2017 NFL Draft – Top 10 Series: Defensive Line

This group is the defensive line who aren’t edge rushers.  So from the zero technique nose tackles to the five technique (3-4 defensive end) and anywhere between.

Overall Class Strength

This is a difficult class to get a handle on.  There are several inconsistent prospects – so any pro scouts who get it right could end up with a Pro Bowler in the second round, or lower.

Top 10 Defensive Lineman (0 to 5 technique)

  1. Solomon Thomas – Stanford. At 273 lbs, Thomas perhaps should be in the edge rusher group, but I see him best as adding a little weight and playing as a one gap five technique (think Wade Phillips defense) or a classic one gap three technique more than being a 4-3 base end. If he plays in a 4-3, he’ll spend most of his time rushing the passer from inside anyway.  He isn’t an anchor guy against the run, but he does use his hands well.  His arms looked longer than they measured at the Combine, but that measurement is what it is and does limit him to a degree.  However, he’s explosive and understands leverage.  He’s the type who rises and makes a play in the big game when his team needs it the most.  His size may cause him to go a few spots later in the first round than some think, but I still think he’s a top 10 talent.
  1. Malik McDowell – Michigan State. Over the years, I would say this type of player has given me the most skeletons in my closet. Without the ability to interview such “boom or bust” types, it’s guesswork.  I have tended to rate them low – but for some reason with McDowell, I see “it” with him.  The thing I like is that he can two gap well – something that is not easy to do.  He also has enough athletic ability to rush the passer and one gap, so he’s a rare prospect in that regard.  At times in 2016, he was playing the one or seven techniques – I see him as a five or possibly three tech – so he wasn’t in an ideal position.  Yes, there were inconsistencies – but there’s also no question he has the upside to be a fine NFL player.  So, I’m going against my usual cautious rankings with this type of prospect – I’ll take the boom, but it could all end in tears!
  1. Jonathan Allen – Alabama. Allen had top five, and indeed some top of board rankings in-season, but has slowly slipped. Part of that in recent weeks has been due to concerns about his shoulders, but that isn’t taken into account here.  My issue with Allen is deciding what he is as a pro.  He played 4-3 DE a lot for Alabama, but I don’t think that’s his role in the NFL.  Even if you look at him as a two gap DE in a Seahawks style system, I don’t think he’s long enough (33 6/8” arms are okay, but I tend to want a bit longer – but he’s 6’2” which is a concern).  If you look at him as a one gap three or five technique, I don’t know that’s his game.  I was thinking one gap one technique, but at 286 lbs, he’s a little light.  He has good college tape – showing power and hand use – but it’s been nagging at me all season, in terms of what he is – and post-Combine, I’m still not sure…
  1. Chris Wormley – Michigan. Like Allen, Wormley played DE in a four man front – but at 298 lbs, I think he’s better as a three or five technique. Wormley’s arms are longer than Allen’s at 34 1/8” and he’s also 6’5” – so in a Seattle system (and quite a few teams are now running this), he could play the two gap base end role.  He didn’t workout at the Combine, but his pro day numbers were outstanding – highlighted by a 40 yard dash time in the low 4.8’s (remember – that’s at 298 lbs).  Wormley has a unique ability to stack a blocker, then drop his hips and get off him.  I don’t think he was helped by the position he played – but I think in NFL terms, he’s going to be a good player.
  1. Carlos Watkins – Clemson. Watkins tape was inconsistent. I thought he was a little lighter in the two playoff games and looked better for it.  It’s possible he was asked to get a bit heavier to play the one technique, but I think he’ll be a better three or five.  When Watkins initial quickness works – obviously he makes plays – and enough of them to rank him here.  However, when that doesn’t work he struggles more.  He has long arms, but he must learn how to use them to his advantage.  I’d also like to see him play lower – when he’s tired particularly, he’s way too high.  His ability to rush the passer is okay, but could do with more craft – but he has the raw tools.  He’s a well-known name, but there is risk with his selection.
  1. Elijah Qualls – Washington. Sometimes a prospect is asked to play a less than glamorous role in college and it hides their ability. Qualls actually played some DE in a four man front after Joe Mathis got hurt – but at 6’0” 313 lbs, that’s not his pro position.  When inside, he was asked to two gap – and he showed a natural anchor.  That technique means you don’t fly up the field – you have to demand the double team and then hold up against it, which he did well.  I don’t know in terms of stock that it would have meant day two (e.g. Andrew Billings last year, round four).  However, his Combine numbers showed more explosion than you saw on tape (fast 10 yard split, plus bench and vertical) and I think there’s potential in a one gap system at the one technique.  This ranking is part because I love the two gap guys, but also part that I can project him to more than that, which increases his value – particularly against the pass.
  1. Larry Ogunjobi – Charlotte. I don’t do many player comparisons – some of them out there are so ludicrous, I think it’s a pointless exercise forcing them on every prospect. However, I see a lot of Javon Hargrave with Ogunjobi, who was in the first class at Charlotte and has started every game in their short history.  He played the one technique role in college – but make no mistake, he’s no two gap anchor guy – he’s a pure one gap penetrator.  At 305 lbs, he’s a likely pro three or five technique.  He can still improve with his craft when his initial quickness doesn’t get him penetration, but he has the raw explosion to be effective in an attacking system.  I found him more consistent than some in this class, so I think you can be confident in what you are getting with him.
  1. Caleb Brantley – Florida. Brantley is another flash player – I was aware from TV broadcasts that Todd McShay had him ranked as a first round pick, but I was never that high on him, I’m afraid. It was a close run thing for the number seven slot, but in the end Ogunjobi’s better Combine numbers and greater consistency won the day.  Brantley makes some flash plays that make this ranking look a bit silly.  However, when his initial penetration doesn’t work, his hand use is poor and he’s controlled far too easily.  As a pass rusher, again there were flashes – but not enough of them.  His sack production wasn’t great, but he did disrupt more than that stat line suggests.  He’s a pure one gap guy, but another one who is difficult to rank.
  1. Montravius Adams – Auburn. I want to like Adams more, but his tape just wasn’t good enough at times. He tested very well at the Combine, so projects as a one gap penetrator – but on tape he also showed he can anchor, not a combination you always see.  However, as a pass rusher I didn’t think his Combine numbers translated onto tape – so while there is athletic upside, he’s not there yet.  He made flash plays, but not enough of them.  He comes off the ball hard and you see explosion, but again, in patches.  Although he showed he can anchor, you didn’t see him shed particularly, so his hand use needs to improve.  He has athletic upside, but he’s another one who’s a bit of an enigma.
  1. Jaleel Johnson – Iowa. I found Johnson a flash player as a pass rusher. In the various games I watched, you’d get nothing and then out of nowhere there was a “Wow” sack.  If that can become more consistent, then he has a real chance to outplay this ranking.  However, his Combine numbers were weak and that has prevented me from pushing him too high up this list.  Johnson is going to be a pro one technique, a role he played in college.  At times, he played too high and was controlled – so he’s going to need to work on playing low.  Part of the issue was likely conditioning, so a rotation would help him – and if he’s a base one technique, he should stay fresh as he’ll be off the field in the nickel.

