20 NFL Draft Prospects Guaranteed to Emerge as Defensive Studs at Pro Level
The 2013 NFL draft is just a few months away, and as a guy that simply can't get enough defense, I am excited by the plethora of defensive studs that are available in this year's draft class.
This article will focus on 20 of these players that project to make a big impact on the defensive side of the ball in the NFL.
I want studs, playmakers and space hogs.
I want penetration along the defensive line and gap integrity. I want violence in controlled space.
In my linebacking corps, I want leadership, speed and downhill anger harnessed through helmets and shoulder pads.
In my defensive backfield, I want ball hawks, corners that have pick-six written all over them and safeties who glue the whole operation together.
To make this list, you have to exhibit excellence. There are only 20 spots, and defense wins championships, so read on to see who made the cut.
Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU
Weight: 240 pounds
NFL Comparison: DeMarcus Ware meets Aaron Maybin
Mingo possesses a skill set and a body that is coveted by every NFL team. While he clearly has some "filling out" to do in order to become an every-down 4-3 DE in the NFL, all signs point to Mingo being able to do just that. He can also easily be projected as a 3-4 OLB.
Mingo struggles against the run, and he has also been inconsistent in trying to set a good edge. This phenomenon is nothing new to premiere pass-rushers, and it is not an attribute that I would lose sleep over in an athlete of this caliber. Pete Carroll would have never selected Bruce Irvin as the No. 15 overall pick in last year's draft if teams were overly concerned about their pass-rushing specialists being completely well-rounded coming into the league.
But everyone knows that the best way to neutralize this type of threat is generally to take the run right at him. This was true for Reggie White and Bruce Smith, and it will remain true long after Barkevious Mingo has retired from the National Football League. It is Football 101.
Mingo generally lines up on the right tackle and can be easily taken out of running plays with a combination block from an opposing tight end. In the pass rush, however, he is a force much greater than his four recorded sacks in 2012 might indicate.
Speed converts to power when navigating routes to the passer. He has a quick first step and a bend and twist through his long core that indicates an immense, flexible and powerful base. He also gets his arms up in the passing game and finds ways to disrupt the opposing offense, even when the play does not result in a sack, hurry or hit on the quarterback.
Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
Weight: 317 pounds
NFL Comparison: Marcell Dareus meets Kris Jenkins
Johnathan Hankins will be drafted much earlier than many analysts (myself included) have been projecting him in early 2013 mock drafts. As the film study wears on and the measurables become more common knowledge rather than just speculation, Hankins will fly up draft boards, possibly into the top 15.
Hankins lines up at the traditional DT and DE positions in the 4-3 and is as comfortable playing the 5-technique as he is playing the three—which seems like a more natural position given his size and the amount of space that he takes up.
The first thing you notice when watching Hankins is the first step. The initial burst into contact with the offensive line is powerful, quick and explosive. Once engaged, Hankins does not necessarily have a great nose for the ball, but his disruptive power allows him to push either the guard, center or tackle (and sometimes, two of the three all at once) toward play-side action to make running lanes appear murky and difficult for the opposition to recognize.
Hankins should test well for confirmed speed, but when watching his play speed, the most impressive attribute is his ability to not be eliminated from a play. A man of Hankins' size, in most every case, does not need to be accounted for once the line action has expired and the play moves to the next level. His pursuit is relentless, which is an often overlooked part of his game.
Hankins seems to get off the ball the quickest when he is lined up inside, so much so that it sometimes seems like he knows the snap count just as well as the center does.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
Weight: 270 pounds
NFL Comparison: Jason Pierre-Paul
We might as well get that adjective out of the way early on, because it dominates most every bit of narrative analysis regarding the skill set that Ezekiel Ansah brings to the table.
The fact is, Ansah has only been playing football for two-and-a-half seasons. A native of Ghana, Ansah is a converted track star with off-the-charts potential at the NFL level. He just looks bigger than everyone else on tape, much like a puppy with huge paws that will scare every kid in the neighborhood when he grows into them.
