Having talked about the top interior offensive linemen on Tuesday, we move back to the defensive side of the ball with their direct opponents. Unlike many mainstream pages I am not differentiating between outside linebackers, defensive ends and defensive tackles, because the job descriptions don’t match a lot of times. A base D-end in a 3-4 has completely different responsibilities than one in a 4-3 who is primarily an edge pass rusher and those are way more similar to actual outside backers that line up on the edge than actual stand-up backers. Therefore you will find my rankings on edge rushers here next week and this edition includes all interior D-linemen, meaning anything from head-up on the offensive tackle to true nose tackles lining up across center.
I don’t remember the last time we had such a talented group at the top. Three of them will probably be selected in the top 20 and up to nine of them could be top 50 overall prospects, with one being so talented that he might go in the first round despite possibly not being available at all for the 2019 season. For me, I don’t consider current injuries in my positional rankings. You will find their impact on my big board once I’m done with every position. Most of these guys project as upfield penetrators, who will be asked to play one gap and create problems for opposing offenses, even if their schemes or teams’ needs didn’t allow them to do that at the collegiate level. With the amount of sub-packages and hybrid defenses, true fits aren’t as important as long as you can be a disruptive player and help out your team. I will refer to many of them as “3-techniques”, meaning they line up on the outside shoulder of the guard and only play that B-gap in base sets.
1. Quinnen Williams, Alabama
Only a third-year sophomore, Williams was kind of the unsung hero on that Alabama front early on, but became undeniable over the course of this last campaign. With 19.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks and a boatload of disruptive plays, he was named an AP first-team All-American and finalist for a multitude of the biggest awards in college football- His meteoric rise has taken him from another one of those Alabama D-linemen to a consensus top three prospect in this upcoming draft.
Williams completely eats up the run game and had to deal with double-teams constantly, primarily leaning up in the A-gap. He was pretty much unblockable from the start of the 2018 season on. Williams seems to have the balance and core strength of a 350-pounder, but is just around that 300 mark. He knows how to position his body to create leverage and own the point of attack, but also has the quickness to quickly disengage and create negative plays himself. You constantly see him recognize blocking schemes and work over the top of blocks on plays that are going the opposite way and sometimes even flatten his angle to force the ball-carrier out of bounds all the way on the opposite sideline. With how much he lined up at true nose last season, you saw him just jack up centers and drive them almost into the handoff to completely mess up the play. At the same time he has experience two-gapping, as he stacks up the blockers and throws them off to reach out for the ball-carrier once that guy is in range.
This guy really put the heat on opposing quarterbacks last season. He has excellent quickness to get around blockers as well as the power to go through them in the passing game. Williams doesn’t necessarily use a very aggressive stance on passing downs, as he puts more weight on him legs and doesn’t come off the ball very low, but that enables him to diagnose the protection scheme and almost react to the way offensive linemen use their sets and punches. He got a bunch of instant pressures arm-overing a guard or center and closing in on the QB, while also getting skinny through the gap by turning his pads and dipping that near-shoulder to minimize the area to grab. The monster D-tackle isn’t selfish either, freeing one of his fellow linemen on twists as the primary slanter, where he actually grabs the jersey of the blocker, who would be responsible for his teammate going over the top.
Williams simply is extremely disruptive in all facets of the game and plays with a motor that enables him to make an impact late on plays. He was just unreal at LSU, when the Tigers paid extra attention but he still wouldn’t be slowed down. One play that stands out from that game was a sack on Jue Burrow, where Big Q used a quick swim to knock away the hands of the guard, but simultaneously used that second hand to initiate another arm-over to get by the tackle sliding over, all while flipping his hips and stepping through the space to free himself up and throw the QB to the turf. All around this guy’s ability to link his feet and hands together is unbelievable. He is so instinctive when it comes to countering blocking schemes and he always seems to have a feel and plan for what is coming. Williams was the most dominant player in college football for 2018. He led all interior D-linemen in sacks (nine) and quarterback hits (16) while playing nose tackle for the most part. What he did was absurd and he earned PFF’s highest grade among all players,
If there is any critique on him, it’s that he had just one really special season, but you can’t blame him for not dominating as a redshirt freshman already. Sometimes you see him line up inside the guard and then try to go outside the tackle on the backside of run plays, instead of just crashing in. With how high he gets on pass rush snaps, Williams’ chest is a little exposed and NFL O-linemen will take advantage of that more frequently with shots to the ribs.
I don’t think there are any limits to what this kid can do thanks to his combination of athletic traits and instincts to react for the position. I have seen him two-gap in the Crimson Tide’s scheme, he can shoot upfield and be a penetrator, he fits any front and has the all-around game to be a three-down player who displays supreme effort for 60 minutes. The way his upper and lower body are linked together and how he fluidly transitions into movements is Aaron Donald-esque.
2. Ed Oliver, Houston
Unlike most five-star recruits, Oliver decided against going to one of the Power Five school in favor of his hometown Houston Cougars. He was one of the most impressive freshman defenders I have ever watched, earning first-team All-American honors off the bat with a crazy 22 tackles for loss, five sacks and six pass-knockdowns. Oliver was even more disruptive as a sophomore, putting up similar numbers while winning the Outland Trophy award for the nation’s top interior lineman. He ended up winning a third nomination as a first-team All-American last season despite appearing in just eight games and leaves the Cougars with 53 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, 11 passes defensed and five forced fumbles.
