The spider web of each prospect's test results from the NFL Combine comes courtesy of MockDraftable. SPARQ composite scores are provided by Zach Whitman. All players’ ages are calculated as of September 2019.
1. Quinnen Williams (Alabama) | 6’3/303
SPARQ percentile: 83.1
Comp: A cross between Gerald McCoy and Aaron Donald
Every year, after the draft, I publish a “too-early” mock draft as well as top-15 position rankings for the next class. Last May, in the defensive rankings column, I wrote that the 2019 defensive line class would be transcendent.
And I didn’t even include the best player! Back then, Quinnen Williams wasn’t on the radar – he wasn’t a thing. All I knew about Quinnen was that he was a young, four-star rotational player, a description that fits every Alabama backup (except for the five-stars!).
Nick Saban beat out Ole Miss and Auburn for Williams’ signature in 2016 and then redshirted him. In 2017, Williams was Da’Ron Payne’s backup. One year later, he was the country’s best player. Williams won the Outland Trophy and would have been in prime contention for the Heisman Trophy in a just world.
It’s hard to contextualize just how dominant he was. But here’s a nugget for you: In Williams’ only season as a starter, he earned the highest grade Pro Football Focus has ever given to a college interior defender (96.0). Williams posted eight sacks and 19.5 TFL in 15 games.
His first step as a 300-plus pounder is just stupid. On a few plays last year, I had to rewind the DVR because I thought Quinnen had jumped offsides. Nope! He also has the chess Queen ability to move laterally as suddenly as he moves north-to-south.
Williams is one of the best prospects you’ll ever see at making offensive linemen whiff like Chris Davis in a phone booth. That, too, forced DVR rewinds in the fall. A runner would get drilled three yards behind the line because Quinnen had apparently gone unblocked.
But that wasn't the case -- the man assigned to Quinnen intended to block him. Re-watching, you’d see Quinnen slide left, get skinny with his right side while giving the air-eating linemen a shove in the back with his left, and then, once free, dart in whatever direction the ball-carrier was headed, even if that meant immediately hurtling the other way.
Quinnen’s a joystick: He has 360-degree explosion in all directions. Including, of course, north-south, explosion that quickly converts to speed: Quinnen’s 4.83 forty was the fourth-fastest for a 300-plus pound defensive linemen at the NFL Combine since 2003. When he’s got a path to the ball, Quinnen closes like a linebacker and blasts people.
He's extremely slippery, but that’s a circumstantial preference, not a defense mechanism. And Quinnen put multiple SEC offensive linemen on their butts on bull rushes when they started cheating by leaning back in their stance to afford a wider angle to deal with Quinnen’s side-to-side-then-straight-ahead Frogger-in-fast-forward routine after the snap. Quinnen just put his hands under the rocking chair and tipped it the rest of the way over.
He possesses power, and also the aptitude to absorb it without being affected. Quinnen is always on his feet – always. He’ll have tackles and sacks that end on his feet. He’s like some kind of show-off Willie Mayes Hayes who doesn’t just want to hit inside-the-park home runs, but to cross the plate with his uniform clean.
A master craftsman despite his lack of playing experience, Quinnen is famous for his arm-overs and rips. In the seconds after the snap, Quinnen’s upper body often has the look of an oversized swimmer. He’ll get tall when he has to shake a hand to enter a room like that, but, in general, he plays very low to the ground.
One other way in which Williams is extremely advanced is in play recognition. He does not get fooled. Screens, options, play-actions, sweeps, counters, draws, whatever – he isn’t buying your fakes or your misdirection, and he’ll come screaming in from the backside to blow up a play he shouldn’t have the range to be involved in.
Williams isn’t just a pass-rusher. He has one heck of an anchor in run defense, sometimes angling his body and using his leg as a sort of wedge, like how you’d try to keep the door shut when your older brother was trying to force his way in as a kid.
Quinnen does that. And then if the ballcarrier tries to sneak through one of the gaps in his vicinity, he merely springs that direction -- leaving the offensive linemen stumbling forward into an room — and jumps on the RB like a mountain lion. It’s war o’clock when Quinnen steps on the field. The kid is terrifying. I’m telling you.
Williams is a classic three-technique prospect, one of the best we’ve seen the past decade. But he has more experiential miles on the odometer than you might think because Alabama realized what they had early and went to work gleefully unleashing Quinnen from a variety of different looks. Quinnen actually got 188 (of 647) snaps at nose guard last year – over center, cocked, and shaded.
SB Nation’s Stephen White made a compelling argument that Quinnen’s NFL team should consider using him situationally as a nose guard: “Imagine,” White wrote, “having a dude you could line up in the A gaps or head up on the center on first and second down, who was good enough to be the anchor of your run defense, but who could also get quick pressure against early-down passes.”
So there's that, too. Any weakness I propose feels nit-picky, but I’ll give it the ol’ college try. Quinnen started only year and thus lacks experience. You can sometimes – if you time it just right -- take advantage of his gap-slicing aggression by pushing him upfield and out of the play.
That’s about all I got. Quinnen Williams, who only recently turned 21, is not only the singular best player in the class – the guy I’d pick first if we were playing a one-off game tomorrow – but he also has ceiling left to reach. Just how high that is I cannot tell you.
Several areas of his game are already elite, so Quinnen can now turn his attention to adding even more moves, to improving his play strength, to watching even more film. He could clown whoever he wanted in college with lateral agility, upfield explosion and a few slick moves.
In camp, let’s install a few counter moves for when (if?) NFL linemen get their hands on him. The kid won’t be 22 until late in the season. He’s already playing symphonies from memory after hearing the song once. Keep teaching this kid and watch what happens. Don’t overthink it. Quinnen Williams, the late-blooming virtuoso, is the No. 1 prospect in the class.