The main issue I see is the wasted motion off the snap. Ansah uses his critical first bit of motion to "pop up" out of his stance as opposed to taking a deliberate first step, engaging and positioning himself for contact or pursuit.
This usually leads to a scenario where Ansah's first contact with the opposing offensive tackle comes with his hands being squarely placed on the tackle's numbers with high pad level. When Ansah sees the ball, though—or the ball-carrier—he is virtually unstoppable despite the early pickle he puts himself in sometimes.
He uses a skill that I have learned just this year that is called "ice-picking." It's a term I love because it is a hard attribute to describe. Basically, when Ansah gets pushed away from the flow of the play, he can "ice-pick" back to the play with great speed and power.
He can do it because he is huge and freakishly athletic. It is quite obvious that when Ansah learns to put himself in a good position from the start, he is going to be a force.
Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State
Weight: 231 pounds
NFL Comparison: Lavonte David meets Mychal Kendricks
Arthur Brown is an undersized linebacker, and he is the one player that I will be most interested in seeing measured during the National Scouting Weigh-In at the Senior Bowl next week.
Regardless of his numbers, it is important to remember one thing: Russell Wilson disappointed a whole lot of people with his size on that exact same scale last year.
Brown flies to the ball and is fluid to his responsibility. He is a playmaker that can light up running backs, be a penetrating presence up the middle on passing down and take an inside vertical seam into coverage.
Brown can shed blocks much better than one would reasonably expect a player of his size should be able to, and he plays fast.
I actually think that the coverage aspect of Brown's game is what may be most overlooked. He knows exactly when to pass his guy off in the zone, and he operates confidently within the fluid structure of the protection scheme. He puts himself in position to make plays and obviously loves football.
Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
Weight: 185 pounds
NFL Comparison: Patrick Peterson
Johnthan Banks is a ball-hawking corner who reminds you a little of Green Bay Packers rookie cornerback Casey Hayward. Although Hayward is a bit smaller than Banks, both possess similar skills and were thought to be a bit suspect in coverage coming out of college. The main issue was lateral agility, which is the ability to be as quick in and out of cuts as opposing wide receivers.
We've seen how that has turned out for the Green Bay Packers, who took Hayward—a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate—in the late second round of the 2012 NFL draft.
Banks has exceptional size. He is skinny and well-built with long arms that he uses well. He'll knife in behind the tackle, and he'll come hard off the edge in blitzes. He can play walked up on the line also, setting a tough outside edge in the run game. Banks is a versatile playmaker.
Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
Weight: 250 pounds
NFL Comparison: Cameron Wake
Damontre Moore doesn't have the quickest first step upfield as a pass-rusher, but he has a deliberate first step. Moore has a long-striding inside lean in the pass rush that wears on opposing offensive tackles throughout the course of a game.
Moore has a quick inside move that works mainly because of the threat posed by his suddenness to the outside. He became one of the SEC's best pass-rushers in 2012 by playing this game of "cat and mouse"—keeping opposing tackles honest about their respective comfort levels in "cheating" by opening their hips to the outside.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Moore projects to be one of the draft's safest selections for NFL teams looking to fill a pass-rush need.
Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
Weight: 232 pounds
NFL Comparison: A taller Thomas Davis
Ogletree is a long, lean linebacker with wheels for days. The first thing you notice about Ogletree is his nose for the ball and his ability to get to the sidelines within the blink of an eye. He comes from a very mean-spirtied defense at Georgia, a group in which he is a clear leader on and off the field.
Ogletree has a knack for making big, game-changing plays and a feel for bad balls thrown to the flats. He is a converted safety who is very athletic in turning his hips and running with tight ends on seam routes, and he can also make quick-reaction plays on shallow slants.
While he is not known as a player who takes a blocker on head-up and square, he shows excellent ability to shed and weave around blockers toward the flow of the play.
Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
Weight: 218 pounds
NFL Comparison: A bigger Cortland Finnegan meets Eric Weddle
Kenny Vaccaro plays football with a big chip on his shoulder.
