2018 NFL Draft Positional Preview: Defensive Line Edition

Today is Day 20 of the gruesome period between the NFL Draft and the start of the new season. A time where people get excited about rookies running around in shorts and rave about some undrafted player who won’t even make it to the fourth preseason game. It is a dangerous time of year, so for those of you suffering from football withdrawal, here is your fix for today: a preview of the top 2018 defensive line prospects to keep an eye on this CFB season.

Christian Wilkins (Clemson, Junior):

Known as the “Renaissance Man” for his ability to contribute to all three phases of the game, Christian Wilkins is a true team player and a great prospect. Wilkins — who was the personal protector on the punt team, took a direct snap on a fake punt, blocked a field goal attempt, and caught multiple passes (including one for a TD) all in addition to his defensive line duties — he impacted Clemson’s games more than any player on the team besides of course, Deshaun Watson.

How many defensive linemen can move that well and make that catch?

Not many.

Obviously Wilkins won’t be playing much offense in the NFL, but his proficiency in a variety of roles and his desire to help his team in any way possible are testaments to his exceptional athleticism and his team-first mentality.

As of now, Christian Wilkins is the top interior defensive line prospect and a potential top five pick. His elite strength and sound technique frequently provide him with full control of his blockers, while his athleticism gives him yet another way to embarrass offensive lineman.

Here, Wilkins (lined up across from the RT) easily holds his ground until the running back is close, at which point he effortlessly shoves off the lineman and brings down the back.

On this play Wilkins (a freshman at the time of this game) is lined up in the B-gap, but he is assigned the A-gap on this play, meaning he will have to quickly get to the A-gap before the guard can get a block on him. For a normal defensive lineman this would be a difficult task, but Wilkins makes it look easy. He not only makes it to the A-gap, but he is able to turn once he’s there and get to Dalvin Cook two yards behind the LOS. That is an insane play for anybody to make, let alone for a nineteen-year-old freshman.

Since arriving at Clemson two years ago, Wilkins has consistently shown all the traits of an elite defensive lineman.

Speaking of elite defensive linemen, my player comp for Christian Wilkins is Fletcher Cox. Both players possess a rare blend of size, strength, and athleticism. These traits allow each of them to have the positional versatility to play in any defensive scheme at just about any interior defensive line position. Not to mention, they have the exact same height and weight: both are listed at 6’4”, 310 lbs. Fletcher Cox, an All-Pro, represents Christian Wilkins’ ceiling. If he can build off a dominant season in which he made 48 tackles and had 13.5 tackles for loss, he will cement himself as the number one interior defensive line prospect in his class and likely be one of the first ten players to hear their name called next April.

Vita Vea (Washington, RS Junior):

Despite many of his teammates declaring for the 2017 NFL draft, Vita Vea opted to return to Washington for his (redshirt) junior year. Vea had a strong 2016 campaign, finishing the season with 39 tackles and 5 sacks, including 4 tackles and a sack against ‘Bama in the Peach Bowl. Had he entered the 2017 draft, he likely would have been selected in the first two or three rounds.

At 6’5″/332 lbs, Vita Vea has ideal size for a nose tackle in the NFL. As you would expect from someone his size, he has incredible strength. However what really stands out is the athleticism that allowed him to play running back in high school despite racking up all kinds of awards as a defensive lineman.

Yes, a defensive lineman just juked past a cornerback.

Normally when you think of defensive linemen running the ball, you imagine a massive bowling-ball-like figure charging up the middle and running through everyone in his path. Vita Vea, on the other hand, has the lateral agility — a skill that comes in handy to defensive lineman — to juke around a defender and leave him lying in the dirt. And of course, he then finishes off the run by effortlessly knocking a poor cornerback onto his wazoo.

That athleticism shows up big time on tape, as he frequently chases down much lighter players. You don’t hear the term “sideline to sideline” too often for defensive linemen, but it just may apply to Vea. Although he is a perfect fit as a 3-4 NT, he could have a career at any inside spot all the way out to 5-technique, despite the fact that he weighs over 330 pounds. In today’s NFL, a 330 lb guy playing 5-technique is almost unheard of, but if anyone can do it, it’s Vea.

Vita Vea is much more than just a big athlete, though. He has incredible strength and rarely gets driven back off the line, even when taking on double teams. He is such a fun player to watch because he puts blockers on the ground so often.

Vea (lined up in the weakside A-gap) simply overpowers and knocks down the guard, and gets the tackle for loss on fourth and one.