Oliver’s combination of quickness, speed and power is out of this world. He is a physically imposing player, who gets under the pads of his opponents and throws them to the side when he needs to. Often times he gets past his initial blocker, hits a lead-blocker and still gets a hand on the ball-carrier. Oliver has just been dominant in the run game, backed up by the Pro Football Focus’ numbers, which say that he had the highest run-stop percentage (23.8) of any interior defender in 2017 and he continued his dominance in that area last season. Out of the necessity he played a lot of nose and shaded 1-technique, but when you get your hands on him as an NFL coach, you want to put him in a situation, where he can get up the field and feast on one-on-one blocking.
The star D-tackle has worked heavily on his ball get-off and is now consistently the first one off the snap with unbelievable initial quickness. I don’t think it’s fair to compare Oliver’s pressure and sack numbers to some of the other guys on this list. He played so much in the A-gaps and had a guard sliding his way as well as playing with less talent around him, that you have to look more at the skill-set and potential as pass rusher, rather than the pure production. However, he did have by far his best pass-rushing season in 2018, recording 26 pressures on just 270 attempts. Oliver aims at the shoulder plate of the blocker and simultaneously rips or swims through with the other arm if he doesn’t just drive a guy into the quarterback’s lap. He uses some very unique moves as a pass rusher, occasionally almost jump-cutting by a guard. He gets into a two-point stance quite a bit on passing downs.
The difference between Oliver 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. There is just no stop to his motor, whether he can run plays down from the backside or sprint all the way towards the sideline on screen passes. I have never seen a guy size that was so light on his feet and with the way he moves and changes directions in the open field, he has fielded requests to work out at linebacker. I was convinced of what a special player Oliver was when I first watched him dominate versus Oklahoma in his first ever collegiate game. 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.
Him sitting out games late with no obvious injuries and that sideline altercation he had with his head coach Major Applewhite for wearing an official team jacket reserved for active players has left a little bit of a bitter note in the mouths of some evaluators. When it comes to his work on the field, Oliver gets caught up fighting with blockers and having the ball-carrier run past him at times. With the way he just runs into a block and tries to demolish a guy, he can be sealed on the back-side instead of trying to fight over the top of that point. Overall I think his hand-work needs some refinement and I want him to be a little more pro-active in that aspect in general, while showing better understanding for blocking schemes. He has had his troubles with offside penalties and plenty of those came on third down.
Oliver was the consensus first overall pick before last season and he was on his way to his best season yet, but somehow I have seen him fall out of the top ten in mock drafts frequently and I have no idea why. Yes, his commitment to his team can be questioned and that confrontation with his coach was a bad look, but we are not killing Nick Bosa for deciding not to return for his final games when the Buckeyes still had a shot to make the playoff. Oliver showed up at the combine with 287 pounds to stop all this linebacker-nonsense and he will be a monster at the next level.
3. Jeffery Simmons, Mississippi State
As quickly as Oliver moved into the national spotlight as a freshman, Simmons was in the news even earlier but for a less positive reason. The former five-star recruit had a video reach the public in which he repeatedly punched a woman, but after paying her medical bills he was suspended for just one game and never had any other incidents during his collegiate career. As far as his play on the field goes, Simmons already flashed heavily as a freshman, yet he had two monster years after that, recording 30 tackles for loss, seven sacks, three forced fumbles and five pass deflections, leading to consecutive first-team All-SEC mentions.
Simmons has an extremely powerful upper-body and he plays with fire under his ass. He consistently gets under the pads of the guy lined up across from him and controls the mesh point. The 6’4”, 300+ pound defensive lineman has the upper body strength to throw around big guys and frees himself from blockers consistently with a strong club to knock their arms away, in order to smash ball-carriers coming his way by grabbing cloth. Simmons makes O-linemen chase him off stunts on the inside and often times they can’t get there quickly enough. He can also arm-over offensive linemen and flash in the backfield instantly and shuts down plenty of zone plays where locks out the blocker trying to put hands on him and hunt the back down the line. 31 of Simmons’ 35 solo tackles went for a defensive stop last season. Some teams ran traps to have tight-ends get a hit on his from the side because they knew he would kill centers and guards.
While being that disruptive in the run game, Simmons put up the second-highest pass-rush productivity by an interior D-linemen in 2017, only behind Michigan’s Maurice Hurst, according to Pro Football Focus and he recorded similar pressure numbers last season. The two-time All-SEC selection puts people on skates in the pass game and just ragdolls blockers into the quarterback’s lap. That is even more dangerous when he mixes things up with a quick-swim or push-pull move to free himself. He forced a boatload of holding calls and double-teams, while spending most of his snaps as an undersized shade-nose. Therefore his sack numbers don’t nearly reflect the type of impact he makes on pass plays. Moreover, Simmons has a feel for screen passes and stops his rush to find the recipient and track him down.
