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SI64 prospects that could sneak into first round
2:42 | NFL
SI64 prospects that could sneak into first round
Thursday April 16th, 2015

As NFL defenses become more varied and complex, more is expected of interior defensive linemen than ever before. Unless you're truly a world-beater at one position, you'll likely be asked to move around the front to gain matchup advantages—and even if you are a world-beater, you may get moved around a lot. Just ask J.J. Watt, who spends time at end and tackle, about that.

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The 2015 class of inside linemen features a lot of players who can excel in diverse opportunities, with a handful of prospects with true Pro Bowl potential.

1. Leonard Williams, USC

Considered by most to be the best defensive player—and by some to be the best overall player—in the 2015 draft class, Williams will enter the NFL boasting just about every physical tool imaginable. At 6'5" and 302 pounds, Williams displays impressive strength inline and surprising speed off the hoof. There are times, though, when he plays too high and loses power, and he needs to shoot gaps a bit quicker for all his attributes to shine at the next level.

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In three seasons for the Trojans, Williams amassed 21 sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss; he's not a pure sack guy and he doesn't bend the edge particularly well, but he is an outstanding run defender with a signature over move that can take blockers right out of the play.

While Williams excelled in an over/under-front system from multiple positions in college, I think he would be best utilized as a base 3–4 end who moves inside on nickel downs and shows up at different gaps for surprise deployments. He's a player with truly special potential who will need some finishing work, and while the J.J. Watt comparisons were always a bit much, he does seem to match up, in a potential sense, with some of the best five-tech/three-tech players of his generation.

Draft projection: Top five

2. Danny Shelton, Washington

Some have compared Shelton to Haloti Ngata—a big man who can get around the field in a big hurry. While he's not as sudden as Ngata in his prime, Shelton will bring a lot to his NFL team, in a very large (6'2", 339 pounds) package. Shelton is most likely scheme-transcendent in that he can play two-gap nose tackle in a 3–4 base defense, or a super-sized one-gap nose who can penetrate to the quarterback at times.

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Shelton racked up nine sacks last season, through six of them came against sub-par competition, and that probably won't transfer to the NFL. What Shelton is at his best is a wrecking ball in the middle of any defense, able to move through blockers and wreak havoc.

Draft projection: Top 15

3. Malcom Brown, Texas

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If you want to know about Brown's snap-to-snap effectiveness, watch the tape and you'll see how often opponents double-team him. It's a necessity, because the 6'2", 319-pound Brown plays low, quick and mean—and at multiple positions along the defensive line. He's not going to be a pure pass-rusher at the next level, but he can play nose tackle, three-tech tackle and five-tech end with equal credibility.

In addition, Brown is a mature individual—a responsible father of two children with a desire to contribute to charity. He's far less charitable on the field—his opponents will vouch for that—and he has a bright future as an every-down lineman who can play in just about any scheme.

Draft projection: First round

4. Grady Jarrett, Clemson

In the 2010 draft, Georgia's Geno Atkins dropped to the fourth round because teams didn't know what to think of him. What do you do with a 6'1", 293-pound tackle who runs like the wind in a relative sense (he ran a 4.85 40-yard dash with a 1.75 10-yard split) but hasn't always loved up to his potential? Hopefully, teams won't make the same mistake with Jarrett, who has the potential to be as good as Atkins—a sure Pro Bowler when he's healthy.

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Like Atkins, Jarrett is undersized for his position (6'1", 304-pounds), but he has amazing quickness (his 1.69 10-yard split at the combine was the second-best among all tackles, next to Washington State's Xavier Cooper) and incredible aggressiveness on tape. Perhaps the primary concern for Jarrett at the next level should be whether he'll burn himself out against better blockers because his effort level is so consistent. He's not scheme-transcendent because he's too short to be a 3–4 end, but if you plug him as a rotational 4–3 undertackle, you might be surprised at what you wind up with. Many in the know are viewing Jarrett with more and more regard the more they watch.