While there is a lot to like about Vita Vea, there are some downsides to his game. Although he is a freak athlete, he is lacking a consistent and explosive initial burst. He is often the last player off the line and is not the least bit explosive. In a two-gap scheme against college offensive linemen, it didn’t cause him problems, but shooting gaps in a 4-3 defense in the NFL will be almost impossible if he doesn’t improve that burst. Vea also, like many athletically gifted college athletes, relies too much on his size and strength and often fails to use proper technique. He doesn’t get his hands up to bat down passes and occasionally keeps his head down and loses sight of the ball. Although the lack of explosiveness in his initial burst is an issue, the poor technique isn’t a major concern, so long as he’s willing to improve and listen to coaching.

Vita Vea has an incredible blend of size, strength, and athleticism. He is a virtual lock to be gone before day three, but some minor improvements to his game could push him as high as the top half of round one.

Da’Shawn Hand (Alabama, Senior):

The former no. 1 recruit in the country is currently averaging 14.5 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks per season in his first three years. Yet he has a strong chance of being a first round, maybe even a top fifteen selection in the 2018 draft.

How?

Because he plays for Alabama.

For most prospects, posting stats similar to Hand’s would be a major concern, and they would have little to no chance of getting drafted, let alone going first round. However, most players aren’t stuck behind Jonathan Allen, who has racked up 137 tackles, 41.5 TFLs, and 27.5 sacks during the three years since Hand joined the Crimson Tide. There wasn’t exactly a whole lot of playing time to be had.

For this coming season, expect big things from Da’Shawn Hand, who will finally get the playing time he has been waiting for. With a very significant increase in snaps, Hand can finally showcase the incredible strength and athleticism that made him the best high school football player in the nation just three years ago.

Here’s a small preview of what’s to come:

Da’Ron Payne (Alabama, Junior):

Da’Ron Payne is by far my favorite defensive line prospect. As a senior in high school, he weighed 350 pounds and could bench 460. He can now bench 635 despite weighing 30 lbs less. Oh, and he can dunk.

To summarize, Da’Ron Payne is a beast.

While that stuff is cool, ultimately all that matters is on the field, where Da’Ron Payne — you guessed it — is still a beast. He manhandles and slaps around offensive linemen with his ridiculous strength, but is still athletic enough to shoot gaps and execute a swim move. And, like nearly all Alabama defensive linemen, he has great technique.

It took Payne less than a second to knock that sorry offensive lineman on his back. I could show you many, many more clips just like the one above, but I think you get the point. Now, what’s really scary is when the same guy who routinely ragdolls 300+ lb men can do this:

So we’ve established that Da’Ron Payne is, in fact, a beast.

Payne isn’t a perfect prospect, though. He often runs too hard at the ball carrier and and misses tackles (see the end of the first clip). Occasionally he whiffs so bad he doesn’t even get a hand on the guy he’s trying to tackle. Because of this, he may be better suited to play in a 3-4, where he can just wreak havoc and let the linebackers come in and clean up. Either way, tackling is something he simply has to improve.

Da’Ron Payne is one of the most enjoyable players to watch in college football right now. If he weren’t a nose tackle, he’d be all but a lock to go in round one, but with the slight devaluing of the nose tackle position in today’s NFL, he could see a small draft day drop. Still, Da’Ron Payne is gonna be exciting to watch this season, and luckily for us it won’t be difficult to find his team on TV on Saturdays.

Lowell Lotulelei (Utah, Senior):

To start off:

Yes, Lowell is the brother of Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.

No, Lowell is not who is brother was.

Star Lotulelei was a very good prospect back in the 2013 NFL Draft and went 14th overall. It is completely unfair to compare Lowell to his brother, but of course it’s going to happen anyway. Just don’t expect Lowell to be drafted as high as or play as well as his brother Star.

Lowell is an aggressive and (when he’s not too tired) relentless player with limitations due to poor technique. He has the traits you want in a defensive lineman as far as strength and athleticism, but he lacks effectiveness as a pass rusher and often gets driven back by double teams due to unsound technique.

In this play he gets off the line quickly and aggressively, has a strong initial punch, and two seconds later he’s on his back.

Why?

Because he charged forward like a raging baboon and forgot that the guy across from him is strong, too. Without technique, no player can be good, especially once they get into the NFL.

When (if) Lowell Lotulelei refines his technique, he will be a force to be reckoned with. He has strength, great burst, and an attacking mentality.

He doesn’t make the tackle, but he covers his gap perfectly and forces the running back to keep going toward the sideline, where he is met for a five yard loss.

Lowell Lotulelei has the potential to be a dominant player in an attacking defense. How much his technique improves this season will tell whether he gets drafted in round one or has to wait a day or two to hear his name called.