The monstrous D-lineman earned elite pass-rush and run-defense grade by PFF last season, showing his all-around contributions. The craziest part about his game however 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 all the time, but his jersey appears to be clean at the end of every game. Simmons completely dominated the LSU offensive line in and beat the hell out of everybody on the Kentucky O-line last year. Unlike most projected first-round picks who mail it in or don’t even play their bowl game, Simmons left it all on the field in the Outback Bowl versus Iowa, coming up with a tackle for a four-yard loss on the first defensive snap and ending that initial drive with a sack. That’s why it sucks so much that he had to tear his ACL during workouts and will lose a bunch of money because of it.
Even though Simmons was already a dominant player in college, he needs to avoid letting his pads rise and play with more extension in the run game, in order to give opposing linemen less of an area to attack. Yet, my big concern with Simmons is his tackling radius and ability to change directions. You see too many quick running backs elude him and quarterbacks get flushed but not chased down by him. I have no doubt that he can be a disruptive 3-tech at the next level, but he needs to do a better job finishing plays overall. There is not much of a closing burst and he kind of disappeared versus Georgia last year.
Regardless, Simmons is a badass player. While I don’t think he is nearly where he is capable of being at yet, you just feel like he has the upper hand in terms of physical tools against anybody and he has already shown the ability to be a game-changer. When he combines that jump off the snap and his unbelievable power, he can just blow up anything going on in the backfield. It will be interesting to see how far he falls after that injury, but purely based off tape he is a top ten prospect.
4. Christian Wilkins, Clemson
It will be tough to find a more accomplished college player than this kid. A former top 25 national recruit, Wilkins came onto the scene in his first year with the Tigers, earning Freshman All-American honors. He had a pretty good second campaign, but then made an enormous jump coming into his junior year, emerging as a leader for this Clemson squad and becoming a much more impactful player for them. His double-digit number of sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss and six broken-up passes during the last two years earned him consecutive first-team All-American honors. If the individual accolades weren’t already enough, he and his team went to the National Championship game three times versus Alabama and won two of them.
Wilkins gets off the ball like an edge guy and he even was lined up outside quite a bit his junior year. 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, as he finds the ball-carrier once he’s back there. Thanks to that quick first step, Wilkins often times beats the blocker to the spot and ends up just guiding them up the field or taking them with him, as the Tigers star cuts down a bunch of running backs by their feet. Wilkins fights his way down the line on zone plays and doesn’t let the blocker get anywhere inside his frame, while almost flattening like a linebacker towards the sideline. Brett Venables lined him up over centers on early downs quite a bit because his short-area quicks were tough for centers to deal with after snapping the ball. When double-teams are initiated, he turns his pads by 90 degrees to limit the push by playing through one shoulder or he doesn’t even let him get set up by splitting two linemen.
The emotional leader of the Clemson defense these last two years started playing base DE in the Tigers’ 3-4 scheme, but was moved around on passing downs when they brought in different guys his first two years, before transitioning to a four down-linemen front. Wilkins flashes great bend and a devastating spin move for a guy at that size. He is very fluid when he transitions from the arm-over swim move to dipping the inside shoulder for centers that are sliding over. He wins a lot with quick hand-swipe action and the appropriate footwork as a slippery pass rusher. However, if he rushes off the edge and a tackle a conservative kick-slide against him, he doesn’t mind going through that guy’s chest either. Wilkins has experience with different D-line “games”, running interior twists or looping outside on T-E action. What you love is the fact he even chases down some receivers on quick passes.
Wilkins and his fellow D-linemen returned for their senior year to win another National Championship and they delivered. That was a game in which the versatile defender left it all out on the field, creating havoc in the backfield with slanting and pushing through blockers. I wasn’t really sold on Wilkins after his first two years, but he really put it all together in 2018, when he decided to come back for his senior year despite being projected to be a first-round pick already. He ended the season with 46 QB pressures, 39 defensive stops and just one missed tackle, while ranking second-highest in both pass-rush productivity and run-stop percentage by Pro Football Focus.
For as good as Wilkins has been at the collegiate level, he lacks the length and anchor abilities to play in a scheme, where he is asked to two-gap. He has gotten much better in that aspect, but to me he is still too passive on a few passing downs and keeps himself busy with the blocker, where I would like to see him with a better rush-plan. Wilkins was playing along a talent-loaded front and rarely faced double-teams, especially with how the coaches moved him around. He struggled mightily against N.C. State’s Garrett Bradbury, who has even better quickness than him, and got reached or put on the ground on several snaps.
To me Wilkins is not like a Quinnen Williams who can play in any defense and dominate. He should benefit from playing on an aggressive upfield D-line and his most natural position would probably be 3-tech at the next level. I love the leadership qualities and the way he has improved every single year. Definitely a top-20 pick.
5. Dexter Lawrence, Clemson
If you are looking for a huge defensive tackle who can move in the draft this is your guy. That Clemson defense has had many highly sought-after recruits these last few years, but none were bigger than the Player of the Year in the state of North Carolina. It didn’t take Lawrence long to see the field, as he was named ACC Defensive Freshman of the Year after posting 79 tackles, 9.5 for loss, seven sacks and two blocked kicks. His play and production dipped in year two due to a blocked nerve, but he was still named first-team all-conference and received the honor once again in a healthier condition as a junior, although he missed the team’s playoff run after testing positive for PEDs.
