Zach's Draft Corner: Defensive Lineman
Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
It might seem like the 2018 NFL Draft was just yesterday, but in just two short months, college football will once again be underway and fans will be clamoring to find their studs and sleepers of the 2019 draft class. For the next few months, I’m going to give you my names to note for the upcoming season at every position, along with a mini scouting report and where I’d like to see the prospects improve this season if they want to hear their name called early come April. Given in no particular order, these will be the prospects that, at least at the beginning of the season, will be generating the most buzz. Consider this a primer for the upcoming season of Saturdays, and a potential guide for your television if you aren’t sure which game to watch. Previously, I covered the cornerbacks. This week, I am staying on the defensive side of the ball to look at the defensive linemen.
The defensive line is probably the deepest position in this year’s class, both on the edge and on the interior. Even more intriguing, while there are individual stars, there are also a couple of units that include multiple players that are certain to get drafted. To save you from reading 10,000 words on every single player, I’ll start off by mentioning the individual standouts, followed by the units that will bring offensive lines to tears.
Ed Oliver – University of Houston, DT, Junior
If you haven’t heard the name Ed Oliver, I know exactly what you’re thinking. “Zach, this guy is from the University of Houston! Why are you starting off your article with a guy from Houston instead of putting him as a small-school sleeper?” It’s okay. I forgive you. You will hear his name everywhere as we get closer to the college football season, as the 6'3", 270-pound defensive tackle out of Houston may very well be your 2019 first overall pick.
What stands out about Oliver the most is his Aaron Donald-like explosiveness off the ball and his unparalleled speed from the interior. Oliver also has a number of moves to beat blocks at the point of attack, the balance to accelerate out of those moves, and an undying motor that he uses to pursue the runner all over the field. Oliver is strong, fast, explosive, technically sound, and possibly the most complete prospect that the NFL has seen at the defensive tackle position. There is only a single issue that I see with him: he is lean for a 3-technique defensive tackle, which just so happens to be his best position. Will he hold up to the additional stress and impact that he’ll see in the NFL? He hasn’t run into injury issues yet, so I think he’ll be just fine. Defensive tackle is not necessarily a highly valued position, so he may slip to being somewhere in the top ten come April. However, Ed Oliver could be a top-five defensive tackle the minute he steps onto an NFL field for the first time. He’s that good.
Rashard Lawrence – Louisiana State University, DT, Junior
Rashard Lawrence is one of the more frustrating prospects in this class. He has the ideal size at 6'3” and 300 pounds. He explodes out of his stance, and has some of the best hand usage in the class. He can be a run stuffer, or he can use that technique to get past the offensive lineman and into the backfield. Lawrence seems to have all of the tools to become a successful NFL player.
Unfortunately, Lawrence seems to be an all-or-nothing type prospect on a game-by-game basis. In certain matchups, Lawrence can dominate opponents, freely moving wherever he wants on the field as if nobody is on the field to stop him. In other games, Lawrence completely disappears and you wonder if he has a spot in the NFL. In the brief time that I’ve spent observing Lawrence, it seems like he doesn't quite have the moves to counter the blocker if his elite hand fighting doesn't work. As such, he seems to dominate against guards with inferior technique, but his lack of superior strength means he can get eaten up a bit if the guard matches his technical abilities. In 2018, I want to see that consistency get better so he can show his skills on a regular basis. In order to do that, Lawrence needs more than just one move. Most of the competition he will face at the next level will have the technique to shut down a single move, so he will need either a technical counter or to spend some time in the weight room so that he has staying power.
Rashan Gary – University of Michigan, DT, Junior
Rashan Gary is a likely first-round talent, but he still could end up being a steal. Being a junior edge defender in the Big-10, at the school whose biggest rival has one of the most dominant defensive lines in the country, Gary, the biggest bright spot for the Wolverines, might not have the production to come out on top in that conversation. However, the 6'4”, 287-pound Gary may be a more complete prospect than his Ohio State counterpart (that I will discuss later).
