After talking about the top offensive players at each position a couple of days ago, we now switch to the defensive side of the ball. So we are looking at the best edge rushers (meaning 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers primarily), interior defensive linemen (everything from nose tackle to 5-technique), off-ball linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. Some of these guys are hybrid players, so I judged them according to where they line up primarily and what their best spot is. Once again, my criteria for which I judge them is their tape from their collegiate career so far, including the potential I see for them heading into this season, and I evaluate them as college players instead of NFL prospects, where they might fall a little lower because they don’t have pro measurements or athleticism necessarily.
1. Chase Young, Ohio State
This guy stepped in as a sophomore once Nick Bosa decided to focus on his draft preparation and eventually being drafted number two overall by the 49ers. The 6’5”, 265 pounds immediately earned first-team All-Big Ten honors due to 76 total pressures, 14.5 tackles for loss and five passes knocked down at the line. Young is a speed rusher first, who gets off the ball with some explosion and has the ankle flexibility to turn the corner, which he combines with different hand-swipes to avoid contact. He rushes with outstanding effort and hunts down scrambling quarterbacks on several occasions. While it might not always lead to sacks, he influences the play and how the ball comes out. I want to see him do a better job of playing with extension in the run game to read through the blocker and I would like to see him work on turning a shorter corner by converting speed to power late. Young will be the most feared defender on that Buckeye defense and he will probably see more chips and slides coming his way this season.
2. A.J. Epenesa, Iowa
The highest recruit by Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, Epenesa has a freakish body at 6’6”, 280 pounds. His plaed last season reflected that, as he recorded 10.5 sacks, 16.5 TFLs, four forced fumbles and won 25.4 percent of his pass-rush opportunities. The Hawkeye standout holds his ground in the run game with ease and can pull blockers off himself when the ball-carrier is around. His length is a weapon not only when locking out blockers, but also when it utilizing his immense power on bull rushes and swim moves to win late on plays. He doesn’t even know yet how good he can be, but you already see him toss around 300+ pounders as if they’re kids and open a direct lane to the QB. What I think he needs to improve on is keeping that outside arm free instead of just locking horns with offensive linemen and revving up that motor to chase down plays from behind and fighting through holds. A lot has been lost on that Iowa defense through the last two years, but they have a superstar talent up front that could make up for that if he continues to develop.
3. Kenny Willekes, Michigan State
This former walk-on turned All-American was named the Big Ten Defensive Linemen of the Year despite those two guys ahead of him competing in that conference. The 6’4”, 260 pound defensive end put up 72 QB pressures and 41 total defensive stops in 2018, while recording the highest overall grade among all edge defenders in the Big Ten heading into 2019 according to PFF. Willekes displays violent hands and pushes his blocker inside if the run is called in-between the tackles. He also does a good job closing down the space to his tackle on the back-side of zone run plays as the unblocked defender and even gambles on some plays to shoot through the B-gap when he feels the run coming and he has somebody covering up for him. Willekes has excellent snap anticipation and he loves the up-and-under combined with double-hand swipes or club-swims to knock away the hands of his tackle. This young man might just be the hardest-playing guy with the pursuit he showcases on ever snap and with how quickly he recognizes slip screens, he often times is the first to show up at the recipient. The reason he’s not number one is that he simply doesn’t have the elite burst or bend to just beat tackles around the corner consistently.
4. Anfernee Jennings, Alabama
This guy saw very limited action his freshman season after a redshirt year before establishing himself as a key member of that Bama front in 2017. Jennings put together a strong stretch late but unfortunately missed the National Championship game that year. Last season he got the job done consistently, recording 13 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and an interceptions, Jennings might have never put up any huge numbers, but he can put pressure on the opposition and have an impact on games. At 6’3”, 260 pounds Jennings such an incredible amount of natural power that he just toys with tight-ends in the run game and doesn’t really give up any ground to anybody. As a pass-rusher the Bama outside linebacker wins with his ability to read pass sets and counter them accordingly. He has an impressive arm-over swim-move and a devastating club to throw guys off balance. Moreover, Jennings has a unique gift of realizing when to put his hands up to knock down balls, leading to 11 batted passes in 2018. Unfortunately he isn’t as flexible or twitched up of an athlete as some of these other guys around the country, but I’m pretty sure he’s one of the least favorite ones to face because of his physical style.
5. Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State
At 6’5”, 265 pounds, Gross-Matos has the athletic tools to be a high first-round pick next April and he already is a major impact player at the collegiate level. The Penn State D-end had a crazy 20 tackles for loss and eight sacks, in addition to forcing a couple of fumbles In 2018. He displays very sudden movements and has the flexibility to dip under tackles. At the same time he has the flat out speed to chase running backs down on outside plays from the backside, and slips some blocks to shoot up the B-gap, which mostly works out for him. In the pass-rush department his burst and ability to twist his body make him a tough target to put your hands on. He heavily utilizes the up-and-under and counters back outside off that, while also having some experience sliding inside over guards on passing downs. With that being said, his spin move is so predictable and badly executed when used as a counter and he allows big tackles to get into his frame and wash him down the line at times in the power run game.
Just outside: Xavier Thomas (Clemson), Bradlee Anae (Utah), Curtis Weaver (Boise State), Julian Okwara (Notre Dame) and Mike Danna (Michigan)
Interior defensive linemen:
1. Derrick Brown, Auburn
At 6’5”, almost 320 pounds Brown is the type of monstrous defensive tackles who can give opponents nightmares every week. Last season he put up 10.5 tackles for loss 4.5 sacks, but according to PFF he also 28 QB pressures and an elite run-defense grade. Brown has a tremendous amount of natural strength and puts a bunch of offensive linemen on their butts. With his long arms and power he can grab an offensive lineman’s side of the shoulder pad and just yank him out of his way. The Auburn phenom barely was primarily lined up in the A-gaps and received a lot of attention by offensive lines, but barely gave up ground to double-teams and was a big reason the Tigers gave up less than 50 yards rushing despite being such a dominant running team. He is really good at getting push up the middle on the quarterback, but I need to see him finish his rushes better. With meetings of five teams in the top 12 of the preseason rankings on the schedule, Brown will have plenty of opportunities to receive draft hype and we will follow him closely to see if he can become a truly dominant interior D-lineman in 2019.
2. Raekwon Davis, Alabama
After being an absolute terror for offensive linemen in the 2017 college football playoff, I expected Davis to emerge as a first-round draft pick his junior year, but instead it was Quinnen Williams next to him who absolutely dominated college football. Davis’ numbers plummeted from double-digit tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks to only 5.5 TFLs and 1.5 QB-takedowns. However, the athleticism for a 6’7”, 310-pound interior D-line is still out of this world and I expect this guy to finally put it all together in 2019. Unlike most Alabama guys up front, Davis is more than a pure stack-and-shed run defender, although he can more than hold his ground in that regard. You see him rip through one arm of blockers to create penetration or pull those guys off himself with those long branches. The giant has shown that he can flat-out run through big men as a pass-rusher, but he can also torque his upper body and win with club-swim or arm-over swim moves. Based on how much he improves on his snap anticipation and overall consistency, Davis could still become one of the most intriguing names in next year’s draft.
3. Rashard Lawrence, LSU
Similar to Alabama, their SEC-rival down in Baton Rouge seems to bring out one great defensive lineman pretty much every year and this is your next guy in line. At 6’2”, about 310 pounds Lawrence put up 10 tackles for loss, four sacks and three passes knocked down. He has unbelievable short-area quickness for a guy his size and he can through half a man consistently. Lawrence is so damn strong, I remember a couple of times when he would actually grab ball-carriers at one ankle and just pull them to the ground. He also seems to have a feel for when to spin to the opposite gap simultaneously to the back running through it and take him down or at least hold him up. Considering his weight, his get-off is pretty freakish and his quicks are often times enough for those guards on the inside. I need to see him rush the passer with more of a plan and not just stop and try to look around at times, but he could soon be a big name.