At 6’4”, 340+ pounds, Lawrence has the ability to stack, shed and fill the gap better than anybody in the country. He quickly gets off the snap and shows tremendous burst through the line. Big Dex was asked to deal with double-teams constantly and still found a way to get onto the stat sheet quite a bit. When singled up, he shows he can push blockers around as if they were little kids and you see him make a few TFLs when there’s a center or guard trying to shield him on the backside of run plays. Lawrence does a nice job countering cut-blocks and keeping the opponent off his knees. Sometimes he is engaged with an offensive lineman and then comes with a sudden dip of the shoulder to create an angle to run down the line. He shows excellent pursuit for a guy his size and makes some tackles all the way at the sideline. The big man puts some ball-carriers in their own grave and missed just one tackle these last two years.
Lawrence is very crafty as a pass-rusher, who doesn’t waste much time dancing around in front of his man. His power is on display as a bull-rusher, while working to pull the blocker away or spin off him. Lawrence displays secondary efforts when trying to get to the quarterback. Back in 2016 as freshman, he was the guy, who I thought made everybody on this super-talented Clemson front-four. While he did have a sub-par sophomore season statistically, he displayed his dominance once again in the ACC Championship game versus Miami, when he recorded a sack and a pass-deflection that led to an interception and helped the Tigers hold the Canes to a little over 200 yards of total offense. The monstrous D-tackle does a nice job recognizing screen passes and taking away space. He might have only recorded a couple of sacks last season, but he added ten QB hits and another 21 hurries on 239 pass-rush snaps
Lawrence can play somewhat the role of a “big can of trash” on the interior against the run, but he loses vision on the backfield at times and does unnecessary spins in an attempt to find the ball-carrier. His dominance in a run defender is restricted by some inconsistency in his hand-placement, because there are some absolutely ridiculous snaps when he get it right. Big Dex was taken off the field on some third downs due to the incredible depth on the Clemson D-line. He should broaden his horizon as a pass rusher and work in more counter moves or he will be more of a two-down specialist with a primary role of clearing up space in passing situations by pulling cloth to occupy blockers.
The Impact in the middle of that defense for Lawrence went far beyond numbers. He barely saw any snaps with one-on-one blocking and was never really put into position to get any impressive numbers. I tend to throw away the 2017 film because he even said himself that he was around “45 to 50 percent” due to that blocked nerve, but he didn’t quite reach my high expectations for last year either. He could have put himself into top ten conversations from what I heard before the season.
6. Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame
Rated as one of the nation’s top offensive linemen out of Christian academy in Lousiana, Tillery made more noise at Notre Dame early on off the field and with some actions after the snaps. However, he emerged as a junior, recording 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss and was one of the disruptive interior forces in 2018, when he went for eight sacks, 10.5 TFLs, three fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks.
Tillery is very long for a defensive tackle, which helps him keep vision on the backfield when he extends in the run game. The 6’6” body has shown that he can hold his ground straight-up against the power run game already and still has room to add to his frame, while also being able to redirect very well for a big man and chase after people from behind. Tillery can hook his arm under the pads of an offensive lineman and run down the line to pursue the ball-carrier. The former Irish big man shows signs of winning with quickness and arm-over swim moves, as well as the ability to take advantage of blockers leaning one way and then pulling them to the side. His natural strength is very impressive and he shows some serious flashes.
As far as pass-rushing goes, I wanted to see more early wins from Tillery rather than trying to run through people and then get past late once that guy is completely off balance, and he looked like a different player in 2018. He displays a heavy club and a rapid follow-up on the rip, which he can also use after engaging in a bull-rush initially. Tillery grabs cloth and yanks pads, often placing the hand underneath the shoulder plate and getting offensive linemen off balance. He has those trees as arms to take away passing lanes. When he arrives at the quarterback, he delivers some devastating shots. He went absolutely nuts against a pretty good Stanford O-line when he racked up four sacks, with two of them coming on consecutive snaps. Tillery recorded 48 total pressures on just over 400 pass rushing snaps, earning himself Pro Football Focus’ fifth-highest pass-rushing grade among all interior defensive linemen in the nation.
While it changed for the most part in 2018, Tillery has stretches of shear dominance, but then somehow disappears again. He shows the potential to be an excellent run-stuffer, but inconsistent pad-level limit the actual output and he just bumps into people, which might be due to a lack of feel for blocking schemes. He will try to get around blockers too much at times and gives up ground in the process or shades one way and gives up an easy cut-back inside. Tillery’s pass-rush arsenal is very limited with about 90 percent of his moves being club-rip combos or some type of bull or push-pull and his angles around the blocker get too wide. The obvious red flags are his suspension as a freshman for undisclosed reason and the incident where he kicked a USC player. His worth ethic has been questioned in the past as well.
While there are areas that clearly have to be addressed, if he checks those boxes I like what I saw from him last season a whole lot. He played with a motor on a snap-to-snap basis and showed tremendous potential. Even though I think he might fit at base D-end in a 3-4 as well, Tillery should be at his best when he can one-gap and use that initial burst to put offensive linemen at a disadvantage off the snap.
