After looking at the five best players at each offensive position a week ago, I want to do the same for the other side of the ball. Once again, this list isn’t a prospect ranking for the pro level, but rather my scouting report for the college players at this point. I came up with those names as a combination of what the players would be able to do regardless of their school and how well I think they play in the scheme of their defense.
1. Arden Key, LSU
This guy has a chance to be the best pure pass rusher LSU has ever had. Key really flashed as a freshman and put those skills on paper last season as he collected 12 sacks over the year. He has an unreal first step and strings together the club with the rip- or swim-hand extremely well. The Louisiana defender possesses the quickness to get through traffic almost untouched on inside slants and he has also flashed a tremendous spin-move to counter at times. He’s still growing as a run defender in terms of holding his ground, which is in large part due to his weight of just under 240 pounds, but he doesn’t mind throwing around his body to create a mash in backfield and he clearly has the speed to pursue from the back-side. Key consistently makes an impact on every game he plays in and should be a top five draft pick if he continues to get better.
2. Harold Landry, Boston College
The number two edge rusher to me at this point clearly is Landry. He knows how to dip his shoulder and get under the blocker, can run the edge on a great angle and has the speed to get around his man. The BC defensive end doesn’t overrun the quarterback when working his tackle and can take advantage of when that guy is on his heels by pulling him to the side and taking a direct path to the passer. Not only does he have the quickness to get off the line of scrimmage, but he also shows the long speed when hustling ball-carriers down from behind. Landry just needs to match his hand-work with the relentless attitude he plays with in general.
3. Bradley Chubb, N.C. State
Chubb has good thickness throughout his body. He can put his hand in the dirt and hold his blocker at the point of attack or knife through the O-line as well as dropping into coverage or shadowing some guys out of the backfield, but most importantly – he can get after the passer. When he does so he displays excellent bend around the edge, but he’s most effective when using his power to bull-rush his man. The Wolfpack edge rusher gets swallowed up inside a bit when there’s a couple of bodies, but he really shined to me when dominating Vandy’s left tackle Will Holden in 2016, who I thought was a top ten tackle prospect in this weak recent draft class as a technically sound four-year starter in the SEC. If Chubb works on relying less on his talent and more on technique he’ll easily be a first-round pick next April.
4. Josh Sweat, Florida State
The newest FSU star edge rusher has a great get-off, but he needs to get better at using his hands to keep tackles off his body. Sweat has experience standing up and dropping in some coverage. He can really take advantage of his speed to convert it into power and is dangerous on inside stunts, but too often last season he stood there with his blocker trying to find the quarterback by looking around his man, instead of going through him. The Seminole D-end has the burst and can shed blocks, he just needs to put more attention on the details to be dominant. When he does get a good club on the tackle’s arm and continues to work his hands, he has shown he can be that guy. Sweat reminds me of NFL rookie Tim Williams from Alabama.
5. Dorance Armstrong, Kansas
This Jayhawk defensive end really chases plays from the backside hard. Armstrong is threatening on inside slants and counter-moves. He has an explosive first step and some wiggle to him when rushing the passer. A big plus for me when watching his games was the fact he has a motor that lasts through four quarters. With ten sacks, 20 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles he really jumped onto the scene last year. It’s not easy to gain recognition as a pass rusher when coming from a basketball program, but Armstrong’s reputation will continue to grow when making plays against the big-name schools.
Best of the rest: Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard & Tyquan Lewis (Ohio State), Marcell Frazier (Missouri), Marquis Haynes (Ole Miss), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (Oklahoma), Clellin Ferrell (Clemson)
Interior Defensive Linemen:
1. Ed Oliver, Houston
This is one of the most impressive freshman defenders I have ever watched. His combination of quickness, speed and power is out of this world. The difference between him and some other dudes is the fact he doesn’t rely on his talents, as he shows excellent pursuit and never stops working. All of that makes him absolutely unblockable at times. Oliver gets under the pads of his opponents and throws them to the side when he needs to. I was convinced of what a special player he is when I watched him dominate versus Oklahoma last season. In the fourth quarter of that game he just ran through the line, looped around a guy and still caught Baker Mayfield from behind. On another one he dropped back and sprinted all the way to the sideline to bring down Joe Mixon. If you don’t go into a game with a plan to do everything you can to at least slow the Houston D-tackle down, he will destroy you. If I had to draft someone first overall right now this would be my guy.
