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With the 2016 NFL draft less than two weeks away, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to finish the process of getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar has assembled his own Big Board, with his top 50 players.
The SI 50 uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class, and why they’re slotted as such. As we move through the top 10, we’ll be doing more comprehensive single player reports, and we continue with a player who I think is the best defensive lineman in this draft class by a longshot.
6. DeForest Buckner, DL, Oregon
Height: 6' 7" Weight: 291
Bio: “If you’re building a defensive lineman, that’s what you build.”
Stanford coach David Shaw said that about DeForest Buckner, and the point is tough to argue. From a pure physical perspective, everything about Buckner checks the boxes to an almost comical degree. He has the height, weight and speed (he ran a five-flat 40 and a 1.77 10-yard split at the combine), and his versatility exceeds that of any other defensive lineman in this class. You can line Buckner up anywhere, and he’ll disrupt.
The 2015 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year complied 45 solo tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 39 hurries, and 46 total stops last season. And that wasn’t an anomaly—in 2014, his first year as a full-time starter, Buckner totaled 36 solo tackles, 13 tackles for loss and four sacks. He had been on the field from his true freshman year, but it all came together for him last season. Though he played primarily 3–4 end in Oregon’s base defense, he’d immediately be a major asset to any multi-gap defense.
“I’m one of the best D-linemen in this draft,” Buckner said at the combine. “I played in every technique possible, from nose and rushing outside at end. I can do everything. I can stop the run. I can also rush the passer, which I did a lot better this year. They can get a complete defensive lineman when they pick me. Throughout the years, I’ve been getting back there, I haven’t been able to break down and finish and complete the sack. The quarterback would always get away from me. This year, in the off-season, I really focused on closing down when I get toward the quarterback.”
Buckner’s right about all of that, and his 2015 season may be just the start when it comes to how high his ceiling really is—and how close he’ll ultimately come to it. This is a special, once-in-a-draft player.
Strengths: Buckner possesses a rare combination of size, strength and speed. Can play everywhere from head-over-nose to nine-tech defensive end with very little drop-off in effectiveness. Splits gaps right off the snap, using low get-off and the sense to get skinny right away. Works the blocker to force the leverage disadvantage; has the strength to rock guys right off their angles. Brings tremendous power from his huge hands and will occasionally just throw an offensive lineman aside. Arm length combined with upper-body power allows him to bend linemen back and take them out of the play. Establishes dominance from the start of the play with great hand-punches, forcing blockers to recover. Uses rip-and-swim moves to work his way around opponents quickly, and can gear up to the pocket from there. Agile enough to chase ballcarriers from sideline to sideline, and drop into coverage. Re-directs well for his size to move back into the play; stops multiple plays downfield. Gets his hands up to deflect passes even when he can't get to the quarterback. Startling short-area speed—at times, Buckner just zips across gaps to the ballcarrier. Draws a ton of double-teams and chips and holds; will likely do the same at the next level. Handled many top-level blockers, and truly dominated some. Played more snaps than any other interior defensive lineman last year and didn't wear down
Weaknesses: As you’d expect from someone of his height, Buckner must maintain a low position to be truly effective—he can get lost in the wash and overpowered even by single blockers when he comes off the snap too high. Pad level affects his recovery speed negatively at times. Loses ground to slide protection and needs to move and work with his hands to blast through. Outside pass-rush is still a work in progress—Buckner doesn’t bend the edge consistently and needs to use his inside counter more. Needs to be more consistent when slipping off blocks to stop run plays inside. Doesn’t always guess right on angles and gaps, and can be sealed to the outside when trying to recover. Needs to get lower and nastier against double teams.
Conclusion: I don’t think there’s a single team in the NFL that Buckner wouldn’t help right away, though 3–4 base teams especially will be enamored by his skills because he can play end so well and either kick to tackle or edge in sub-packages. Any comparisons to former Oregon linemen Dion Jordan and Arik Armstead are completely erroneous, as Buckner is far more developed as a player than either of them, and can do much more from multiple spots.
Just as Calais Campbell has always been a wrecking machine from the end and tackle positions, Buckner can also disrupt from any gap. Buckner may be even quicker and more flexible than Campbell, adding to his rare skills as a player. If he falls out of the top 10 in this draft, teams passing him up will have made a huge mistake.
Pro Comparison: Calais Campbell, Cardinals (second round, 2008, Miami)