Thor Nystrom

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2019 NFL Draft defensive ranks

Friday, June 8, 2018


This list is a meant to be a far-too-early snapshot of the 2019 NFL Draft class. Emphasis on “far-too-early.” I have watched and followed every player listed below over the past few years in my work as a college football/NFL Draft writer for Rotoworld, but I have not yet watched each of their film packages. Much will change between now and next April, but it’s never too early to get a grasp on where we stand right now. At this moment, this is how I see next year’s class.


Better in 2019: WR, TE, OT, DE, DT, LB

Worse in 2019: QB, RB, OG, C, CB, S


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Defensive End

1. Nick Bosa (Ohio State)

2. Clelin Ferrell (Clemson)

3. Zach Allen (Boston College)

4. Montez Sweat (Mississippi State)

5. Jalen Jelks (Oregon)

6. Joe Jackson (Miami)

7. Austin Bryant (Clemson)

8. Jaylon Ferguson (Louisiana Tech)

9. Chase Winovich (Michigan)

10. Shareef Miller (Penn State)

11. Carl Granderson (Wyoming)

12. Charles Omenihu (Texas)

13. Corbin Kaufusi (BYU)

14. Anthony Nelson (Iowa)

15. Christian Rector (USC)

16. Maxx Crosby (Eastern Michigan)


Potential riser: Curtis Weaver (Boise State)

2020 prospect to monitor: Jaelan Phillips (UCLA)


  • Nick Bosa (6’4/263) is a clone of his brother Joey, except that he may be a slightly better athlete. Playing in a rotation amid one of college football’s deepest defensive lines last year—and consistently facing multiple blockers—Bosa managed 8.5 sacks and 16 TFL. Bosa wins with a blend of quickness, power and sheer effort. He, Ed Oliver and Justin Herbert are the three likeliest players to hear their name called at 1.1 next year.


  • Clelin Ferrell (6’5/260) and Austin Bryant (6’5/265) are so disruptive. The duo collectively posted 18 sacks and 33.5 TFL last year. Ferrell in particular had a shot to go in Round 1 had he declared for the 2018 draft. He's a long end who effectively converts speed to power. Bryant broke out with 15.5 TFL last year.


  • Zach Allen (6’5/285), Harold Landry’s running mate last year, probably would have gone in Round 2 had he declared for the 2018 draft. With Landry gone, he steps fully in the spotlight. Allen posted 15.5 TFL last year and he’s only getting better. He was one of two FBS defensive linemen to finish with 100 or more tackles last year. He'll be a first-rounder next spring if that progression continues.


  • Montez Sweat is a 6-foot-6, 241-pound twitchy athlete off the edge. He posted 15.5 TFL and 10.5 sacks in his first year as a starter. If he takes another leap this fall, I’ve placed him too low.


  • Jalen Jelks (6’6/247) is a long and springy defender who chases the ball until the whistle. From an NFL perspective, he’s most exciting when picturing him crashing down on quarterbacks off the edge. But don’t forget about his play against the run. Jelks ranks No. 2 among returning FBS interior defenders with 35 stop in run defense last year, per Pro Football Focus.


  • The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Chase Winovich, a colorful personality who was one of the stars of the Amazon series about the Michigan program, went off for 18 TFL last year. The Wolverines were lucky to get him back after Winovich briefly considered entering the 2018 NFL Draft. Winovich may be the Big 10’s best defense end this side of Nick Bosa.


  • If Winovich isn’t the Big 10’s second-best DE, Shareef Miller (6’5/256) is. Miller, a disruptive edge presence, was a third-team All-Big Ten selection last year, logging a team-leading five sacks and 11 TFL.


  • Carl Granderson (6’5/255) was arguably as valuable to Wyoming as QB Josh Allen last year. The long edge player recorded 77 tackles, 16 TFL and a team-high 9.5 sacks. He also showed versatility by picking off two passes. The highlight of his season may have been the 58-yard fumble recovery touchdown against Central Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.


