Image Credit: University of Alabama
Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
Continuing my prospect preview series, this week we are going to switch over to the defensive side of the ball and move into the trenches. In previous weeks, I mentioned some of the top prospects (A.J. Epenesa and Chase Young) in this year’s class, as well as my pick for a player who is going to rise up boards quickly with more opportunity (Yetur Gross-Matos). Here are the rest of the top prospects along the defensive line going into the 2019 college football season.
Darrell Taylor, Defensive End, University of Tennessee
6'4", 247 pounds
2018 Stats: 36 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 8 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
There are two players in this class that I feel have a real chance of jumping into the blue-chip defensive end conversation with a strong 2018, and Darrell Taylor is the first of the two. Taylor’s problem is with his consistency. When he is on in a game, he shows elite speed, flexibility, variance and creativity in his initial moves, and effectiveness in his counter moves. However, when he is off, he completely disappears for games at a time. Superstars are superstars because they show up for every game and excel in every game. If Taylor can play at the high level he’s capable of playing at for 90% of his games in 2018, then he could find himself as a top-10 pick next April. If not, he could fall well into Day 2.
Jabari Zuniga, Defensive End, University of Florida
6'4", 257 pounds
2018 Stats: 45 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks
Zuniga is fun to watch and will be a favorite for many fans paying only a little bit of attention to the draft process. Physically, Zuniga is impressive and will have himself quite the highlight reel when all is said and done. That’s because he’s strong, can accelerate quickly to a fast top-end speed, is explosive out of his stance, has good hands to beat tackles when engaged. What will keep him down a bit on my board is that he is not mentally where he needs to be at this point in his career. Zuniga routinely misreads plays, meaning he will show up on highlight reels for other teams, too. What is also concerning is that Zuniga frequently misjudges snap counts and is far too often the last one out of his stance by a considerable amount. In college, he can catch up once he starts moving, minimizing this fault. However, in the NFL, when quarterbacks are releasing the pass three seconds after the snap, spending the first half-second of that play still in your pre-snap stance is going to render him ineffective. If Zuniga can match his mental game to his physical game, he can be special.
Nick Coe, Defensive End, Auburn University
6'5", 291 pounds
2018 Stats: 26 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 1 forced fumble
At the end of the day, mostly all of the non-Brandon Weedens in college football are just kids. While Nick Coe is still a kid, he has the body of a full-grown man beast. It’s pretty obvious that his game is predicated on power and length. Coe is similar in that way to Clelin Ferrell, but with a little more power and a little less speed and technique. Ultimately, I think Coe’s best position is going to be 3-4 defensive end, where that length will be put to the best possible use. He might not have the speed to beat offensive tackles, but his length can keep guards away from him and use the adequate speed he does have to his advantage.
Marlon Davidson, Defensive End, Auburn University
6'3", 278 pounds
2018 Stats: 46 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks
The defensive line for the Auburn Tigers is basically a poor man’s version of the defensive line for the 2018 Clemson Tigers. They may not have the top-end talent of three first rounders, but they have four players who could be taken before Day 2 (Big Kat Bryant, all-name team inductee, it the fourth and not listed here). Davidson is going to come from the other end position opposite Coe, and the player I see when I watch Coe is Solomon Thomas. Davidson plays aggressively and has the strength and athleticism to beat college offensive tackles, but that might not be enough to beat offensive tackles in the pros and get to the quarterback. Instead, I can see Davidson excelling as a pass rusher coming from the inside where he will beat interior offensive linemen with an athleticism they rarely see. He just doesn’t have the length and long speed to win consistently on the edge.
K'Lavon Chaisson, Defensive End, Louisiana State University
6'4", 238 pounds
2018 Stats: 5 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 sack, only played 1 game
Remember how I said that there were two players that could push themselves into the blue chip conversation with good 2019 seasons? Chaisson is the second of that group of players. Now, looking at his 2018 stats, I think it is pretty clear that what is keeping him from being in that conversation is an ACL injury he sustained in the first game of 2018. However, if you liked Brian Burns, you're going to love Chaisson, because Chaisson is an even better player when he is actually on the field because he already plays with more power than Burns. Chaisson is the complete package, showing power, speed, counters, bend, and polished technique in his limited snaps as a true freshman in 2017 and his one game in 2018. Chaisson can do it all when healthy. The question is whether he actually is healthy.
Joe Gaziano, Defensive End, Northwestern University
6'4", 275 pounds
2018 Stats: 4 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
Gaziano is a productive and talented pass rusher in one of the best offensive line conferences in the country. He isn’t the fastest, nor the strongest, but he is masterful with his hands and technique to catch offensive tackles off balance and scoot by them. He is also one of the better run defenders in this class. Really, there isn’t much to say about Gaziano. His lack of top-end athleticism likely limits his ceiling, but he's the type of prospect drafted on Day 2 that comes in and provides 7-9 sacks a season and plays for 13 years.
