Quarterbacks are expected to go 1–2 in this year's NFL draft, but the defensive prospects should start flying off the board soon after. Which D-lineman deserves to be selected first? SI.com’s Chris Burke and Doug Farrar debate between Ohio State’s Joey Bosa and Oregon’s DeForest Buckner.
Chris Burke: Doug, our next debate is West Coast vs. Midwest battle (although, technically, all of the debates between the two of us cover that turf). We’re talking about the draft values of Ohio State’s Joey Bosa vs. Oregon’s DeForest Buckner.
I graded both as top-10 prospects in this class, but with Bosa (No. 5) a slight step ahead of Buckner (No. 7). You are higher on Buckner than Bosa. So, why you are Team Buckner?
Doug Farrar: First things first, I have family in Michigan, so this debate is friendly. In any case, while I also have both Buckner and Bosa in my top 10, the more I watch Buckner, the more I think he sets himself apart. When I watch draft prospects of any stripe, what sets them apart in my head is consistent physical dominance over their opponents—it’s even more important when evaluating small-school players, but it’s crucial at any level.
When I watch Buckner, I see far more pure physical dominance, the kind of athletic excellence that prorates very well to the NFL. Buckner has the size, hand and arm length, and technique to simply bend blockers back at times. He’ll swim and rip them out of the way. Sometimes, he’ll shock-and-awe by just splitting a gap far more quickly than you’d expect from a guy standing 6' 7" and weighing 291 pounds. You can line him up anywhere from head-over-nose to the tackle’s outside shoulder, and he’ll make plays.
Moreover, he draws all kinds of chips, double-teams, and holds, and I think that’s going to continue into his NFL career. When I look at Bosa, I see a low ceiling in a lot of ways. When I watch Buckner, I think the ceiling is a lot higher. And I want to make it very clear from the start: Buckner isn’t Dion Jordan or Arik Armstead. He’s not another Oregon end who needs a lot of finishing work. He’s not just an athletic marvel. He’s a savvy, productive, scheme-transcendent player, and he’s absolutely my best end in this draft class.
We both like both players, but why do you believe that Bosa is the better prospect? It’s a common assertion among analysts, and I’d love for someone to explain it to me in a way I can understand, because I just don’t get it. That’s your mission, should you choose to accept it...
CB: Since we don’t have to worry about word count, I will ask you to expand on the idea that Bosa has a “low ceiling,” because that seems to be something of a sticking point on Bosa. Am I playing into that idea or fighting it by mentioning a Carlos Dunlap comparison? Dunlap, a second-round pick who has averaged about 8.1 sacks over six seasons, is a bit overlooked when it comes to the league’s best defensive ends but how many teams would take him in a heartbeat? A three-down player with the ability to take over, as he did more often during a 13.5-sack 2015 season.
Anyway, to answer your question, what really appeals to me about Bosa is that I think there is room to grow his game, but the current iteration of it can make him a productive force right away. The footwork to play off the edge or drop in space is there, just as it was throughout his time at Ohio State. Better yet, though, is how he merges that athleticism with power exceeding that of a 270-pound lineman. When he wins up front, he often does so by driving blockers back on their heels, and that holds true whether he is playing outside as a 4–3 end or dropping down into a three-tech alignment. There are warts, to be sure, but many of them are similar to the concerns about Buckner. And I think his floor is higher than Buckner’s because he has the potential to impact a game in so many different ways.
With that, let’s circle back on the Bosa ceiling ...
DF: The Dunlap comp is interesting, though I think Dunlap plays with a bit more power. I compared him to Chris Long, because I think he could be a similar NFL player—a streaky sack artist who will put up a ton of pressures and whose run defense will always be underrated because his raw sack totals aren’t through the roof.
It’s not that I think Bosa is a bad player. Actually, I think he’s done a lot with his relative limitations, but I’ve seen teams draft players very high who had all the technique and awareness more than pure athleticism. And the thing that scares me about guys like that is that their understanding and technique won’t mean as much when they’re facing Trent Williams and Jason Peters and all those guys every week.
Some of Bosa’s aspects are fixable, though it’s dependent on where he lands. If his NFL team wants him to be a multi-gap guy, I think he’s going to have to establish more power from his lower body, maybe putting on a bit of weight, which could affect his edge speed. I see him over-timing the snap a ton, which indicates to me that he already understands the need to grab a physical edge. As an edge guy, neither Bosa nor Buckner are highly evolved in their ability to bend the edge and force the tackle down with dip-and-rip, but Buckner does it with more pure physical dominance, and I have to keep coming back to that, because I think it’s incredibly important when projecting prospects to the NFL.
He’s got great hands. He uses leverage very well. When he’s on, he can be a force in space, especially against the run. But there isn’t any trait I see with Bosa where I think, “If that’s developed, it’s a trump card against any blocker.” I think he’s going to live in the NFL on a proper mixture of techniques and football intellect, but there’s a bit of a flatline when it comes to pure physical potential.
Two questions for you: Where do you see Bosa’s upside, and where do you see Buckner’s limitations?
CB: Funny you mention Bosa’s football intellect, because I actually see that as a spot where he (and Buckner, so long as we’re comparing and contrasting the two) can improve. He does work to nail the snap count, almost to a fault—the phrase “neutral-zone infraction” comes to mind. Where I think he will become a better all-around player is in recognizing what is happening right after the snap. I would not call him a standout when it comes to diagnosing plays and he can find himself lost at times on misdirection. Honing that aspect of his game would allow him to better flash that power and quickness on an even more consistent basis.
The other part of this is going to rely on what his NFL team wants him to be. I think he can add weight, without sacrificing his footwork, and kick inside to a tackle role even more. I also think he could drop five-to-10 pounds and step back more often into an OLB role. So I guess some of the upside for me is in that versatility.
As for Buckner, I’m not sure I would even call them limitations so much as concerns. He is a ridiculous physical specimen, but I think it’s fair to wonder if NFL linemen might be able to use his height and length against him on occasion. His technique still needs a little work. There are times when he is too high or doesn’t get his punch delivered quickly enough, and then he can be washed out of plays. I also do see him mainly as a five-tech in a 3–4, which is not necessarily a bad thing but if we’re splitting hairs on top-10 prospects, my general leaning is more toward someone of Bosa’s ilk.
One more for you on Bosa: If Buckner is your top DE and thus, I assume, worthy of possibly even top-three consideration, where does Bosa land?
DF: Yeah, I would agree that Buckner goes through stretches where he gets too high off the snap and gets washed out far too easily. There’s also the matter of Jack Conklin fairly owning him for the most part when Oregon played Michigan State last season. Because Conklin is a leverage monster, so there you go. He’s an ideal five-tech in a 3–4, but as many hybrid defenses as there are these days, I think he could fit in a lot of spaces. Calais Campbell has played essentially three-tech in a four-man front with a LEO or not, and done very well. Buckner has the potential to be a slightly faster and more flexible version of Campbell at his peak. So, when you have a Buckner who can kick inside or outside based on the front concept, I think that adds even more to his overall positional value. Gap versatility is king these days, and he’s already been all over the place.
I ranked Buckner sixth on my SI 50 board, and Bosa ninth. Were I doing an actual NFL-style draft board—say I was the GM in charge of such things, and I ran a team that played multiple fronts—I’d put Bucker in the top seven, and land Bosa in the early teens. You?
CB: I think Bosa deserves to be in the top 10, regardless, even though I would rather have him in a 4–3. Both players should be way up draft boards.