2. Ed Oliver (Houston) | 6’2/287
SPARQ percentile: 99.5
Comp: John Randle (Oliver's high school coach Ed Blum)
When you think of Twitch, don’t think of gamers, think of Ed Oliver.
I always thought twitch was an odd way to describe freak movement, as its synonyms – jerk, convulse, quiver, shudder, spasm, tremble – more describe what the offensive coordinator is doing as Ed Oliver is closing in on his quarterback than the gesticulations Oliver used to get there.
So let’s reframe with the gamer motif. You remember Sonic the Hedgehog? Always low to the ground, barreling forward at high speeds without a care in the world? That’s Ed Oliver. Only Ed Oliver uses his arms, and he runs through walls, not up them.
Oliver’s speed, agility and get-off all may be tops in this class. He’s fast enough as to make the linebacker talk feasible if he lost 30 pounds (you could, Ed, but don’t), he changes directions like a running back, and he shares Quinnen’s skill of first-step quicks so fast that he sometimes fools you into thinking he jumped early.
And while Quinnen's football intelligence is widely lauded, Oliver's football IQ hasn't gotten as much pub. An opposing offensive assistant college coach who facEd Oliver each of the past two seasons told SB Nation: “Our guys are telling us he kinda knows this, he’s calling out this. He doesn’t get enough credit for his overall knowledge of the game. People think a D tackle is just running hard. No, he’s a smart kid.”
A top-five overall recruit, Oliver became the highest-ranked prospect to ever sign with a Group of 5 school when he chose his hometown Houston Cougarsl. He wanted to play near home with his brother, an offensive lineman on the team, under HC Tom Herman. Herman left for Texas after Oliver’s freshman year and the Cougars hired former Longhorns QB Major Applewhite to replace him.
And while Oliver was a menace very early on in college, he dominated not by sacking the quarterback, but by blowing up runs. Oliver had 22 TFL and a top-notch 88.0 PFF run grade as a true freshman in 2016 and then upped the ante with a sublime 91.4 grade and 16.5 TFL in 2017. He did this despite his play-weight dipping near 280 pounds at times, and despite constant attention from opposing offenses.
But there was a lingering mystery. Why did Ed Oliver only have 10.5 career sacks after his sophomore season? And why were his pass-rush grades -- in the high-60s each of his first two years — lagging far behind his run defense grades? This was the twitched-up spiritual animal of John Randle in the Group of 5 for cripes sakes! We wanted to see blood!
In the AAC, Oliver was sort of like The Beatles. Everyone wanted to see him up close. Opposing coaches devoted ludicrous amounts of resources to keeping him out of the backfield. Oliver was like if The Beatles had been managed by Murray from Flight of the Concords.
Major Applewhite was a bumbling, overmatched coach who was fired immediately after the season despite making bowls in his two seasons. He misused Ed Oliver as a 3-4 nose tackle, but that’s the least of his crimes. Applewhite and crew leached off Oliver’s God Mode penetration ability by jerry-rigging a defensive strategy to consistently flood coverage zones with eight defenders -- in essence, he asked Ed Oliver to single-handedly provide the heat while at a numbers disadvantage.
Opposing offenses had five-on-three or six-on-three blocking advantage numbers when they dropped back, and what do you think they did with the extra blockers? That’s right! They played a little game called free-guys-mug-Ed!
Oliver rushed the passer from directly over the center (0-technique) on 548 snaps the past three years – the next-highest total of a draft-eligible DT in this class was Chris Nelson’s 402. Other names in the top-10: Boogie Roberts, Myquon Stout, Javier Edwards, Ulaiasi Tuaalo.
Per PFF, Oliver rushed from 0-technique more times than from all other DL positions combined. Like, that's just what he was. A 3-4 NT on a team that didn't blitz. This was how the John Randle of our generation spent his college career!
So now you know why Oliver posted only 13.5 career sacks and 26 total pressures in the G5. And know this, too: Oliver’s pass-rush grade spiked all the way to No. 7 in this class when he wasn’t lined up as a nose tackle (as he was far less susceptible to gang-block tactics). It's just that Houston refused to use him that way.
And I guess this brings us to Applewhite’s turn as Napoleon-Complex Dynamite on the sidelines against Tulane in November. The story is almost too stupid to repeat – and lord knows it’s received its quota and back of ink already – but here goes.
Sitting out with the knee, Oliver was a cheering bystander. It was a cold night, and he put on one of the thousands of oversized jackets with Houston's logo stamped on them lying around the bench.
But per Major Grapplefight's wishes, those jackets were for active players only! And as we all know Major Grapplefight runs a tight ship! This fearless leader decided, in that moment, to make his stand on national television off the field against the child prodigy he’d long shackled on it.
You want to talk about character? Every team in the country wanted Ed Oliver, and he signed with a Group of 5 team to stay home and play with his brother. And then when his coach booked it to Austin, Oliver stuck around to play for a guy so inept that he managed to scheme a defense with John Randle 2.0 and Isaiah Johnson in the Group of 5 into a sub-100 S&P+ defense (it’s true! I swear to you! It happened!).
And not only that – and this is never brought up when JacketGate is discussed – but Oliver rehabbed his butt off to return for the regular season finale against Memphis. That’s right! After JacketGate, as a lost season was winding down, this top-10 overall NFL Draft prospect wanted to get back onto the field with a compromised knee to play against the Memphis Tigers! Character concerns? Please.
The real takeaway from last season: When Oliver played, he was even better than he’d been before. He posted an elite 94.6 PFF grade against the run in 2018, a career-best, and also managed to scorch through double-teams to post a contextually-insane 90.8 PFF pass-rush grade in 2018.
Get Oliver a real coach and get out of his way. What kind of coach? Just ask the kid. He’s not screwing around. He wants JK Simmons from WHIPLASH. In October, Oliver told ESPN an anecdote about how his high school coach asked him if he wanted to be treated like a regular guy or the number one prospect in the nation.