Perhaps suited better for the big end position than a true “Leo” pass-rusher, Gary’s physical traits are outstanding. Michigan coaches have timed him running a 4.57 40-yard dash, showing that he is an explosive athlete. What vaults Gary into the first-round conversation is that he also has the strength to go along with that speed. As a pass rusher, Gary relies on his athleticism over actual technique at this point, but Gary’s freak athleticism makes the technique relatively unnecessary at this point in his career. Gary is functional as a run defender, but still has issues when he is run at and the lineman can get into him. Gary is an assassin who wants to attack, and can be unsuccessful at being a defender who has to stand his own ground. Another issue is that Gary tends to focus too much on the blocker in front of him and can be lured into complacency if there is pulling or motion along the offensive line. None of these issues are things that can’t be corrected, and his lack of technique should not be seen as indicative that he can’t learn the technique to be a better pass rusher. Some team will look past these and bank on their coaches being able to teach Gary these things and profit off his sheer all-around athleticism.
Joe Jackson – University of Miami, DE, Junior
Last week, I gave you Michael Jackson. This week, I give you Joe. This Hurricane is a little beefier than his patriarchic namesake, measuring in at an ideal 6'5” and 258 pounds. The negatives of Jackson can be summed up relatively succinctly: on film, Jackson seems like he is in a game of Madden. He plays like he is trying to rush the quarterback every play and adjusts if the running back gets the ball. He leaves his feet too often in attempting to make the tackle, leading to too many broken tackles when he could have stopped the play. This inconsistency will hurt, but can be solved with an increase in discipline during 2018.
If he can learn that discipline, Jackson is another defender with a chance of working his way into the first round. Jackson displays a great ability to stay low, bending and dipping around tackles. He’s a very quick athlete, but also has the technique and strength to shed blockers in the run game after he adjusts to the running play. However, his lack of playing discipline means that he shows all of his greatness in flashes, but is still a bit inconsistent. Hopefully another season under Mark Richt helps fix that.
The University of Alabama – Raekwon Davis (DT, Redshirt Sophomore), Isaiah Buggs (DT, Junior), Anfernee Jennings (DE/OLB, Junior)
In perhaps the least surprising reveal of the pre-season, Alabama has a good defensive line. First up is Raekwon Davis, the Crimson Tide’s version of Deforest Buckner and Calais Campbell. Measuring in at a towering 6'7” and 306 pounds, Davis still shows an uncanny ability to get consistently low and gain leverage on the blocker. Davis is another potential top-12 pick in the first round, coupling an ability to be an exceptional pass rusher while also maintaining gaps in run defense. Overall, Davis is simply a disruptor. As with most players on the interior, his huge size can be trouble at the next level. Although he is low out of his stance, if he mistimes the snap, it's easy for interior offensive linemen to attack and get the leverage in run blocking. However, Davis generally times the snap counts pretty well, making this less of an issue.
Lining up next to Davis on the inside is Isaiah Buggs, the 6'5”, 290-pound tackle who is best described as reliable. A junior college transfer with only one year of experience at Alabama so far, Buggs earned the third best run stop percentage in the nation for returning interior defenders. Buggs’s upside, both as a pro and in the draft, is limited, as you won’t see him making the explosive plays like Ed Oliver or Davis. He plays his gap, fills that gap, and brings down any ball carriers that come near him. He also opens the door for others to make plays, which is a valuable skill in and of itself. You may not hear a ton about him with all of the talent in the SEC and on his own team, but he deserves recognition and will go higher than you think in April.
Coming off the edge, we have Anfernee Jennings. Jennings is another reliable prospect, as the 6'3”, 262-pound edge prospect may have the highest football IQ of any lineman in the class. With his exceptional mental processing, he always seems to be in the right spot at exactly the right time. Jennings has enough of every physical trait to be successful, though he isn't elite in any of those areas and has limited athleticism. His explosiveness doesn't stand out, but his intellect gives him the extra step that others rely on athleticism for. Jennings also uses that intellect to excel in coverage. Ultimately, Jennings’s spot in the next level may be a 3-4 outside linebacker rather than a 4-3 Leo spot, but he will stick around for a while.
