1. Penn State DT Devon Still
Initially the interior defensive lineman discussion revolved around LSU's Michael Brockers, who was crowned far too early as the position's top prospect. Then after the Combine, workout warrior Dontari Poe drew most of the headlines along with Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox, who is much more deserving than the first two names. None of these three were as consistently dominant and impactful as Devon Still. Admittedly, Still comes off the line with high posture and lacks an outstanding get off burst, but where he shines is in the initial engagement. Still consistently extends his arms with very good strength to force his opposition even higher, giving him the leverage advantage. From there Still diagnoses the developing play while fighting through the initial block. With this backfield vision, Still times his block shedding better than any other defensive tackle in this class, consistently anticipating and making tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. His variety of counter moves allows Still to not only penetrate on specific plays, but disrupt entire series. Sure, he lacks exceptionally quick feet to run around blocks but Still is frequently very difficult to stop face up with his balance and natural strength. His pre-draft story is very reminiscent of Kris Jenkins', who was selected in the second round due to effort and injury questions. Still will likely be selected in the late first or early second round but appeals to both 3-4 defenses as a five-technique end or as a massive three-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 that can penetrate or anchor at the line. No draft eligible defensive tackle has better tape than Still.
2. Iowa OT Riley Reiff
As soon as Reiff measured in with just over 33" arms, he was automatically converted to guard by many. I do not get it. Reiff has excellent balance with athletic footwork, which helps when mirroring the pass rusher. Not only is Reiff's lower body consistently in position, but he is persistent with hand use, latching on to the opposition's chest or punching to redirect. Reiff never settles once he gains leverage, driving defensive linemen to the ground when they lose balance or on double teams. His lack of outstanding length does come into play on first contact, but Reiff is active in readjusting his hand placement then bending at the knees to absorb power and anchor. Pass rushers that utilize an inside move have been Reiff's kryptonite, but a cut off armbar to the opposition's inside shoulder will help tremendously. Not only do I hesitate in deeming Reiff solely as a guard, I firmly believe he can be a quality tackle, even on the left side. Just remember Joe Thomas measured in with shorter than 33" arms, so a single measurement should not be a determining factor in designating a prospect's position.
3. Alabama DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw
After his Pro Day workouts, the word on Upshaw was he lacks exceptional athletic qualities. That is certainly true and is evident during games, but Upshaw's foundation is persistence, power, and technical skill. Rather than consistently beating heavier footed offensive linemen around the edge, Upshaw chose to engage with leverage to force blockers off balance, where he releases with strength to relentlessly pursue the ball carrier. Just as effective as an edge speed rush is when pass rushers plant their outside foot to work back inside and take an aggressive angle to the quarterback. This is one of Upshaw's trademark moves. Usually I question the balance of prospects who constantly play with their shoulders over their toes, but Upshaw brings controlled aggressiveness and is always moving forward. He needs to raise his head on contact and will consistently rely on a jolting first punch to gain that instant leverage, but not many are as reliable in terms of motor and production. Upshaw fits as a defensive end in a four man front or a designated upfield strong side outside linebacker in a three man front.
4. Clemson TE Dwayne Allen - As soon as Coby Fleener ran a sub 4.5 forty at Stanford's Pro Day, Allen was assigned to playing the second fiddle. I am in the minority here, but I prefer Allen's tape. To start, the Clemson product is a better blocker, especially when in a three point stance on the end of the line. Allen has both inline tight end and H-back/Joker qualities. His body control in all phases of his play is exceptional. First, he releases off the line with physical hands and dips past the pressing defender. They may not be run with elite speed, but Allen's routes are crisp with little wasted movements on cuts but defined steps to create separation at the catch point. Then, Allen adjusts to the ball in the air and possesses soft hands to high point catches away from his body. Unlike Fleener, Allen was rarely asked to run vertical routes, instead Clemson utilized his fluid style and body positioning to create mismatches at every level of the field. Do not turn on the film expecting a quick twitch athlete. Instead, Allen's movements mirror that of Antonio Gates, specifically how he leaves his feet in contested situations while creating slivers of space due to a smooth style. He remains my top tight end.
5. Nevada LB James - Michael Johnson
Johnson is the most prototypical inside linebacker in this draft, even when considering Luke Kuechly. The Nevada product fills running lanes with force, taking on blockers with the appropriate shoulder and immediately fights through contact. That is where Johnson shines, his goal is not to win that initial engagement, instead focusing on relentlessly getting to the ball carrier. He makes quick decisions and crashes the line without hesitation. In coverage, Johnson has fluid hips in short zones. His footwork may get jittery at times, but Johnson is a very reliable tackler that loves contact and cleans up piles. Many linebackers get caught in the grasp of offensive linemen at the second level, but Johnson keeps separation without avoiding contact, then adjusts his angle to aggressively get to the ball. I love how confidently Johnson plays the position. He has earned a late second-round grade, but will likely be a third or fourth round selection. Wherever he is drafted, Johnson should make an impact in his career as an early starter.