2. Dexter Lawrence, Clemson
Lawrence can stack, shed and fill the gap better than anybody in the country. He gets off the snap and shows excellent upfield burst. The Clemson DT takes on double-teams constantly and still finds a way to hear his named called by the field commentators. When singled up, he shows he can push blockers around as if they were little kids. As a pass-rusher he’s very crafty and doesn’t try to dance around with his man. Moreover, he displays secondary efforts when trying to get to the quarterback, working to pull the blocker away or spin off him. The Tigers have one of the best front-fours in college football and Lawrence is the guy who really makes them go and gives his teammates a better chance to win their matchup.
3. Christian Wilkins, Clemson
The second-team All-American defensive lineman gets off the ball like an edge guy. He can really knife his way through the line of scrimmage and is at his best when slanting into gaps and wreaking havoc in the backfield, where he finds the guy with the ball. Wilkins mainly plays base DE in the Tigers’ 3-4 scheme, but slides outside on passing downs when they bring up another player. I think his most natural position would probably be the 3-tech though. The Tigers star flashes great bend and a devastating spin move for a guy at that size, but he is still too passive on a few passing downs and keeps himself busy with the blocker. What I appreciate about him is the fact he hustles players down from behind after short passes.
4. Da’Ron Payne, Alabama
The new star Alabama D-lineman dominates against the ground game, keeping his body off the blocker, and has the understanding plus agility to shed him and bring down the ball-carrier. He shows great pursuit for a 320-pounder. Payne has extremely quick hands and pairs those with the appropriate footwork to get around the blocker. The behemoth displays his power on some occasions when he drives guards three yards into the backfield, completely busting up plays. He’s not the kind of monster Jonathan Allen was a year ago, but he’s a rock against the run and is a much better pass-rusher than he gets credit for.
T.-5 Maurice Hurst, Michigan
Hurst wasn’t a starter for the Wolverines in 2016, but he played starter minutes and at that level too. He holds his ground versus double-teams and keeps working to slip through them eventually. The Michigan DT understands the concept of attacking one shoulder of the blocker and is super-aggressive shooting the gaps with a low pad-level. He lines up everywhere from the nose guard position out to the three-technique. Hurst is a high-energy guy, who consistently flashes on tape. Let’s see if the coaching staff rotates their defensive lineman as much this year as they did in 2016 and if this guy can keep up the effort with more playing-time.
T.-5 Lowell Lotulelei, Utah
Lowell comes in the shape of his brother Star on the Panthers. The younger defensive tackle gets great push in the passing game from his 1-technique and barely ever moves backward against the opposing ground attack. The Utah beast has an outstanding combination of quickness and power to penetrate in the backfield. He’s most successful with a quick swim move to get by the blocker. Lotulelei works his way down the line on zone plays is the key cog to the Utes defense. He should only become more dominant from here on out and be a high draft pick in 2018 as well.
Best of the rest: Vita Vea (Washington), Dre’Mont Jones (Ohio State)
1. Micah Kiser, Virginia
This guy is a seek-and-destroy player. Kiser tackles with great leg drive and stays on his feet. He led the ACC with 250 tackles from the 2015 to the 2016 season, but also filled the rest of the stat sheet with 14 total sacks, 24 TFLs, eight fumbles forced and four more recovered. The heart of the Cavaliers defense shows outstanding football IQ and can recover from eventually falling for a play-fake. He packs a punch when arriving at his target, but can get himself in trouble when letting a blocker engage with him. Kiser might not stand out athletically, but he makes up for it with smarts and effort.
2. Malik Jefferson, Texas
I believe Jefferson is at his best when seeing the opening, shooting through it and shutting down plays right away, but sometimes he’s still too passive and lets the play develop too much. When he does get involved right away he shows that he’s really good at slipping blocks and combines wrapping up and twisting down his opponents to get the job done. The Longhorn standout has the potential to rack up tackles on multiple consecutive snaps and he arrives there with some thump. Jefferson plays off the edge quite a bit for the Texas defense and stays very disciplined in terms of keeping outside containment. He should already be number one on this list if he plays with a little less hesitation.