7. Dre’Mont Jones, Ohio State
This Cleveland native started out as a basketball player and only got into football his last two years in high school. Despite the lack of experience, he was named first-team All-Division I and ended up being a four-star recruit. It didn’t take him long to make an impact for the Buckeyes either, being named Freshman All-American having started all but one game. After a rather disappointing sophomore campaign statistically, he blew up last season when he recorded 13 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, an interception and three fumble recoveries.
At 6’3”, just under 300 pounds, Jones is an extremely fluid athlete and his quickness is ridiculous. His first step in particular is off the charts and puts offensive linemen at an instant disadvantage. Jones can dip his shoulder, turn his pads and smoothly redirect. He really stepped up his game once Nick Bosa decided to shut it down for the year. He loves the arm-over swim to get into the backfield instantly, especially against angle- and zone-blocks, and he gets there plenty of times. Jones can get skinny to get through cracks on the O-line or step into the gap while slapping away the hands of the blocker and showing up for the running back to cut back inside.
I was blown away at the start of the 2017 season, when Jones absolutely destroyed the Indiana Hoosiers in their week one meeting, picking up seven quarterback hurries. When he knows the pass is coming his upfield burst is up there with the very best and he has club-arm ready. Jones flashes a breath-taking quick spin move for a big guy, which can save him even when his rush completely stalls. He doesn’t work in a proper bull-rush with extended arms, but when he has blockers on their heels, the Buckeye D-tackle can push them out of the way. While he did finally put up some sacks last year, those numbers still don’t nearly do him justice, as he has some games where he puts a lot of heat on opposing signal-callers. The inside penetrator also had a crazy pick-six off a shovel pass against TCU.
Jonas was absolutely dominant in stretches these last few years, but he has to be more impactful and consistent on a weekly basis. While it is fine that he prefers to penetrate instead of using stack-and-shed, when he misses that initial club on his swim move he gives up his chest and leverage, which offensive linemen can take advantage of and drive him back. Moreover he fails to disengage a lot. His pad-level is extremely poor, especially when you consider that he should have a natural leverage advantage. I don’t want to see him use spin moves against the run that often before the ball-carrier is even past the line of scrimmage either, especially against double-teams. Unless he goes with that go-to club-rip or club-swim combos, Jones is more of a reactive pass rusher and he can get pretty wide when he tries to get around his blocker.
To me this guy is probably a pure three-technique at the next level. Overall I just want to see him on the turf less and not have people get in his frame that often. However, his talents are off the charts and if you single him up he is hard guy to keep up with. Jones was the only player in the nation last season to play over 600 snaps and earn a PFF grade of over 90, as he recorded 52 total pressures.
8. Gerald Willis III, Miami
This former first-team All-American from Louisiana started his collegiate career at Florida, but was dismissed from the Gators for multiple transgressions after eight games a reserve. Willis saw action as a reserve once again when he transferred to Miami, but took a leave of absence to deal with family issues in 2017. When he returned to the team last season he was a different player, earning second-team All-American honors due to 18 tackles for loss and four sacks.
This kid finally had a full season in 2018 and dominated early on. At 6’2”, a little over 300 pounds, Willis has the heavy hands and anchor strength to control the point of attack, but also excellent quickness to be an inside disruptor. He shows very active hands with a powerful club and quick rip or swim to go along with it and has excellent balance for a guy his size. Willis creates problems with that quick arm-over swim-move off the snap combined with the feet to step round and get into the backfield. He also uses that go back-door on some running plays and chase down the ball-carrier. Willis ran a bunch of stunts on base downs and had some run fits, where he got to a spot and just stood in there. He created enormous havoc for the LSU offensive line in the season-opener and earned an elite run-defense grade by Pro Football in 2018 with 41 defensive stops.
Willis has a lot of twitch and wiggle for a guy his size. He uses what almost is a jab-step and crosses the face of guards with a quick swim to free himself and bury opposing quarterbacks. The big guy lined up at true nose with three down-linemen quite in a bit in passing situations and dealt with a lot of double-teams, yet still was an effective pass-rusher with 23 additional pressures to his four sacks. He can transition from one move into the other with another offensive linemen sliding over pretty fluidly at this point. Willis has experience with a bunch of tackle-tackle twists. Even though he had just two pass-deflections last season, he seems to have a good feel for when to put his paws up to take away passing lanes. Willis also shows a lot of hustle to chase guys down towards the sideline or jump on a pile late.
The biggest area for concern for Willis is the way he pops up out of his stance. He gets caught standing up when that swim move off the snap doesn’t land or he gets combo-blocked and someone gets under his rib cage from the side. A lot of times it seems like Willis is content with banging heads with those offensive linemen instead of countering the blocking scheme and allows himself to be shielded from the play. Chris Lindstrom and Boston College did a good job getting hands inside Willis’ chest and largely neutralized him. He is a little too much of a one-trick pony with that swim-move and lacks a quality counter, plus he stops his feet and rush while trying to look over his blocker in passing situations to find the quarterback at times. Willis has missed almost three seasons of college football due to injuries and personal issues and even last year he missed the Canes’ bowl game due to a hand injury.