Daylon Mack (Texas A&M, Junior):

In case you’re wondering, that is Daylon Mack. And that is a three-ton truck.

Daylon Mack pushed a three-ton truck about thirty yards.

Three-ton truck.

Three tons.

THREE TONS.

Needless to say, Daylon Mack is a freak.

When watching his tape, there was one trait that really stood out. I’m clearly referring to his strength right?

Nope.

What stands out the most with Mack is his incredible burst.

That’s just not fair. He comes off the line like a racehorse on crack. The right guard hadn’t even moved by the time Mack got there.

Just look at these two shots:

Mack1

Mack2

No, he was not offsides on either of those plays.

At 320 lbs, Daylon Mack’s explosiveness off the line is truly impressive and makes him an excellent fit as a 1- or 3-technique.

Derrick Nnadi (Florida State, Senior):

At 6’1”/311 lbs, Derrick Nnadi doesn’t have ideal size for an NFL nose tackle, but he has just about everything else going for him.

To put it lightly, the man is just strong. He drives blockers back and overpowers them with ease. While he is strong enough to manhandle blockers and hold his own when taking on double teams, he still has a good deal of athleticism. Combine these traits with sound technique and you get what will likely be the best runstuffer in the upcoming draft class.

On this play, the left guard is supposed to chip Nnadi and get to the second level, but Nnadi just shrugs off the guard as he focuses on the center, whom Nnadi then knocks to the turf. The strength that he shows on this play is just unreal; and will make scouts look beyond his size.

Philadelphia Eagles nose tackle Bennie Logan was drafted early in the third round of the 2013 draft and has so far had a very nice career as an early down defensive lineman. Nnadi and Logan are different types of players, but coming into the NFL Logan was listed at 6’2”/309 lbs. Nnadi has very similar size (listed at 6’1”/311) and may be a better prospect than Logan was at LSU. Nnadi could have a similar role to Logan as a runstuffing nose tackle, but with his strength and ability, it would be no surprise to see him become an every-down player.

Maurice Hurst (Michigan, RS Senior):

Like Derrick Nnadi, Maurice Hurst is an undersized prospect, weighing 282 lbs and standing at 6’2”. But also like Nnadi, he has a good skillset that should allow him to compete at a relatively high level in the NFL.

The biggest thing that Hurst has going for him is his relentless playstyle. He simply attacks.

Hurst’s burst (rhyming not intentional) off the LOS and aggressive play allow him to pressure the quarterback often. He plays much bigger than 282 lbs, which is why scouts will look past his size when evaluating him.

Maurice Hurst’s biggest issue is one that is seen with many aggressive players: technique. He goes all out every play but often ignores the fundamentals that are required in order to have success in the NFL. For an undersized defensive lineman, improving his technique this coming season will be crucial in determining where he will go in the 2018 draft.

Some Other Guys:

Dre’Mont Jones (Ohio State, Junior) and CeCe Jefferson (Florida, Junior):

In today’s NFL, bigger and stronger players are being replaced by smaller and quicker players. This has been occurring at many positions: running back, safety, linebacker, offensive line, and other positions to some extent. The most recent trend is taking players who could/should play defensive end and making them put on weight and play as undersized three-techniques; Michael Bennett and more recently Adolphus Washington are two examples of this. This helps the passrush, but the smaller players generally aren’t as good at defending the run.

Dre’Mont Jones was exactly what you’d expect a defensive end to be like as a 3-T. He was quicker than the guards and was able to win with burst and finesse, but was often overpowered in the run game. He added strength throughout the season but still needs to see significant improvement to become a coveted prospect.

CeCe Jefferson transitioned much better than Dre’Mont Jones. He showed more strength, despite weighing under 250 lbs before he made his transition, and used better technique than Jones. Jefferson was adept at using his long arms to keep control of blockers.

Kahlil McKenzie (Tennessee, Junior):

Kahlil McKenzie suffered a season-ending injury about ten minutes into his first start in his college career. McKenzie was a backup until the Vols’ starting DT was dismissed, leaving McKenzie as the next man up. There isn’t much to say about McKenzie as he has had very little playing time in his first two years at Tennessee, but he has prototypical size at 6’4”/324 and was a top 10 high school prospect two years ago, so he’s worth keeping an eye on this season.

About The Author Sanchez Guynee

Sanchez Guynee is an aspiring sports writer/analyst who grew up and lives in the Philly Area. He played football when he was younger and now spends nearly all of his time watching, discussing, and writing about his favorite sport.