“I told him treat me like the number one guy in the nation,” Oliver said. “And coming out of high school I was number four (ranked nationally), but I felt like I should have been number one. Now, I feel like I should be number one now. So that's the only thing that really just drives me, is you say somebody is better than me, I know, in my heart, I don't think anybody is better than me.”
You want to have no problems with Ed Oliver? Have greatness as high on your priority list as he does.
3. Jerry Tillery (Notre Dame) | 6’6/293
SPARQ percentile: 84.2
Comp: DeForest Buckner
Tillery was complicit in that early in his career, to be fair. Widely known to have a maturity issue, Tillery’s ego reached its nadir during a meltdown against USC in 2016 when he consciously stepped through the head of concussed Trojans RB Aca’Cedric Ware* and then stepped on Zach Banner’s ankle while he was downed in what appeared to be a conscious effort to twist it.**
*(this incident has been widely described as kicking a defenseless concussed player; it was an ugly moment, to be clear, but a kick requires a windup or the mustering of extra force, and what Tillery did, if you watch the tape, is not that – it was a chicken-bleep show of teenage machismo at the expense of an injured player, embarrassing enough on its own right, but not an attempt to inflict more pain)
**(I had more of an issue with what he did to Banner than Ware, if you’re asking me to rank the worst moments of Jerry Tillery’s life)
I DM’d a Notre Dame beat writer for his assessment of Tillery’s early days. “He was just, let's say petulant,” he replied. Tillery was a ballyhooed four-star offensive tackle coming out of high school. In another reality, perhaps he’s Andre Dillard. In this one, coaches quickly decided they could weaponize his movement more effectively on the other side of the trenches.
So Tillery became a defensive lineman and ended up starting three games as true freshman before Notre Dame’s first public crackdown on his immaturity, a suspension for the bowl game. The next year was more of the same, brief flashes of on-field brilliance interspersed with long stretches of ineffectiveness and trips into Brian Kelly’s doghouse.
Kelly issued Tillery a list of several requirements after the completion of his sophomore season, which included anger management counseling and community service. But listen: Tillery isn’t a bad kid. In fact, he’s sort of the opposite.
He’s probably a future politician. He’s a prolific reader who studied institutionalized racism in South Africa and has visited 18 countries, mostly by leveraging study abroad opportunities. "He's the quintessential renaissance man," Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said.
Less calculating and cruel, and more impetuous and free-spirted, Tillery was nicknamed Terry Jillery – something you could only call a good-natured nerd – by teammate Sheldon Day as a freshman. "I want to be a doctor, I want to be the president, I want to be an NFL superstar, I want to be it all,” Tillery said as a freshman, apparently with a straight face.
One thing was clear from the on-field flashes we saw those first two years: Jerry Tillery was a born interior penetrator, with a rangy frame, big-time athleticism, and the flexibility to wedge through tourists on the first floor or swat drones from the sky on roof.
But it’s just that Kelly refused to use him like that. And Tillery didn’t love that, the 0-technique stuff, the Ed Oliver special. Tillery was asked to occupy blockers. He showed up as a junior in 2017 with increased dedication and took a big developmental step forward, with 4.5 sacks and nine TFL as a nose tackle.
The Notre Dame beat writer had an interesting explanation for the whole playing-Tillery-out-of-position thing: “As much as playing him out of position, I think they played him at a spot where taking a play off would be less costly, because that was the concern.”
Jerry Tillery and Brian Kelly were both complicit for why you don’t consider Jerry Tillery a top-15 prospect right now. Fortunately for all parties, they got on the same page in 2018 about the three-technique stuff, and Tillery started giving effort on all plays. Naturally, Jerry Tillery went off.
Per PFF’s metrics, Tillery tied Quinnen Williams for the highest pass-rushing grade of interior defenders in college football last season. Tillery finished with seven sacks and 8.5 TFL – hardly elite numbers – but he was so much better than that, and it’s so much more complicated than that.
The reason Tillery graded so high is because he created 48 total pressures, third among all interior defenders, but also 32 pass-rushing wins that didn’t result in a pressure, the most in college football. Tillery won on nearly one-fifth of his pass-rushing snaps last year! Interior penetration in the NFL is gold, the color of Tillery’s collegiate helmet, and that’s this kid’s calling card.
One last thing, that, to me, speaks both to his growth as a person and also makes what he did last season as a player even more amazing. After starting out 2018 like gangbusters, Tillery’s play dropped off a bit in the second half of the season (relatively speaking! – the guy was Quinnen Williams' equal as an interior pass-rusher, after all).
And we found out why after the season: He tore his right labrum in early October and played the final eight games of the season without a complaint. He wasn’t giving up three-technique that easily, not after waiting for years to move in. The injury wasn’t discovered until before the playoff game against Clemson, when Tillery was home for a brief vacation and his mom, a nurse, noticed him wincing. She sent him in for an MRI, which revealed the tear.
His mom – again, a registered nurse – told Jerry he had to sit out the game for health reasons. She didn’t say for NFL reasons, but that would have been perfectly justifiable as well. Tillery flat refused. He claimed that the game – a rare playoff appearance for Notre Dame -- was bigger than he or his injury.
He played. But then, of course, Jerry would sit out the pre-draft process to finally get some rest and rehab in. Only he didn’t. Tillery went through a full battery of tests in Indianapolis and tested as an elite athlete despite the torn labrum. Character concerns? Not from this seat.
He showed up to college a child and he got his humbling, got it on national television as Brian Kelly went thermo-nuclear after the antics against USC. He spent an offseason working on himself and returned as a junior a different person. The maturity question thing is a vestige of a past scouting report.
Jerry Tillery matured. And now the NFL has to deal with him.
4. Jeffery Simmons (Mississippi State) | 6’4/301
SPARQ percentile: N/A
Comp: Fletcher Cox (Daniel Jeremiah)
*Was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine due to past off-field incident
Simmons would have been a top-10 overall player for me had he not torn his ACL.