  • How big is Corbin Kaufusi (6’9/285)? Remember Robert “Tractor” Traylor? Kaufusi is the same height and only five pounds lighter than the late Traylor’s listed NBA weight. Kaufusi was a physical, defensive-minded center for BYU’s basketball team until giving up the sport last year to focus on football. Nicknamed the “Gonzaga killer” after averaging 5.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in three road upsets of the Zags, Kaufusi’s focus on football will pay off in the short and long term. With the basketball team, he was asked to run hard and eat less to lose his football weight, a back-and-forth tug-of-war between seasons. Kaufusi comes from good bloodlines. His dad, Steve Kaufusi, is a BYU defensive coach, and his brother, Bronson Kaufusi—who also moonlighted on the Cougars’ basketball team—was a third-round pick of the Ravens in 2016.


  • Anthony Nelson (6’7/260) is a long defensive end who earned academic All-America and third team All-Big Ten honors last season. He led the team with 7.5 sacks and added 9.5 TFL, four pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and a blocked field goal. A redshirt junior, Nelson has two years to continue to pack muscle onto that skyscraper frame. He’s already gained over 40 pounds since stepping foot on campus. A classic Iowa developmental case, Nelson redshirted after showing up on campus as a 6’7/215 three-star recruit from Waukee, Iowa.


  • Christian Rector impressed last fall when he was forced to move back to USC’s predator position (hybrid edge-rushing LB) to fill in for the injured Porter Gustin. With Gustin healthy and Rasheem Green off to the NFL, Rector will return to DE this fall. With 7.5 sacks, he’s the leading returning sack artist on the Trojans’ roster.


  • Maxx Crosby (6’5/265) came out of nowhere to post 16.5 TFL, 11 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries (including a FR TD) last year. He also showed he could set the edge by tying for the team lead with nine run stuffs. One of 14 FBS defenders to record double-digit sacks last year, Crosby is a size/effort prospect who’ll need to prove he has the athleticism NFL teams desire.


  • Curtis Weaver (6’3/266) would have made the top-15 except for the fact that I doubt he enters next year’s draft. As a redshirt freshman last year, Weaver led the Mountain West with 11 sacks and finished No. 4 with 13 TFL. For that, he earned All-Mountain West First Team honors, Phil Steele All-America Fourth Team accommodation and inclusion on USA TODAY’s Freshman All-American team. Oh, and he was also an Academic All-Mountain West pick. Weaver plays the “stud” role in BSU’s defense, a hybrid DE/OLB role. This is where it gets interesting. Based on the way his body develops and how his development is steered, Weaver could play 4-3 DE in the NFL, 3-4 OLB or, more intriguingly perhaps, bulk up to become a 4-3 3-tech -- if his frame can handle the extra weight. Weaver is extremely disruptive and comes with an always-revving motor. He’s not one of those under-recruited gems that the Broncos staff polished into a gem. BSU had to fend off Wisconsin, Washington State, UCF, Boston College, Duke, Virginia and a late USC push to land him. Remember: Weaver has three years of eligibility left.


 

Defensive Tackle

1. Ed Oliver (Houston)

2. Rashan Gary (Michigan)

3. Dexter Lawrence (Clemson)

4. Raekwon Davis (Alabama)

5. Jeffery Simmons (Mississippi State)

6. Christian Wilkins (Clemson)

7. Derrick Brown (Auburn)

8. Dre’Mont Jones (Ohio State)

9. Jerry Tillery (Notre Dame)

10. Terry Beckner (Missouri)

11. Olive Sagapolu (Wisconsin)

12. Greg Gaines (Washington)

13. Daniel Wise (Kansas)

14. Marlon Davidson (Auburn)

15. Marquise Copeland (Cincinnati)

16. DeMarcus Christmas (Florida State)


Potential riser: Rashard Lawrence (LSU)

2020 prospect to monitor: Marvin Wilson (Florida State)


  • Ed Oliver, the rare five-star recruit to sign with a Group of 5 team, has been dominating since he stepped foot on campus. He posted 16.5 TFL last year despite constant double teams, and also ranked No. 1 among returning FBS interior defenders with 39 stops in run defense. A special prospect drawing deserved Aaron Donald comps, Oliver may have been a top-five pick had he been eligible for last year’s draft. As disruptive as they get, Oliver has already announced he’ll enter next year’s draft. He’s in a head-to-head battle with Nick Bosa to become the first defensive linemen off the board in what could be a historical DL class. The winner of that battle has a real shot to go 1.1—unless Justin Herbert goes supernova in 2018.


