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B/R's NFL 20 for '20: Projecting Top 20 Defensive Linemen in 2020

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterJanuary 22, 2017

B/R's NFL 20 for '20: Projecting Top 20 Defensive Linemen in 2020

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    We don't like to think about what the NFL will look like without star defensive linemen DeMarcus Ware and Geno Atkins or even underrated stud Gerald McCoy, but it will happen. And it'll happen soon.

    My generation didn't want to think about an NFL without Hall of Famers Bruce Smith or Reggie White, but along came the next wave of talent in the form of J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, Chandler Jones and more. We didn't want the game without John Randle or Warren Sapp, but along came Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. The game moves on, and legends walk away. Looking ahead to the next generation, who will be the best defensive lineman in the year 2020?

    That's what this signature series aims to answer—our "20 for '20" covers who the top 20 linemen will be five seasons from now. And if you're looking for guys like Atkins or McCoy—who will be well over 30 years old in 2020—we have to project a few retirements and a few slowdowns.

Honorable Mention

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    Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

    Others Receiving Strong Consideration

    • Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans
    • Danny Shelton, Cleveland Browns
    • Malcolm Brown, New England Patriots
    • Sharrif Floyd, Minnesota Vikings
    • DeForest Buckner, Oregon
    • Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati Bengals
    • Olivier Vernon, Miami Dolphins
    • Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints
    • Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers

    Excluded Because of Age and Expected Regression

    • Ndamukong Suh, Miami Dolphins
    • Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    • Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals
    • Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins
    • Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals

20. Daylon Mack (23 Years Old)

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    Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 23

    Projecting ahead five years, Daylon Mack will likely be in his second season in the NFL. By then, he could be scary good. With an unreal combination of natural athleticism and instincts to play the game, Mack is ahead of his time as a pass-rusher. With five years of development, he'll have the goods to dominate.

     

    It's rare to see an 18-year-old dominate the run game like Mack does. He's physical, fast off the snap and has the power to lock up rushing lanes. He's also smart, and he does a great job seeing the play and not letting the offensive line fool him into biting on misdirection.

     

    If he can stay healthy, Mack will be molded by the exceptional coaching at College Station and turn into an elite prospect. He should be a top-20 defensive lineman by 2020.

     

    Daylon Mack is the youngest player on this list, but his freshman season as Texas A&M was that impressive.

19. Maliek Collins (25 Years Old)

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    Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 25

    The Nebraska defense wasn't much to look at in 2015, but Maliek Collins was a bright spot as a pass-rusher from the interior defensive line. He's quick off the ball, agile enough to throw spin moves and shoulder shakes at blockers and powerful enough to use a bull rush when he gets one-on-one blocking situations. In the year 2020, he could be having a Geno Atkins-like career.

     

    As a slightly undersized (6'2", 300 lbs) tackle, Collins is susceptible to being moved off his spot. He's a player you want in a one-gap situation, likely as a 3-technique tackle. But given time to improve and time to learn how to use his leverage, Collins can become a solid run defender in the NFL.

     

    Collins has the quickness off the ball and the natural hand use to become an elite pass-rusher in the pros. With ideal NFL size already at age 20, there are no limitations to how good Collins can become.

     

    Collins is one of the premier 3-technique tackles in college football, and his outlook in the NFL is looking better and better as his tools catch up to his athleticism.

18. Sheldon Richardson (30 Years Old)

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 30

    Sheldon Richardson is the only defensive tackle I've ever confused for an outside linebacker—that happened the first time I saw him during his junior summer camp. He's lean, athletic, fast in space and explosive off the ball. Richardson attacks the offensive line and has rare tools to beat whatever the line throws at him.

     

    Richardson is a lean 5-technique who uses his athleticism to force errors from blockers and shoot gaps like a much smaller player. His lack of pure power is an issue at times in the run game, but Richardson can stand up toe-to-toe with offensive tackles, shed the block and run down ball-carriers.  