Draft projection: Second round

5. Jordan Phillips, Oklahoma

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A back injury ended Phillips' first season as a projected starter (2013) after just four games, so the 6'5", 329-pound prospect has just one season as the main part of a collegiate defense for NFL teams to see. And with that said, he's going to be very attractive to those NFL teams, because it isn't often that you see a guy this big move this well.

At the combine, Phillips ran a 5.17 40-yard dash with a 1.82-second 10-yard split—numbers not out of line with those of defenders 30 pounds lighter. On the field, Phillips can be dominant when he's on point; between his raw strength, quickness off the snap and growing array of hand moves, he's got everything you want from a top-caliber nose tackle who can move around the line a bit. Injury issues and effort concerns may scuttle his stock to a degree, but as they say, all it takes is one team. And it wouldn't be surprising if one team took Phillips higher than some expect based on pure potential.

Draft projection: Late first round or early second round

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6. Eddie Goldman, Florida State

Goldman played in 10 games as a true freshman, making even more of an impact for the Seminoles in 2013 when he started 13 games as a defensive end—a 6'4", 336-pound end at that. He was moved inside to tackle in 2014, and responded with his best season to date: 35 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four sacks, a pass defensed and a forced fumble.

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Goldman's NFL team will get a player who can play run-stopping end, two-gap to either side or one-tech shade nose tackle effectively. When he comes off the snap quickly, has the potential to blow up blocks and disrup, but that doesn't happen often enough. More often, Goldman tends to wrestle with blockers when he should be disrupting, and he doesn't always play with appropriate leverage for his size. Ideally, with a few technique fixes, he'll be a dominant nose tackle with some flexibility against the pass and the run.

Draft projection: Second round

7. Carl Davis, Iowa

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Davis is a frustrating player to watch on tape, because it feels like you're watching two players in one. There's the Carl Davis who can mess up any blocker as a nose or three-tech tackle, using his 6'5", 320-pound frame to dismantle opponents with his impressive combination of strength, speed and aggressiveness. Then, there's the Davis who gets bowled over by inferior competition, and seems to give up on plays before the whistle blows.

When he's playing low and getting under pads, he's a real weapon for any defense. But when he comes off the ball too high, Davis can be negated for long stretches of time. Davis' NFL team will have to wonder which player they're getting, and hope for the best—because the best is pretty impressive.

Draft projection: Second round

8. Michael Bennett, Ohio State

Bennett amassed a total of 14 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons for the Buckeyes, who have perhaps the most truly pro-ready collegiate defense. At 6'2" and 293 pounds, he's a natural three-tech tackle in a 4–3 defense who will win battles against blockers with quickness and coordination as opposed to brute strength. And that's why Bennett fell a bit on this list. He can be taken to the edge and out of the play too often if he doesn't have the first-step advantage. Ideally, his NFL team will move him around with other linemen who demand double teams, so that he can flash through gaps and get things done.

Draft projection: Late second round

9. Xavier Cooper, Washington State

The last Cougars defensive lineman drafted by the NFL was Rien Long in 2003, but Cooper will assuredly break that sorry streak—most likely in the middle rounds of the 2015 draft. At 6'3" and 299 pounds, he flashed potential as a three-tech tackle and five-tech end; he's a good rotational player in hybrid fronts. Cooper is very quick off the snap, and he knows how to use his hands to strike out at blockers and get leverage momentum going. He struggles against more powerful opponents, and could stand to put some lower body weight on to give him a more solid base. He registered five sacks in each of the last two seasons, with 14.5 tackles for loss in 2013.

Draft projection: Third or fourth round

10. Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Southern Mississippi

Nunez-Roches isn't as talked about as other names on this list, but he does show a lot of potential as a three-tech tackle on tape. At 6'2" and 307 pounds with relatively short arms, he'll need to be protected by a nose tackle who can take up double teams so that he can own single-team matchups as a one-gap penetrator. He missed all but the first two games of the 2013 season with a knee injury, but recovered nicely in 2014 with 58 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and three sacks.

Draft projection: Third or fourth round

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