  • The 6-foot-5, 287-pound Rashan Gary, who logged 12 TFL as part of a rotation last fall, was the No. 1 overall recruit in his class. Gary often lines up outside for the Wolverines, but he seems like a signed, sealed and delivered NFL 3-technique. With athletic tools like he has, he'll produce wherever you play him.


  • I don’t know if I’ve written about a prospect who epitomizes the term “dancing bear” quite like Dexter Lawrence. The 6-foot-4, 340-pounder reportedly only has 18 percent body fat. A former five-star recruit who contributed immediately as a true freshman to Clemson’s national championship team, Lawrence is a better prospect than Vita Vea.


  • Raekwon Davis is a towering 6-foot-7, 306-pounder who can play either inside or outside. He’s athletic and powerful, with active hands and quickness of the snap. Former Alabama C Bradley Bozeman calls Davis an “animal.” He'd know after having to go head-to-head with Davis in practice the past few years.


  • Jeffery Simmons is a long, athletic interior lineman with pedigree (former five-star recruit) and production (First-Team all-SEC last year). If Simmons is to drop out of Round 1 next spring, it’ll probably have something to do with the video of him as a teenager repeatedly punching a woman on the ground who had been involved in an altercation with his sister. To be fair, Simmons has more than stayed on the straight-and-narrow at Mississippi State. He hasn’t gotten in trouble, he’s been lauded for his leadership, and he’s a member of the All-SEC honor roll. And there’s this: Simmons is the FBS returning leader among DTs with 41 QB pressures in 2017.


  • Christian Wilkins is a 6-foot-4, 300-pounder who has experience inside and outside but profiles better inside at the next level. Arguably overshadowed playing beside Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, Wilkins is nonetheless a prime Round 1 prospect. If you’re looking for length and movement at a slight discount next spring because of the DL class’ depth, he might be your guy late in the first stanza. Wilkins ranks No. 2 among returning ACC interior defenders with a 7.7 run stop percentage in 2017.


  • Most years, Derrick Brown, a 6-foot-5, 325-pound former five-star recruit, would be drawing big-time hype at this time of the year. But in this class, he’s just one of several defensive linemen worthy of going in the top-half of Round 1. Mel Kiper calls him a “rare, rare” talent.


  • Dre’Mont Jones (6'3/291) has had an interesting career, hasn’t he? Jones burst on the scene by posting 52 total tackles as a redshirt freshman in 2016, the most of any Buckeyes defensive linemen (think about that for a sec). But last year, instead of taking a developmental leap, he took a step back amid a stacked depth chart. Jones regressed to only 20 total tackles (five TFL, one sack) while missing three games after cutting his leg against Rutgers. With three OSU defensive linemen off to the NFL and Nick Bosa drawing ample attention off the edge, Jones has a prime chance to emerge as a star in 2018.


  • Jerry Tillery (6’6/306) is a long interior defender who posted nine TFL and 4.5 sacks last year as Notre Dame’s nose tackle. This year, he’ll kick to three-technique. Tillery could move up the board a bit, but only if he stays out of trouble (was sent home from the 2016 Fiesta Bowl) and keeps his head screwed on when playing (remember his brutal after-the-whistle penalties against USC in 2016 finale?) this fall. At least he’s publicly shown self-awareness since, admitting to having a big head earlier in his college career. HC Brian Kelly said this spring that Tillery has grown up. “He’s virtually unblockable at the three technique for us,” Kelly said of Tillery’s on-field game. “He’s a very difficult player to play.”