The most polarizing and fascinating draft cases this side of Kyler Murray, Simmons is a prime-time player whose evaluation is muddied by one grotesque off-field issue in his past and one torn ACL in his present.
Let’s address the off-field issue first. In 2016, when Simmons was a high school senior, a fight broke out in the streets of Simmons’ hometown of Macon, Mississippi between his sister, Ashley Bradley, and a woman named Sophia Taylor. Grainy footage of the fight shows a large handful of spectators around, in the street.
The Taylor and Simmons families had had a Hatfield-McCoy thing going on in Macon (described in a 247Sports report as “toxic”) that dated back well before the incident in question. Per that story, the fight started when insults were traded between Simmons’ sister and Taylor’s daughter, some of which were reportedly about dead members of Simmons’ family.
Apparently, Simmons’ sister confronted Taylor, and the fight began from there. In the video, Simmons can be seen attempting to pull the women apart in its early stages. He was unsuccessful.
The women continued grappling on the pavement. Simmons is not in the frame. One woman gets on top and lands a punch. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of commotion. A large man in red – not Simmons -- shoves the puncher, hard. She falls, but gets back on top. Simmons re-emerges into the frame at this point.
He stands over the pile for a moment, watching. The commotion picks up. The man in red reaches into the scrum. The view is obstructed, but the confrontation has seemingly escalated. This is the moment Jeffery Simmons reaches in and grabs the woman who has been landing the punches, perhaps to yank her off the woman who has been getting decked. But when Simmons lets go, the woman is still clinging onto her combatant. And that’s when Simmons loses his cool and throws three punches on a downed woman.
Simmons posted a Facebook message in the aftermath of the incident that was later deleted: “I take full responsibility for my actions that occurred on Thursday evening. My apology goes out to the Taylor family and especially to Sophia Taylor. What was I thinking? Honestly, I wasn’t thinking. All I could think was this is my family, and I am supposed to defend my family.”
Mississippi State drew fire but ultimately honored its scholarship offer to the five-star defensive linemen. Simmons showed up to campus infamous. The video had been circulated. People expected another outburst, a flameout.
They got something else entirely. Jeffery Simmons was an honor roll student. He represented the university at the Black Student-Athlete Summit. He gave motivational speeches during the offseason. On his school bio, Mississippi State refers to Simmons as its team leader in community service. Last year, he won the team's Newsom Award, which in part recognizes work in the classroom and community. His teammates and coaches rave about him.
Simmons was already set to be a polarizing evaluation before he tore his ACL during a February workout. That injury will cost him either part or all of his rookie season, the second major demerit on his eval.
On the field, he doesn't offer many more. Simmons has perennial Pro Bowl talent. He’s quick, athletic and powerful, a speed-to-power guy who’s a load against the run and disruptive as a pass rusher with first step quickness and jarring power.
Simmons is long and muscled-up, so he’s equally as adept keeping you outside his body and shedding as he is grappling and anchoring in a phone booth. He’s smooth in movement and violent in application, and he’s very difficult to jar off his path.
With elite 90.0-plus grades against the run and pass, Simmons was the No. 4-graded interior defender by PFF last fall, behind only Quinnen, Christian Wilkins and Ed Oliver. He could stand to add more moves to his pass-rushing arsenal, and he could stand to play a little more under control, but that’s about all I have – the Ndamukong Suh comps fit.
I believe Simmons learned from his mistake and remade himself into a new person, a person who, like Ryan Leaf, teaches others from his mistakes. I think he’s hungry to prove to the country that not only is he not the kid you see in that video, but he’s a man who intends to make the world a better place.
I also believe he’s an obscenely gifted football player. I knocked him below Tillery because of the ACL, but I’ll go no lower than this. Simmons is a top-15 overall prospect. He'll be back in November. It's fine.
5. Christian Wilkins (Clemson) | 6’3/311
SPARQ percentile: 44.4
Comp: Kawaan Short
Wilkins was a unanimous First-Team All-American on last year's title team, ranking as PFF’s No. 2 overall interior defender, with top-three rankings in both run defense and pass rush. He also won the William V. Campbell Trophy (the “Academic Heisman”) last season.
But he's not a nerd (like Tillery! -- I kid, Jerry! I kid!). Wilkins was the good-natured spirit animal of two title-winning Clemson teams, the guy who did the splits after Clemson’s 2017 victory and gave HC Dabo Swinney a wet willy during his TV interview following the upset of Alabama in January. That’s good stuff.
Wilkins doesn’t have the elite athleticism to dominate in the NFL, but he’s no slouch. His game is built on quickness, angles, flexibility, hand use, smarts and effort. He attacks you with girth and force from peripheral-vision looks, slanting down so that you have to deal with the force of his size and speed while not quite squared up.
Wilkins has experience playing everywhere on the line after spending a little time at defensive end earlier in his career on Clemson teams that had Carlos Watkins and DJ Reader inside (and Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd outside -- they tend to recruit the position well, don't they?). He settled in at three-technique next to Dexter Lawrence and that’s what he’ll be in the NFL as well.
What he’s bad at is anchoring in the run game. He’s not a power player – isn’t much of a bull-rusher, either. Playing next to Lawrence – one of college football’s best run defenders and most powerful interior presences – really helped him.
The plays Wilkins makes against the run are the plays he penetrates immediately and buries a dude. He either hits the three-pointer or strikes out. Thing is, Lawrence rebounded everything and either dunked it himself or kicked it to Tre Lamar for a jumper.
Wilkins could feel free to do his gap-crashing thing without leaving Clemson exposed. There was no way Lawrence was getting moved out of the middle, so the Tigers could afford Wilkins to be out of position every now and again.