3. Azeem Victor, Washington
I really like Victor’s movement in space and aggressiveness towards the ball. He looks more like a safety, who can play in the box, but also has the speed to drop 15 yards deep. The Huskies new dawg seems to find his way through traffic and takes adequate angles towards the ball-carrier. He uses those skills as a blitzer on passing downs, where he is hard to block due to his sudden movements and quickness. Victor often puts his hand on the ball when wrapping around the ball-carrier. While certainly undersized, the Washington LB finds a way to not let opponents exploit him because of that. It would be interesting to see what he looks like against some power-run SEC teams, but he’s perfect for the Pac-12.
4. Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
At 6’5, 250+ pounds, Edmunds has unique measurements for the linebacker position. He shows up all over the place with great sideline-to-sideline speed. Against the run he likes to shoot gaps and not get caught up with blockers, as he will be coached up to keep his body from theirs by extending those long arms. In pass-coverage he has his eyes glued on the QB and follows them before using his length and short-area burst to react to the throw. The Hokies linebacker has been very effective on stunts and twists. Moreover, I think that size could come in handy as a blitzer or simply rushing off the edge.
5. Jerome Baker, Ohio State
Baker really stood out to me when I watched Raekwon McMillan’s tape for the draft in April, as he seemingly always came up with big plays. He has the speed to run stride for stride with backs and tight-ends, but needs to play a little smarter as of when to get his hands up versus the receiver or to not only follow the eyes for the QB, but also be aware of where his targets are. The newest Ohio State star linebacker has the range to come down on throws into the flat from his curl-zone and break on the ball as well as the loose hips to drop diagonally and flick them to get upfield. I’m sure he will be more fundamentally sound and read his keys with experience, because once he figures this whole thing out he could make game-changing plays in every game.
Special mention: Jake Cichy, Wisconsin
If Cichy didn’t tear his ACL in practice a little more than a week ago one, he would probably have been my number one linebacker in the nation. A former walk-on, who I didn’t even know about when he got on the field the first time for the Badgers, Cichy didn’t let me wait very long to realize what kind of a great player he is. He’s a tremendous run-stuffing linebacker for Wisconsin, who brings a lot of special stuff with him on passing downs. He’s smart in coverage and has a knack for getting to the quarterback as a loss. He just has that it-factor.
Best of the rest: Josey Jewell (Iowa), Cameron Smith (USC)
1. Jaire Alexander, Louisville
Alexander displays very loose hips to open up and run with his man, but also has the quick feet to change directions and react to a break. He plays sticky coverage throughout games and will accelerate upfield against the run to slip under his blocker and force the ball-carrier inside. The Louisville star is great at punching at the ball and knocking it loose at the last second. He has a gift of undercutting throws and get his hands on the pass. Alexander shows outstanding make-up speed and ball-skills. His lack of presence was clearly felt in week one versus Purdue, where the Cardinal defense was not nearly the same without him.
2. Tavarus McFadden, Florida State
The FSU corner is used for most of the game in man-coverage. He can play press or off and relies more heavily on reading the hips of his receiver instead of trying to take him out of his route. McFadden doesn’t really stop the ball-carrier in his tracks when tackling and has to wrap his arms around the opponent more frequently. He can lose the race against sprinter-speed at times, but he has an extra gear to make up for it late as well as the length to get his hands on the ball if it’s not thrown perfectly over the top. My only real problem with him at this point is the fact he’s not really interested in coming off his island and getting involved against the run.
3. Denzel Ward, Ohio State
With Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Malik Hooker being first-round picks earlier in April the Ohio State secondary needed a new alpha-male and Ward is doing all he can to be that guy for them. He already rotated a lot with their other two corners a year ago, but he will be a full-time starter in 2017. Ward is excellent at playing the ball in the air and getting his paw in-between the hands of the receiver. The new Buckeye shut-down corner might not possess the athleticism of Lattimore or the size of Conley, but he plays with excellent technique, most impressively turning his head and finding the football in the air.