  • Terry Beckner is a former five-star recruit (No. 2 overall recruit in his class) who I expected to opt into the last draft class after a breakout 2017 campaign (seven sacks, 11 TFL). He’s a problematic evaluation because he’s torn two ACLS—his right as a freshman, his left as a sophomore—whilst on campus. There’s also this: Beckner entered Week 7 last year with only five career sacks. He went on to post four sacks (and 6.5 TFL) over the next three games, against Idaho, UConn and Florida, three dreadful outfits. He added another three weeks later against Arkansas, another bad team. Those five sacks account for exactly half his collegiate sack output to present day. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder could lock in a Day 2 call with a healthy, productive senior season. But man did he make a big gamble in rolling the dice on his knees in order to join the 2019 defensive line class, the nastiest I’ve seen since I started covering the draft five years ago.


  • Olive Sagapolu (first name pronounced Oh-Lee-Vay) is one of college football’s most colorful stories. A former cheerleader, Sagapolu can perform a backflip and touch his toes in midair when splaying out his legs. “Mr. Aloha”, a Hawaii native, can also play the ukulele. A 19-game nose tackle starter on college football’s No. 2 defense (and No. 3 rushing defense), Sagapolu finished with three sacks and 3.5 TFL last year. The 6-foot-2, 335-pounder has lost 10 pounds since earlier in his career. Wisconsin defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield would like him to get down to 325 so he can be used in pass-rushing situations in the nickel defense. Sagapolu comes from NFL bloodlines, the cousin of Cincinnati Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko and former NFL offensive lineman Tupe Peko.


  • Greg Gaines (6’2/322) ain’t one of those sexy, disruptive three-techniques. He’s a reliable, hard-to-move block eater who’s been starting since halfway through his redshirt freshman season. Gaines was a second-team All Pac-12 performer last year despite playing through a torn PCL. In large part because of that injury, his TFL total dropped from eight to five. A high-motor player, Gaines is strong against the run and offers more as a pass rusher than you’d expect.


  • You may not have heard of Daniel Wise (6’3/290), as he played in Dorance Armstrong’s shadow on a dreadful Kansas outfit. While you were tuning out the Jayhawks during their 11-game losing streak to end the 2017 season, Wise was producing some eye-opening stats: 63 tackles, 16 TFL, seven sacks, five quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. Kansas returns more defensive talent than you might think (a level back, Joe Dineen is another NFL prospect). If Wise shows improvement in 2018, he could be one of the first 10 DTs off the board in a stacked class.


  • Marlon Davidson (6’3/282) plays DE for Auburn, but I could see him taking the Jalyn Holmes path, targeted early on Day 3 with the intention of moving him inside and turning him into a 3-technique. He’s not as long as Holmes, but he’s been a better college player. Davidson dealt with a bunch of injuries last year. Built low-to-the-ground and thick for an edge rusher, Davidson is likely to break out this fall.


  • Marquise Copeland (6’3/290) has played a lot of defensive end for the Bearcats but will probably kick inside at the next level. To differentiate himself in this deep DL class, he’d better dominate the AAC this fall. He had a good-but-not great 2017 for a mediocre Cincy outfit (63 total tackles, eight TFL, 3.5 sacks). Per PFF, Copeland graded out much better as a run defender than a pass rusher. Improving on the latter would obviously add to his NFL appeal.


  • DeMarcus Christmas ranks No. 2 among returning interior defenders with six passes batted at the line last year.


  • Rashard Lawrence (6’3/300) is a former five-star recruit who makes this list solely on projected upside. He’s a talented kid who plays hard, but now’s the time to level up on the field. Lawrence has struggled with injuries and consistency while on campus. With the Tigers, DC Dave Aranda uses Lawrence at five-technique end and then shifts him inside in nickel sets.


  • Khalen Saunders (6’2/310), one of the FCS’ best defenders, barely missed this list. He had 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles last fall.




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Thor Nystrom is a former MLB.com associate reporter whose writing has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to Rotoworld's college football writer on Twitter @thorku.
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