And as a pass rusher, Wilkins never had to deal with the double-teams that were thrown at Ed Oliver and Jerry Tillery (and later, Quinnen). College teams couldn’t consistently double-team any one player on Clemson’s line, with Wilkins and Lawrence inside (spelled by a Day 3 prospect by the name of Huggins discussed in further detail below) and fellow NFL prospects Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant outside (spelled by a pair of true freshman five-star recruits, who we’ll be talking about in two years).
I hate to have to rank Christian Wilkins this low. I’m a big fan. And I know that the ranking itself is going to feel like a potshot. But I swear it’s not – I just couldn’t with a clean conscience rank him over Tillery or Simmons, both of whom have astronomically high ceilings.
6. Dexter Lawrence (Clemson) | 6’4/338
SPARQ percentile: N/A
Comp: Dontari Poe (Walter Campbell)
Lawrence is both easy to criticize and overly criticized. He has been a name brand since high school, enrolling at Clemson as a five-star recruit after being chased by every program in the country. He immediately blew up the ACC with 62 tackles, 8.5 TFL and 6.5 sacks while starting 11 of 15 games as a true freshman.
Statistically, he never reached those heights again. Lawrence regressed slightly as a sophomore before bouncing back as a junior with a similar PFF grade that he’d posted in his maiden collegiate voyage.
But, of course, the 2018 season ended in embarrassing fashion, with Lawrence suspended for both of Clemson’s Playoff games -- he ceded the starts to Albert Huggins, who you can read about below -- after testing positive for the PED Ostarine.
Lawrence’s most prominent strength is his, uh, strength. He could carry a village. Weaker guards stand no chance and it’s extremely difficult to block him one-on-one. Blocking Lawrence is like fighting concrete coming out of the mixer. He eats blocks like a Number Muncher and just occupies so much dang space.
What value there is in “space eating” in an NFL of increasing passing flamboyance drains bit by bit, year by year, as pro offenses skew ever more to spread concepts and aerial machinations. Even so, Dexter isn’t without charms as his pass rusher. He was actually, by PFF’s analytics, the No. 4 pass-rushing interior linemen in this class last year.
That part of his game isn’t going to translate as well. Lawrence doesn’t have the speed to get to the quarterback, but he’s going to continue penetrating and wreaking havoc, chaos that his line mates should benefit from, as they did at Clemson.
Lawrence is going to be drafted lower than he would have a decade ago, and lower still than he would have been drafted two decades ago. But he’s a better player than Vita Vea and is likely going to come on a discount due to the NFL’s newfound aversion to big boys.
At the very least, Lawrence will be a surefire starter who is a big contributor in the run game. He’ll be a draft day steal if he can continue to cause disruption as a pass rusher – even if that never manifests in big sack totals.
7. Dre’Mont Jones (Ohio State) | 6’3/281
SPARQ percentile: 20.7
Comp: Nick Fairley
Dre’Mont reminds me of Dirk Nowitzki -- miss you already, Dirk -- in his strangely beautiful creativity. Dirk was brilliant at creating space despite lacking athleticism and that’s Dre’Mont. That’s who he is.
Think he’s going to spin you? Nah, that slight head turn was just to set up a jailbreak to the quarterback. He’ll spin you two plays later with that same head fake timed differently. Dre’Mont is a master of the fake out. He doesn’t have Ed Oliver’s athleticism, but his movement is still top-notch. He learned to compensate with craftiness and guile. Jones is always in motion, never quitting.
He forged his unique style as a supporting actor amid OSU’s vaunted DL rotation the first two years of his career. Jones split time with Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes, among others. With the defections of those three along with Nick Bosa’s injury, Dre’Mont was thrust into the spotlight in 2018.
He didn’t waste that opportunity, posting 13 TFL and 8.5 sacks. Jones’ creativity and mind for the game translate to the NFL. As does his willingness to play a role – any role – without griping.
Dre’Mont’s style is so much fun, but he can be stopped cold by power linemen who get their hands on the pest. This was notable on tape (especially against the run) and by PFF statistics. He ranked No. 142 (!) in the class as in bullrush pressure percentage and No. 87 in run-stop percentage in 2018.
Think of him as a discount-priced, shrunk-in-the-drier version of Christian Wilkins. Jones causes interior pressure with quicks, effort, fluidity and angle-playing, but due to size/strength limitations in his game, it would be best for him to find a Dexter Lawrence-type to play with at the next level.
8. Zach Allen (Boston College) | 6’4/281
SPARQ percentile: 54.2
Allen first flashed during his breakout 2017 campaign across from Harold Landry, with 100 tackles, 15.5 TFL and six sacks. And then he returned to Chestnut Hill to prove it wasn't a fluke, leveling up once again as a senior. His counting stats dipped slightly, but that was a contextual fluke -- PFF graded him better across the board.
A monster in the ACC, Allen is a weird NFL evaluation. He's big and strong, he's got a quick first step, he's book smart and football smart, he's an all-systems-go competitor from sun-up to sun-down, and he's proven to be a baller over a six-plus year sample* -- but Allen's average athleticism and shortish wingspan for his height muddle his projection as an edge rusher.
*(Allen's team won two Connecticut state titles and he was the Gatorade High School Player of the Year in his state as a senior).
He'd likely best be deployed as a 3-4 DE who sets the edge in the base defense and rushes from the three-tech spot in nickel. You know he's going to unremitting effort on every play, you know he's going to help your run defense, and you know he'll be at least be a pest on passing downs, if never a sack artist; the 6'6 Allen swatted down 19 attempts over the past three years. You could certainly try him as a 4-3 end, but your pass rush is going to have to take a little bath.
9. Charles Omenihu (Texas) | 6’5/280
SPARQ percentile: 59
I struggle with Omenihu. I liked him at Texas. I like his game, I like his frame, I like how he consistently improved and then broke out as a senior, and I like his attitude.* But I wonder what he is in the NFL. So much so that I was even in a state of paralysis over whether to rank him with the DL or the EDGEs.
