It isn’t the 2016 class of interior defensive linemen, but 2017 still offers some premier talent up front, including at least a couple first-round prospects. Here’s my pre-Combine rankings of the group, along with their tape analysis, scheme fits, and round grades.
1. Jonathan Allen – Senior – Alabama – 6-2 – 291 – 22
Some won’t have Allen on this list, instead choosing to identify him as an edge defender, and the Alabama star will certainly have his moments outside. But if he weighs in over 290 pounds, or really anywhere close, he’s going to be playing the majority of his snaps inside as a 3 technique, preferably in a one-gap, four-man front. Allen is explosive, more athletic than his frame would belie, and has some of the best hand usage I’ve ever scouted from a prospect. He’s powerful, mentally sharp, and has the versatility to play a three-down role as an interior pass rusher on long/late downs.
It’s rare to see a college defensive lineman so physically dominate the opposition while playing in the most talented conference in the NCAA. That will translate nicely to the NFL, where Allen may not have the sky-high ceiling of Myles Garrett or Malik McDowell, but should be a stud presence on a defensive front for years to come.
Pre-Combine Grade: 1st Round – Top 10
2. Malik McDowell – Junior – Michigan State – 6-5 – 282 – 21
I don’t say this lightly, but McDowell is the highest ceiling player on this list, with the ability to play any defensive line technique in a one-gap system at an incredibly high level. He’s an athletic phenom, with the length and flexibility to become a 4-3 defensive end and play off the edge if needed. He’s bull-like strong, and plays with incredible leverage and power for his long, somewhat lanky frame. There are concerns about his motor, but McDowell played with his hair on fire during the first half of the season, and the combine will be a great opportunity to prove to teams how much he loves the game.
But in terms of talent and ability, we’re talking about a prospect with very few physical limitations to his game, and better technique and smarts than most realize. I think so much of McDowell athletically, that I may move him off this list and over to the edge defenders if he tests how I think he can. If he lands with the right defensive coaching staff, look out, he could be special.
Pre-Combine Grade: 1st Round – Top 10
3. Caleb Brantley – RS Junior – Florida – 6-2 – 300 – 23
Brantley might be slightly undersized for the position, but he fits the mold of a penetrating 3 technique perfectly, as an explosive, one-gap talent who will get upfield and create disruption in opposing backfields. He’s not the technical, high-IQ run defender that Jaleel Johnson is, but Brantley is a better pass rusher, able to vary his rushes and win in a variety of ways from the interior. He converts speed-to-power adeptly, and has the fluid hips and explosive first step to win one-on-one battles consistently.
That isn’t to say that Brantley is a bad run defender, as he plays low and leveraged at the point of attack, with fitted hands and a powerful punch. He’ll get reached on outside zone plays, however, not from a lack of agility, but because he either gets lazy and tries to backdoor plays, or missteps trying to get vertical against a horizontal scheme. His conditioning was an issue a few times on tape, and Brantley will have to do a better job of finishing sacks and tackles despite his short arms.
Pre-Combine Grade: Late 1st Round – Top 25
4. Jaleel Johnson – RS Senior – Iowa – 6-2 7/8 – 309 – 23
Deciding between Brantley and Johnson is basically choosing which you value more: pass rush and splash plays, or snap-to-snap consistency and high football IQ against the run. Johnson might be the best defensive lineman in the draft at identifying and attacking blocking schemes with masterful technique, but he isn’t quite the explosive athlete and fluid pass rusher that Brantley is. Johnson wins in the run game with smarts and power, consistently leveraging his gap with a violent punch to keep his frame clean. He rarely over-pursues to the ball, and consistently owns his gap without giving ground thanks to a strong first step and a well-placed punch.
As a pass rusher, Johnson is a power player with the ability to push the pocket with the bull rush and long-arm techniques. He’s not rangy enough to have quite the same area of impact that Brantley does, but he’s more consistent and rarely misses opportunities to finish a play. Johnson also has more versatility, as he can play both 3 technique and nose at a high level, displaying the ability to hold up against double teams in the middle of the line.
