The talent distribution for draft classes vary from year to year. We see this most obviously with quarterback prospects, since they are the talk of every draft cycle, but other positions see the same type of fluctuation.
In recent years, we've seen the wideout groups hold down classes, both at the top and throughout Day 2 and Day 3 with depth. This year, though, after Laquon Treadwell of Mississippi, the receiver unit is a bit suspect, as far as first-round locks go.
No, pass-catchers aren't the anchor that this draft pool can count on above anything else. Instead, it's the interior defensive line, 3-4 defensive ends and defensive tackles. When a premier position has this quantity of talent in one draft, it should be noted.
At the top of the draft class, there are five defensive tackles. According to Play the Draft, they all have the "stock" to be considered future first-round picks. Per the site, which accumulates a consensus draft stock in the form of a market-like game, A'Shawn Robinson of Alabama is likely to be the first off the board, with his rank hovering between worthy of the 11th and 12th pick of the draft.
Robinson is a fascinating test case on how much athleticism and size matter in the trenches. Quickness and strength are the most important factors in a phone booth, and Robinson has displayed both traits, but not consistently.
The 6'4", 320-pound lineman was able to post the best game of any defensive tackle prospect in the 2016 draft class against LSU, but there were entire games in which he looked invisible.
Only a 20-year-old, Robinson has plenty of room to grow. His peak is of a top-five player in any class. Don't be surprised if after the combine and interviews, he begins to make a push as a top-10 prospect in this bottom-heavy draft pool. Think of him as a Michael Brockers frame mixed with a higher upside.
The second tackle in Play the Draft's rankings is Andrew Billings, a 19-year-old from Baylor. Every analyst is going to bring up Billings' state championship-level power lifting background from his high school days in Waco, Texas. On the football field, it shows up, but so do his short arms.
Billings looked more explosive as a sophomore than as a junior in 2015, which is important for an undersized defensive tackle. You can be small, but you have to have great burst off the line of scrimmage.
Aaron Donald reaffirmed that to us two draft classes ago. Still, Billings has big shoes to fill if he plans to match Donald's 4.68 40-yard dash time, and his film doesn't connote to success in that area.
Billings is a fine defensive tackle prospect, but he wins with strength, without length. All signs point to him being a two-gap nose tackle at the next level with his short, stout frame. It's possible that he improves his explosion off the line of scrimmage and becomes a 1-technique nose tackle in a 4-3 defense, considering his age.
Jarran Reed, Robinson's teammate, is another major line prospect in this class. After watching him firsthand at the Senior Bowl, Reed's positives and flaws were fairly apparent.
He's not a player who can rush the passer with consistency, unless he's slowly breaking the pocket with hand strength, but he's a great two-gap prospect. Coming in with 32" arms, it's hard to consider him a 5-technique 3-4 defensive end, but he should be high on lists for teams looking for a 3-4 nose tackle.
Reed may not have the upside of Billings, who has youth and past film on his side, but the former member of the Crimson Tide is someone you can hang your hat on. He's going to be a late first-round pick who plays for a franchise for the better part of a decade.
The most controversial player in the entire position group is going to be Robert Nkemdiche. The former Ole Miss Rebel has the upside of Ndamukong Suh, but unlike Suh, he wasn't able to put together a season like the Nebraska product's 2009 year, when he finished fourth for the Heisman Trophy and took over the Big 12 Championship Game, nearly ending the University of Texas' title hopes single-handedly.
Nkemdiche has been a known talent since his days as a super recruit in Georgia. When the big lights are on, Nkemdiche shows up to play, but his time in college always seemed more like a necessity, due to the NFL demanding players to be three years removed from high school graduation before they enter the league, than a grind for him to test his skills on a week-to-week basis.
That narrative can relate to Arik Armstead, the former Oregon Duck who was drafted 17th overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 2015. Armstead was a 5-technique prospect, while Nkemdiche is a 3-technique prospect, though. Another way they are different, is the fact that Armstead was never suspended for a bowl game due to falling out of a third-story hotel window and a subsequent drug arrest.