*(Omenihu first jumped on my radar, ironically enough, as the Longhorns were famously getting upset by Kansas to put the nail in Charlie Strong’s coffin – many Texas players didn’t seem to care much, but young Omenihu could be seen stalking around the sidelines going ballistic).
Omenihu has a really nice frame, and he’s a decent (but not great) athlete. He came to Texas as a DE and that’s what he was in Austin. The issue is that he’s not a great pass rusher, and he isn’t likely to develop into a good one at the NFL level. I'll give him this, though: He's very sharp.
He was a 3-4 DE in college, a five-tech who lined up outside the tackle. And he’s solid in that role. Because Omenihu sets the edge and shines in run defense in general. But he’s a one-note, north-south power rusher without many moves. His hands have some wattage but he doesn’t know how to use them.
As all 3-4 DEs do, Omenihu kicked inside to three-tech plenty in nickel pass-rushing sub-packages in Austin. A full-time three-technique experiment could no doubt be staged in the NFL by a 4-3 team were Omenihu able to add a little weight, but Omenihu would still lack agility and pass-rush moves in there, and his power advantage on the outside would probably turn into a disadvantage inside.
Especially since we saw the fiery Omenihu wear down late in games against power linemen. A 4-3 team could keep Omenihu on the outside, but only if it's willing to cede pass-rushing value for a run-game specialist.
Omenihu is probably best suited remaining a tone-setting, edge-setting 3-4 DE who plays a little closer to the ball in nickel packages. I just wonder how much ceiling is left to reach in that role, and I wonder if he can be anything else but that in the pros.
10. Trysten Hill (UCF) | 6’3/308
SPARQ percentile: 83.1
Comp: Brandon Dunn (Lance Zierlein)
A pain in the rear to opponents and coaching staffs alike, Hill is a natural disruptor – when not with penetration on field, his mouth off it. Kid rips thru gaps like a tween. And Josh Heupel treated him like he was exactly that.
Head to YouTube and throw on some of Hill’s film. It’ll exhaust you. Check out, for instance, his performance against Memphis in the AAC Championship Game this past autumn. Trysten recorded three TFL in that game, a near-constant drumbeat of effort. He is a play-through-the-whistle guy with smoking hot quickness and twitch until tomorrow.
In the aforementioned championship game, there is a play where Brady White throws a screen pass to the opposite side of the field from Hill. Even though he has no chance -- none -- of getting in on that play, he sprints toward the action like he might be the first guy there. You consistently see him sprinting downfield on plays which break free, too.
Antagonizer. Kinetic energy. Doesn’t know when to stop. This also describes Hill off the field.
He very nearly transferred from UCF in the spring of 2018 after Heupel took over as head coach for Scott Frost. Hill stayed, perhaps a mistake. He and Heupel never meshed and Hill’s reported lackadaisical practice habits and off-field behavior lost him his starting job in 2018.
Everything collapsed in chilly fashion after Hill chose to play against LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. That decision should be lauded given his rocky relationship with Heupel, as well as the recent trend of players sitting out, but Heupel to more or less benched him anyway.
Just hours after the blowout loss, Hill declared for the draft. In his farewell note to social media, he thanked Frost and not Heupel. Didn’t mention Heupel once. That Hill and Frost had no issue -- Hill has made it clear his admiration of Frost -- shouldn’t be discounted. It’s not that he’s unreachable.
It’s that you have to have the right person to reach him. His future coaching staff is going to matter oh so much to his future success, but with a personality whisperer, say a Wade Phillips, Hill would make for an intriguing mid-round selection.
What you’ll get is a twitchy ball of ferocious energy, a pest of an interior penetrator. Hill gets eaten up by single blockers to a disquieting degree, but he’s always moving, and when he beats you into a gap, he’s going pillaging. If he lands with the right team and right coach, this kid could be a star. If he lands with the wrong team and wrong coach, he might be in the XFL in 2021. Do you feel lucky?
11. Khalen Saunders (Western Illinois) | 6’0/324
SPARQ percentile: 46
Comp: Mo Hurst
Saunders’ claim to fame is being able to perform a back flip -- expect to see that clip when he is drafted -- at a size which defies gravity. That party trick is merely an offshoot of his athleticism. It makes the point pretty emphatically, though. He has electricity in those muscles.
Saunders plays coated in Teflon, slipping blocks with slick hand-play and playing for stretches with a rocket on his back. These inspiring stretches resulted in 24 hurries this past season. Saunders also recorded seven sacks on his way to second-team All-FCS honors.
At his best -- and he was at his best at the Senior Bowl -- Saunders plays like a man possessed, unleashing his pure athletic ability on hapless future insurance salesmen at the lower level. But it’s fair to note that while his motor runs hot, Saunders sometimes runs out of gas, with late-game stamina issues.
Saunders’ chances of leveling up may well hinge on whether he sets his FitBit to overdrive. Without a deeper reserve of energy to draw on, he’s a third-down interior pinch hitter. However, should he acclimate to the speed and physicality of the NFL, should he prove that he can stay revved, Saunders is going to be a player.
12. Greg Gaines (Washington) | 6’1/310
SPARQ percentile: 37.3
Comp: Shamar Stepen (Zierlein)
Gaines makes Jonah Williams look like an octopus with his 31 1/4 -inch arms. He's a trash can who lacks any real finesse.
But here’s the thing: The kid can play. He's been beasting Pac-12 offensive linemen for years, an honorable-mention All-Pac 12 pick his first two years who graduated to the Second-Team as a junior and the First-Team last year.
Gaines quietly took a huge step forward as a pass-rusher last fall, registering 33 hurries after posting 39 combined the three years before that. PFF’s analytics graded him as one of the country’s best interior defensive linemen.
And while his athletic testing numbers don’t look great, he actually checks in well above the median in this interior class, which dries up in the way of freaks very quickly. He's a high-motor country strong kid who eats blocks for lunch in run defense and brings max effort and power as a pass-rusher, limited but very willing and becoming, by the year, more effective.