4. Joe Gaziano, Northwestern
This three-year starter actually played base defensive end for the Wildcats primarily last season, but throughout his career he has been at his best as a 3-tech defensive tackle and will probably be evaluated for that position in the pros. In 35 career games Gaziano has recorded 32 tackles for loss, 21 sacks, ten passes batted down and five forced fumbles. In 2018 he recorded a monstrous 49 QB pressures and 28 defensive stops. As an oversized 275-pound D-end you seem him just drive some guys down into the pile when the run is going the opposite way. He actually has excellent flexibility and is much quicker than you would think, which creates problems for blockers sitting on that power he works with, but once he catches somebody too high, he doesn’t mind going through their chest either. Not only has Gaziano been one of the most underrated players in college these last few years, I also really like the way he rips out the ball when he takes quarterbacks to the ground.
5. Raequan Williams, Michigan State
I already talked about the best defensive lineman on Michigan State in Kenny Willekes, but when it comes to potential Williams is at the top. The 6’4”, 305-pound tackle has received the MSU Iron Man of the Year award in each of the last two years now. In 2018 he recorded 10.5 tackles for loss, a couple of sacks and five passes knocked down. Williams can anchor against and stand up single blockers with the best of them. You see him pull cloth to disengage or even knock his guy backwards at times to force the running back to slam into that guy’s behind. He also flashes the flexibility to work around offensive linemen and get underneath them in the passing game. Williams is probably at his best at shade nose or true 0-technique, where you see him just drive centers backwards off the snap at times and then has the long reach to catch ball-carriers on their way by. However, I think the talented D-lineman needs to do a better job fighting over the top of some blocks when the offense runs out wide away from him and he is caught off guard at times when teams use double-teams against him and then loses his leverage quickly.
Just outside: Justin Madaubuike (Texas A&M), Leki Fotu (Utah) and Javon Kinlaw (South Carolina)
1. Paddy Fisher, Northwestern
This young man came in for Northwestern and was a monster as a freshman, recording 111 tackles, nine for loss, four fumbles forced and a pick, while taking over as the program’s leader of the future. The 6’4”, 245 junior plays in the mold of his head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was a two-time Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik award winner, and says he shapes his game after an NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Luke Kuechly – two guys who aren’t too bad to follow. Fisher put up almost identical numbers his second year and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. He plays with a tenacious attitude and tackles people like a bear, while constantly ripping at the ball when he gets a chance. You see natural instincts for the position and good vision for the offensive backfield. In the passing game, Fisher controls the middle of the field and punishes receivers coming into his area. While he is a violent downhill player, Fisher needs to work on his stack-and-shed technique and consistently play with good extension when taking on pulling guards or such as.
2. Joe Bachie, Michigan State
When Michigan State was expected to be in rebuild mode two years ago it was the play of quarterback Brian Lewerke and middle linebacker Joe Bachie that put the program right back in the mix for the Big Ten. While Lewerke took a major step back last season, Bachie was one of the best linebackers in all of college football. Over the last two years, he has finished 100+ tackles in each of them, with 16.5 of those for negative yardage, while forcing four fumbles, recording four picks and eight other passes deflected. Slightly undersized at 6’2”, 230 pounds, the Spartan standout loves to shoot gaps aggressively and rarely gets driven backwards by guys that outweight by almost 100 pounds because of the way he attacks one half of the blocker or just weaves around them. He truly chases ball-carriers around sideline to sideline and plays with a ton of energy. When it comes to the passing game, Bachie does a good job in zone keeping guys in front of him while pass concepts develop and then jumps on shallow crossers when his area is cleared. With two guys on that defensive line already making top five at their respective position and a physical secondary, this MSU defense should be tough to score on once again.
3. Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
Simmons is a safety/linebacker hybrid at 6’4”, 225 pounds. The athletic freak will probably be tagged as a SAM or star linebacker, but wherever you fill him in, he will wreak havoc. Last season he recorded 88 tackles, nine of them for loss, two sacks, three fumbles forced, six PBUs and a pick-six. Simmons has the quick acceleration to track ball-carriers down from behind coming off the backside of run plays and can bend almost like a pass rusher to react to ball-carriers changing directions. While he is a tough task in the box, he also played a ton of big nickel, where he shows the athletic tools to carry guys down the seam or run with them on deep corner or out routes. In coverage he has the length to redirect receivers and reach around those guys to disrupt them at the catch point. On 59 targets in coverage over the last two years, Simmons has given up just one touchdown. In addition to that he is a dangerous blitzer from the slot and was even utilized as a QB spy at times. The one thing that really needs work is his tackling form, as he needs to wraps up with his arms more to cut down on his misses.