This is a somewhat projection-based prospect with tremendous upside but very little tape to show for it. At times it seems like Willis is more about creating chaos than actually making plays, but his combination of quickness and power could make him a disruptive force along some team’s defensive line. If he works on coming off the ball with better leverage and knocks back people the way he is capable of more consistently, I really like him going forward with that violent style of play.
9. Renell Wren, Arizona State
Despite being a former four-star recruit and All-State pick from Saint Louis, Wren failed to make an impact through his first three years with the Sundevils, making just four combined starts and 38 total tackles during that stretch. He started to become a more disruptive force last season as a full-time starter 43 tackles, 4.5 of them for loss and a sack. However, it wasn’t due to those numbers that Pac-12 coaches voted him honorable mention all-conference.
Wren can be a very disruptive run-defender, as he has a lot of shock in his hands and often times pushes his offensive linemen a few yards into the backfield before the handoff has even happened. He plays with excellent extension and immediately stands up his opponents, grabbing cloth around the shoulder plates and pulling them off himself once the ball-carrier is around, who he wraps up and smacks to the ground in the process. Wren plays with consistent leverage and a strong core, flashing some plays where he puts 300(+)-pounders flat on their backs, with a couple of them coming in the Michigan State game last year. He lined up at true nose tackle in a four-point stance and gave Pac-12 centers fits off the snap. Wren incredible balance to withstand blows from the side on combo-blocks and holds his ground continuously, but also has the upfield burst to just mess things up before they can even get going at times.
The physical specimen has the pure power to push guards and centers back into the quarterback’s lap, while having the grip-strength to utilize push-pull moves and take advantage of how he puts those guys on their heels in the first place. While he doesn’t do it quite yet, he has the length and natural power to be a much more productive pass rusher overall. Wren shows excellent effort to chase around quarterbacks and when going after receivers after short catches. He was part of several stunts and twists inside as well as being used on loops to the outside quite a bit as well. Wren was even dropped into hook-zones on occasions and showed better than expected movement in space for such a monstertruck-type of player.
Wren allows himself to be reached and shielded from run plays even if it has the optics of a win on tape. He loses vision on the backfield at times when he is running down the line on zone plays and tries to spin out of it, surrendering easy running lanes. Overall he misses some opportunities for defensive stops by failing to disengage with more urgency. At times he just gets upfield and has a guard to guide him that way instead of holding the point of attack. Wren doesn’t show much of a plan as a pass-rusher, just running into people and not really displaying any secondary wins. I never really saw him rush half the man on tape and I think he would benefit from a go-to move outside of the bull rush. There are plenty of opportunities on tape, where he could easily knock down passes at line of scrimmage if he realized to put his hands up as well.
As raw as Wren is as a pass-rusher, he had some nice one-on-one reps through all three days of Senior Bowl practice, winning with pure power and push-pull moves. His physical stature is astonishing and the amount of natural power is off the charts, but he doesn’t yet use it appropriately in all areas. As probably the only player on this top-ten list, Wren’s best fit probably is base D-end in a 3-4 with the ability to slide inside on passing downs and a lot of room to grow on third downs.
T.-10. Khalen Saunders, Western Illinois
This former FCS standout was already well-known in the Missouri Valley Conference, as he was a first-team all-conference selection for consecutive seasons and an AP second-team All-FCS performer last year, having combined for 25 tackles for loss and 14 sacks over that two-year stretch. However, Saunders only got national attention when he became an internet sensation with his backflips at 320 pounds a couple of months ago. He wanted to show his athleticism at the Senior Bowl and when his wife asked him to stay in Mobile despite their daughter being born during day one of practice, he had a huge week and even celebrated with a little flip after the session.
Saunders displays outstanding athleticism for a guy his size. He showed he can punch, extend and disengage better than most FBS D-linemen and if he works on hand-placement and timing that should translate to the next level. He can also slip blocks with a quick arm-over or just pulling cloth against leaning offensive linemen, as well as going back-door on some blockers and flattening towards the sideline, where he shows incredible burst for a such a large man. Once the ball-carrier gets past the line of scrimmage, Saunders utilizes a quick spin move to chase down the running back from behind and actually makes some stops after just a yard or two. When he meets the ball-carrier in the whole, he wraps up and those two guys are going straight backwards. Saunders also shows a pretty good feel for blocking schemes and when to go over the top of an offensive linemen.
That explosiveness in his lower body that you see on his backflips also shows up when Saunders drives opponents back as a bull-rusher. He displays great power and an ability to take advantage of offensive linemen lunging by pulling them off balance. He also shows an excellent late spin to free himself. Saunders ran a bunch of T-E twists for the Leathernecks and even came off the edge from a two-point stance on occasions, where he shows a mind-boggling up-and-under move too. He has surprising wiggle for a big guy and just the way he moves around when the D-line is getting lined up late is impressive. He had a hilarious play versus North Dakota State last year, where the guard slid away from him and the running back tried to stand in there against him, but the defensive tackle just shoved him a couple of yards backwards to help clean up the sack. Saunders finished the Senior Bowl week off with an early sack followed by another pressure in the actual game.
