Florida's Matt Elam may be the 2013 NFL draft prospect best known for his hard hits.
Even as the NFL takes steps to reduce the number of big hits in professional football, football fans continue to love few things more than when a defensive player lands a bone-jarring hit.
The 2013 NFL draft has its fair share of players who can lay the wood and strike fear into their opponents. From defensive linemen who can bury the quarterback to safeties who can make coming over the middle a treacherous route for opposing receivers, there are players in this draft class who will be able to pop the ball out by getting a square hit on an opposing player.
It is important not to put too much stock into how hard a player can hit, though. In many cases, players who come up with highlight-reel hits also have poor tackling form, which causes them to miss some tackles and draw personal foul penalties for illegal or late hits.
Additionally, when people fall in love with hard-hitting players, it can often cause them to overlook the players’ actual flaws. Two recent examples of this are current NFL player Brandon Meriweather and the retired Roy Williams, who each earned multiple Pro Bowl berths based largely on their big hitting ability, but both strong safeties struggled consistently in pass coverage.
Nonetheless, while the following group of players includes both future standouts and potential busts, all of these players can really rock the opposing quarterback, ball-carrier and/or receiver.
Star Lotulelei is the best all-around defensive tackle in the draft class, but the hardest hitter among them is Alabama’s Jesse Williams. A big nose tackle with great power and strength, Williams can really plug the middle and hit any runner hard who tries to cross him.
Williams is not a great penetrator or interior pass-rusher, but he has solid quickness, great leverage and can shed a blocker to pop a ball-carrier. He may be the best pure nose guard in this draft class, and he is also the hardest-hitting defensive lineman.
There is no team in college football whose defenders hit harder last season than the Georgia Bulldogs. The star of their defense, outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, was no exception.
Jones consistently makes plays all over the field, and whether he is rushing at a player in the backfield or tracking down a runner downfield, he consistently hits soundly and with authority. Jones uses great athleticism and angles to his advantage, and he knows where to hit opposing ball-carriers for a hard impact.
Jones used his hard hitting to his advantage during his career at Georgia, forcing seven fumbles in his final season. On top of that, he's one of the most complete players in the draft.
North Carolina State’s Earl Wolff is one of the best in-the-box playmakers among safeties in the 2013 NFL draft class. Wolff is an aggressive safety who thrives at coming up from the secondary in run support and making plays, and he can certainly lay big hits on the ball-carrier.
Wolff is a sound tackler, but he knows how to knock down opponents with power and often drives ball-carriers backward on tackles. He has his limitations in coverage, but he has decent speed, does a good job positioning himself in front of his runners and can also track and take down runners in the open field.
At the very least, Wolff should have a role at the next level as a run-support safety.
There are few true "thumper" middle linebackers in this year’s draft, but one Day 3 prospect who fits that bill is Florida State’s Vince Williams.
Williams is a well-built linebacker who does a great job making plays near the line, and he is known for making resounding hits.
Williams has displayed, on numerous occasions, that he can level an opposing ball-carrier or blocker. As a result of good strength, good short-area burst, quickness and consistent aggression, Williams can be a hard-hitting run-stopper in the middle of any linebacker corps.
A lack of consistent productivity and questions about his ability in coverage will drop Williams in the draft, but even if he is only a situational and/or special teams player at the next level, Williams should continue to hit hard.
Shawn Williams (No. 36) with a big hit.
A player who very much personifies Georgia’s hard-hitting style of defense is strong safety Shawn Williams. Williams can make tackles all over the field, and he is a fearless defender who hits opponents with aggression and force.
Williams is very good at coming up from the secondary in run support and making big hits on ball-carriers, but he can also break up passes by going up against a tight end over the middle and hitting him. Williams needs to become a more consistent player and has some struggles in coverage, but he is very good at timing hits to make a big-impact tackle.
Georgia’s other safety—and the better all-around prospect between the two—Bacarri Rambo would be a valid choice for this list also.
T.J. McDonald has terrific measurables for a safety, with great height, a well-built frame and good athletic ability. Specifically as a hitter, he takes advantage of those measurables.
McDonald lined up all over the field at USC, from safety to outside linebacker to defensive end. With an explosive burst, he was a hard hitter who could make big plays from any spot on the field.
McDonald is a dangerous hitter who can break up would-be completions by landing big shots on opposing receivers. But much like former USC safety Taylor Mays, he must become more effective in coverage. He also must become a more consistent tackler in order to take advantage of his hitting ability and be a successful NFL player.
The biggest hitter on Georgia’s defense this past year was inside linebacker Alec Ogletree. Formerly a strong safety who made big hits in downfield coverage, he eventually brought his hitting skills to the middle linebacker position.
Ogletree needs to become a more consistent tackler and a better block-shedder, but when he is able to get a clean lane at a ball-carrier, he can take down his opponent hard. As an athletic linebacker who combines a great burst with good size, he uses that combination to hit his opponents with considerable force.
Ogletree has the most upside of any inside linebacker in the 2013 draft class, and one reason for that is the big hits that he can land that the other top inside linebackers in this class cannot.
Jonathan Cyprien (No. 7) is on one side of this big hit.
Since the Senior Bowl, few prospects in the 2013 draft class have generated more buzz than Florida International strong safety Jonathan Cyprien. One reason for that is the authority with which he can lay out opposing offensive players.
Cyprien is an instinctive safety who excels in run support and is consistently around the ball. When he is in position to make a play on the ball, he is aggressive and can hit with authority to take down a ball-carrier or break up a pass.
Cyprien is a physically imposing safety with good size, a strong build and good athletic range. He utilizes those measurables well, especially with his ability to make big hits.
Another safety known for his big hits is Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro. A versatile defensive back who can play either safety position or slot cornerback, Vaccaro is big and athletic. He really hits his opponents with authority.
Putting the ball in the air around Vaccaro is a dangerous decision, as he is great at timing up a hit and taking out a receiver, and he also has terrific ball skills.
Vaccaro’s hard hitting can come with consequences, as he has some issues with missed tackles and personal foul penalties, but he has a very strong combination of aggression, hard hits and coverage skills.
Florida’s Matt Elam, a true enforcer at the strong safety position, stands out as the hardest hitter in the 2013 NFL draft.
Whether he is in the secondary in coverage, coming in from the secondary in run support or lining as a blitzer near the line, Elam is a consistent threat to lay out anyone who comes his way. He does not have great size, but he is a fearless defender with good athleticism that hits with textbook form.
Elam has made a big name for himself at Florida for lighting up opponents. It may lead to him sending parts of his paycheck to Roger Goodell at times in the NFL, but he should continue to find success playing the role of enforcer at the next level.
Dan Hope is an NFL Draft Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report.