     

    If Richardson can stay on the field, he could be great. He turned just 25 years old in 2015, but the fact he's already served a four-game suspension puts a damper on his upside.

     

    The only thing keeping Sheldon Richardson from the top 10 is himself. Off-field issues limited his 2015 season and are something to monitor moving forward.

17. Muhammad Wilkerson (31 Years Old)

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 31

    The new age of 5-technique players means being able to get after the quarterback and stuff the run equally well. Wilkerson does that. He's a prototypical end with great countermoves and the football IQ to attack the backfield or hold the edge as needed in containment.

     

    Wilkerson is one of the best run defenders in football thanks to his length and power. He does a great job stacking up blockers and getting free with hand use to attack the ball. Blockers have fits with his technique, leverage and strong core that allow him to toss them aside as he gets into the hole.

     

    At just 26 years old, Wilkerson still has a lot of football ahead of him, but he just finished his fifth NFL season and has some wear and tear on his frame. That limits his upside compared to the younger players in the game.

     

    Wilkerson was one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the game in 2015, and he still will be in 2020. Unfortunately, being a great 5-technique doesn't get you ranked nearly as high as being a great defensive tackle or 4-3 defensive end.

16. Henry Anderson (29 Years Old)

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    Chris Keane/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 29

    Henry Anderson will get some notice as an All-Rookie performer at defensive end, and in Indianapolis' 3-4 defense, he's been one of the few bright spots. Anderson isn't a great pass-rusher if you're looking for a guy who bends the edge, but he is very good at pushing the tackle back and creating disruption along the line.

     

    Anderson has flashed as a run defender thanks to an unstoppable motor and very good use of his natural skills like power and length. And there's room for improvement as he learns to understand NFL leverage and gains more football knowledge to take on pro blocking schemes.

     

    This might look like a crazy prediction, but Anderson has been very impressive thus far in his career. He looks like a young Justin Smith, and with five more years to learn, grow and produce, it's not a stretch that he could be a top-20 defensive lineman if he comes back strong from a knee injury that cost him half of his rookie year.

     

    A rookie in 2015, Anderson showed the skills and production to be considered one of the best young 3-4 defensive ends in the game.

15. Fletcher Cox (30 Years Old)

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 30

    The 3-4 defense doesn't traditionally create many opportunities for the ends to become pass-rushers, but Fletcher Cox breaks that mold. He's very fast in space and off the snap, and he has the length and power to beat offensive tackles with his first step or with his countermove. He's a handful for tackles to handle one-on-one and is effective lining up head-up or outside the tackle's shoulder.

     

    As the end man on the defensive line, Cox has to be able to contain the edge, get push on the left tackle and make plays in space as a tackler. He does it all very well now and shouldn't see any regression of his skills in the next five years. Don't be surprised if J.J. Watt and Fletcher Cox are the best 3-4 ends in the game in 2020.

     

    Cox turned 25 years old in 2015, but he's been in the NFL since 2012, so his upside is more about the wear and tear on his body already and not as much about his relative youth at the position.

     

    Cox has emerged as a top-tier 3-4 defensive end, and with his athleticism and flexibility, he'll be a constant force as a run-stuffer and pass-rusher.

14. Chandler Jones (30 Years Old)

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 30

    Chandler Jones came of age in the Patriots' 2015 scheme. He was routinely one of the most active and disruptive edge-defenders in the NFL and showed the length, power and quickness to beat up NFL left tackles from his spot on the right edge of the New England defense.

     

    Jones really improved his run defense, and in 2015, he emerged as a strong edge-container and a player who can shoot into the backfield to make tackles on the ball. He's smart, uses his arms well to keep blockers off his frame and has room to improve still with leverage and hand placement.

     

    Jones is already starting to reach his potential at 25 years old, which means by the year 2020, he'll have it all figured out. And while his upside is limited slightly, there is still room for him to become a top-10 defensive end in the next five years.

