Finishing up on my top five positional rankings for this upcoming NCAA football season, we switch over to the defensive side of the ball. Once again, these lists are about where those guys stack up as college players – not as eventual draft prospects. So the criteria I base them on is the tape I watched on them the last couple of seasons and the jump I project them to make this year. With that being said, I can’t help but look ahead to some degree, since I could easily see eight defensive players drafted in the top ten next April and most of them should be on the D-line.
1. Nick Bosa, Ohio State
To let you know that I am not fooling around here, let me say this – Nick Bosa is more naturally talented than his brother Joey. The reigning Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year has a tremendous get-off, the ability to bend around the edge as well as to overpower his opponents and then he has the agility to change directions and mirror athletic quarterbacks. In the run game, Bosa can stack blockers and squeeze gaps as well as anybody in the country. As a pass-rusher, he has a feel for how offensive linemen are leaning and takes advantage of that with the grip strength to yank them out of the way. Nick may not string his arms and lower body together quite as well as his brother yet and gets caught ball-watching at times, but this guy is without a doubt a top three player in the nation.
2. Rashan Gary, Michigan
Similar to Bosa, the expectations for Rashan Gary as a number one overall recruit were sky-high and he is starting to live up to them. As a freshman he already had a significant role, but last year as a full-time starter he turned into a monster for the Wolverines. Standing at 6’5”, 285 pounds Gary is an athletic freak with the burst, power and balance to cause offensive linemen in the Big 10 nightmares. The Michigan D-lineman is a little slow off the snap, but explosive in his get-off, displays violent hands and a good pull to complement it. The coaches involved him in a lot of twists and lined him on interior plenty. Gary is far from fulfilling his potential as he heavily relies on his physical gifts rather than technique, which is limited to bull-rushing and the chop-rip. It’ll be interesting to see how he improves in that department and what he can do without Maurice Hurst doing the dirty work on the inside.
3. Clelin Ferrell, Clemson
A member of Clemson’s ridiculous defensive line, Ferrell controls the point of attack in the ground game and can change angles to squeeze gaps or widen the edge against outside plays. He doesn’t mind burying his shoulder into a pulling guard either to mess plays up. If you want to see where Ferrell is at this stage of his development as a pass rusher, watch his 2017 Auburn tape. He couldn’t really get going early on, but then all of a sudden he gets a great jump off the snap, performs an excellent chop-rip and then flattens to the quarterback for a strip-sack. That’s when he looks like one of the elite players in the country and he won with multiple moves after that as well. But for everyone of those, there’s a couple where he ends up standing straight across the offensive tackle. Ferrell’s snap anticipation puts tackles at a disadvantage at times already, but I want to see wasted movement on those hesitation moves and more refined technique out of him.
4. Sutton Smith, Northern Illinois
This guy had a 2017 season for the ages. Smith topped everybody in the nation with a whopping 30 tackles for loss and was tied for first with 14 sacks. In addition to that, he forced and recovered three fumbles respectively, scored two touchdowns and produced a ridiculous 64 QB hurries on 439 rushes, earning PFF’s highest grade among edge rushers in all of college football. What makes those numbers even more impressive is the fact he did so at six feet, 225 pounds. At that size, he brings a burst around the edge that your typical base end can’t match and it’s tough for those tall tackles to put hands on him. He loves those quick inside moves as a pass rusher, which he counters with a hesitation combo back to the outside. At his stature, he can’t just control the point of attack in the run game, but the NIU coaches allowed him to stunt inside with a teammate cleaning up RBs bouncing and stuff like that.
5. Montez Sweat, Mississippi State
Sweat was a highly recruited player by Michigan State originally, but had two disappointing years and left for personal reasons. After a year at juco, he moved on to MSU and ended up leading the SEC with 10.5 sacks in his first season with the Bulldogs. Sweat is a very long and lanky D-end at 6’6”, 245 pounds. While he looks pretty lean, he has much more power than you’d anticipate, which he uses to stand offensive tackles up and then he has a feel for those guys overcommitting when they try to recover. His coaches at Ole Miss have already been very creative with him, involving him in twists and loops or lining him up at dime-linebacker originally and then bringing him down to the edge late. Sweat has outstanding agility for his build to be able to break down and redirect once he reads the action in the backfield, but he defers to dipping his shoulder into run-blockers and gives up contain a few times.