4. Dylan Moses, Alabama
This guy returns to Bama as their top inside linebacker after the departure of Mack Wilson to the pros and he already made a case to be their number one guy last season. Moses recorded 86 tackles, with ten of those in the opposing backfield, and 3.5 sacks. At 6’3”, 235 pounds he is physical and fearless, running into big offensive linemen at full speed to stop the run. Even when he is not really moving downhill, you hear it when he meets the ball-carrier in the hole and he stops the forward momentum by shooting his hips through and standing up that guy. Moses is also highly alert for cutbacks and rarely gets caught out of position when he is responsible for the backside. While his former teammate Mack was largely responsible for man-coverage duties, Moses is a ferocious blitzer. He doesn’t mind mixing it up with guards and runs through some backs, while showing great closing burst in how quickly he makes up the distance to the quarterback. Once again, Alabama will have a highly drafted inside linebacker in 2020.
5. Troy Dye, Oregon
While I’ve talked plenty about the Oregon offensive line and their NFL prospect at quarterback, they have at least one real star on defense as well. Dye has put up 90+ tackles in three straight years now, including 109 in 2018, and was one of only two player in the FBS to lead his team in that category over that stretch. He has also reached double-digit sacks through those three years and made an interception every year while adding ten more plays on the ball. Despite lacking some mass at 225 pounds, Dye doesn’t mind throwing his body around in the run game and is excellent as disengaging from contact by using his hands. In zone coverage he quickly pulls the trigger once he sees the ball come out and is a very secure open-field tackler, while having the speed to run down the middle of the field with tight-ends or backs and knock down passes. Even he does not give a damn if he is the smaller guy in most collision, there are times where Dye is forced to settle for drag-tackles and he can be boxed out by bigger bodies every once in a while.
Just outside: David Woodward (Utah State), Shaquille Quarterman & Michael Pinckney (Miami), Nate Landman (Colorado), Evan Weaver (California), Monty Rice (Georgia) and Khaleke Hudson (Michigan)
1. Bryce Hall, Virginia
Despite being only a two-star recruit according to most oulets, Hall just received the highest Pro Football Focus grade among all returning FBS corners. The 6’1”, 200 pound standout led the nation with 22 PBUs and had a couple of picks to go with it. On passes that travelled 10+ yards with Hall being targeted, opponents went 14 of 44, as he limited big plays all year. The feisty competitor does an outstanding job staying on the hip pocket of receivers and using that inside arm as a bar to control their speed. Virginia ran a ton of single-high safety coverages and left Hall on an island, where he really impressed me with his advanced technique on back-shoulder fades. Hall had an awesome battle with N.C. State’s Kelvin Harmon and made a crazy interception on a jump-ball, where he snatched it away from the receiver with one arm, and he almost got another one later in that game. The coverage specialist is not hesitant to come upfield and cut down running backs at their trunks or jump on top of a pile either. Hall is easily my number one corner in college football and looking forward to the 2020 draft at this point. The one area that concerns me about his game is how he leaves his feet and ducks his head as a tackler.
2. Kristian Fulton, LSU
If you recently watched tape on LSU’s Greedy Williams this is the guy who outplayed him and surprisingly returned for his senior campaign. The six foot, 200 pound corner was heavily utilized in man-coverage as part of LSU’s defensive scheme, where he displayed the ability to mirror and match off the line. He has the long arms to reach around receivers and make plays on the ball. Fulton allowed only 41.5 percent of the passes his way to be caught and gave up a minimal 49 yards after the catch, while intercepting one pass and knocking down another nine. Unlike Greedy, this year’s clear CB1 for the Tigers has no problem defending in-cuts and he had a great interception on one of those versus Georgia. Unfortunately what those two do have in common is that neither one of them is overly excited to act in run support. Unless he takes a big step back in 2019, I don’t really see Fulton falling out of the first round next year and he will have plenty of opportunities to go up against some of the nation’s best receivers – Texas’ Colin Johnson, Vanderbilt’s Kalija Lipscomb, all those Alabama receivers and plenty of others.