His ability to cover the slot receiver, play cornerback in the nickel and jam well at the line of scrimmage makes him a very unique prospect. He's got good instincts in zone coverage and anticipates throws very well.
His aggressive nature leads to a little bit of recklessness, free-roaming and sometimes trouble. He plays a little bit better with the game in front of him, and he very obviously likes to "hone in" on his targets. When Vaccaro gets you in the crosshairs, he packs a punch too. He was known as one of the hardest hitters on the Texas squad this year, and when he comes, he comes with a head of steam.
Vaccaro is a very rare breed of athlete. He is a safety that you can use in critical nickel and dime situations at cornerback as well. Generally, it takes a player who is just as small and shifty as Tavon Austin to cover Tavon Austin—but not in Vaccaro's case.
Vaccaro is a large, smothering presence that can be used in countless packages due to this level of versatility.
Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Weight: 255 pounds
NFL Comparison: Chris Long
America's next international superstar will be "The Germanator."
If there's one player on this list who projects as a sure-fire, stone-cold lock to make an impact on the defensive side of the ball in 2013, that player is Bjoern Werner.
There really isn't much to not like. Werner has a motor that defensive coordinators dream about to couple with his unique size and speed. His suddenness to the outside of the tackle's shoulder is unrivaled in this draft. His first step is unrivaled in this draft among pass-rushers as well.
He starts the play immediately, engages his defender and puts himself on the offensive. He imposes his will on opposing linemen, keeping gap integrity on run plays and blazing in like a rocket as a rusher. Werner is the type of player that can start out on a speed rush then mysteriously dip his inside shoulder to a level that seems impossible without losing any speed.
He can beat you to the outside with speed or crack open a tackle's inside hip pointer while converting to power in one solid, cat-like lunge to the target.
Everything about Werner is solid. Athleticism starts in the feet and moves upward. Werner has the best feet of any defensive end prospect in this draft and is currently the leader in my personal 2013 NFL draft clubhouse on the defensive side of the ball.
He will be an instant contributor.
Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Weight: 320 pounds
NFL Comparison: Haloti Ngata
Star Lotulelei is like a fire hydrant planted in the middle of the defense—immovable and likely to spray you with a force that will send you flying for a city block.
Loutulelei's most obvious trait is his ability disengage moves. He also has a propensity for breaking open the large space that his body occupies along the offensive line. In short, he doesn't like people putting their hands on him, and he has lots of violent ways to get them off.
He doesn't do it while standing around patty-caking either. He does it on the move with great pad level.
He can flip his hips in small spaces and decrease his surface area with a nasty club move, leaving enough space to settle into the gap and breach the offense's interior. If Lotulelei cannot club, forklift or swat his way out of engagement with the offense, he will latch on and drive to create penetration.
Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame
Weight: 255 pounds
NFL Comparison: Brian Urlacher
Manti Te'o is going to be a fantastic NFL linebacker, and anyone who believes that one relatively "down" game in the national championship is reason to think otherwise sure wouldn't last long in the scouting business.
He's a throwback football player who loves the game. He takes on blocks and plays a downhill, run-stuffing brand of football. He has gotten much better in coverage over the 2012 season and seems to be comfortable both running with tight ends, even occasionally taking an inside vertical seam to his zone in cover 3 variations.
Te'o is a powerful, sure tackler who recognizes plays for what they are in an instant. A true quarterback on the defense that does not get fooled by guard and/or fullback misdirection to get him going the wrong way to start. He's a sideline-to-sideline, tackle-to-tackle prowler that comes with great character and leadership abilities.
Te'o will be a centerpiece on one NFL team's defense for years.
Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
Weight: 241 pounds
NFL Comparison: Von Miller
Jarvis Jones makes huge plays in big games, and when we talk about potential impact, he's probably the first name that comes to many a draft enthusiast's mind.
Jones is an impact player and an absolute force.