Honorable mentions: Chase Winowich (Michigan), Zach Allen (Boston College), Anfernee Jennings (Alabama)
Interior defensive line:
1. Ed Oliver, Houston
When I did this list a year ago, I already said that if I had to choose one player in college football to start my NFL franchise with, I would pick Oliver and that hasn’t changed this time around. The Houston D-tackle’s combination of power, quickness and overall athleticism is just out of this world. When you have a talent like him, it’s rare that he puts in the same kind of effort that other guys do, but Oliver is relentless worker off the field and hustles his ass off on it. He can deliver quick penetration against the run or flatten down the line if the play is going away from him. As a pass rusher Oliver needs to be more decisive, but you see the flexibility, the cat-like quicks and the ability to put guys on skates. He just needs to put it all together and rush with a plan, because he definitely brings the effort to win on secondary moves and run QBs down.
2. Christian Wilkins, Clemson
I wasn’t completely sold on Wilkins after his first two years with the Tigers, but last season I thought he made an enormous jump. The 310-pounder emerged as a leader for the Clemson program and was a much more impactful player for them. Wilkins has edge-rusher like get-off, which puts blockers at an immediate disadvantage, and he has the ability to knife through opposing offensive lines. The two-time first-team All-American is at his best when slanting into gaps and wreaking havoc in the backfield. The Clemson coaches line him up all over the defensive line and often times he is truly coming off the edge. While I think he is still too passive as a pass rusher and keeps himself buys with the blocker at times, he has ridiculous bend for an inside guy and he flashes a deadly spin move, plus when the ball comes out quickly he chases down receivers from behind.
3. Dexter Lawrence, Clemson
The fact that Clemson has two defensive tackles, who could be top ten picks in 2019 is unheard of. Considering that I was much higher on Lawrence than I was on Wilkins a year ago, makes this even more stupid. After a monster freshman outing, in which he collected 6.5 sacks and 8.5 TFLs, Big Dex was held to a couple each in 2017. However, he recently said that he “probably played at 45-50 percent” due to a blocked nerve and has now been practicing with an extra pep to his step since July. That’s scary for ACC offensive linemen. When healthy, Lawrence and stack and shed blockers in the run game with ease. He drew constant double-teams and still found a way to get on the stat sheet. Watching his 2016 tape, you see the upper body strength to yank pads around, craftiness as a pass rusher and the effort to win late on plays.
4. Raekwon Davis, Alabama
After a rather quiet freshman campaign as a four-star recruit, Davis followed that up with an All-SEC selection thanks to 8.5 sacks and 69 total tackles last season. He became a terror for opposing offensive linemen over the final games of the regular season and in the playoffs. At 6’7”, 305 pounds, Davis has off-the-charts athleticism for an interior defensive lineman. Unlike most Alabama guys in the trenches, he is not just a pure space-eater against the run, but he actually tries to create penetration and he has the grip strength to shade one way and then pull himself to the opposite gap by the pads of the blocker. When rushing the passer, Davis can kind of slip blockers and keep his balance despite having his body torqued different ways. All he needs to do is develop some type of snap anticipation and hit that initial club or chop at a higher rate.
5. Jeffery Simmons, Missisippi State
When I first watched Simmons play, I thought he would become the next defensive superstar. The Bulldog has an extremely powerful upper-body and frees himself from blockers consistently with a strong club to knock their arms away. He constantly gets under the pads of the guy lined up across from him and controls the mesh point. Not only is he disruptive in the run game, but he also put up the second-highest pass-rush productivity by an interior D-lineman, only behind Michigan’s Maurice Hurst, according to Pro Football Focus. The craziest part about his game is the balance he displays with his pads twisted and him leaning so far into one direction, you’d expect him to hit the ground, but his jersey appears to be clean at the end of every game. While I don’t think he is nearly where he is capable of being at, you just feel like Simmons has the upper hand in terms of physical tools against anybody and he already has shown the ability to be a game-changer.
Honorable mentions: Dre‘Mont Jones (Ohio State), Derrick Brown (Auburn)
1. Devin White, LSU
There are more accomplished linebackers in the NCAA, but I would take White over any of them heading into this season. He was a first-team All-SEC and second team All-American selection as a sophomore, recording 133 total tackles, with 13.5 going for a loss. White is the catalyst for the Tiger defense. He plays with an attitude and swagger, isfeather-light on his feet and has a jump to his step. The LSU backer has no troubles getting depth after stepping up against run-fakes, shows tremendous pursuit and has the speed to show up anywhere on the field. White displays elite closing burst and is an explosive hitter. He is comfortable covering guys out of the backfield well as getting after QBs, as he has a feel for where the open lane is. Even though he has enough size to take on blockers, White prefers to get things done with speed and overruns some plays, surrendering cutback lanes and he can be manipulated by the QB’s eyes and pump fakes.