3. Paulson Adebo, Stanford
After taking a scout-team redshirt in 2017, this kid had one of the most impressive debut seasons I have seen from a college player in a while now. Adebo allowed a passer rating of just 54.6 when targeted in 2018 and broke up an FBS-high 22 passes among returning DBs, including four picks. He displays an easy pedal and turn to defend the deep ball ball and at 6’1” he really climbs the ladder and attacks the ball at its highest point. That way he denied Dillon Mitchell and Oregon three straight times in goal-to-go situations in overtime. Adebo won’t allow offenses to manipulate him with crossers or screen fakes to give up his deep-third or quarter responsibilities. Stanford also likes to blitz their corners on run-downs quite a bit, which earned their talented sophomore five tackles for loss. At 190 pounds, I think the Stanford corner would benefit from adding some muscle to deal with bigger wideouts and what he has to do a little better job of is not giving that inside access in off-coverage that easily and getting back on top of dig and deep-in routes. Still, the sky’s the limit for this young man.
4. C.J. Henderson, Florida
Florida has brought out several highly rated cornerbacks over the last decade or so and this is the next guy up. At 6’1”, just over 200 pounds this dude plays with the type of competitive swagger a true number one corner needs. After a tremendous freshman campaign, in which he intercepted four passes and took two back to the house, Henderson was even better as a full-time starter in year two. He didn’t allow a touchdown while recording two interceptions in 2018, surrendering a passer rating of just 44.0 throughout the year and allowing opposing teams to only complete a pass against him on an SEC-low 19.1 snaps. All that while primarily playing boundary corner for the Gators, often times against the best receiver on offense. Henderson has pretty loose hips for a tall guy and the speed to stay attached in trail-technique with his man, while being physical at the point of the catch and excelling at playing through the hands of the receiver. Last season the Gators blitzed him more, where he takes the inside path at times if a lane opens up. That led to five tackles for loss and three sacks, plus a couple of forced fumbles. He rarely allows himself to stay blocked and looks to get involved against the run game. The area that needs most work in Henderson’s game are his poor footwork and jabs in press alignment.
5. Lavert Hill, Michigan
Despite not seeing the field a lot as a freshman due a stacked roster, Hill already flashed his talent, making a play on the ball on 25.8 percent of the passes thrown his way. In 2018 he turned into a main contributor to one of the nation’s top defenses. Despite being an inch short of six feet and weighing in just 180 pounds, Hill won’t back down from anybody. He is very competitive player, who displays tremendous foot quickness which enables him to be aggressive and still mirror receivers, while using very accurate stabs off the line. Last year he deflected 11 passes, picked off another three, with two of the them going the distance and only allowed 0.64 yards per coverage snap. Hill was matched up against Notre Dame’s highly talented Myles Boykin quite a bit in last year’s season-opener and allowed him to get free for a catch just once all game long. He was also moved in the slot quite a bit and has dealt with plenty of talented receivers there. While his size obviously limits his pro ceiling to some degree, his physicality and technique make him one of the top cover-guys in college.
Just outside: Trevon Diggs (Alabama), Jeff Gladney (TCU), Essang Bassey (Wake Forest), Kindle Vildor (Georgia Southern) and Jaylon Johnson (Utah)
1. Grant Delpit, LSU
Compared to Jamal Adams around the LSU program, very few burst on the scene last season quite like this dynamic safety. Delpit recorded 74 tackles, 9.5 of those for loss, five sacks, each a fumble forced and recovered, nine passes broken up and five more picked off. He is an all-around playmaker. Deplit is used in quarters coverage, as a single-high free safety, in the shallow zones and man-to-man. He didn’t allow a reception longer than 32 yards in 2018 and allowed just a 57.3 passer rating as the primary coverage defender. He can also drop his shoulder on receivers catching the ball in front of them and make them think twice about going up for the ball again. In the run game Delpit plays downhill and doesn’t mind banging into bigger bodies on his way. And he is also one of the more dangerous blitzers from different spots in the secondary, as he recorded 13 quarterback pressures on 39 pass-rush attempts. Georgia’s Mecole Hardman ran by Delpit a couple of times when they were matched up in the slot, but he is more than capable of running with guys that don’t clock in the low 4.3s. The only real weakness in the Tiger safety’s game were the 16 missed tackles last season, which comes due to him not staying on his feet and wrapping up instead of diving at the ball-carrier’s legs.