We've seen Jones flourish against both pro-style offenses and zone read-option attacks. He gives opposing QBs a hard time deciding what they will do based on his initial move coming off the edge in the zone-read. This is becoming an increasingly attractive tool in the bag for obvious reasons given recent NFL offensive trends.
Jones is a player who plays in the SEC and averages a sack a game. He can take on a lead blocker with good functional strength, shed and play the run. He's unselfish and will make big collisions that allow teammates to make plays.
He's a true 3-4 OLB with versatility to play a 4-3 DE, although he rarely (if ever) plays with his hand in the dirt. As he develops his game and puts on a little bit of weight, he will have Von Miller-like impact at the NFL level.
His spinal stenosis is an obvious worry, but the playmaking ability cannot be denied. Only very foreboding test results regarding the narrowing of the cervical region of his spine will allow Jones to fall outside of the top 10 picks in the 2013 NFL draft.
Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
Weight: 199 pounds
NFL Comparison: Eric Allen
Milliner is like a ball-swatting fog that envelopes opposing receivers and doesn't clear out until the whistle blows.
I have yet to witness a better cover corner in this draft, and I doubt one will emerge between now and late April. Milliner has a straight-line balance that lets his upper torso flip and track balls while on the run with opposing wideouts.
He can handle a soft zone, absolutely fly out in press-bail and jam in press-man. Milliner's flexibility is beyond evident, as is his balance and overall ease of movement. He does not get burned on double moves and seems fluid until the expiration of the play.
Milliner has underrated ball skills and closing speed that allows him to pounce at any opportunity the QB gives him.
Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
Weight: 320 pounds
NFL Comparison: Pat Williams
Jesse Williams is just your average Australian Alabama nose tackle that looks like a warrior and bench presses 600 pounds.
Williams has a thick, rectangle-shaped body from which he derives his power, and uses leverage impeccably. Unlike Star Lotulelei, Williams does not waste much motion trying to disengage or escape from his opponent on the offensive line.
Williams has a lunging burst to initiate contact that he follows with a powerful drive through both his arms and his legs. He has a center of gravity like a tree stump and is very unlikely to be pushed back in any way unless he is double-teamed by two outstanding college players.
Williams is a rare case of an interior defensive lineman that seems to have a non-stop motor for the entire game. As we know, on/off switch players are every team's worst nightmare when wanting to draft a future impact stud on the defensive line, and Williams represents no risk of this.
Sheldon Richardson, DT/DE, Missouri
Weight: 295 pounds
NFL Comparison: Henry Melton meets a poor man's Aldon Smith
Sheldon Richardson is a huge, versatile weapon along the defensive line that can be utilized in numerous ways to create disruption. He can line up at the 1-technique, the 3-technique, a head-up 4 with his hand in the dirt, the 5 or the 7.
Richardson can stunt out of a two-point stance, coming all the way inside and crashing the A gap. He has a cat-like nature in his gliding movements through space and pouncing ability.
He'll line up in a two-point stance in blitzing downs and hover over the guard like a blitzing linebacker. Richardson has a way of "slimming down" through the line and getting his hips pointed back upfield the instant he frees up. He has a type of pursuit once free that shows off his lateral agility.
Richardson's combination of assets project best to weak side 3-4 DE, as he is much more prone to make plays coming off the edge in a "run-you-down"-scenario than he is anchoring against the strong side of the offense's set.
Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
Weight: 241 pounds
NFL Comparison: None
It's hard not to fall in love with the versatility a player like Dion Jordan brings to the table. He can literally line up anywhere on the line. And when I say "anywhere," I mean anywhere.
It's scary that a man this size can line up on a slot receiver in coverage. I am not used to evaluating a player with the body of a long, reaching rush-end as a player in man coverage against a slot WR.
No one is. But Jordan can jam these guys at the line, keep in good position and actually turn and run with them. It's silly.
They do not let him have that responsibility by not being good at it. Lots of NFL teams will fall in love with this kind of versatility, and it is quite clear that Jordan will test off the charts.