2. Mack Wilson, Alabama
In a weird way, all those great linebackers for Alabama in recent years first put their name on the radar with a big hit and after Reuben Foster and Rashaan Evans, Wilson delivered a monster hit on kickoff coverage against Texas A&M as a freshman in 2016. Last year as a sophomore he fought through a banged up foot, but didn’t fail to produce impact plays and looked healthy once the CFP began, making his mark on them by recording 18 combined tackles, two sacks and a pick six. Wilson has the ability to read the play flat-footed and then shoot out of his stance like a missile. He has a way of getting through traffic and like those other Bama backers, he arrives at the target with some thump. The Tide backer doesn’t mind going through the chest of a guard on his way to the guy with the ball and brings the short-area burst to the table that enables him to undercut hook routes. Wilson needs to improve the speed at which he recognizes plays, as he lets blockers put hands on him at times before he really knows where he wants to go. Yet, he has the talent and toughness to be the dynamic alpha dog the Tide seem to have every year.
3. Devin Bush, Michigan
After being a special teams demon for the Wolverines as a freshman, Bush stepped into the starting lineup on defense in 2017 and was a game-wrecker for the Maze and Blue off the get-go, as he recorded seven tackles and two sacks versus Florida in the season-opener. Overall he amassed 95 total tackles, with ten of them going for loss, 5.5 sacks and seven pass-deflections. Bush is an aggressive, downhill thumper, who can also play in space. He displays tenacious pursuit and loves to lay some wood on people. Yet he’s not a guy who just buries his shoulder into the opponent, but rather actually runs through his tackles. He has a feel for where things will open up and goes in an instant to create negative plays. The Michigan backer had an incredible interception versus Wisconsin. At sub six feet and 220 pounds, there are some limitations, but Bush is dangerous at coming on those delayed blitzes and rushed off the edge a bit as well.
4. Cameron Smith, USC
This young man was an impact player ever since he first suited up for the USC program, earning Freshman All-American honors and he has been the heart of the defense ever since. In 2017 Smith amassed 112 total tackles and 11 of them happened in the opposing backfield. The first-team All-Pac-12 member shows great pursuit, recognizes plays quickly, trusts his eyes and goes with a purpose. He shoots gaps and creates a bunch of negative plays. He is an excellent open-field tackler, who drives his legs through contact. Smith gets into this zone, in which his eyes start getting bigger and he can intimidate opponents. He will squeeze through gaps, change angles, run around people and through them just so he arrives at the guy with the ball eventually. He completely took over the Utah game, collecting 16 tackles and a pick. The SC backer might not quite have the sideline-to-sideline speed of those other three guys, but he is a damn good football player.
T.-5 Joe Bachie, Michigan State
Nobody really expected Sparty to make a run for the Big Ten before the start of the 2017 season, but the emergence of quarterback Brian Lewerke and linebacker Joe Bachie as the cornerstones on offense and defense respectively all of a sudden changed things. Even though they had their dreams crushed in blowout fashion against Ohio State, the Michigan State program looked way ahead of schedule. Bachie’s strong play and leadership as a sophomore were the main reason for the defense holding opponents to 20 points per game. Over the course of the 2017 season, Bachie recorded 100 tackles and three picks. That guy is an extremely instinctive and aggressive linebacker, who puts his helmet on the ball and drives his legs through contact. Sometimes it seems like the MSU backer is in the backfield so fast offensive linemen can’t even put hands on him and he lights up running backs after they just took the handoff. He was a three-star recruit because he is no premiere athlete, but it doesn’t really show up on the field.