4. Adonis Alexander, Virginia Tech
Coming from a school that produces outstanding DBs every year, Alexander plays tight coverage throughout plays when lined up in press and turns his head around with the receiver to get his hands on the ball. He’s not afraid to come up and tackle and can separate receivers downfield from the ball with a good hit. I’m a huge fan of the swagger and confidence he plays with and even though Virginia Tech has three really good cornerbacks, Alexander to me is clearly the best one right now. He was all over the receivers late in the season opener versus West Virginia and basically was responsible for the Hokies holding off their rival.
5. Jordan Thomas, Oklahoma
Thomas is very aggressive with his receiver towards the break and frequently blows up screens towards his side, but he trusts his keys and doesn’t simply guess. He has the long speed to run stride for stride with some of those speedy wideouts, and understands how to play down and distance. The Sooners lockdown-corner dominates the line of scrimmage most of the time and makes his receivers sloppy throughout the contest. He can play the ball nicely when he sees things develop in zone coverage, but is asked to match up with the other team’s number one receiver for the majority of games. Thomas makes it a priority to finish his tackles, but he struggles to get off blocks when he lets somebody get in his frame.
Best of the rest: Anthony Averett (Alabama), Iman Marshall (USC), Duke Dawson (Florida)
1. Derwin James, Florida State
To me this guy the best overall player in college football. James displays excellent versatility. He’s a dangerous blitzer off the slot and doesn’t give the offense a clue about what he’s doing, leading to 4.5 sacks in his only full season as a freshman. He can play high or low, covers different interior bodies in the passing game and is an outstanding open-field tackler. James was used as a spy linebacker vs. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts in the season opener at times and excelled at doing so. The new FSU star doesn’t hesitate to come up and lay some wood. He shows great change-of-direction skills and pursuit. Moreover, he uses his length very well to take away passing lanes when rushing the passer or put a hand in front of the receiver.
2. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
This is one of my favorite players in the country. Fitzpatrick can line up in various spots and took over for Eddie Jackson at safety last season, making the transition from the cornerback spot look flawless. This Bama swiss-army knife plays single-high one snap and covers the slot one-on-one the next. He’s aggressive towards the ball constantly, which especially shows up when he goes through his blocker on the way to the ball-carrier. Fitzpatrick plays the ball in the air exceptionally well and has soft hands to pick off a bunch of passes (six in 2016). He also knows what to do with the ball once it’s in his hands. The Crimson Tide defender would absolutely be an All-American at CB if he still lined up there (as well as being number one on my cornerback list) and some NFL scouts probably entertain the thought of a move back there, although you have to use all his skills to your advantage.
3. Quin Blanding, Virginia
Blanding moves around a lot pre-snap. He reads his keys, starting with the offensive line, slips blockers and attacks his targets low. He likes to get involved when his teammates are on the tackle and dishes out some big shots along the sideline. The Cavalier safety is an excellent last line of defense with secure tackling skills. He doesn’t panic about getting beat deep and therefore rarely gets turned around by receivers. Blanding is excellent in man-to-man coverage against the slot as well. He returned to the program to help them win a bowl game after an All-ACC season and I’m already exciting to watch more of his tape after evaluating for the 2017 draft already.
4. Kyzir White, West Virginia
The first thing that stands out about this dude is the fact is a tremendous blitzer from the safety position, especially when chasing run plays off the edge from the backside. White is a safety/linebacker hybrid for West Virginia. He is ultra-aggressive in run support and against screens, but doesn’t give up his responsibility. He could probably start at corner as well with his skills in man-coverage. White is the tone-setter for the Mountaineer defense as well as a selfless player, who will give up his body to set up teammates. He’s long strider who will show up around the ball quicker than you’d expect.
5. Ronnie Harrison, Alabama
The other Alabama safety has a jump to his step and an attitude to his game. Harrison is a hard hitter and very secure tackler. He has the speed to keep stride with receivers and stays on their hips with good technique. The Tide dynamite has nice length and uses it well to wrap around receivers and knock the ball down. He sometimes tends to cheat when taking on a block and loses contain, but that will go away with Nick Saban yelling at him on the sideline. Harrison has some bonus versatility, as I really like him as a dime linebacker, where the coaching staff lined him up occasionally in 2016 and should try more often this season.
Best of the rest: Armani Watts (Texas A&M), Jordan Whitehead (Pittsburgh), Jessie Bates (Wake Forest)