Speaking to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, an NFC West scout said of Greg Gaines: "He's built like a bouncer but he gives you an honest day's work every time he steps out on the field." Amen.
Gaines has a very high floor -- if nothing else, shuttle him in for run plays and let him wrestle -- and, in my estimation, has a better chance of developing into an NFL starter than many are giving him credit for.
13. Armon Watts (Arkansas) | 6’5/300
SPARQ percentile: N/A
Comp: Slimmer Tim Settle
Watts plays with the creativity of a boxer, mixing together combinations to lethal effect as a pass-rusher. He's long and strong and manages to play with good leverage.
Watts went from unknown to a Day 3 prospect by taking an enormous developmental step forward in the fall on a team that was cratering around him. He has the power and frame to make him a Day 3 darling. If he keeps improving and proves that last year wasn't a one-year wonder fluke, he'll out-produce his draft slot.
14. Renell Wren (Arizona State) | 6’5/317
SPARQ percentile: 77.2
How much stock to place in the #DraftSzn evaluation process vs. a player’s collegiate career? That’s the crux with Renell Wren, who has boomed like thunder through the last few months, first dominating competition at the Senior Bowl -- Draft Analyst’s Tony Pauline used the word “wow” to describe his opening salvo in Mobile -- and then proceeding to rip up the combine.
Wren looks like he could blast through a wall and tested like it, tying for fifth among linemen with 30 reps on the bench, placing second only to freakish athletes Ed Oliver and Rashan Gary in the broad jump. His combination of size and athleticism would seem to portend a potential star in the NFL.
I’m just wondering why we only intermittently saw his talent coalesce at Arizona State. Even as he was setting a career-best 42 tackles under Herm Edwards in 2018, Wren’s play left me cold. It left Pro Football Focus a Whitewalker. PFF’s spiderweb for Wren looks like the King Slayer’s atrophied nub.
Even as he improved against the run, Wren posted a catastrophically bad pass-rush grade of 57 in the fall. To put that in context, UCF’s Trysten’s Hill put up a 77.3. Western Illinois’ Kalen Saunders put up a 71.
Wren reminds me of the interior DL version of his former ASU teammate, Kalen Ballage, a looks-and-tests-like-Tarzan-plays-like-Jane type. Everybody is going to think they can turn Wren into a difference maker. Maybe. Otherwise he’s a rotational guy like Ballage.
15. Daniel Wise (Kansas) | 6’3/281
SPARQ percentile: 20.2
Comp: Tyrone Crawford (Kent Swanson)
Like a poor-man’s Ed Oliver, Wise is a penetrating three-technique caught in a bad college situation. He was constantly doubled-teamed, often asked to occupy blockers instead of being freed to crash gaps with abandon. Wise creates a scene -- Dorance Armstrong and Joe Dineen both benefited from playing with him.
An NFL legacy who is about to join his brother in the league years after his father’s retirement, Wise is a Day 3 super-sleeper who could surprise. He fits perfectly as a three-technique in pass-rushing situations early on. But word to the Wise: Eat up, sir. The closer you get to 300, the better shot you’ll have of staying on the field for three downs.
16. Gerald Willis (Miami) | 6’2/302
SPARQ percentile: N/A
In a DT class that is gangbusters at the top but dries up quickly, Willis offers some appeal after a really strong run last season starting for the Hurricanes.
Last fall was the first time Willis had played over 250 snaps in a collegiate season, however, and Willis has the inverse of Chase Winovich’s motor with off-field issues to boot (multiple suspensions and a dismissal from Florida).
This one could go either way. But Willis could contribute if he gets to work and keeps his nose clean. The talent is there -- in terms of raw skill, he's one of the top-10 most gifted in this interior DL class.
17. Kingsley Keke (Texas A&M) | 6’3/288
SPARQ percentile: 46.4
Keke is Alex Honnold from Free Solo. He sees the smallest cracks and holds and takes them on with an inspired arsenal of moves. Both have sneaky strength.
Unlike Hannold, Keke can sometimes play sloppy. Sloppy unroped on El Cap will result in a long fall and then a long run to the other side. Sloppy play from a sub-300 pound, sub-50th percentile interior player in the NFL also ends in extinction.
18. Michael Dogbe (Temple) | 6'3/284
SPARQ percentile: 59.4
Comp: Derek Wolf (Kent Swanson)
*Was not invited to NFL Scouting Combine
Dogbe lacks power and can be swallowed up by bigger interior linemen on runs, but in pass-rushing situations, he has the determination of a tornado.
At the very least, he's a microwave of a pass-rushing specialist off the bench who creates instant pressure. He may never be more than that, but that skill is sure valuable at the next level.
19. John Cominsky (Charleston) | 6’5/285
SPARQ percentile: 81.9
Former quarterback alert! Cominsky has added 70 pounds since his signal-calling days. He’s managed to stay fabulously athletic, and he plays with smarts and contact balance.
Cominsky has a big jump ahead of him, and he needs to keep adding weight while refining technique, but he’s a mighty intriguing Day 3 flier.
20. Daylon Mack (Texas A&M) | 6’1/336
SPARQ percentile: 29.6
Comp: Honey, I Shrunk Dexter Lawrence!
Mack finally put everything together in College Station under Jimbo Fisher, posting career bests in TFL and sacks in 2018. He’ll need to keep those gains moving forward after largely floundering under the tutelage of Kevin Sumlin.
Mack carries compact power ready to unload, like a super-jacked Kool Aid Man. Simply by pure mass and oomph, he will burst through walls of interior linemen. But just as the Kool Aid Man famously struggled with lateral agility, Mack placed second-to-last in both the 20-yard shuttle and three-cone drill at the combine.