What?!  Where is…?

My impression is that Alabama’s Dalvin Tomlinson is one who the NFL like more than the media, which may come down to the fact he’s a “plus” person off the field.  For me, his lack of ability as a pass rusher meant he was outside of this top 10.  But he is a highly effective run stuffer.  North Carolina’s Nazair Jones flashed on tape, but his Combine numbers weren’t great – and it was much the same story with LSU’s Davon Godchaux.

Sleepers

I wouldn’t say this is a deep class, so I have just one name in this section – Jake Replogle (Purdue).  He missed some time this year after suffering a concussion and in TV commentary after his return, they didn’t seem 100% certain he would pursue a pro career.  Hopefully he is completely healthy and does, as he’s talented.  He’s strong and can two gap – showing an ability to shed blocks, which isn’t an easy skill.  He’s not the best pass rusher, but then if he’s two gapping it takes away his ability to fly up the field.

Top Small Schoolers

  1. Grover Stewart – Albany State. I liked Stewart on tape and he also had a nice pro day workout – where he ran in the high 5.0’s at 340 lbs! Stewart won with raw power on tape and that was confirmed with his 30 reps of the bench press.  He will need to become more technique conscious and play lower more consistently, but I think he’s talented enough to warrant a Draft pick.
  1. Winston Craig – Richmond. Craig is someone who has a chance to find a niche role on a roster. He’s a two gap guy with limited explosion in terms of pass rush – but he’s long and strong.  I’ll be interested to see if two gap defensive line play becomes more popular in the coming seasons – he’ll be hoping it does.
  1. Jason Carr – West Georgia. Carr is another two gap prospect. He showed an anchor and an ability to shed.  There was the odd flash as a pass rusher, but I think it will be primarily as a run stuffer that he will need to find his niche role.
  1. Isaiah Golden – McNeese State. Originally at Texas A&M, he was dismissed from the program after being arrested for armed robbery. It is worth mentioning that before this, his daughter passed away.  At 6’2″ 325 lbs, Golden’s best chance at the next level is going to be as a two gap NT.  There are some flashes of something more, but he seems to get tired too quickly and then plays too high.  He’ll need to show the flashes more frequently to land a roster spot – but he has a shot.
Updated: April 7, 2017 — 4:20 pm

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