- Quinnen Williams, Isaiah Buggs, Raekwon Davis, Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons all have a chance to go in the first round of next year's NFL draft, but first they'll all be on the same field together in Tuscaloosa. Here's what makes each one so dangerous.
During warmups of LSU’s game against Alabama last Saturday, the sidelines were packed with people. There were celebrities, like actor Vince Vaughn, and former first-round draft picks, like running back Leonard Fournette. There was a World Series star, Alex Bregman, and a U.S. congressman, Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.). And there were more than a dozen NFL scouts, scattered around the field in team apparel, sizing up the handfuls of future pros.
The meeting between the Tigers and the Crimson Tide annually draws more NFL interest than any other regular season college football game, but it might get topped this weekend. Alabama’s game against Mississippi State could feature as many as five first-round draft picks—at one position group. Saturday afternoon’s game at Bryant-Denny Stadium is “somewhat unprecedented,” says Bleacher Report NFL draft analyst Matt Miller. “I don’t think you’d be overselling it if you say this is the best matchup of defensive lines we’ll see this year or we’ll see in a long time.”
Competing in Saturday’s game will be five defensive linemen who are ranked among the top 50 2019 NFL draft prospects, the biggest haul of D-line prospects in a single game since Clemson and Alabama met in the 2015 national championship game, experts say. Alabama boasts three of the five: Nose guard Quinnen Williams is the mostly highly touted of the bunch, ranked by many as a top-10 pick; defensive tackle Raekwon Davis is 6'7", 315 pounds; and tackle Isaiah Buggs is a stat hog with nine sacks, six quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. There are two from Mississippi State: tackle Jeffery Simmons is projected as a sure-fire first-rounder, and Montez Sweat, the only defensive end of the bunch, prides himself on speed and quickness. Good luck to the offensive lines.
Alabama coach Nick Saban called the matchup a “personal challenge” for his O-line, and Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead said “you’re not going to make a living handing the ball off up the middle against this front. It’s just not realistic.” So forget about the potential lopsided outcome of the game (Alabama is favored by 24 points) for a second and focus on these star-studded defensive lines, because the scouts will be. “It’s a great group of guys,” says one scout. “Three first-rounders for sure: Quinnen, Raekwon and Simmons. D-lines in the SEC, that’s what separates the league from the rest of the country.”
These two programs are particularly flush with freakish athleticism. Thirteen scouts are expected at the game, one more than the 12 who attended LSU-Alabama, to take the measure of a somewhat versatile group with immense size. They have a cumulative height of 6'5" and weight of 288 pounds and have combined for 23 sacks, 45 tackles for loss and 32 quarterback hurries. Their offensive line counterparts aren’t so highly touted, but Miller points out two matchups that will be essential for NFL-scouting eyes: Sweat against Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams, himself a projected first-rounder; and Quinnen Williams against Mississippi State center Elgton Jenkins, who many believe is the best center in the draft. “There are five or six guys just in this one game who are going to set the stage for the 2019 draft class,” Miller says.
One scout says Williams, a 6'4", 295-pound redshirt sophomore who has starred in his first season as a full-time starter and dominated the LSU game, is the most surprising of the five. He’s actually out of position playing nose guard, scouts say. On the next level, he projects as a defensive tackle in the three-technique, lining up to an offensive guard’s outside shoulder. “He’s so versatile,” the scout said. “He’s doing the dirty work at nose, but making plays. Complete player. He can do anything you want.” Like push an SEC offensive guard five yards into the backfield:
Scouts see Davis and Simmons as similar players, each possessing strength and physicality as run-stoppers inside. Simmons is one of the more interesting cases of any draft-eligible player in this cycle because of an off-field incident that occurred during his senior year in high school. Before his enrollment at Mississippi State, a video emerged of Simmons punching a woman who was involved in an altercation with his sister. Simmons pleaded no contest to simple assault last July and was fined about $1,300. “He’s got the background and the stuff that happened to him,” a scout said. “Sounds like that was an anomaly in his character.” Miller says many NFL officials have gotten “comfortable” with Simmons. He’s had no such off-field incidents in two and a half years in Starkville. “The NFL can overlook things if you’re a great player,” Miller says. Below, you’ll see a clip of Simmons splitting a double team and making a tackle, a good example of his on-field skills.
Here’s Davis scraping down the line and beating a one-on-one to make a tackle on the perimeter.
Sweat and Buggs can each play the five technique, lining up on the outside shoulder of the tackle, but Buggs also aligns inside, as shown in the clip below. He’s a versatile player who scouts describe as “physical” and “tough.” Sweat is the long, rangy speedster on the edge, also occupying the wide seven technique on the tight end. In the clip below, Sweat makes one of his patented plays, out-maneuvering an H-back/tight end to pressure the quarterback into an incompletion.
Miller compares this defensive line showdown to Alabama’s 45–40 win over Clemson in the national title game that capped the 2015 season. The Tide had guys like future first-rounder Jonathan Allen and second-rounders A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed. Clemson was led by Shaq Lawson, the 19th overall pick in the 2016 draft, and Kevin Dodd, the first pick in that draft’s second round. “I would argue that Alabama’s matchup versus Mississippi State, especially in the front seven, is as challenging if not more challenging than what they faced versus LSU,” former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said on SEC Network this week. Will the result be another Bama blowout? Maybe, but if the scoreboard fails to provide any drama, look to the lines. “LSU is the better team than Mississippi State,” Miller says, “but from prospect vs. prospect, I think this game is better.”