When Saunders gets a jump on the snap and just gets upfield, he creates instant penetration, but he lacks some snap anticipation and usually is a split-second late off the line. He has this bad tendency of trying to look over the top of blockers, which exposes his chest and allows movement. Moreover, Saunders becomes a little reactionary as a pass-rusher occasionally and is just looking to knock down passes at the line, which a little of times is not even possible. He is still quite raw without a pass-rush arsenal he can utilize accordingly with a plan behind it. Saunders wasn’t nearly as disruptive on long series and his conditioning might not be good enough for such a large amount of snaps.
It is ridiculous how loose somebody can be a 320 pounds. Saunders has a rare combination of flexibility, power and sheer explosiveness. However, while those gifts were enough for him to dominate at his level, he will face similar athletes in the pros and will need to develop better overall technique. I think his best fit is as a shade nose in a 4-3 where he can dominate his one gap and potentially make centers look stupid when left one-on-one.
T.-10. Trysten Hill, UCF
I had already know this kid’s name and watched some of him during the college season, but it wasn’t until a freakish combine performance that I really started putting on more of his tape and project him to the next level. Hill had started all 26 games under former head coach Scott Frost, earning second-team All-AAC honors as a sophomore, but for some reason didn’t earn a lot of playing time under the new regime last year. He still had his most productive season (10.5 tackles for loss and three sacks) and was a monster in his lone start in the conference championship game, but ended his time at UCF on a bitter note, barely playing in the team’s bowl game versus LSU and showing frustration with the coaching staff in his early declaration to the NFL draft.
At 6’3”, around 305 pounds, Hill has a special first step and is incredibly nimble for a defensive tackle to get around blockers. He has the upfield burst to immediately put offensive linemen in a bad position. Overall he shows a strong punch, plays with good extension and provides himself with vision on the backfield that way. Hill has some snaps where he just bench-presses a blocker three yards into backwards and wrestles down the running back. When he sees some type of counter going the opposite way, Hill can pull his blocker off himself and work back over the top to get involved in the play. He also is very disruptive on stunts, where he goes across a blocker and shows up behind the line. The pursuit he displays for a guy beyond 300 pounds is just bonkers, as he chases down running backs trying to make somebody miss in the flats after pivoting back from the quarterback several yards in the opposing backfield.
That jump off the snap also gives him an advantage as a pass rusher and Hill works half the man in that area. He has a strong rip-through that he combines with a step past his blocker, which takes away any area to grab and gives him a clear path towards the quarterback. He 6akes advantage of the principle of one arm being longer than two and doesn’t give blockers a chance to grab on power rushes. Guards don’t seem to have the lateral agility to stay with the former Golden Knight when he crosses their face on stunts. He also has experience with interior twists, where he loops from one B-gap all the way to the opposite one. Hill flashes a sweet spin move every once in a while, which he should use more frequently going forward.
Hill ducks his head on too many occasions and just runs into somebody, which can be completely irrelevant for the outcome of the play. At times he just gives up his responsibilities inside when he sees a jet sweep fake or such as, where he tries to work to the outside. Hill’s number of tackles was not nearly where it could have been. He needs to break down for some stops in the backfield, where he leaves his feet and just shoots past the ball-carrier. As a pass rusher his talent is undeniable and he gets some quick wins just shooting through gaps, but he needs to do a better job of using his hands and keeping blockers off his body.
The large D-lineman has extremely fluid hips and is incredibly explosive for his size, which he proved to me at the combine a few weeks ago. I don’t know the exact circumstances of why he didn’t play more last season and obviously you want to sit down with him about it if you plan on drafting Hill, but when I purely evaluate his tape and the potential I see him, also considering the effort he showcases, there is no way he is making it past the top 100 picks for me. He will be a day one contributors as a 3-tech and he will only get better going forward.
Just missed the cut:
Isaiah Buggs, Alabama
Due to being over-aged coming into high school, Buggs wasn’t NCAA eligible and attended Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. In his second year there he was considered the country’s top national juco recruit and drew the eyes Nick Saban. Buggs already started all games in 2017 but last season was when he really took off, recording 13.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, three pass knockdowns and a couple of forced fumbles for the Crimson Tide. He has the versatility to line up all over the defensive front, rushing off the edge as well as playing D-tackle and facing the chaos inside. He has good strength and pad-level to control the point of attack with heavy hands. Often times he stops the flow of zone-plays by just owning his space and almost daring the running back to bounce outside, while also stonewalling pulling guards coming his way. Buggs can engage with offensive linemen and force them to lean into him, before ripping through one arm and freeing himself up to hit the QB. He works best when using the lean of blockers against them and disengaging to put pressure on the passer. He is excellent at using the push-pull move or just bull-rushing his man and then using a path underneath him once he is even with the quarterback. However some people might also refer to him as a tweener at 6’3”, 285 pounds, because he doesn’t really have edge speed or bend and is kind of one-gear pass rusher with little twitch. Buggs shows some good usage of his hands to keep blockers off his body in general, but can get a little sloppy with it as the game goes along. He struggles to recover once opponents gets their hands inside his frame and doesn’t always have a plan before the snap as a pass-rusher. Overall Buggs’ motor can run hot and cold a little and he can get hung up on some blocks. Buggs had a really solid Senior Bowl week, where he showed more potential as a pass rusher, an area in which he always seemed a little more reactionary to me. He doesn’t bring any special traits with him and I want to see play with more fire, but he has experience lining up anywhere on Bama’s front, is a rock against the run and has the strength to convert more into an interior pocket-pusher after having played on the edge a lot.
