Stanford's stout D

At 4-0, Stanford is off to another strong start and currently ranked fifth in the AP poll. Starting in the Jim Harbaugh era and carried on by current head coach David Shaw, the Cardinal have developed and sustained a program with core values based on discipline and toughness. This has been an underlying factor in their rise from one of the worst programs in the country in 2006 to their sustained success in which they've put together a 43-10 overall record in the past four years. It's all led to them being legit national championship contenders this season. Assuming Shaw stays at Stanford, the future looks bright because he and his staff have done a great job of evaluating players who are tailored to the Cardinal's identity while upgrading the overall talent level with their recruiting.

As it has been in past years, the Cardinal defense is once again an area of strength. Like the Stanford defenses we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, this unit plays with a physical and relentless edge, continuity and collectively has a high FBI (football intelligence) to be able to give multiple looks within their scheme.

Despite all the recent success on this side of the ball, the Cardinal haven't been as productive when it comes to manufacturing NFL draft picks. In fact, Stanford has had only three players selected in the past six drafts: CB Richard Sherman (Seattle) and DT Sione Fua (Carolina) were picked in the third round in 2011, while DE Erik Lorig (Tampa Bay) was a fifth-round selection in 2010.

That should change starting with the 2014 draft in May. This week, I had a chance to sit down and watch two coaches' copy tapes of the Stanford defense. It’s clear they have more NFL-caliber talent than they ever had in their program's history. Below is a list of draft-eligible prospects from the Cardinal defense and what they bring to the table as a player. Draft-eligible non-seniors are denoted with an asterisk.

Shayne Skov, ILB (6-21/4, 239) -- Scouts Inc. Grade: 64

Skov plays with a passion for the game and an infectious energy that can elevate the play of his teammates. While he has lost some agility and range after a torn ACL cut short his 2011 season, his instincts and quick-reaction skills along with relentless pursuit allow him to mask this flaw. Skov also has limitations as a playmaker in coverage but is effective when asked to blitz through the A or B gaps. Skov currently holds a fourth-round grade but if he continues to play well could work his way into the Day 2 range.

Trent Murphy, OLB (6-53/8, 255) -- Grade: 62

Murphy is a throwback who brings a physical edge to his game. He has a high football IQ and strong field awareness. Murphy has restrictions athletically which show up in space and when bending the edge as a pass-rusher. However, he is one of the best edge-setters I’ve seen on tape. He plays with leverage and possesses heavy hands to stack blockers. Murphy also uses his hands well as a pass-rusher and flashes the ability to dip his inside shoulder to gain the edge. Like Skov, Murphy should be in the mix at the fringe Day 2 range.

Ed Reynolds, Safety (6-2, 205) -- Grade: 54

Reynolds has improved from his 2012 tape. He has been more consistent in run support with better pursuit angles and breaking down to secure tackles in space. After being nearly two years removed from an ACL injury that held him out of the 2011 season, Reynolds looks more fluid in coverage, but does not have ideal man-coverage skills. Where he excels is with his instincts and eyes in coverage to maintain proper leverage and positioning. Reynolds also has a knack for creating turnovers by keying on the quarterback and anticipating breaks. He has seven career interceptions including three returned for touchdowns. Reynolds currently holds a mid-round grade but his stock appears to be heading north.

Ben Gardner, DE (6-37/8, 276) -- Grade: 30

Gardner lines up at the 5-technique and has the versatility to bump inside when the Cardinal goes to a four-man front. He has an above-average first step and flashes quick hands to win early. He also has above-average recognition skills to find the ball and cause disruption, both against the run and as a pass-rusher. However, he is a bit stiff and lacks flexibility. He can also learn to play with more consistent pad level anchoring against the run at times. Gardner has not yet received a full evaluation but he should get some consideration in the fifth- to seventh-round range.

Jordan Richards*, Safety (5-11/8, 208) -- Grade: N/A

Richards, paired with Reynolds, provides the Cardinal with one of the better safety tandems in the country. Richards is an aggressive player, and while he doesn’t have the same level of instincts as Reynolds, he is a more fluid athlete and has better overall range. Richards also provides the Cardinal with the versatility to drop down in the slot and hold up in man coverage when bringing pressure. He must continue to get stronger and show more discipline at times but should be garnering attention from NFL scouts in the future.

James Vaughters*, OLB (6-2, 254) -- Grade: N/A

Vaughters has filled the void left by Chase Thomas at the other outside linebacker spot and has caught my attention during film study. He has a sawed-off build along with a thick trunk. While he isn’t as versatile as Thomas was, he is stronger at the point of attack against the run and keeping contain as an edge defender. Vaughters flashes heavy hands and explosive power as a pass-rusher, and like Thomas can generate pressure from various launch points along the front seven. He is an ideal fit as a 3-4 OLB and expect to hear his name talked about more as the season progresses.

Usua Amanam, CB (5-10, 175) -- Grade: 30

Amanam lacks ideal size but plays a key role for the Cardinal defense. He is primarily used in their sub packages as their nickelback. He displays above-average fluidity and has the skills to stay with receivers in the slot. He needs to get stronger and will get pushed around at times by bigger receivers particularly when the ball is in the air. However, he does a nice job of avoiding clutter near the box and is an effective and aggressive tackler in run support. Amanam looks to be more a fringe draft pick or free agent at this point.

Other notable Cardinal prospects: A.J. Tarpley, ILB; Josh Mauro, DE; and Blake Lueders, OLB.