After talking about the top centers and guards a couple of days ago, I want to take a look at the guys matched up against them. In this category I include everything from true nose tackles, over 3-tech penetrators to base defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme. Even though I judge each of them individually about where I think they can and will play, something I’m really excited about when discussing this group is the versatility they offer. The NFL doesn’t really look for many 350-pound rocks in the middle, they want guys who can push the pocket and make quarterbacks move off their spot as well destroying running plays by showing up in the backfield.
1. Jonathan Allen, Alabama:
This is truly a man amongst the boys and he leads by example. Allen can line up anywhere from the edge to the zero-technique and he’s had a lot of success wherever the Alabama coaches asked him to. He is monster against the run, whether that is standing up guards or penetrating plays right from the get-go. At the same time, he is a tremendous pass-rusher for his size, with the dip of the shoulder similar to edge rushers as well as the power of a nose-tackle to drive blockers right into the quarterback’s lap. He has a strong club with either hand, the agility to get around the blocker and arrives at the quarterback with some thump. Allen looked like superman on a play against Texas A&M where he swimmed by the guard and leaped over the back in protection to bury his helmet in the QB’s chest. The winner of the 2016 Bednarik award for the nation’s top defender to me was the most dominant player in college football last year, putting up 16 TFLs and 10.5 sacks. I think at the next level he’s a natural fit at 3-4 defensive end, but he can line up all over the line on passing downs and doesn’t take any plays off even if he stays on the field for an entire series. He’s not very long and there have been some reports about the health of his shoulders, but whoever drafts Allen will get a monster presence and leader in the middle of their defense for years to come.
2. Solomon Thomas, Stanford:
A former part of the Cardinal, Thomas combines an ultra-quick first step with excellent use of the hands and has left guards standing around while blowing by them. He can probably play anywhere from a 3-gap penetrator to a 3-4 outside-linebacker. He shows violent hands when defending the run to stack and shed, but he also reads screens very well. Thomas completely dominated in the Sun Bowl against North Carolina stuffing runs in the backfield, chasing Mitchell Trubisky around and finally sacking him on the second-to-last UNC drive in the fourth quarter and the two-point conversion attempt to tie the game. I think he’d be at his best as a defensive end in a slanting 3-4 scheme, where he can slide inside on passing downs to be an almost unfair matchup against guards because of his quickness. He has a little offside problem and might be a bit undersized, but he uses that natural leverage on blockers and dominates them. Another thing that jumped out to me was how quick he redirects his feet and chases ball-carriers around. The Stanford star plays all-out on every snap and I just love his motor.
3. Malik McDowell, Michigan State:
This guy’s potential is off the charts. Actually, I’d see he has the tools to become the best overall player in the entire draft. McDowell played everything from 1- to 7-technique and could never really develop into any position, which tells me he must expand his pass rush repertoire. For a 6’6’’ interior D-lineman he has an unbelievable anchor and only gets pushed off the ball when his pads get high. He has shown he can push offensive linemen back on bull-rushes, but at Michigan State he relied too heavily on the club-swim move. Often he was the only threat as a pass rusher and still produced even though entire gameplans were designed against him, heavily double-teamed for the majority of sixty minutes. McDowell showed too much frustration at times because he did his job, but there were still big plays made against his team. I think it was more about that than just not wanting to put the effort into it. I could see him as a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive end who can be moved around on passing downs. If he has his mind right and coaches maximize his potential he could become one of the most dominant defensive players in today’s game.
4. Caleb Brantley, Florida:
To me Brantley clearly is a 3-gap penetrator. When he plays fresh he’s special, but he gets sloppy with his pad-level and doesn’t hustle as much when he gets tired, resulting in only half a sack and 2.5 TFLs in 2016. He has impressive initial quickness, but at times you see him get driven back in the ground game or simply standing around at the line of scrimmage when his pass rush doesn’t work right away. On the other hand, I’ve seen him arm-over guards and destroy plays as soon as the ball is snapped or catch running backs at their legs before they can even accelerate to any degree. When you watch his tape against Florida State you feel like he’s a top ten pick. I think Brantley has all the potential in the world and the disruption qualities of nobody other than maybe Solomon Thomas, but he will need some NFL coaches that kick his butt and improve his conditioning. He needs to bring it every snap in every game. If somebody finds a way to make him play that way he will frustrate offensive coordinators.
5. Montravius Adams, Auburn:
This man is a handful against the run with great burst and knowing only one way to go – forward. One of the things that makes him so disruptive is the way he understands the idea of attacking one shoulder of the blocker instead of presenting his chest and giving the opposition an area to attack. Something he will have to work on will be keeping his eyes up and extending his arms to see what’s happening in the backfield. Although he shows one of the most powerful frames coming into the draft, he displays crazy quickness for his size, especially at the Senior Bowl, where he whipped people in one-on-ones, before running a 4.87 in the 40 at the combine at just over 300 pounds. He struggled with his consistency as a junior, but really turned it on his final collegiate season, where he brought much more effort snap-to-whistle throughout games. On tape, I didn’t see a lot of pass rush-moves to win late on reps, but I was really impressed by what he did in Mobile, when he didn’t solely rely on the bull-rush, surprising me with some excellent spin-moves.