T.-5 Paddy Fisher, Northwestern
This young man came in for Northwestern and was a monster as a freshman after a redshirt year, recording 111 tackles, nine for loss, four fumbles forced and a pick, while taking over as the program’s leader of the future. Fisher says he models his game after Luke Kuechly and is reminiscent of his head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was a two time All-American and Bronco Nagurski winner himself. Fisher plays with a tenacious attitude and tackles people like a bear. He chases after ball-carriers with ferocious pursuit and truly is a sideline-to-sideline playmaker. The Wildcat cornerstone never goes less than full speed, sorts his way through traffic and rarely lets the guy with the ball escape. Fisher needs to take on blockers with better extension to keep vision on the backfield, but he has strong arms to take down ball-carriers trying to run past him. In an upset over Michigan State he had 14 solo tackles.
Honorable mentions: Shaquille Quarterman (Miami), T.J. Edwards (Wisconsin)
1. Jaquan Johnson, Miami
For a Hurricane defense that feasted on turnovers and putting on that chain, Johnson was a turnover-machine with four interceptions, two forced fumbles and another one recovered. The second-team All-American seems to always be around the football and was named the team’s most valuable player in 2017 from the safety spot. While he has experience covering deep, Johnson played a lot in that robber role for Miami and consistently punished receivers for trying to go over the middle. Johnson is an elite run-defender from center field as well as basically an extra linebacker in the box and he shows no fear of taking on bigger bodies as they try to block him. The Canes DB tracks the eyes of the quarterback and is not afraid of letting receivers run by him. He constantly buries his shoulder into opponents to knock the ball loose, but at times he wants to take somebody’s head off so bad, that he forgets that he has arms to wrap up and misses some tackles due to it.
2. Lukas Denis, Boston College
BC has put out a couple of excellent safety prospects in recent years when you look at Justin Simmons and John Johnson, but this young man will be the best among them. Denis started his collegiate career on the outside but moved to free safety in 2016. He had a ridiculous junior season, in which he intercepted seven passes and deflected another ten. He also recorded 83 tackles and forced two fumbles. The Eagles’ DB is an extremely fluid athlete in space, who wants to keep his shoulders parallel and be in position to break different ways for as long as possible. He lines up in the slot and has experience covering one half of the field, but Denis is his best as that rangy centerfielder with exceptionally well-coordinated feet. Either he gets his hands on the ball in the air or he punches through the ball when setting his tackles. Denis doesn’t show a lack of interest to tackle people, but at 185 pounds he simply lacks some size to bring down bigger bodies.
3. Andrew Wingard, Wyoming
This guy is a maniac on the football field and I love it. Wingard presents muscular frame at six feet, 210 pounds and is that hybrid defensive back, who can line up as the single-high safety on one snap, drop down into the box and cover backs the next and then finally comes off the slot on a blitz. The 2017 All-Mountain West selection in 2017 attacks upfield like crazy and led the country in run stops in 2017 among DBs. I’ve seen that dude put fullbacks on their butt in the hole. In his three-year career with the Cowboys, Wingard has amassed 367 total tackles, with 22.5 of them going for less and he has forced five fumbles. He Hhas experience covering tight-ends and slot receivers, intercepting a career-high five passes last season and comes in with tremendous pursuit as a blitzer. The only thing Wingard lacks is elite top-end speed, but with how ferocious he is at chasing after people, it doesn’t really show up.
4. Taylor Rapp, Washington
This guy has been a key-piece to the Washington defense ever since he first stepped on the field for them because of the versatility he presents. Similar to Budda Baker a couple of years, Rapp lines up all over the field for the Huskies and makes his presence felt. He is splash-hitter, who deliver big shots over the middle of the field and along the sidelines. Yet, he still wraps up on his tackles. Rapp goes through people on his way to the ball – sometimes even from his own team. The first-team All-Pac-12 performer in 2017 has recorded five interceptions in 26 career games. He has experience running with slot receivers across the field and completely lays out to get his fingertips on balls that seem out of reach. Rapp also picked up a couple of sacks last season, where he has shown tremendous snap anticipation. However as a deep safety I’m not a hundred percent sold on the range he presents.
5. Mike Edwards, Kentucky
Edwards impressed his coaches as a freshman and started the final five games of the season. Over the last two years he has started all 26 games, in which he recorded 196 tackles, seven interceptions and 15 pass-deflections. Edwards slips by blockers and forces negative plays (9.5 tackles for loss since 2016). He is a textbook tackler, who is very reliable in the open field. The Wildcat safety is very hands-on in man-coverage and has quicks to stay attached to receivers out of their breaks, although he will have some flags thrown against him. He was also sent off the edge quite a bit. Edwards can be fooled by pump fakes and sometimes lets them take him out of the play completely. Nevertheless, he comes up huge when his team really needs him, sealing two games with an INT last season, he plays with tenacious pursuit at all times and daps his teammates up constantly.