2. J.R. Reed, Georgia
This former three-star recruit started his collegiate career at Tulsa, but decided to transfer to the SEC powerhouse after one season he mainly spent on the bench. Since then he has been a big contributor for the Dawgs, starting all 29 games. During that stretch he has recorded 145 tackles, seven PBUs and four interceptions. Reed already plays the safety position like a veteran and was one of the few who got a pick off Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa on an excellent break on the ball in the SEC title game. Last season the 6’1”, 195 pound standout held opponents to 6.1 yards per target and didn’t allow a reception over 36 yards as the primary coverage defender. Similar to Delpit, the one area in Reed’s game that really needs some cleaning up is his tackling, as he missed 14 of those in 2018. However, he will enter the season with a higher grade by Pro Football Focus than his conference rival, who I have one spot ahead of him, after surprisingly returning for his senior year to compete for another title.
3. Alohi Gilman, Notre Dame
This barely recruited Hawaiian native was the highest-graded safety in the nation according to Pro Football Focus. Gilman recorded 94 tackles, five passes broken up and another two intercepted. While not being the biggest 5’11”, 200 pounds, he played a lot around the line of scrimmage for the Irish last season and forced three fumbles on the season. In pass coverage he has made several spectacular plays on the ball, such as one interception versus Stanford where he kind of leaped over two of his teammates but saw it called back due to contact by his guys and he also intercepted two of his three targets against Syracuse. When the ball goes underneath of him, you see this guy shoot into the picture constantly. This young made is an outstanding hustle player, which was never more on display than on a play against Vanderbilt last season, when a receiver had fought his way down to the end-zone, but Gilmore ripped the ball into the air which was then covered by one of the other defenders for a touchback. Unfortunately his worst showing came against Clemson in the College Football Playoff on the national stage, where he just could not hold up athletically against that talented group of receivers in coverage.
4. Andre Cisco, Syracuse
This kid had a historic freshman season, as he was an All-American selection and won the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year award, after being the first freshman in 20 years to lead the nation in interceptions (seven). However he also knocked down another seven passes and recorded 60 tackles. The six foot, 205 pound safety played a ton of single-high free safety and consistently stayed deeper than the deepest. However the Orange used two-high looks most of the time and rolled one of them into the deep middle, which brought Cisco into a robber role as well, where he cut in front of several receivers when he saw the QB release the ball. Moreover, the coaches also matched up in the slot a few times a game and showed the ability to follow guys out of their breaks. While he won’t always just shoot up the alley in run support, the Cuse’ young standout was surprisingly effective with his ankle tackling. As crazy as it may sound for a guy who led the nation in picks, I think Cisco is a little too passive when the route pattern has developed and there’s a chance to drive on routes in front of him.
5. Cade Sterns, Texas
This 6’1”, 205 pounds stud was named Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and earned first-team all-conference in 2018. He recorded 62 tackles, four interceptions and four more PBUs, while also blocking a field goal versus USC, which directly led to six points for the Longhorns and started their rout on the Trojans. Sterns has the range and instincts as a deep-middle safety to make plays outside the numbers. Then he shows outstanding ball-skills and vertical hops to high-point the ball in front of the receiver. Although light on his feet, Sterns is hard on his opponents, as he lays the hammer on receivers when he has an angle on them. I’ve seen him show great discipline against screen fakes and on running back passes as well. Unfortunately like it is with a lot of big hitters, the Texas safety fails to square up his targets consistently and misses their legs at times. Sterns underwent a procedure on his patellar tendon requiring an eight-week recovery this spring, which keeps me from putting him even higher on my list.
Just outside: Xavier McKinney (Alabama), Richie Grant (UCF), Julian Blackmon (Utah) and Jordan Fuller (Ohio State)