     

    Jones was electric as the Patriots' go-to pass-rusher in 2015, and the future looks bright given his range of athleticism and power.

13. Brandon Williams (31 Years Old)

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 31

    Being a nose tackle in a 3-4 defense pretty much means you get paid to create opportunities for your teammates in the passing game, and Brandon Williams does that as well as anyone. But he also creates pressures on his own—generally by driving the center back into the quarterback and recreating the line of scrimmage.

     

    Good luck moving Williams off his spot in the run game. He's a classic war daddy at nose tackle, and in Baltimore, he's showing the versatility to play as a one- or two-gap defender. Williams can take on blockers and open tackling lanes for his teammates, or he can collapse the pocket and stuff the run on his own.

     

    Even though he's 26 years old, Williams is still learning the intricacies of the position after coming out of Missouri Southern State. His technique and leverage were at a high level in 2015, but there is still a ton of room for him to become even more dominant in the middle.

     

    In 2015, Williams was the best nose tackle in the NFL. That may be challenged by 2020, but this small-school stud is just getting started.

12. Marcell Dareus (30 Years Old)

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    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 30

    Playing in a scheme designed to generate pressure off the edge, Marcell Dareus hasn't had the J.J. Watt-type sack seasons, but he's made a huge impact in the run game by setting up pressures and creating chances for his edge-rushing teammates. Dareus can push the line and get to the quarterback, but his value comes in the havoc he creates in the middle of the line.

     

    Dareus is a fantastic run defender thanks to his quickness and power off the ball. Offensive linemen have to brace for his impact, and by the fourth quarter, it's not fun being in a fist fight with this guy. Dareus has the quickness to attack off his spot and the power to move the line of scrimmage.

     

    At 25 years old, Dareus is a special player, but moving ahead to 2020, it's only natural he'll slow down a little bit. Even so, he'll still be a special talent at that point.

     

    Dareus is one of the elite defenders in the NFL currently—even if he doesn't get the national recognition he deserves.

11. Kenny Clark (25 Years Old)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 25

    Kenny Clark projects best as a nose tackle, but NFL teams may line him up in any number of positions. As a pass-rusher, he's not a great player right now, and looking ahead five seasons, he may be solid but never on that Aaron Donald level. Clark's value comes in the run game and in pushing the pocket from the middle with power.

     

    The run game is where Clark can be special. He has phenomenal quickness off the ball and then counters combination blocks well with his power and hand use. Clark's background as a wrestler definitely shows up when he's splitting the center/guard combo and stuffing the inside run.

     

    Clark has rare quickness off the ball and the power to push the pile and collapse the pocket. He'll be an impact player in the NFL and has great upside because of his positional versatility.

     

    Clark was a dominant player in the middle of an injury-filled UCLA defense. He's talented enough to play nose tackle, 1-technique or even 3-technique in the NFL.

10. Ezekiel Ansah (31 Years Old)

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 31

    Ezekiel Ansah specializes at converting speed to power as a pass-rusher and does a great job using his length to impact the game. He's able to counter what offensive tackles do thanks to his agility, flexibility and hand use. Ansah has a full toolbox of moves and understands space and leverage.

     

    A powerful end on the right side of the line, Ansah is able to contain the edge and is strong enough to shed blockers and make tackles in the run game. He's great in pursuit and really stands out for knowing how to use his skills and hide his limitations.

     

    While Ansah has been in the NFL just three seasons, he's already 26 years old thanks to his Mormon mission delaying his college graduation. Ansah has the tools to become great, but he's no spring chicken.

     

    Ansah was an electric defender throughout the 2015 season and has made his mark as an elite young edge player in the NFL.

9. Robert Quinn (30 Years Old)

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 30

    Robert Quinn is no doubt an electric, productive defensive end with all the tools NFL scouts drool over. That's obvious now and likely will still be as we project five years down the road. With his special quickness, length and agility, Quinn beats offensive tackles with a variety of pass-rushing moves.