6. Chris Wormley, Michigan:
Wormley presents a wide frame and comes out of his stance with the desired pad-level. He can play up and down the line and simply has a way of getting blockers off balance before fighting their hands off and putting pressure on the quarterback. At this point I think he uses his hands better than teammate and first-round candidate Taco Charlton and makes sure his blocker doesn’t get another shove at him by finishing with his off-hand on the that guy’s back. The Michigan tweener creates plays on secondary efforts, shrugging blockers off and jumping onto people. Against the ground game he has the shock in his hands to stand up blockers and the body control combined with leg drive to push them into piles and take away running lanes. Wormley has also made himself a name of blocking kicks. While he doesn’t really scare anybody with his burst around the edge, I see him more as a base-end who can slide inside on passing downs. I think he has the bring it more consistently, in terms of finishing plays, but he has shown quick wins off the snap and defensive coordinators will appreciate his versatility just like Michigan’s DC did.
7. Jaleel Johnson, Iowa:
This dude flies off the ball with excellent leverage. He has the brute strength and violent hands to take on double-teams as well as constantly pushing the pocket with a powerful bull-rush. Johnson mainly lined up at the one-technique for Iowa and was their rock in the middle over the last two seasons. At times, he had snaps where he ran through his blockers and stood up the pulling man to completely throw running plays off. He has the ability to take games into his hands, displayed by back-to-back sacks against Wisconsin’s excellent offensive line. The Hawkeyes’ D-tackle isn’t very twitchy and doesn’t really show anything as a pass rusher initially other than power, but I love his style of play and his production has steadily grown over his collegiate career (10 sacks as a senior in 2016). He might not win a lot of pass rush reps clean, but his hands rarely stop to move. Some scouts question his motor, but he was out on the field almost every single snap and was asked to defeat double-teams throughout the game. When he is lined up one-on-one and is fresh he can dominate people.
8. Dalvin Tomlinson, Alabama:
This guy was kind of the unsung hero on Bama’s historic defense. He’s a double-team specialist with brute strength, but also has some upside pushing the pocket. His play his technically sound – he keeps his pads low, recognizes plays early, stacks and sheds blockers. He’s a former weightlifting champion and chases people around even at 310+ pounds. Something that’s not talked about enough is how much he helped the Tide’s pass rush by being the first man on twists, grabbing and twisting offensive linemen to set up his teammates and give them free runs to the quarterback. Tomlinson had ACL surgeries on both his knees in high school and lacks explosive traits to get around blockers in the pass game, but he doesn’t mind doing the dirty work and should get on the field on early downs as well as making stunts work.
9. Larry Ogunjobi, Charlotte:
As a part of the Charlotte 49ers’ start to the football program, Ogunjobi has excellent quickness and burst. He excelled in a one-gap, up-the-field scheme, but he has experience all over the defensive line. He leaves the college as the all-time leader in tackles, tackles for loss, QB hurries and sacks for the Charlotte program. I really like his lateral agility and how he can throw blockers off with great upper-body strength and powerful hands as well as outstanding leverage. He simply has a way of slithering through the pocket to get to the passer even if it takes multiple efforts. Ogunjobi played hard all the way into the middle of the third quarter against Louisville even though they were blown out 56-0 at that point before his coaches took him out. He’s not very long and he doesn’t possess the frame to put on much more weight, which could lead to him being overpowered by the strong men in the NFL, especially when double-teamed, but he understands when to shed his blocker and get the ball-carrier. His lack of elite competition at Charlotte will be questioned by scouts, but he absolutely looked like he belonged in Senior Bowl practices and he shows the hustle coaches love.
10. Carlos Watkins, Clemson:
What I think of when talking about Watkins is the fact he can be very disruptive, but he benefitted from playing on a talent-filled defensive line. He shoots his hands inside the O-linemen’s chest and keeps his arms extended to control and read. He has strong overall upper body and rarely gets moved in the run game by just one person. As a pass-rusher he can simply overpower his blocker and take that guy with him on the way to the quarterback. The Clemson D-tackle has experience in various stunt-schemes and dropping in curl zones, but he comes in with a very limited pass rush arsenal, not using his quickness or any counters enough at this point. Watkins has had a fair share of struggles against double-teams not attacking low enough and lacking some anchor qualities. He has proven to be clearly better as a rotational defender. When he’s fresh he can frustrate people and when paired with the right D-line coach he could build on his 10.5 sacks as a senior.