Pre-Combine Grade: Early 2nd Round – Top 35
5. Chris Wormley – RS Senior – Michigan – 6-5 3/8 – 297 – 23
Wormley was miscast as an edge defender too often at Michigan, but he still found ways to thrive as a run defender by exhibiting some of the best technique in the class. The fifth-year senior checks a lot of boxes, with an explosive first step, fitted hands to consistently win chest control, leveraged hips, and a deadly punch to stun blockers and stack-and-shed at the point of attack.
Teams that use a base 3-4 will love Wormley’s length and high football IQ on the outside, as well as his ability to kick inside to a 3 tech spot in nickel. Wormley isn’t a great athlete and lacks the suddenness to separate from blockers as a pass rusher, but his combination of technique and power moves should still make him an effective interior presence against the pass. He’s consistent, not flashy, but he’ll be a reliable part of a 4-3 or 3-4 defense’s starting lineup moving forward.
Pre-Combine Grade: 2nd Round – Top 50
6. Dalvin Tomlinson – RS Senior – Alabama – 6-3 – 312 – N/A
Tomlinson isn’t a star-in-the-making like many of his other Alabama teammates, but he should be a solid starter for years to come in the NFL. Like Johnson, Tomlinson has the versatility to play a couple defensive line spots, but should find a home at nose tackle, taking on and dismantling double teams at the point of attack. He can play 3 technique as well, but Tomlinson is more of a slow-twitch player off the ball, lacking the explosiveness to really threaten much as a penetrating presence. He’s technically sound, violent with his hands, and works his tail off utilizing a variety of moves to make an impact as a pass rusher.
Tomlinson can eat space and anchor at the point of attack, but he’s not athletic enough to have a wide range of impact from the core of the formation to the sideline. I think he’s a better overall player than A’Shawn Robinson was last year, and he went top 50 to the Lions. Tomlinson may not go that high in a better class, but his NFL-ready understanding of blocking schemes, power to win first contact, and mentally astute plan of attack as a pass rusher could make him more of an impact player early in his career than Robinson has been.
Pre-Combine Grade: 3rd Round
7. Eddie Vanderdoes – RS Junior – UCLA – 6-3 1/8 – 320 – 22
Vanderdoes has battled significant injuries at this point in his career, tearing his left ACL just one game into his true junior campaign. After a redshirt season, Vanderdoes returned to start every game the following year, but had lost some of his luster with scouts as he fought to resume his old form. If you want a nose tackle who plays low and leveraged with a ferocious punch and an immovable anchor, Vanderdoes is your guy. He’ll eat double teams and bring the fight to his opponents with an impressive motor and nasty edge to his game.
Vanderdoes has a better first step than you think he would looking at his frame, and actually moves quite fluidly for a such a big man. He needs further development as a pass rusher, however, as right now he’s much more activity without accomplishment than anything else. Vanderdoes will spin and swim, but he won’t set up or time his moves well, resulting in him essentially “running in place.” There’s some suddenness and violence to his game, but he needs to be more refined in what he’s doing.
I don’t think Vanderdoes offers any tantalizing physical or athletic traits, which likely means he’ll be a very solid two-down player in the NFL. I worry about him getting scooped against horizontal run schemes (outside zone especially), as his block diagnosis can be a little bit hit-or-miss. Nevertheless, if Vanderdoes’ medical checks go well, his ability to one- or two-gap should appeal to a variety of schemes in the middle rounds of the draft.
Pre-Combine Grade: Late 3rd Round
8. Carlos Watkins – RS Senior – Clemson – 6-3 5/8 – 312 – 23
Watkins is a pure speed-to-power rusher who consistently picked up sack production as a cleanup guy in the middle of Clemson’s defense. His arm extension and leverage are terrific, but he plays with little variety to his rushes and can get hung up on blocks too long by constantly attacking square. I really wish he had more burst off the ball, or the ability to play a more explosive brand of football in at least his second or third steps. Watkins is simply not a multi-speed player, which makes him easier to get a hat on than many of his colleagues, even if it’s difficult to bully him in the run game.