Daylon Mack, Texas A&M
This kid arrived at College Station with high expectations as a five-star recruit out of Texas. Those only rose when he made 9.5 tackles for loss in a reserve role as a freshman. Unfortunately he failed to build on that success over the next two years, earning just one start and with his only multiple-TFL game coming versus Nicholls State. Last season as a senior Mack proved once again that he can be a disruptive, as he put up double-digit TFLs and 5.5 sacks, while also blocking a field goal. With an incredibly wide build and trunks as legs, Mack is a rock against the run. Lining up at 1-tech primarily for the Aggies, he has the low center of gravity and core strength to hold his ground at the point of attack, while fighting his way down the line against zone plays. His jump off the ball and first-step quickness is exceptional for a 320-pounder. Mack can find the ball and back-door some blocks from the side by arm-overing them and taking down the back. He really improved his hand usage coming into his senior year, bench-pressing and disengaging from offensive linemen in the run game. Mack has dealt well with a load of double-teams and displays good hustle to chase people down behind the line of scrimmage or towards the sideline. This guy usually is not finesse around blocks – he wants to physically go through them. The former five-star recruit can unlock his hips as a bull-rusher and gets offensive linemen to lean backwards. He has a late rip move to free himself as a pass-rusher and can kind of throw people off himself late. Mack also has a good feel for when to get his arms up to knock down passes. With that being said, Mack allows guards to reach him occasionally and takes himself out of the play that way. His lack of length with 31-inch arms will hurt his game in many ways going forward – the way he can lock out against offensive linemen, what he can grab on the initial club and his tackling radius, as he shows little ability to bring down somebody outside his frame. Mack gets caught up with standing around across from offensive linemen and looking for a path to get through and doesn’t really get much done once his bull-rush attempts stall. He was often subbed out in third-and-long situations and his role might be limited to a two-down run-plugger. Mack had a dominant East-West Shrine week and forced a bad snap in the actual game, which got him promoted to the Senior Bowl, where he set the tone early when he put Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher flat on his back on a bullrush in one-on-ones. At 6’1” Mack might not fit every scheme, but with that low center of gravity and base strength he will be a rock at nose guard for some team. He displayed a much-improved motor and started living up to his potential to some degree last season.
Greg Gaines, Washington
This former three-recruit from California moved up North and was an ultra-consistent performer for the Huskies these last four years. He was an honorable mention All-Pac 12 selection in both his freshman and sophomore campaign, before earning second-team all-conference accolades as a junior. However, he saved his best for last, ending his career with a first-team selection last season. Overall he put together 21.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks for UW while being a big reason for his defense being the best in the Pac-12 all four years and top-five nationally these last two. This guy is a true throwback defensive tackle, who has dominated Pac-12 offensive linemen for three straight years now. Gaines consistently was the first on the Washington front to get off the line and has been a rock for the Huskies against the run with a built-in advantage in terms of pad-level at 6’1”. He has outstanding hands to create leverage and disengage when the ball-carrier is around, while consistently being the lower man. In addition to that, he features an excellent base to not move off the spot against blockers trying to create push off an angle and swallows double-teams in order for his linebackers to run around free. Gaines was a huge reason for Ben Burr-Kirven’s nation-leading 176 total tackles. The rugged D-tackle might not have great closing burst, but he certainly does hustle his ass off and missed just one tackle last season. Gaines is one of the most highly touted run-stoppers in the draft, but he has really come along as a pocket pusher and overall pass rusher, joining Quinnen Williams and Christian Wilkins as the only other two other interior D-linemen with at least 40 QB pressures and 35 defensive stops, despite playing almost 700 snaps on the year. The initial punch he gets on an offensive linemen’s mid-section is incredible and at the Senior Bowl practice Gaines drove N.C. State center Garrett Bradbury back into the quarterback’s lap on his first snap on one-on-ones. He sets up the bull-rush and then flashes some quick wins with a swim-move. He also ran some T-T stunts at Washington and shows active hands to swipe away lunging blockers. Moreover, he displays really good recognition skills against screen passes. With 31-inch arms, he lacks some length to keep vision on the backfield while stacking up offensive linemen in the run game. He simply doesn’t have the burst to finish a lot of sacks. Considering the type of bull-rush he can use, I’d like to him combine that with the according pull to take advantage of when his blocker is re-anchoring. Gaines won’t jump off the type with any special quickness or athleticism, which is especially apparent when you look at how many freaks there are in this group of D-tackles. The most apparent deficiencies about him are the lack of flexibility and any sudden moves. Gaines doesn’t have the athletic upside these other guys on the list have, but he is a disciplined team-player, who will instantly upgrade a run defense and can push the pocket.
The next guys up:
Daniel Wise (Kansas), Kingsley Keke (Texas A&M), Armon Watts (Arkansas), Michael Dogbe (Temple), Demarcus Christmas (Florida State)