Who Are the Defensive Linemen Expected to Dominate the 2019 NFL Draft?

Forget quarterbacks—this year NFL scouts will be drooling over the plethora of defensive linemen entering the 2019 draft. And before you start lamenting how boring that position can be, consider that each recent Super Bowl champion boasted at least one.
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There are a few simple things that you need to know about the 2019 NFL draft class, specifically the defensive linemen.

Ohio State DE Nick Bosa is thought to be better than his brother Joey—who was drafted by the Chargers with the No. 3 pick in 2016—was at this point, and Nick might not even be the best defensive-line prospect in this class. And Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence, who grabbed the NFL’s attention after his true freshman season in 2016, will have to fight to be the third player drafted—he might not even be the first from his own school.

If last year’s draft revolved around the quarterbacks, next year’s is shaping up to be about drafting players who will punish them. Tell an NFL evaluator that more than half of the guys drafted in the top 10 in April 2019 will be a defensive lineman, and you’ll be met with a shrug, and a nod. One college scouting director put it plainly via text: “If the top juniors declare, the 2019 defensive line class could be one of the deeper position in recent memory—at any position. There will good players drafted each day [at those positions].”

In the coming weeks, there’s a good chance that Rams’ Aaron Donald and Raiders’ Khalil Mack reconfigure the way that defensive-pressure players are rewarded in today’s NFL, just like Ndamukong Suh and Von Miller did three years ago. And the surest bet there is going into the 2019 draft cycle is that next year’s defensive line class will affirm how the NFL values them.

“[Nick is] not as rangy [as Joey], but just as freaky and he’s stronger. He’s hell on wheels” said one NFC exec about the Bosas. “[Houston’s] Ed Oliver … [I was at a game where] he sprints down the field in pursuit, goes from a dead sprint to a stop and uncoils on the runner. He looked like a linebacker at 300 pounds, an absolute freak. ... The Michigan kid [Rashan Gary]—height, weight, speed, he’s not as instinctive, but just a phenom.”

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Drafting these players is well-founded, too. You can find plenty of top NFL teams without a freak No. 1 receiver or rushing-title contender, but you won’t run into many lacking high-end pass rushers.

“It feel like the last couple years, we’ve had these really strong defensive line classes, and not great offensive linemen coming in,” the NFC exec continued. “So you look at the depth of d-linemen versus the depth of o-linemen, it’s hard to find guys to block these guys. You’ve seen it in college, so now you see it in the NFL.”

Just look at recent Super Bowl champions: Philadelphia had All-Pro Fletcher Cox flanked by Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Graham, Chris Long and Derek Barnett, et al. Last year’s New England team brought it more by committee, but Long had a huge game in the Super Bowl against Atlanta. The 2015 Broncos had Miller and DeMarcus Ware, the 2014 Pats had Chandler Jones, the 2013 Seahawks had Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril... 

Clearly drafting a defensive lineman high isn’t a bad idea—here are 10 prospects with a shot at the first round in 2019.

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DT Ed Oliver, junior, Houston: Oliver, who basically declared for the 2019 draft in March (he can’t actually make it official until after the season), was considered a program-changing recruit for the Cougars in 2016, and became the first freshman or sophomore to win the Outland Trophy in ’17. His height (he’s listed at 6' 3") could be an issue—as was the case with Donald in 2014—but he’s so good, it likely won’t affect his stock much.

DE Nick Bosa, junior, Ohio State:He came to Columbus with all kinds of expectations: a five-star ranking, following his brother who was a national champion and the third pick in the draft. To top it off, he needed to win a job in a crowded defensive-line group. By Year 2, he was conference defensive player of the year, even though he wasn’t a full-time starter. He’s almost certain to be a top-five pick in the draft.

DT Dexter Lawrence, junior, Clemson:Listed at 6' 4" and 340 pounds, Lawrence has been on the NFL’s radar since his freshman All-America season of 2016. He’s not the disruptive force that some of his linemates are, but he’d be an ideal fit for a 3-4 team as a tough-to-move, three-down lineman. Most scouts think he has the capacity to improve as he learns to play lower and maybe loses a few pounds.

DE Clelin Ferrell, redshirt junior, Clemson:Ferrell may lack the measureables that the above three bring to the table, but scouts will tell you that he’s always beating tackle, and always around the quarterback, boasting a great motor, great balance and great hands. It was a surprise that he returned for the 2018 season, and it’ll be a stunner if he isn’t in next year’s class carrying a very high grade.

DL Rashan Gary, junior, Michigan:Gary was the No. 1 overall recruit in a class that had Oliver, Lawrence and Bosa as five-star players, and it’s not hard to see why. At 280 pounds, he can play on the edge, and looks like he’s got the frame to get even bigger. He’s the kind of athlete that teams will draft and figure out where he’ll play later. Ziggy Ansah was a comparison I received.

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DT Christian Wilkins, senior, Clemson:Wilkins’ decision to return was as shocking as Ferrell’s. A freakish athlete at 6' 4", 300 pounds (there’s video of him doing a back flip on the internet) he’ll do best with a team that attacks upfield with its defensive linemen. If there’s any question with him, it’s how he’ll hold up against the run—Alabama exploited him in that area in last year’s playoffs.

DT Jeffrey Simmons, junior, Mississippi State:The Bulldogs took a lot of criticism for sticking by Simmons through an ugly domestic incident during his senior year in high school. That, rightly, will merit a thorough investigation into Simmons’s past by NFL teams. In the three years since he arrived in Starkville, he’s become an All-SEC player and made the conference’s academic honor roll.

DL Raekwon Davis, junior, Alabama:He’s a good bet to make it three straight years in the first round for Tide interior linemen. The 6' 7", 306-pounder cracked a rotation that also had Redskins first-rounders Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne in it as a true freshman in 2016, and was first-team All-SEC for the national champions last year.

DT Dre’Mont Jones, r-junior, Ohio State:Another disruptive interior presence who could have been taken in the first round in last April’s draft if he’d declared, Jones should wreak havoc with Bosa and likely 2020 first-rounder Chase Young on either side of him in Columbus.

DE Austin Bryant, senior, Clemson:The fourth-best of the Tigers’ defensive line prospects, which this year is like being fourth at the Miss America pageant. Bryant’s explosive game projects him as a speed rusher in the NFL, but some could question how complete a player he can become.

There’s depth at this position, and as you can probably tell, there will be a race among the elite at the top that promises to be every bit as intense as the race to the quarterback for these players over the next few months.