     

    The pure power to anchor and contain the edge doesn't consistently show up for Quinn, but his speed off the ball makes him a viable threat in the run game. He's especially productive when asked to pursue on backside plays.

     

    Quinn is only getting older, and as someone whose fifth NFL season was in 2015, it's natural to downplay his upside slightly. Add to that a back injury, and it's easy to see why Quinn slips down the board here.

     

    Quinn ranked as one of the NFL's best defenders in 2015, but as he hits age 30, expect a bit of a slowdown.

8. Leonard Williams (26 Years Old)

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 26

    Going back to his days at Southern California, Leonard Williams has never been an elite producer as a pass-rusher if you're looking at sack numbers, but he causes panic and creates pressures, hurries and hits from his 5-technique position with the New York Jets. Williams is a scary defender, and his ability to beat blockers with agility or power gives him plenty of upside here.

     

    Williams has the great ability to rarely lose battles with blockers. He may not crash the backfield and stop the run every down, but he won't get pushed off the line and beat to his spot. At worst, Williams is a stalemate, and that's why his run stuff score is so high. He has the potential to become an elite run defender.

     

    Size, power, agility, athleticism. Williams has it all. He was viewed as a near can't-miss prospect in the 2015 NFL draft for good reason.

     

    Whether he's still playing in a 3-4 defense in five years or not, Williams has the goods to be a dominant defender in either a four- or three-man front.

7. Robert Nkemdiche (26 Years Old)

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    Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 26

    If you look at Robert Nkemdiche's stats, you won't see a dominant producer, but that's because he's the most blocked man in America, as offenses completely scheme around No. 5. But project what he does now—speed, power, countermoves—and look at where he can be in five years, and there's a good chance we're talking about Nkemdiche as one of the two or three best players at his position.

     

    Whether he's playing inside as a defensive tackle or out on the edge, Nkemdiche has shown the strength to be a force against the run. He's a 294-pound body with linebacker speed, and he uses that well to chase the ball or shut down running lanes as needed.

     

    When you look at his athleticism and the fact he's just 21 years old, you realize there is no limit to how good Nkemdiche can be. A big boost for him also will come from being able to play one position in the NFL instead of the multiple positions he's played in college. The big key for Nkemdiche is off the field, though, where NFL scouts are already worried about his character and a string of incidents, including falling from a hotel window before the Ole Miss bowl game.

     

    Nkemdiche has grown from a defensive end to a true 3-technique defensive tackle at Ole Miss, and he has the athletic gifts to make you think of Ndamukong Suh rushing the passer.

6. Joey Bosa (26 Years Old)

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 26

    Over the last two seasons, Joey Bosa has emerged as a truly dominant presence on the edge of the Ohio State line. He's dangerous in space with a very good first step and the long arms to reach the quarterback, but he has the power to counter athletic offensive tackles. Bosa's production and skills will make him a top-tier NFL defensive end five seasons from now.

     

    Bosa has three skills that make him a dynamic run defender: length, power and toughness. He doesn't give up when engaged by blockers and uses his long arms and strong base to hold his edge and/or attack the ball.

     

    Bosa has all the tools and productive potential to be an elite, All-Pro-caliber NFL player. With his athleticism and work ethic, he's unlikely to become a bust in the pros.

     

    Bosa has dominated the college ranks and looks like a lock to be a top-five pick in the 2016 draft. Fast-forwarding to his fourth NFL season, expect the former Ohio State defender to be an elite strong-side defensive end.

5. Aaron Donald (29 Years Old)

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    Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 29

    Aaron Donald is the best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL right now, and in five years, he still will be. We're talking All-Pro talent with amazing quickness, snap anticipation and football IQ to find and attack the ball in the backfield.

     

    Looking at his 2014 and 2015 film, the run game is one area where Donald struggles. He's not the biggest tackle (6'0", 284 lbs) and gets pushed around off the snap—or teams use his quickness against him on trap plays. Moving ahead five years, expect Donald to figure out how to better play the run and hold his ground on the inside.