Ohio State University – Robert Landers (DT, Junior), Dre’Mont Jones (DT, Junior), Nick Bosa (DE, Junior)
While always having a strong program, it seems that Urban Meyer brought the tradition of having a team full of outstanding draft prospects with him from his days at Utah and Florida. This year, Urban will have three linemen drafted, one of which will be the relatively unknown Robert Landers. The stout 6'1”, 280-pound Landers got limited run on a stacked defensive line in 2017. While healthy for every game, Landers managed to grab only 26 tackles on the season. What makes Landers intriguing is that 13 of those 26 tackles were for loss. When Landers got on the field, he was explosive, used his shorter stature to get leverage in bull rush situations, and used exceptional finesse to keep guards off-balance. The 2018 season will be his first year seeing major time on a stacked Ohio State team, so we will have to see if he can increase his endurance and maintain similar production, but he could be a big riser this fall.
Next up is the better-known Dre’Mont Jones, who will line up next to Landers inside. Measuring in at 6'3” and 280, pounds, Jones is another explosive athlete who can pass rush, shed blockers, stop the run, and pretty much anything else you could possibly want out of a dominant 3-technique lineman. What keeps Jones from getting to that Raekwon Davis level is that Jones is almost too explosive, in that he has a huge issue with balance. Jones can be a bit wild and taken completely out of plays by more disciplined guards who take advantage of his velocity. In 2018, I want to see him harness his athleticism and play with more control instead of attacking like a spider monkey without discipline. It should also be noted that scouts will be monitoring his durability, as Jones tore an ACL in high school. He hasn’t seemed to have any issues since, so let’s hope that issue is well behind him.
Ultimately, the true superstar of the Ohio State better than Bosa. Bosa what? Bosa deeez tackles (sorry, I’m immature sometimes). That superstar is Nick Bosa. If the name sounds familiar, yes, his brother is Joey Bosa, who was drafted third overall by the now Los Angeles Chargers back in 2016. Maybe the worst kept secret in this year’s class is that Nick is just as good of a prospect as Joey, and may be drafted even sooner. Measuring in at 6'4” and 270 pounds, in a draft without a truly elite quarterback prospect, Bosa could easily see himself being selected with the first overall pick. What makes him so special is his elite first step and snap awareness, enabling him to be on the tackle’s level before they are even out of their stance. His athleticism also gives him a very quick change of direction to bend around the tackle. If the tackle does get enough depth to initially counter Bosa, his quickness and strength allow him to cut back inside with ease. Bosa is a very effective, but needs to hone his hand placement and develop an actual move for when he engages, as he can be taken out of the play, in both pass rushing and run defense, if the lineman can get into him. Still, Bosa’s combination of dominance and positional value makes him a lock for a high selection if he can get through 2018 healthy.
Mississippi State University – Jeffrey Simmons (DT, Junior), Montez Sweat (DE, Senior)
Let’s get the terrible part out of the way first. During his recruitment, there was a video that circulated of the 6’4”, 295-pound Jeffrey Simmons hitting a woman. Simmons’s defense was that he was breaking up a fight between his sister and another woman, and while the parties involved agreed with his story, the video does not look good. Simmons faced discipline and has had no issues since and made the academic honor roll at Mississippi State. You want to think that’s past him, but it's something to note.
Red flags aside, as a prospect, Simmons has a great combination of traits and upside to develop even further. What stands out initially is that Simmons has very long arms that keep opposing linemen off of him, allowing him to operate with more room than your typical defensive tackle. Simmons also has a great combination of burst out of his stance and strength at the point of attack. He can shed blockers well in the run game, but is more of a one-trick bull rusher in the passing game. I would love to see him develop into more of a playmaker in the pass rush with some more finesse moves. With his size and length, he has the physical traits to develop with good coaching, but he doesn't have the nuanced pass rushing technique just yet.
