The 2015 NFL Scouting Combine kicks off on Wednesday, with on-field workouts beginning on Friday, February 20th. As I did with the offense earlier, here are the top-5 players at each defensive position.
I still have more legwork to do on several of the prospects, notably the defensive backs. Certain Combine results will weigh on some players as well. In addition, these rankings largely ignore off-field issues other than injuries or criminal convictions.
This is not a prediction of draft order.
1. Leonard Williams, USC
2. Danny Shelton, Washington
3. Malcom Brown, Texas
4. Michael Bennett, Ohio State
5. Jordan Phillips, Oklahoma and Carl Davis, Iowa
Notes: Williams carries the torch for best player in the entire draft and is a certain top-5 talent. He possesses all the potential to be an impact force in the NFL. Shelton battles weight issues but has outstanding range for a 340+ pound man; his 93 tackles are an outrageous figure for a nose tackle. His best role in the NFL is as an attacking 3-technique in a 4-3 defense. That’s also Brown’s forte, and he’s even quicker though not as bulky or stout against the run. The former Longhorn is also more of a sure thing. Bennett is probably best-served as a 5-technique at under 290 pounds but is a disruptor with elite quickness. Phillips is a great nose tackle prospect, though his back must clear medical evaluation. Davis raised his profile with a dominant turn during Senior Bowl week after sleepwalking through his senior season for Iowa. He has outstanding length and powerful hands.
A couple of later-round guys I’m particularly fond of on limited viewing are Central Michigan’s Leterrius Walton and Derrick Lott from Chattanooga, but I haven’t seen enough to have a great opinion yet. I’m also higher on Washington State’s Xavier Cooper than most.
1. Dante Fowler, Florida
2. Alvin “Bud” Dupree, Kentucky
3. Randy Gregory, Nebraska
4. Shane Ray, Missouri
5. Owa Odighizuwa, UCLA
Notes: This is a very boom/bust group, as seemingly they always are. Fowler is the most complete talent, an explosive athlete who needs minor technical tweaks to become an elite pass rusher. He can play either DE or OLB. Dupree has freakish power and some exceptional game tape that echoes Terrell Suggs, but he also has some listless periods where he is a little too easily blocked. Fowler was more productive versus common opponents. I’m not a big Gregory fan based on his game tape but I will not deny his sky-high physical potential. Consider that a waffle on my part, one that isn’t in the toaster yet. Ray brings maximum effort and is exceptional at backside pursuit, but if he doesn’t win right off the snap he doesn’t win, period. He’s probably better at outside linebacker. Odighizuwa is the best strong-side end of this group.
There are several players bubbling just under the group here, and it’s all about personal team preference. Guys like Eli Harold (Virginia), Arik Armstead (Oregon), Nate Orchard (Utah) and Preston Smith (Mississippi State) all have very solid NFL potential. Armstead and Stanford’s Henry Anderson offer the best potential for a 3-4 end. For later rounds, I like Memphis’ Martin Ifedi and Anthony Chickillo from Miami, both of whom have potential to be much better pros than collegians.
1. Paul Dawson, TCU
2. Shaq Thompson, Washington
3. Vic Beasley, Clemson
4. Markus Golden, Missouri
5. Kwon Alexander, LSU
Notes: Many of the players here and at end are interchangeable; both Fowler and Dupree would remain 1-2 as OLBs. Dawson is not a pass rusher off the edge and that limits how teams will value him, but he’s the most instinctive and thorough second-level talent in this draft class. He does have some off-field flags to answer. Thompson has incredible versatility--he’d be a top 5 running back--but that might curse him in the NFL. It’s tough to find a concrete role for him that NFL defensive gurus will embrace. Similar to Gregory above, I’m not a big Vic Beasley fan but he does have undeniable speed and burst around the edge. Nate Orchard would rank above him here for being a more rounded talent. Golden was often more integral to the Tigers defense than the more celebrated Ray, but doesn’t have the twitchy athleticism of his old running mate. Like Dawson, Alexander is not a blitzer and should have stayed in school, but he’s got incredible agility and quickness to the ball.
