NFL offenses are scoring at never-before-seen rates, thanks to rule changes, the next generation of quarterbacks transforming into quality starters, and changes in offensive philosophy. The Rams and Chiefs’ explosive Monday night game featured 1,001 yards of offense, and an MNF record-high 105 points, emphasizing that the most important players in today’s game are the passers and the pass rushers. The Rams wouldn’t have won that game without defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s two strip-sacks. The most recent few draft classes have been defined by the quarterbacks, but what the 2019 draft class lacks in passers, it more than makes up for with pass rushers.
In our first mock draft of the season, we had 14 defensive linemen going in the first round. Albert Breer’s big board last week had just two offensive players among the top 20 prospects. At this point in the season it’s still a rough sketch, but scouts agree this is the draft to pick up a defensive lineman. “A lot of teams right now that are struggling to put pressure on the quarterback are really excited about April because last year's draft there were barely any guys who could do it,” one scout says. “This year's draft is pretty loaded.”
Several scouts agree there’s a good chance the top overall pick will be former Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who left school in October to focus on rehabbing his core injury. “I could definitely see him going first as long as he is able to perform before the draft in some capacity athletically,” says one scout.
This year’s top prospects have the chance to prove that defense still matters in the league. “The nice thing is they come in all different shapes and sizes in this draft,” one scout says. “There are guys who have totally different skill sets and fit different schemes and have different types of versatility. Teams are really going to have to do their homework.”
Here’s a look at what scouts are saying about the top defensive line prospects, so you can get started on your homework too…
Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
“He is really identical to his brother in terms of his excellent size, and he is a great athlete. He brings it every play. He is very effective in the run game also. That’s where he separates him from other guys, he is a complete player.”
Ed Oliver, DT, Houston
"Explosive quick player that lacks length, size. Good football player that’s agile with instincts, awareness. On the ground more than I expected and gets covered up quite a bit. The double team blocks will overwhelm him at times. He's not Aaron Donald and teams are worried about his game transitioning at the pro level. He plays against marginal players on the offensive line in conference."
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Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan
“His combo of size and athleticism makes him a difficult matchup because he can win with strength or he can win with athleticism. His talent is outstanding but he is a little bit inconsistent in his temperament. He just doesn’t give everything he has physically. I’d be a little bit concerned about that because he is one of those guys that could go either way. You could see him being a really good player or he could just fade because he doesn’t play with maximum effort. I think he’d be a defensive end in either a 4-3 or a 3-4. When you watch him you don’t realize he is that big until you see him—he is so athletic, he plays like a smaller player. I think you can you could use him in multiple ways effectively as long as he is putting in the effort to do that. He’s probably the third defensive lineman off the board, behind Bosa and Oliver.”
Clelin Ferrell, DE Clemson
“Most Clemson defensive ends are overrated, and I think Ferrell is too. I like him because he plays hard, but he is not anywhere near a top-10 pick. I don’t think he is a first-round player, because those Clemson defensive ends bust all the time. [Bills defensive end] Shaq Lawson went 19th overall, and he’s been a complete bust. Ferrell is a similar player, similar athlete, but he plays harder. I gave Shaq Lawson a fourth round grade, Ferrell is a little better than him. But from the sheer tools, they are very similar. There are certain schools where positions have a high bust rate and all Clemson defensive ends are productive, they get a ton of unblocked production in that scheme no matter who they line up there. I like Clellin a lot more than some of those guys and I think he is going to be a good solid pro, but you don't draft a good solid pro in the top 10.”
Quinnen Williams, DT, Alabama
“He is a one-year producer for them, but he has had a breakout year. He’s slippery, he can win with quickness and power which is hard to find. Really good technician, knows how to use his hands so he’s hard to block. He’s put together a really nice season, I think he and Raekwon [Davis] play off each other well. Raekwon is so disruptive with power and this guy can be so disruptive with his quickness and power. He is a really instinctive player. He has a really good feel of where the ball is going. As much hype as he’s getting he might come out for the draft, but he is only 19 years old. Is he ready to be a grown man and be an adult in the league?”
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Jeffery Simmons, DT, MIssissippi State
“He is a strong kid. He is really hard to move and he plays with great leverage and power. He is really a good technician, great with his hands. He can play on all three downs. He is so powerful he can disrupt the inside of the pocket, which right now, is even more important than bringing heat off the edge because you aren’t giving guys room to step up, especially undersized guys like Drew Brees. If you pressure Brees from the edge, he can just slide up into the pocket and beat you, whereas this kid can wreak havoc on the offensive line. He has an off field thing concern too [Simmons pleaded no contest to simple assault in 2016 after striking a woman several times during a fight]. If he didn’t have that, he is a top-10 pick all day long.”
Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
“He is a really good athlete. He's really a unique athlete for a 315-pound man. He is incredibly nimble, really moves like a smaller man. They put him in at fullback a few weeks ago against Florida State, but he legitimately looked like a jumbo fullback. They used him at tailback and they put Dexter Lawrence at fullback and then Wilkins scored a touchdown. It was a pretty impressive play. He moves like a smaller human being. He is really athletic playing on the move and if you’re a team that will just let him get upfield and use his athleticism, you’ve got a really good player. Now, the downside is, he tries to out-athlete people all the time. He does not have enough power in his game. If you ask him to sit and hunker down and take up blocks, that is not his deal at all. Teams wish he was more physical. He leaves you wanting more sometimes in terms of the sheer physicality. There will be teams that don’t think he fits for them, but teams that let him play his game, he could be really good. He just doesn’t show that physicality and violence in his game at Clemson. Probably somewhere in the second round, maybe first.”
Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson
“Lawrence has pass rush upside, but right now he really projects as a big two-down run defender. That’s where he will slide in the draft, because some teams will question how quickly he can get on the field on third down for them. I do think he has the potential to do it, but college inside rushers, they just don’t work a lot of pass rush. He is a gargantuan human being. As a true freshman he looked like he was a grown man. His body type is really hard to find and he’s athletic. He has a chance to be a force, he just has to develop that pass rush skillset. His tape this year is a lot better than last year, he was only playing at about 50 percent as a sophomore because of injury. His tape was up and down, and before I knew about the injury I thought he was over-hyped. Then Clemson’s trainer told me he was really hurt last year, and he gutted through and played through it, but he was not close to being right. His tape is a lot better this year.”
Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn
“Really talented. The one knock would be he’s a little bit of a linear athlete. He’s really explosive off the ball and can really run for a big guy. He’s a three-down player and is just scratching the surface. I think there is a lot of good football in front of him. He’s got all the tools. There have been a lot of talented defensive linemen through Auburn over the past few years and from a pure talent standpoint, he might be the best one. Guys like him don’t grow on trees, so he won’t get out of the second round. He is in that late first round, early second round mix. Auburn’s defensive line coach Rodney Garner had a couple really good players at Georgia back in the day, Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud who were both high first-round picks, and he puts Brown in that category in terms of being a big, powerful guy. The nice thing about Brown is that he is really driven, he wants to be great. He’s got a really high ceiling.”
Montez Sweat, DE/OLB, Mississippi State
“Talented player, he’s really long and he looks like a small forward. He has natural pass rush ability. He has a long stride, it doesn’t always look like it. He is powerful and he can rush the passer. He is playing really strong at the point of attack and playing the run a lot better than he did in the past. He is not just a pass rusher. The tricky part is the character stuff, he has some off the field stuff he has to clean up and show teams that he has rehabilitated himself. [Sweat started his college career at Michigan State in 2014 and was suspended for a violation of team rules after the second game of the 2015 season that caused him to miss the rest of the season. He left Michigan State the following spring, and played a season at junior college before joining Mississippi State in 2017]. He is probably a late first-rounder, early second-rounder. If anyone is projecting him higher they aren’t factoring in the character concerns.”
Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama
“He is a man-child. Gigantic human being. He is still learning how to play, but he plays with such natural force and he is really long so he is hard to block. He plays like all those Alabama defensive linemen do, like Jarran Reed, Dalvin Tomlinson, he’s the next in line. He’s another guy with a huge ceiling. His pass rush production is down a little bit this year but he can really affect the inside of the pocket, coming off the ball and pushing it. He is a really high-end player.”
Dre’Mont Jones, DL, Ohio State
“He’s a really good interior player. He would be a really good 3-4 end or 4-3 inside guy. He is really good from a technique standpoint. He uses his hands really well and he’s really quick. He is also very strong. He could probably be more aggressive against the run, but he is very good in space, he is very athletic but he is not as aggressive and tenacious. The league is trending towards more interior pass rushers and he certainly has that ability. Just watching him on tape last year, he has definitely taken a step and I think there is another step he could take. He would be an intriguing guy to take because he has upside. Gary and Bosa, I’m not going to say they are at their ceiling but they are closer to it. Historically, his type of talent would probably be a first-round pick.”
Zach Allen, DL, Boston College
“He is a really versatile guy. He plays really hard. He is a pretty good athlete. He can play in a 3-4 or a 4-3. The thing that sticks out about him is the effort. Not overly athletic, but great effort. A lot of his pass rush comes from his motor. He does have versatility, he could be a 3-4 end in some schemes that move their front. He is kind of like a Ryan Kerrigan, just body type-wise. He’ll probably go somewhere in the second round, maybe the first.”
Jerry Tillery, DL, Notre Dame
“He’s really, really talented. For a guy his size [6' 7"] he’s really quick off the ball. He’s explosive, he can rush the passer. Teams are really going to get enamored with his size and length, and his ability to rush the quarterback. Most guys his size are run down players and he can affect the quarterback. He is a really good player. He’s a rising player with a lot of upside. His thing is, some scouts have concerns about the kid because he has a lot of interests outside football. They are going to be some people questioning how much dog he's got in him. You want to find defensive linemen who are just nasty, and I don't know if he is that guy. He could go anywhere from first to third round.”