Luckily for Simmons, he plays alongside one of the most underrated edge prospects that needs to be discussed more. Montez Sweat is a 6'6”, 241-pound speed rusher who has maybe the best pass-rushing technique in the class. Sweat has great change of direction, and can either bend around the tackle or cut back inside over-committing tackles with a ruthless efficiency. He has great balance, has already developed strong hand placement, and has a plethora of pass rush moves if the tackle is able to engage. Once he reaches the ball carrier, he may not be using the hit stick, but the ball carrier is going down. While his small frame makes his effectiveness against the run limited, he at least gives a strong effort and has a great motor. It may be unlikely, but if he can bulk up and add a power pass rush move without losing his speed, he could be unstoppable. Look for Sweat to come off the board during the middle-to-late portions of the first round, and could be an ideal fit with the 49ers as a pass-rushing specialist when Solomon Thomas kicks inside.
Clemson University – Christian Wilkins (DT, Senior), Dexter Lawrence (DT, Junior), Clelin Ferrell (DE, Junior), Austin Bryant (DE, Senior)
You have probably heard this before, but Clemson’s defensive line is good. While the chatter of all four prospects going in the first round may be a bit overblown, I could see all of these prospects being selected before the end of Day 2. The true strength of the Tigers’ line starts on the inside with senior Christian Wilkins. The 6'4”, 310-pound tackle is ultra-athletic and has a motor that just doesn’t quit. Clemson even put him on offense occasionally, and he had a carry and a reception last year. Wilkins shows great balance, burst, and agility for a big man. However, his arms are a bit on the short side, and he is more finesse than strength at this point of his development. That combination could be bad news at the next level, where you would like to see the longer arms to shed blockers before they can get into him. Ultimately, I want to see him get stronger at the point of attack, getting into guards and move them before they move him. A professional weight program could help him immensely, and his pro team is absolutely get every ounce they can out of him with his work ethic. The question is whether that will be enough to overcome some of his physical deficiencies.
Next to Wilkins inside is Lawrence, the 6'5”, 340-pound behemoth of a man. Though his best position will be as a 1-technique, Lawrence is supremely athletic for a man his size. He has reportedly run a 4.9 40-yard dash, can dunk on a regulation hoop, and also put up 32 reps on the bench as a freshman. To me, he is the true superstar of the Clemson defensive line. Lawrence shows great balance, hands, and play recognition, allowing him to fill the gaps in the offensive line and stop plays before they even begin. Coaches have raved about his work ethic and character, calling him a film junky. His main issue is with his pad level. Tall, heavy nose tackles have a tough time staying low consistently, and he is no exception. I would also like to see Lawrence develop some pass rush moves instead of relying on strength and athleticism alone, although he may have enough of both to actually succeed with just those traits as a pro.
On one end of the line is Clelin Ferrell. The 6'5”, 260-pound edge might be a bit overrated due to Clemson’s strength inside, and he may see his stock drop a little throughout the season as his film is more strictly scrutinized. Ferrell can be a little stiff in his speed rush, meaning that he doesn’t always have the bend you want to see from a speed rusher. His long arms are effective to keep linemen from engaging, and he is technically sound in most areas. Ferrell can also drop into coverage if needed. Ultimately, Ferrell may be limited being a 3-4 outside linebacker, further dropping his value. However, his traits are still enough to be seen as a strong Day 2 prospect.
With these three on the line, you don’t need someone who is a complete prospect. Instead, Clemson has plugged in one of the best pure athletes of this edge class on the opposite side of Ferrell in Austin Bryant. The 6’5”, 265-pound Bryant rounds out this gargantuan line by pinning his ears back and rushing the passer. Bryant succeeded quite a bit, racking up 8½ sacks in 2017. Bryant even showed his athleticism by playing corner on a couple of plays. Unfortunately, Bryant’s success starts and ends with his athleticism. Whether he hasn’t been taught the nuances of the game or he can’t learn it, Bryant’s game is wholly reactive. He rushes the passer and tries to run around the tackle until the ball is thrown or he gets by. If the play is a run, he adjusts after the fact and attempts to pursue the ball carrier. His sheer athleticism makes it so he actually can catch the runner in these situations, but you’d like to see some more awareness and technique in his game. Some team will take the chance on his athleticism, but it will take some hard work to stick in the league.