Honorable mentions: Marvell Tell (USC), Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (Florida), J.R. Reed (Georgia)
1. Greedy Williams, LSU
This dude is an All-American shutdown corner with elite size at 6’2”. Williams recorded six interceptions over the course of the 2017 season and knocked down another nine, despite offenses stopping to throw his way at some point. In the Citrus Bowl, Notre Dame barely targeted him, but once they got “greedy”, he punished them with an INT. The LSU corner allowed the second-lowest passer rating in 2017 at 22.9. Williams plays with a serious swagger and while he is very good in off-coverage, he is outstanding in press, where he can impose his will on pass-catcher off the snap. He gets extremely physical and uses a ton of stack technique. The Tigers DB tackles receivers coming across the field into his area, but he is not the type of guy who will jump on piles. As a cover-guy however he is incredible and has a unique gift of being able to play the receiver and turn his head around at the last second to locate the ball.
2. DeAndre Baker, Georgia
The Bulldogs needed a true number one corner to take the next step and DeAndre Baker proved to be that guy last year. He doesn’t quite reach six feet, but has very long arms. The Georgia DB won’t give away the coverage his defense is in and shows different looks to keep quarterbacks on their heels. Baker trusts his eyes in zone and is aggressive in man. Unlike a lot of defensive backs, he really gets his paws directly on the ball instead of just ripping through whatever they can grab. He does a nice job using the sideline as his friend and pushes receivers into the boundary, as he loves to play press and keeps sticky coverage, even when his man crosses the entire field. Watch his tapes versus Missouri or Mississippi State – he was all over their receivers for 60 minutes and I don’t think you can put a single reception by them onto his account. While he can be bodied by bigger wideouts and gives up contain on a few occasions when trying to cheat inside, he surrendered a passer-rating of just 32.7 overall in 2017.
3. Mark Gilbert, Duke
After limited playing time as a freshman, Gilbert exploded in 2017, intercepting six passes and knocking down another ten, while allowing a completion-percentage of just 38.3 on 60 targets. The young man they call “Gilbert Island” is 6’1’’ and makes some tremendous plays down the field. Last year he intercepted or deflected 26.7 percent of the passes thrown his way. Gilbert has the speed and quickness to stay glued to receivers all over the field. He trusts himself to stay with receivers in trail technique and plays through the hands of those guys once the ball arrives. At his length he displays tremendous change of direction, so he can really stick his foot in the ground and drive on the ball. However, he lacks some physicality as a run defender right now at 175 pounds, so he will need to add to his frame.
4. Julian Love, Notre Dame
This Irish corner already appeared in every game as a freshman, but became a household name last year. Not only did he take two of his three interceptions back to the house, Love was also tied for second in the country with 18 passes defensed in 2017. He plays a ton of off-coverage and is an instinctive playmaker at that corner position, who keeps his eyes on the quarterback, anticipates route patterns and is not afraid of undercutting different routes around him. When guys catch the ball in front of him he doesn’t wait for them, but rather aggressively finishes tackles for minimum gain. Love attacks so quickly upfield out his backpedal, that he even contests simple slant and hitch routes. While his height falls under the six feet mark, he is a smooth athlete, who competes for the ball in the air.
5. Kris Boyd, Texas
Boyd already saw quality action in his first two years with the Longhorns, when he appeared in 20 games, but he turned into one of the premiere cover-guys in college football in 2017, when he intercepted two passes and knocked down another 15. At six feet, 200 pounds he doesn’t shy away from physicality one bit. He fights for the ball in the air and forces a lot of passes to fall to the ground, going through the receiver’s hands. While I like him best in press-coverage, Boyd has no problem turning his hips in cover-three against vertical routes and quickly gets himself in perfect position to high-point the ball from the inside shade. He does a nice job passing on assignments and making things easier for the safety behind him and when nobody enters his zone, he can still drift downfield. Boyd is a iolent hitter and willing run-supporter, who isn’t scared of anybody. He might not have elite long-speed, but he damn sure had enough to expose guys like Texas Tech’s Dylan Cantrell and Oklahoma State’s Marcell Ateman, who he got very physical with.
Honorable mentions: Lavert Hill (Michigan), Michael Jackson (Miami), Byron Murphy (Washington)