Brian Burns, OLB/DE, Florida State
“The concern is going to be his weight, he is in the high 220s right now, so he’s kind of a sinewy body type. The two guys that I have done that were in the high 220s that were really good pass rushers coming out were Bruce Irvin and Vic Beasley, and he is probably a looser athlete than both those guys. Really fun to watch on tape because when he knows he is going to get the QB, he can go get him. He can change directions, he has really good countermoves, his takeoff is great, he can win with speed off the edge. The question is going to be what will he do on first or second down; he will have a bullseye on his chest until he bulks up and can hold up against the run. If you draft him, you know he can be a factor right away as a sub-downs player.”
Jalen Jelks, DE/OLB, Oregon
“He is a tweener. He is going to be a 4-3 designated pass-rush guy because I don’t know if he really fits in a 4-3 on run downs. But as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he is going to have the length and the twitch. He is really twitchy for a long-bodied guy. Oregon doesn’t play him how he is going to play in the pros. They reduce him inside, play him inside and always have his hand on the ground where I think he could be more of a stand up guy at the next level. He doesn’t do a lot of outside linebacker type things like drop into coverage, and that’s what he’ll have to prove. We don’t have anywhere near a first-round grade on him right now.”
And here’s a small school guy you should know:
John Cominsky, DE, Univrsity of Charleston
“He is one of the most unique stories of the draft. Shaquem Griffin was the story of the draft last year, but this year I think it will be John Cominsky or Gardner Minshew this year. Cominksy came in as a quarterback, 6' 2", 210 or something like that and now he’s 6' 5", 275. He is really athletic for a kid that size, so he is a mismatch against guards because he is so athletic. He can really run. Teams right now are really intrigued by the athlete and the tools, it’s going to be how quickly can he put it together to rise to the occasion against better competition? But he’s dominated at the D-II level like you want to see a D-II guy do.Teams are enamored with his athleticism.”
SENIOR BOWL SCOUTING NOTEBOOK
Former longtime NFL scout and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy shares the matchup he’s monitoring this week…
Auburn’s defense is loaded with talented players like Derrick Brown, Nick Coe, Marlon Davidson, Dontavius Russell, Daniel Thomas, Jamel Dean, and Javaris Davis, but the glue of the unit that keeps everything together and juices everyone up is the unanimous team captain, middle linebacker Deshaun Davis.
While he might not fit the height/weight/speed thresholds for some NFL teams, if there is anyone in the country that can defy the odds and be the exception it is Davis. Every high school and college coach of his that we have talked to say he is the toughest, most instinctual player they have ever been around, and it does not take long watching his film to notice this. It is evident on tape that Davis has played the linebacker position his entire life. He has already acquired many subtle tricks in his maneuverability around the box and timing of his blitzes that you would only expect to see out of veteran NFL players.
A lost art for many linebackers in college football and the NFL today is the ability to take on lead blockers with force. Davis has all the physical toughness and pop in his pads that you need to thwart fullbacks coming through the hole and offensive linemen working to the second level. An effective short zone coverage player and a reliable tackler, Davis is someone who NFL linebackers coaches will fight for to make a roster.
One player tasked with blocking Davis on Saturday will be Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher. Over the summer, we were admittedly lukewarm on his film as a guard and thought he struggled against powerful players who lined up over him. This season as a center, however, Pierschbacher has impressed us with his alertness and competitiveness. He has become very adept at giving help to his guards and is effective working to the second level with good angles on combo blocks.
At the end of the day, Pierschbacher is a four-year starter and key cog for Alabama who has position flexibility in the interior of the offensive line. Bradley Bozeman was a sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft who ended up making the Baltimore Ravens’ 53-man roster, and we see a lot of similarities between the two.
While many will overlook Davis and Pierschbacher when it comes to NFL potential, they have the experience, toughness, competitiveness, and football intelligence to make it in the league. We are excited to watch them matchup against each other use their subtle abilities that have made them outstanding SEC football players.
OTHER MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Mississippi State CB Jamal Peters vs. Ole Miss WR DaMarkus Lodge: Peters has battled back from an early-season injury to showcase his upside as a press-man outside corner. He’ll look for his first interception this season against the ball skills of Lodge.
Kentucky CBs Lonnie Johnson, Derrick Baity vs. Louisville WR Jaylen Smith: Smith gets a rare challenge this week to face cornerbacks that can matchup with him from a size and length perspective, so we will be keyed in on his reps against Johnson and Baity.
South Carolina CB Rashad Fenton vs. Clemson WR Hunter Renfrow: If the sure-handed Renfrow is cleared to play, he will get a good matchup with a twitchy, quick-footed nickel cornerback in Fenton.
Syracuse DT Chris Slayton vs. Boston College OG Chris Lindstrom: Slayton has shown flashes as a disruptive interior presence and will get his toughest test of the season against the extremely consistent Lindstrom.
Florida OG Fred Johnson vs. Florida State DT Demarcus Christmas: Big-on-big matchup in the trenches between two strong players who excel in the run game on their respective sides of the ball.
Notre Dame RB Dexter Williams vs. USC FS Marvell Tell: Tell is a rangy, versatile safety who will have some intriguing one on one tackle opportunities with Williams whose vision, body control, and contact balance has led to a very productive senior season.
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