Mack is strange case for the analytics guys, too. Because, despite his build, Mack is not a destroyer of running games. PFF graded him No. 80 in run-stop percentage last season, compared to No. 24 in pass-rush productivity.
While you do fear the one-year wonder potential given how frustrating his play was for much of his career, Mack’s talent has been evident since high school, when Rivals ranked him as a top-55 recruit coming out of Gladewater High in Texas in 2015.
You can’t teach size and power, and the Mack Truck’s teeming with both. But don't overdraft him: Inconsistent 330-plus pounders are no longer given safe haven in the NFL. Mack needs to get the first word of that descriptor deleted pronto to hang around.
21. Isaiah Buggs (Alabama) | 6’3/306
SPARQ percentile: 1.8
Buggs splattered on the windshield of the combine and that’s going to cost him money. But he moves better than he tested, and he has solid versatility – certainly enough to hang as a swing lineman.
And he might even have some sneaky sleeper appeal now that his value has cratered. Buggs was way more active in 2017, before Quinnen Williams’ emergence. Perhaps he can get back on track in a supporting role in the NFL.
22. Cortez Broughton (Cincinnati) | 6'2/293
SPARQ percentile: 49.9
Comp: Javon Hargraves (Chris Trapasso)
*Was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine
If you aren’t able to lock Broughton up off the snap -- he can be ragdolled -- he moves like a cobra, especially on passing downs. He isn’t always the smoothest to watch when trying to navigate boulders, but graded out well against the run by PFF in 2018 (No. 9 in run-stop percentage). If he adds a little more weight, his profile brightens all the more as a sleeper on the interior.
23. Albert Huggins (Clemson) | 6’3/305
SPARQ percentile: 19.4
Comp: Henry Melton (Edwin Weathersby)
Huggins is the strange man with the tilted hat, shrouded in cigarette smoke at the back of the bar. He could be anyone. Or no one. Huggins was expected to be Dexter Lawrence’s co-star on the DL in 2018 after Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant all left early following the 2017 campaign.
Only none of them did, so Huggins, a former stud recruit, was relegated to a support role again. Couple big man strength with surprising lateral movement, as well as a career-best PFF pass-rushing grade in the autumn, and Huggins has sneaky sleeper potential.
24. Ricky Walker (Virginia Tech) | 6’2/304
SPARQ percentile: N/A
*Was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine
Ricky Walker isn’t going to hold up in the run game, but he’s shown the ability to worm his way inside. He could turn into a third-down pass-rushing interior guy if everything breaks right.
25. Chris Slayton (Syracuse) | 6’4/307
SPARQ percentile: 35
Slayton occasionally roasted ACC linemen with length and quickness, but if he has to work for it – if somebody gets him in their grip – he sometimes just doesn’t. A little consistency would go a long ways, here, because Slayton does have some tools.
26. Terry Beckner (Missouri) | 6’4/296
SPARQ percentile: 1.3
Beckner arrived in Oxford as a top-50 overall recruit, but he suffered torn ACLs his first two years on campus. That sapped his athleticism (seriously, check that SPARQ score again).
Beckner was strong enough to cause a ruckus on the interior on passing downs in the SEC, with 10.5 sacks these past two seasons. But it’s hard to be optimistic given his health history and how it’s effected his movement.
27. DeMarcus Christmas (Florida State) | 6’3/294
SPARQ percentile: 2.9
Comp: Kyle Love (David Latham)
Christmas has been on the national periphery for years -- he was a member of FSU’s 2014 class. Farewells, Saint Nick. Poor athletic tests, advanced age and a good-but-not-great college showing are all imminently problematic concerns in the eval of the former four-star recruit.
28. Jonathan Ledbetter (Georgia) | 6’4/280
SPARQ percentile: 0.4
At the end of the day, Ledbetter is likely a Quadruple-A guy. The former four-star recruit had some moments as part of rotations on good Georgia teams the past two years, but he’s undersized, he isn’t athletic, and he has a six-game suspension in his past from an alcohol-related incident. He will be crushed on the interior at his current weight, and lacks the athleticism for an end role.
29. Jordan Thompson (Northwestern) | 6'2/284
SPARQ percentile: N/A
*Was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine
You might not have heard of Thompson -- he never recorded more than 30 tackles or more than three sacks in a season at Northwestern -- but he's quietly coming off a big breakout year.
Ranked by Pro Football Focus as the No. 2 defensive lineman in the Big Ten last year, Thompson's missed the team’s bowl game against Utah after undergoing knee surgery. Because of that injury, he hasn't been able to make his case as a Day 3 sleeper during the pre-draft process.
But his analytical profile is compelling enough to make Thompson a worthy UDFA target if his medicals check out.
30. Boogie Roberts (San Jose State) | 6'1/300
SPARQ percentile: N/A
*Was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine
You won’t confuse Roberts with the big, big nasties on the interior of the defensive line, as he can be pushed around (sometimes quite easily) when blockers put fists on him.
Roberts will need to earn work as a situational edge rusher as part of a rotation. Like Oliver, he spent plenty of time lined up directly over center, which probably wasn't the best fit for his skillset.
31. Byron Cowart (Maryland) | 6’3/298
SPARQ percentile: 4.7
A tale of lost potential fit for Shakespeare, Cowart has gone from former No. 1 overall recruit to draft afterthought in the span of just four years. He has the size-strength combo to make it work, but he has had the size-strength combo to make it work for most of his career.
Auburn could have cared less that he transferred – they had better players. The former No. 1 recruit is like a sawed-off, homeless man’s Jefferey Simmons with the athleticism siphoned out. Cowart moves at his speed, not yours. The XFL needs bodies.
32. Dontavius Russell (Auburn) | 6’3/319
SPARQ percentile: 7.4
Russell regressed into abject mediocrity last year on an Auburn team that did likewise. He’s old, offers less than zero as a pass-rusher, and lacks athleticism. Other than that, he’s great.