Watkins can push the pocket some as a pass rusher, but he doesn’t give you even as much juice as Tomlinson in that area, nor does he offer Vanderdoes’s anchor as a run defender. I think Watkins can play situationally as a three or one technique, but he’s going to have issues against double teams, and doesn’t offer an elite range of impact. He’s a solid NFL depth piece that can be a spot starter or part of a rotation, but I don’t see the upside or athleticism to suggest anything more than that at the next level.
Pre-Combine Grade: Late 3rd/Early 4th Round
After Watkins I have mixed feelings on the rest of the class. I’ve seen enough of Tulane’s Tanzel Smart and Charlotte’s Larry Ogunjobi to be very interested in their skill sets, but only as role players early on. Ogunjobi is talented and has the size to be an eventual starter in the NFL, but he was too out of control and worked his way out of plays too often on tape. I wanted to like his Louisville performance because he had a number of quarterback hits and pressures in that game, but I found that most of his success came from moving gaps and the Cardinals miscommunicating up front. He moves really well for a 3 technique, but needs to play lower and more patient at the point of attack. I think his ceiling could be higher than a couple players ahead of him on this list.
Smart is an undersized 3 tech who is already drawing comparisons to Grady Jarrett. He needs a plan of attack as a pass rusher and better hand usage, but he’s explosive up the field and caught my eye more than Ogunjobi in Mobile. Both of these guys can make a two-deep and be rotating pieces as rookies, but I need to see more tape of each before I finalize their grades and career projections. The talent is obvious, but coaching and development are needed.
The rest of this year’s defensive line crew (that I’ve watched) are day three guys who need plenty of work or are niche players at the next level. Montravius Adams is a much-hyped prospect, but if he doesn’t win with his first step, he really struggles at the point of attack. He gets blown off the ball far too often, doesn’t diagnose blocks at a high level, and tends to be very linear in his range of impact. I don’t think he’s the athlete many believe he is.
Elijah Qualls may have played on the edge at Washington, but those days are behind him, as he’ll be a nose tackle in the NFL. Qualls plays with a lot of heart, but isn’t very refined and also struggles to identify and attacking run schemes developing in front of him. He’s a two-down player who needs to test well to pique teams’ interest.
Of the two Notre Dame defensive line prospects, Jarron Jones gets more hype, but I may like Isaac Rochell more. Jones flashes at times, but plays too high and appears to lack the flexibility to drop anchor and hold the point of attack. His arms are vines and there is some power to his game, but he’s raw mentally as well as technically, and reportedly faces concerns about his love for the game. His pass rush plan is to try and run through someone without leverage or consistent hand placement. That isn’t going to work in the NFL.
Rochell is assignment sound on tape, but played mostly on the edge at over 280 pounds. He isn’t athletic enough to win there in the NFL, but I think he can project to a base 5 technique for a 3-4 front and kick inside as a 3 technique when teams go four-down. I don’t think he’ll be an every-down starter, but I think he can push the pocket and showed better movement skills and explosiveness than I expected in Mobile. He’ll find a spot as a depth piece in the NFL.
Davon Godchaux looks like your ideal, athletic 3 technique, and while he’s a fluid mover, he just doesn’t flash enough on tape to get excited about his skill set. He’s often the last player off the ball, and consistently made his tackles five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, where Godchaux’s opponent has dumped him after blowing him off the ball. Godchaux has production and experience, but I just don’t see enough traits on tape to get excited about his future in the NFL.
Naz Jones is a guy I’d probably look at day 3 to develop as a 5 technique. His pad level is too inconsistent to anchor as a nose, and I don’t know that he’s athletic enough to get excited about as a 3 tech. He was consistently reached by zone blocks inside, but has the length and power to handle business outside in a base 3-4. I just don’t know how much he gives you as a pass rusher unless he lands with a coach or offseason program that will get his hands and mental processing right for money downs.
Ryan Glasgow, D.J. Jones, Vincent Taylor, and Charles Walker highlight the list of defensive linemen I still have to watch, and the class clearly isn’t without talent. There’s not the 20 or so day 1-2 values that we saw last year, but we should see 8-10 defensive linemen still taken in the top 100, with a couple premier talents near the top.