     

    How good can Donald be in 2020? His quickness is already off-the-charts good, but he can still improve his hand use and his play recognition (especially against the run). While he's already looking like a top defensive tackle, there's still room for improvement.

     

    Donald's first two years in the NFL have been fantastic, and there is no reason to think that he won't get even better in the next five years. 

4. Myles Garrett (25 Years Old)

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 25

    You will be hard-pressed to find a better first step in college football than the one Myles Garrett displays coming off the right side of the Texas A&M defense. He's quick, long, tenacious and has the agility to dip, bend and drive past SEC left tackles.

     

    The run game is a mystery for Garrett right now, as he relies on his upfield burst to get into the backfield, and teams have learned to simply run at him for gains. But that will change in the next five seasons as he learns discipline and how to use that speed to his advantage by squeezing the line of scrimmage and containing the edge.

     

    Garrett may already be the best NFL prospect in college regardless of position. He's a special talent off the edge and has the quickness and agility to become a great pro.

     

    If this article was about 2022, Garrett may be ranked even higher. But the true sophomore has at least one more year in college and would just be getting into his NFL career when 2020 gets here.

3. Dante Fowler Jr. (26 Years Old)

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 26

    The No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft, Dante Fowler Jr. has all the tools to become an elite pass-rusher. His first-step quickness is unreal, and he matches it with power that allows for a sweet counter that few offensive tackles can handle one-on-one. Projecting ahead to 2020, Fowler will be a double-digit sack threat every year.

     

    Fowler has great size (6'3", 261 lbs) and even played some interior defensive line at Florida. All that adds up to a stout run defender who knows how to use his length, power and quickness to get off blocks and attack the ball-carrier.

     

    The ACL injury that kept Fowler from playing as a rookie isn't considered career-threatening, which means he'll start 2016 back at normal. That's great news for Jacksonville and bad news for the rest of the AFC South.

     

    Forget about Fowler? We didn't. The stud pass-rusher missed the 2015 season with a knee injury, but he’s one of the most explosive defensive end prospects in the game.

2. Vic Beasley (28 Years Old)

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 28

    One of the smartest pass-rushers I've scouted coming out of college, Vic Beasley just gets it. He's agile and flexible—deploying shoulder dips and hip shakes to make tackles miss him—but has the football IQ to know when and where to use each of his pass-rushing moves. And with amazing length and quickness, Beasley has the tools to become an elite pass-rusher.

     

    The biggest question on Beasley coming out of Clemson was his small frame (6'2", 236 lbs). That's not the body of an edge-holding defender, but where he's making his mark—and will continue to in the next five years—is as a run defender in space. Beasley's length and instincts will allow him to become a viable threat taking away the outside run.

     

    There is no limit to how good Beasley can become. He looks like a young Von Miller in the Falcons defensive system and could definitely reach that mark by 2020.

     

    Beasley has been an impressive rookie, but remember this is a projection of where he'll be five years from now. By 2020, Beasley will have the strength to match his game-changing quickness.

1. J.J. Watt (31 Years Old)

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    Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 31

    J.J. Watt is doing things thought impossible for a 3-4 defensive end as a pass-rusher. He's quick, strong, instinctive and smart—combining those traits to get quarterback sacks, hits, hurries, pressures and the disruptive plays that won't show up on a stat sheet.

     

    The same athletic traits that show up for Watt as a pass-rusher make him a great run defender. He's excellent at shedding blocks and making plays in the backfield but is equally likely to play disciplined, assignment football and hold his edge to keep blockers from getting to the second level.

     

    What more can Watt do? His numbers may continue to go up, but from an athletic standpoint, we've seen the best he has to offer, which keeps his upside score down.

     

    It's no surprise Watt is still the top-ranked defensive lineman for 2020. At 31 years old five seasons from now, he'll be putting the final touches on a Hall of Fame career.

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