Florida State University – Demarcus Christmas (DT, Senior), Brian Burns (DE, Junior)
While disappointing as a team last year, Florida State’s defense is not the reason for the lack of recent success. One of the better prospects on the strong Seminole defense is 6'3”, 310-pound defensive tackle Demarcus Christmas. He projects as a 1-technique due to his run stuffing ability, but he is pretty one dimensional at this point. In essence, Christmas eats up blockers like they are Santa's cookies, giving his linebackers gifts on autumn Saturdays. Unfortunately, Christmas is not much of a threat as a pass rusher at this point in his career, as his lateral quickness is pretty lacking. Perhaps one of the strongest prospects in the class, Christmas is exactly like the holiday itself: he’s very powerful and impactful when he arrives, but he isn’t quick to get there. Christmas certainly has a place in the league as a run-stuffing nose tackle, but that position has a limited value in the modern NFL.
One person very happy to play alongside Christmas is edge Brian Burns. At 6'4” and only 218 pounds, I really want to see Burns bulk up, or else he may be relegated to outside linebacker at the next level. Burns’s strength comes in his elite quick and relentless motor. Burns has great finesse pass rushing moves, but can be overwhelmed easily with strength. Also troubling is that his tackling is not ideal, and he sometimes needs multiple efforts to bring a guy down. Burns is not much of a run defender at this point, but his pre-snap play recognition at least allows him to get in the best possible spot for the play. Still, his lack of play strength at this point could spell a later draft position than others with promising skill set if he doesn’t get in the weight room.
SMALL SCHOOL SLEEPER – Sutton Smith – Northern Illinois University, DE, Senior
Sutton Smith is the type of guy who has one dimension, but that dimension is really good and may be good enough for him to find success as a pro. Measuring in at a paltry 6'0” and 225-pounds, Sutton Smith is called big only when he is tackling Trent Taylor. Smith is undersized for sure, but actually uses that as an advantage to gain leverage on tackles with elite technique. He’s very shifty as a pass rusher, and uses his lack of size to get underneath the hulking tackles and to the quarterback. Smith compares favorably to Elvis Dumervil as an undersized, pure disruptor in the backfield, and his hoping to have a similar level of success as a pro.
SMALL SCHOOL SLEEPER – Jaylon Ferguson – Louisiana Tech, DE, Senior
If you were to think of the exact opposite of Sutton Smith, you would get Jaylon Ferguson. The 6'5”, 269-pound Ferguson has the ideal size, length, and physical traits that dominate the lower level of competition that he sees without needing much else. He hasn't had to develop technique yet, but if he wants to more than a late-round flyer, I want to see him become more technically sound before it becomes necessary. At this point, Ferguson relies too much on physical gifts over sound technique, but I have faith that he could develop it. If he can develop that in 2018, he could see a Marcus Davenport-type rise in the draft.
SMALL SCHOOL SLEEPER – Marquise Copeland – University of Cincinnati, DT, Senior
The class is so deep with defensive linemen that I need to give you three of them. Moving back to the inside, we have the 6'2”, 290-pound Marquise Copeland out of Cincinnati. Copeland’s strength is in his pass rushing, as he excels in that area from the inside with impressive technique and quickness to get around opposing linemen. This alone will get him drafted relatively high. However, his play strength is not quite at the level you would like to see from a defensive tackle, and attacking guards can get on top of him and control him a bit too much for my liking. No disrespect to the Bearcats, but I also wonder how strong the weight-training program is at Cincinnati. Moving into a professional weight program will do wonders for a prospect like Copeland, and could lead to him actually being seen as under-drafted when reflections are written in 2024. He could make some GM look very smart in a few years.
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