Where do you take a top-five talent who is inconsistent on the field, may have questions off the field but is in a weak class in which his position group is the strong point? There are so many factors swirling around Nkemdiche that it's hard to pin down exactly when he'll go, be it first overall or on Day 2.
The last superstar defensive tackle is Sheldon Rankins of Louisville. For my money, Rankins is the most consistent defensive tackle in this class, and only Nkemdiche and Robinson have higher upsides than him long term. He's a Kawann Short clone whose projection as the 32nd pick in the class, which technically would be a second-round pick in 2016, is too low.
At the Senior Bowl, Rankins blew the doors off of Ryan Glasgow and co. in one-on-one drills. Glasgow, the Michigan center playing guard, was the East-West Shrine Game's premier player, earning a bid to the "big show" in Mobile, Alabama. Rankins systematically beat those touted interior offensive linemen with athleticism.
The first few reps, he transitioned speed to power with leverage and good burst off the line of scrimmage, entering the backfield with ease. Then, after feeling Rankins out, the linemen would start to cheat to gain an advantage on Rankins' step to contact, which was stronger and quicker than theirs, but the Cardinal tackle would then embarrass them on counter spin moves.
On broadcasts, Rankins' game was that simple, too. If you have athleticism, technique and counter moves, chances are, you're going to be an impact defensive lineman at the next level. After the combine, the Louisville 3-technique prospect may be considered a lock to go in the first half of the first round.
The combine will be a big week for a couple of potential risers. Vernon Butler of Louisiana Tech needs to prove that he can compete on a relative scale of athleticism after playing in the mid-major Conference USA for his college career, while Kenny Clark of UCLA, a Power Five program, needs to prove that his raw talent is quantifiable to the point where the film he posted for the Bruins is worthy of a lofty price going into his NFL transition.
Both of those linemen have the chance to go in the first round to a one-gap defense, Butler as an under-tackle and Clark as a nose tackle.
Other potential top-100 picks include the likes of Chris Jones, Adolphus Washington and Sheldon Day. Jones, by way of Mississippi State, was a super recruit who made a splash his freshman and junior seasons, with a sophomore slump in the middle. An underclassman, if he continues to develop, a Muhammad Wilkerson future isn't out of reach.
Washington, an Ohio State prospect, and Day, from Notre Dame, are interesting because they both have potential to play defensive end at the next level. Washington played end until this past season, when he was kicked inside, and Day transitioned late to defensive end on the third day of the Senior Bowl practices. Either way, both project as Day 2 selections, at either position.
Dark-horse prospects like nose tackle D.J. Reader of Clemson, who missed part of the year due to the death of his father, and Vernon Hargreaves of South Carolina State, who played at the FCS level, should also stick in the back of the minds of even casual draftniks.
That's not even including Joey Bosa of Ohio State, DeForest Buckner of Oregon, Kevin Dodd of Clemson and Jonathan Bullard of Florida, all popular first-round picks in mock drafts who will play base defensive end at the next level, likely in 4-3 schemes, but have the potential to kick inside to defensive tackle in pressure-package situations.
There isn't an Ndamukong Suh versus Gerald McCoy debate like in 2010, when both defensive tackles went in the top three after Sam Bradford, who was viewed at the time as a franchise quarterback. Since that class, though, which also featured another top-10 tackle in Tyson Alualu, whose career was stunted by injury, this is the best talent pool top to bottom.
There are plenty of candidates to go in the first round, and in a draft class thin on elite talent, the big uglies are prime options to go early off the board. At the Senior Bowl, the strongest individual position was defensive tackle.
When you factor in the double-digit underclassmen at the position, which will join the graduating players in the class, there's no wonder why this group is being called a once-a-decade batch.
The defensive line is the most important level of the defensive line. The league-wide contracts for the position alone will tell you that. They are also the most heavily rotated unit in the sport.
You can never have enough interior defensive linemen, in any shape or size, and this April is shaping up to be the wild west, as every team will be in the race to draft the bountiful talent at the position.
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