1. Eric Kendricks, UCLA
2. Stephone Anthony, Clemson
3. Denzel Perryman, Miami FL
4. Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
5. Taiwan Jones, Michigan State
Notes: Kendricks is the clear cream of the crop, a twitchy and instinctive thumper who can start right away for either a 3-4 or a 4-3 front. The only question is his size at just 230 pounds. Anthony doesn’t lack length or bulk at 6’2” and 245 solid pounds. He can’t quite range to either sideline but is fantastic between the tackles and can drop in coverage relatively well. Perryman is short and overly reliant on running around blocks, though he drops the hammer impressively when presented the chance. His chase gear stands out. McKinney is an enigma. Hulking for the position and a capable field general, he failed to meet athletic expectations and often appeared quite stiff. McKinney is best-served playing LILB in an attacking 3-4 front. Jones is a player who dropped weight from his Spartans days to the Shrine Game and really impressed with his improved agility in space. He could blossom at the next level in a scheme where he’s given more freedom.
In the later rounds I’m a fan of Cincinnati’s Jeff Luc for a 3-4 front and Stanford’s A.J. Tarpley. For a deep sleeper, check out Bowling Green’s D.J. Lynch.
1. Marcus Peters, Washington
2. Trae Waynes, Michigan State
3. P.J. Williams, Florida State
4. Quinten Rollins, Miami OH
5. Kevin White, TCU
Notes: Peters is the closest thing this draft has to a shutdown corner. He’s an outstanding man-coverage island corner with a powerful jam, fluid hips and quick feet. His run defense and more passive coverage schemes need work, and he must answer maturity questions after being kicked off the Huskies. Waynes plays an unusual style in that he isn’t all that instinctive but has incredible mirroring skills and has a great sense of when to turn his head to find the ball. If he can clean up the biting on fakes he can start for a long time. Williams has great length and turn-and-run speed. What intrigues me is his physicality versus the run and short passes; Williams had 6.5 TFLs and numerous immediate tackles on the sort of quick-hit passes that New England dogged Seattle with in the Super Bowl. Rollins is a converted basketball point guard with elite quickness. He needs some seasoning and could struggle early, but he’s a big-time prospect despite just one year of college football. White shined during Senior Bowl practices, proving sticky and plucky despite being small.
There is a cadre of corners in a tier that begins with Rollins and extends down deep into the third round where the margin is pretty small to differentiate one talent from another. Included in that grouping are Utah’s Eric Rowe, Jalen Collins from LSU, Ifo Ekpe-Olomu from Oregon (would be higher if not coming off an ACL), Jacoby Glenn from UCF and Kevin Johnson of Wake Forest, among others. If Johnson weighs in above 182 at the Combine, consider him no lower than 4th at this position. He ducked out of the Senior Bowl claiming to try and gain weight after word circulated his playing poundage was no more than 170.
1. Landon Collins, Alabama
2. Chris Hackett, TCU
3. Anthony Harris, Virginia
4. Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
5. Derron Smith, Fresno State
Notes: Collins is the only first-round talent at a position which is becoming increasingly important in the NFL. Because of that, expect him to be drafted very high even though his game does have some warts. Collins can play the single-high look and is fantastic closing downhill on plays, though he’s not an elite athlete. Hackett fits the bill of a cover safety, a good anticipator with quick reactions in space. He’s not a reliable tackler, however. Harris followed up a productive junior year (8 INTs) by improving versus the run to make himself a more polished all-around talent. Prewitt has great size and a nose for the ball. Smith brings outstanding speed and agility to the table, though he’s small-framed and played better as a junior with more talent around him. Keep an eye on Jaquiski Tartt from Samford, a very impressive athlete during Senior Bowl week who I have not seen otherwise. Utah’s Brian Blechen is a nice late-round sleeper as well.
1. Justin Manton, Louisiana-Monroe
2. Josh Lambo, Texas A&M
3. Kyle Brindza, Notre Dame
4. Tom Obarski, Concordia-St. Paul
5. Jeremiah Detmer, Toledo
Notes: Yes I do scout kickers. The things I look for: touchback percentage on kickoffs, accuracy beyond 40 yards on FG, performance in weather, height on longer attempts (think Robbie Gould) and consistency over a career. This is not as strong a class as a year ago, but all five guys listed are legit NFL talents. Manton gets bonus points for also being a top-notch punting prospect. Obarski plays a right-left draw like a pro golfer.