdiche - No. 1, 2013

Robert Nkemdiche

Recruiting: On National Signing Day, Nkemdiche committed to Ole Miss over LSU and Florida. The Rebels were always considered a front-runner especially since his brother, Denzel, already played for them. He had previously been committed to Clemson earlier in the process.

Overview: In three seasons at Ole Miss, Nkemdiche finished with 81 tackles and six sacks. The Arizona Cardinals selected him with the No. 29 overall pick in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

Farrell’s take: Nkemdiche had all the talent in the world and had the size and athleticism to dominate whenever he wanted. We didn’t get to see him as often as some others, but when we did we always came away impressed. His battle with Carl Lawson for the No. 1 defensive lineman in 2013 was epic and Nkemdiche was too good to lose out. His college career was solid but he’s been an NFL bust so far, which speaks to work ethic issues.

Da'Shawn Hand - No. 1, 2014

Da'Shawn Hand
AP Images

Recruiting: In November of his senior season, Hand committed to Alabama over Michigan and Florida. The Wolverines were considered the front-runner for a while but the five-star defensive end picked the Crimson Tide instead.

Overview: By all standards, Hand had an underwhelming if not disappointing career at Alabama where he finished with 71 tackles and nine sacks in four seasons with the Crimson Tide. He was still a fourth-round NFL Draft pick by the Detroit Lions a couple months ago.

Farrell’s take: This one is still puzzling to me as Hand was so special and athletic from a young age I thought for sure he would be a superstar. His career at Alabama was a disappointment, but as with many on these lists he was still drafted fairly high in the NFL Draft because of his potential. Maybe he will turn it around in the NFL but the depth at Alabama was too much for him to overcome and that’s a disappointment.

Ronald Powell - No. 1, 2010

Ronald Powell
AP Images

Recruiting: Powell had narrowed his list to Florida and USC. Even with reports that coach Urban Meyer would be taking a leave of absence, Powell still picked the Gators as he had taken multiple trips to Gainesville through his recruitment.

Overview: Powell did not have a memorable time at Florida mainly because knee injuries hindered his development. Still, he was a fifth-round selection by the New Orleans Saints. He bounced around the league for a few years but was released by Seattle in August 2017.

Farrell’s take: Powell was a freaky athlete who could play defensive end, linebacker or tight end in college. Injuries derailed his career overall and it would be interesting to see how good he could have been if he stayed healthy. I remember seeing Powell at Florida’s Friday Night Lights and he just looked head and shoulders above everyone else physically. He also had a good work ethic and his performance at the U.S. Army All American Bowl cemented his No. 1 position.

Byron Cowart - No. 1, 2015

Byron Cowart
AP Images

Recruiting: Cowart picked Auburn over Florida on National Signing Day with Alabama and Maryland also playing a role in his recruitment. His connection to then-Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who was just fired at Florida, played a big role in Cowart’s decision.

Overview: A lack of playing time and contributions along with medical issues with his mother led Cowart to leaving Auburn after a disappointing showing there. In 14 career games in three seasons, Cowart had only 15 tackles and no sacks. He has since transferred to Maryland.

Farrell’s take: Go figure this one. Cowart was dominant in camps, in games, physically and had an amazing work ethic. We had quarterback Josh Rosen as our No. 1 in the country heading into the Under Armour Game but flipped back to Cowart after a dominating week of practice and a great game. Now he is about to go down as the biggest bust we’ve ever had at No. 1 overall. I’m still scratching my head on this one.

Myles Garrett - No. 2, 2014

Myles Garrett
AP Images

Recruiting: The top-ranked weakside defensive end and second-best player in the 2014 class committed to Texas A&M in October over Alabama, Ohio State, TCU, Florida State and others. The Aggies were always considered the front-runner in his recruitment.

Overview: Garrett had an outstanding career in College Station where he finished with 141 tackles and 31 sacks in three seasons at Texas A&M. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and had 28 tackles and seven sacks in his rookie season that was marred by injuries.

Farrell’s take: Garrett was the guy behind Hand in the rankings in 2014 and it was quite a debate in the end. Garrett was longer but Hand was a bit more versatile and in the end we chose Hand, which was clearly a mistake. Having Garrett at No. 2 isn’t that embarrassing as he panned out well and was the No. 1 pick in the draft, but it sure would look better if he were No. 1.

DaQuan Bowers - No. 2, 2008

DaQuan Bowers
AP Images

Recruiting: Bowers committed to Clemson early in his high school career and the Tigers were always considered the favorite. At the time of his pledge, Bowers said ever since he was a little boy he dreamed about playing for Clemson. South Carolina and many others were involved as well.

Overview: After posting 150 tackles and 19.5 sacks in three seasons at Clemson, Bowers left for the NFL early and was a second-round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The former five-star dealt with numerous injuries and off-season issues during his time in the NFL and was rarely a major contributor. After five years in Tampa Bay, Bowers went to the CFL for a season before announcing his retirement.

Farrell’s take: Bowers jumped up the rankings after completely dominating everyone at the Under Armour Game. In fact, it was one of the most dominating performances I’ve seen at any of the all-star games in my career. But he was highly regarded before that and certainly made the debate for No. 1 an interesting one.

Melvin Alaeze - No. 4, 2005

Recruiting: Alaeze, who had 60 tackles and 19 sacks in his senior season, chose Maryland in part because it was close to home. More than 50 schools offered Alaeze throughout his recruitment.

Overview: After a year in prep school to work on his academics, Alaeze signed with Maryland but he was charged with intent to distribute marijuana and kicked off the team. He transferred to Illinois but was again released for a violation of team rules. Alaeze plead guilty to first-degree assault as part of an armed robbery and shooting in 2006.

Farrell’s take: If you don’t remember this freak, you should take a look. He was a 280-pounder who played defensive end and running back. Yes, many elite defensive ends played a bit of running back in their high school career but few were as legit as this. Alaeze was a mean, nasty player with great athleticism whose career was derailed by academics and off-field issues.

Carl Lawson - No. 4, 2013

Carl Lawson
AP Images

Recruiting: Lawson committed to Auburn in March of his junior year and the pledge stuck, but it was not easy down the stretch. Clemson and Tennessee among others were pushing closer to Signing Day.

Overview: In his freshman season at Auburn, Lawson finished with 20 tackles and four sacks. The rest of his college career was slowed because of multiple injuries. Lawson was a fourth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals and he had 8.5 sacks in his rookie year.

Farrell’s take: If Lawson were a few inches taller, he probably would have been No. 1 back in 2013. But even being 6-foot-2, he was so special he was in the conversation. He could play a hybrid role in college or be a pure end and even had the skills to be a standup linebacker if needed. His career in college was solid and he’s on his way to a great NFL career.

Kayvon Thibodeaux - No. 4, 2019

Kayvon Thibodeaux
Nick Lucero/Rivals.com

Recruiting: The top-ranked prospect in California for the 2019 recruiting class, Thibodeaux is taking his time with his recruitment. USC, Alabama and Florida State seem to have an edge for the five-star prospect but LSU and others are also involved.

Overview: In his junior season at Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian, Thibodeaux finished with 99 tackles and 20 sacks.

Farrell’s take: Some people call Thibodeaux the best defensive line prospect in 20 years or more. While I don’t see that, he is pretty special and can get after the passer like few others. Time will tell how he develops as he still has a year to either rise or fall on this list, but either way he’s an elite prospect.