Raekwon Davis, Defensive Tackle, University of Alabama
6'7", 312 pounds
2018 Stats: 55 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks
The name you'll hear thrown around a lot with regards to Davis is Deforest Buckner and Arik Armstead due to the easy size comparisons. However, Davis is not as good of a pass rusher as either Buckner or Armstead was in college, but that might be because he just couldn’t beat Quinnen Williams to the quarterback. Regardless, Davis is one of the best run stuffers in this class, and did have good production in 2017 as a pass rusher (8.5 sacks). The issue with Davis is similar to the issue with a lot of large linemen, and that’s, when asked to play in a phone booth on the inside, offensive linemen can get into him too easily and stop him from penetrating. This is partially the reason why I believe Deforest Buckner is primed for a big season playing in a wide-9 alignment, and also why I believe Davis’s best spot might be as a 3-4 DE, where he can operate with a bit more space and use his length to his advantage.
Derrick Brown, Defensive Tackle, Auburn University
6'5", 318 pounds
2018 Stats: 48 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
Brown is likely my DT1 heading into the season and the closest thing this draft has to another Quinnen Williams. Brown is a disruptor who lives in the offensive backfield. Brown has good speed in addition to his brute strength and exceptional technique, but he is also a big DT. This means Brown is more along the lines of a Fletcher Cox than an Aaron Donald, but that is still a player 32 teams wish they had. Brown’s combination of strength, length, and technique gets him past most any interior offensive lineman he'll have to face at Auburn, and will likely be enough to get him past plenty of offensive linemen in the NFL, too.
Robert Landers, Defensive Tackle, Ohio State University
6'1", 283 pounds
2018 Stats: 25 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack
Landers is just a bowling ball, being shorter than most defensive linemen but still with plenty of girth. Landers is small and sneaky, and plays with quickness, leverage, and finesse that many interior linemen don't see on a consistent basis. His issue, of course, is that if he can’t scoot by an offensive lineman, he’s going to have a tough time escaping. This likely limits Landers to more of a pass rushing role than a 3-down role, but a defensive tackle who can pressure the quarterback is always going to have a place in the NFL.
Rashard Lawrence, Defensive Tackle, Louisiana State University
6'3", 317 pounds
2018 Stats: 54 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4 sacks
Lawrence is a stout run defender, first and foremost. Lawrence excels at spotting gaps and closing them quickly. When he is in the gap and 1-on-1 with an offensive lineman, he's tough to beat. This is because Lawrence has some of the best hand usage in the class, and couples that with being explosive off the ball. However, he doesn't quite have the moves to counter if the hand fighting doesn't work, and certainly doesn’t have a counter to being double teamed. Lawrence 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. Because his success seems to depend on the skill of the guard blocking him Lawrence is very much an all or nothing type prospect at this point in his career. He either dominates an inferior guard or disappears against an equal or superior guard.
Javon Kinlaw, Defensive Tackle, University of South Carolina
6'6", 305 pounds
2018 Stats: 30 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 5 passes defended
Kinlaw might have the highest ceiling of any player, because his deficiencies aren’t anything physical or mental. Instead, Kinlaw is the ultimate definition of a player who relies on athleticism rather than technique. Kinlaw is explosive out of his stance, has incredible strength, and has surprisingly good long speed for a player his size. He reads plays well and won’t get caught by misdirections, options, or play action. The issue with Kinlaw is that he has no counter move in pass rushes, seems to only try bull rush moves as opposed to utilizing his explosive speed, and has a lot of surface area for blockers. This deficiency makes Kinlaw one-dimensional and severely limits his game. One thing I do like about Kinlaw is he throws his hands up into throwing lanes when he does get beat. He is shorter than Raekwon Davis, but had 5 passes defended compared to Davis’s 0. He may be the most athletically gifted defensive tackle in the draft, but really needs to clean up a lot of things in his play to get the most of that.
SMALL SCHOOL SLEEPERS
Patrick Johnson, Defensive End, Tulane University
6'3", 255 pounds
2018 Stats: 49 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
Johnson started his college career as a 3-4 defensive end, and played that position with plenty of effort but not much success. Johnson didn’t have the power to beat interior offensive linemen from a three-point stance, and his athleticism and long strides were mitigated by playing such a position. Last year, Johnson made the switch to 3-4 OLB. He started slow and didn’t tally a sack until week 4, where he truly came into his own against Ohio State with a sack and TFL. From there, he didn’t look back. Johnson finished the season with impressive numbers, and the fact that he put up some of those numbers against a team as good as Ohio State goes to show that he isn’t simply dominating inferior competition. Johnson is the highest rated returning edge rusher in his conference according to PFF, and was the fifth overall edge rusher in college football last season. Johnson finished 2018 with a whopping 44 quarterback pressures, showing that he is consistently getting to the quarterback and finishing a good percentage of the plays he does provide pressure on. I’m excited to watch Johnson on September 7, 2019, when he will square off against Auburn in his toughest pre-Bowl Game matchup of the season.
Ralph Holley, Defensive Tackle, Western Michigan University
6'2", 275 pounds
2018 Stats: 28 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
By all accounts, Holley is a very mature and hard-working kid. He’s a similar size as Robert Landers, but plays very strong and puts a lot of force in his hands when making moves, giving him more functional strength than a defensive tackle getting a lot more recognition than Holley this offseason. This makes sense, as Holley took boxing classes in the offseason before 2018 to work on his hands and quickness. This paid dividends last season with a very productive season. Holley combines the quickness and athleticism you expect from a smaller defensive tackle with the power you’d expect from a much larger individual. I have faith that Holley’s game will translate to the NFL and that he will be a very good defensive tackle for many years.
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