Unfortunately, Jordan tore his labrum versus Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl and will likely miss the Senior Bowl, but he might still be able to do some testing at the Combine and will most certainly have loads of private workouts for teams as the draft approaches.
Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
Weight: 217 pounds
NFL Comparison: Stanford Routt meets a taller Ben Grimes
No wasted motion. That is the first thing you notice in Rhodes. The second thing you think to yourself is "Man, Florida State's defense is absolutely stacked."
Xavier Rhodes, Tank Carradine, Bjoern Werner and the rest—these types of players don't grow on trees. Rhodes is a big, physical corner at 6'2" and plays up to his competition.
I noticed Rhodes last season when scouting current Cardinals WR Michael Floyd, who was then playing for Notre Dame. Rhodes basically shut Floyd down before having to leave the game early with an injury.
Rhodes has the size to be physical enough, but displays an ignition and change-of-direction ability that seems violently fluid. His hips remind you of Janoris Jenkins, while his tracking ability and arms are reminiscent of an octopus-like Brandon Browner.
D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina
Weight: 210 pounds
NFL Comparison: Bob Sanders meets Harrison Smith
Hard hitter, big hitter. That's the first thing anyone notices when watching Swearinger on tape.
Just an all-around swarming presence. Swearinger can do it all—play center field, come up on the line, be a huge hitter in run support and just generally fly around.
He is the kind of player that brings one of the most important intangibles imaginable to a defense. If there's a guy who is the team's "pump up guy" before games—the one who leads chants and slaps everyone on the head—that's generally a very good sign.
Swearinger is that guy on a filthy, filthy defense that knocks people's hats off. Expect to see him move up draft boards as the process wears on.
Kevin Minter, LB, LSU
Weight: 245 pounds
NFL Comparison: Brandon Spikes
Minter is a super-sturdy linebacker that plays with a functional balance and downhill mentality that suits what LSU does perfectly. I do not feel like he excelled solely due to the strength of his surrounding cast.
Minter is a technically-sound player with a very thick lower body that allows him to take on and shed blocks. Many believe Minter is the best overall linebacker in this draft, and it is easy to see why. He's pretty good at everything. I don't feel like he excels in coverage, but few downhill-type LBs do.
The fact of the matter is this: scouting is only so much technique jargon, measurables and adherence to specific traits of a positional craft. If you ask any NFL scout, the eyeball test is the big one. That's the first impression.
And we all know the importance of first impressions.
Minter absolutely jumps out at you a few times every time you watch back LSU tape. He makes plays for all to see, but also cleans up messes that nobody knows ever occurred. He fixes things, and as the "glue" of a defense, you need that. He's no Alec Ogletree or Arthur Brown when pursuing to the sidelines, but he plays with a motor that doesn't stop and will be an instant, beastly contributor at the NFL level.
Alex Okafor, DE, Texas
Weight: 265 pounds
NFL Comparison: Israel Idonije
Alex Okafor catches a lot of flack from draft analysts for playing "stiff," but what does that really mean?
It means that he doesn't really bend or twist—it's hard to explain, but we have our own former NFL defensive end here at B/R in Ryan Riddle who described the mindset of the pass rush like this in his epic column, "Breaking Down the Art of the Pass Rush."
Within that battle, you must dissect your opponent, piece by piece, keeping him on his heels, constantly guessing and never sure what's coming next, except for one thing and one thing only...a tornado of high energy and unyielding ferocity.
Basically, it's a big, sweaty, painful dance. You can't dance stiff, and you can't express and create when you're stiff in any walk of life. The good news is, stiff can be untaught in life, and football.
Okafor has been dominating at times, and the only real weakness he shows is leaving wide open C-gaps on run downs when he gets his over-exuberant energy shoved out wide. He's got a great body and possesses deceptive power and speed.
When you're around Okafor, the first thing you think is, "Wow, this guy has a body to grow into." The second is, "Everyone seems to like him."
Okafor's a team player, and smart player and a player that has shown he can be dominant based on natural athletic prowess. A defensive line coach somewhere will be getting a gem.