Just missed the cut:
Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA:
I found it pretty hard to evaluate this guy. People were really high on him in his first two years at UCLA, but then he got injured in his first game of 2015. The year after he simply wasn’t the same player, not really displaying an active style of play. Here’s what I know: Vanderdoes was pretty much immovable in the run game and quick as a pass-rusher from 2013 to 14. He is great with his hands to shed blocks late when O-linemen lean too much into him in the ground game and pull ball-carriers down. Since the season ended he thinned down from around 330 to 305 pounds. Now he simply looks so much more athletic. He ran a 4.99 in the 40 at the combine and looked so much quicker and more athletic in Senior Bowl practices. In one-on-ones, he got around blockers with ease, but also showed he can still drive them back on bull-rushes. He might not be quite the rock he was when 25 pounds heavier, but I don’t have any doubt he can anchor in the run game. The biggest problem I have with him, outside of his 2016 tape, is that he seems to get out of control a lot as a pass-rusher. If his knee is completely back healthy and he’s in shape he should be a Day 2 pick, if not he’s a pure run stuffer and space-eater.
Nazair Jones, North Carolina:
Jones possesses a think, but athletic body build. He keeps his pads low, fights his way through contact and can get skinny to slip through to the QB. Moreover, he plays with a ton of effort, often catching ball-carriers at their legs from behind and forcing a multitude of negative plays. Naz had just five sacks during his three-year career at UNC, but many times collapsed the pocket in a way that didn’t show up in the stat sheet. He was the leader of the Tarheels defense and played his best in their Bowl game against Stanford. Something he must get better at is reading and reacting to plays as well as having a better plan as a pass rusher. I think he’s a natural fit at defensive end in a 3-4 scheme and put up better numbers as a pro than college player.
Vincent Taylor, Oklahoma State:
Taylor has some problems with his pad-level, but he gets off the ball and has some strength in his hands. He presents a wide frame, is very hard to knock off balance and has the strength to simply throw blockers off. For Oklahoma State, he mainly lined up at nose, not only in a zero-technique, but also shedding one shoulder. He uses a quick swim-move to get around blockers, but doesn’t really possess a plan a pass rusher if the swim doesn’t work, because of which he was often subbed out on third down. Too easily he lets center reach him, not working his way down the line enough on zone-plays. If he does he forgets to extend his arms and loses track of the ball-carrier. Taylor might have been the better player, but he was definitely outhustled by his teammate with the number 90. The production is there (7.5 sacks and 13 TFLs in 2016), but if he doesn’t play lower to the turf he won’t have much of a chance against NFL offensive linemen.
Jarron Jones, Notre Dame:
A former part of the Irish, Jones does a great job fighting through blocks and penetrating right from the get-go, often abusing centers and guards on zone-plays. He wins by attacking one shoulder of the blocker, instead of presenting a square target. At 6’5’’ he has excellent length to keep vision on the backfield and he has a quick arm-over move in his arsenal. Jones had a monster game against Miami in 2016, which triple-teamed him on a play early in the first quarter after racking up TFLs on consecutive snaps before that. He’s not nearly the same player when the blocker controls him head-up and he can’t play one side, but his production doesn’t add up to his talent at all. With only one full year of experience and a ton of missed time due to Lisfranc injuries most people will be scared off by this prospect, but his potential is sky-high.
Elijah Qualls, Washington:
This guy can be an explosive athlete for his size with short arms, but really powerful hands. He uses a very wide stance with both hands on the turf on base downs, but gets into a more aggressive one on passing downs. Qualls was constantly double-teamed as a senior and kind of drags offensive linemen as a pass rusher before shrugging them off. I think he must be more aggressive on a play-to-play basis, often just standing around on quick drops, but l like his hustle to chase plays downfield. He shows questionable weight distribution that leaves him off-balance, leading me to think his playing weight should be 10 pounds under what it was at Washington, and he gets too high with his pads. At times, he wasn’t nearly the most disruptive defensive tackle on his team and I think he should be used as more of a rotational player who comes out of his tracks with a purpose.
Ryan Glasgow, Michigan:
This guy is just a good football player with very heavy hands. He is excellent at swiping the blocker’s arms away and getting in position and he is an all-day sucker who will make offensive linemen tired throughout the game. The brother of Lions guard Graham Glasgow has a strong base to defeat double-teams and the length-strength combination to simply run through reach-blockers. He’s not a very agile athlete and doesn’t really push people into the QB’s lap. I don’t see a dangerous pass-rusher, but the Michigan D-tackle displays the non-stop motor to break the will of the opposition at some point.
Right behind them:
Tanzel Smart (Tulane), Charles Walker (Oklahoma), DeAngelo Brown (Louisville), Isaac Rochell (Notre Dame), Davon Godchaux (LSU)