2016 NFL Draft: In Deepest DT Class in Years, 5 Stand Above the Rest

Luke Easterling@@LukeEasterlingCorrespondent IMarch 9, 2016

Louisville's Sheldon Rankins (98) reacts after sacking the Georgia quarterback during the first half of the Belk Bowl NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Chuck Burton/Associated Press

The 2016 NFL draft sports a defensive tackle class that runs deeper than Frank Underwood's thirst for power or Kanye's love for himself.

It's no secret this is the year to find top talent along the interior of the defensive line, from versatile players who can plug into any scheme, to massive, space-eating nose tackles and everything in between.

But what separates the top prospects at the position?

Mississippi's Robert Nkemdiche is a rare talent, but seems to be working on an ever-expanding collection of red flags. Baylor's Andrew Billings has power to burn, but is a bull in a china shop who too often struggles to find the ball. Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson helped anchor a national champion defense at Alabama, but he may not even be the Tide's best prospect at the position.

Who truly headlines this year's rare group of trench warriors on defense?

Sheldon Rankins, Louisville

This year's draft may not have an Aaron Donald, but Rankins is about as close as you can get. At 6'1", 299 pounds, some might think of Rankins as undersized for the position, but he uses his frame to his advantage, consistently beating his opponents with pad level and leverage.

When you throw on his college tape, it doesn't take long for Rankins' explosive, disruptive ability to flash across the screen. He was a card-carrying member of opposing backfields, beating interior blockers with speed, quickness and the ability to find the ball in a hurry and react.

After an extremely productive run with the Cardinals—26.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks over the past two seasons—Rankins took his dominance to the Senior Bowl. He made some of the best guards in the country look silly in Mobile, drawing comparisons to Donald's performance at the event two years prior.

Rankins hasn't stopped putting on a show now that the pads are off for a little while, either. He showed off his quicks and athleticism at the combine last month, as Gerry Hamilton of ESPN.com captured here:

Gerry Hamilton @HamiltonESPN

#Louisville DT Sheldon Rankins ... at #NFLCombine. Terrific COD, foot quickness & flexibility at 300-pounds. https://t.co/TRRVuwDUqI

Once considered a fringe first-rounder at best, Rankins has established himself as arguably the best player at the deepest position in this year's draft, and it's worthy of top-10 consideration.

Jarran Reed, Alabama

Teammate A'Shawn Robinson may have gotten more attention through much of the predraft process, but don't be surprised if Reed is the one who comes off the board sooner and ends up having the better NFL career.

A brief glance at the stat sheet might not get anyone too excited—two sacks, 11 tackles for loss over two seasons—but the box score betrays Reed's true impact. Reed's combination of pure power and technique was the true driving force behind one of the nation's most dominant run defenses, helping lead the Crimson Tide to yet another national title.

Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus had high praise for Reed, who was named second-team All-SEC after finishing fourth among Tide defenders with 57 tackles in 2015:

Steve Palazzolo @PFF_Steve

Of all of run stopping interior DLinemen, Jarran Reed may be the best. Best combo of playmaker/disruptor. Handles doubles better than most

ESPN's Todd McShay (via John Keim of ESPN.com) said on a recent conference call that while Reed isn't a flashy pass-rusher, he's best in class when it comes to shutting down the running game:

Jarran Reed is probably the best pure run-stopper in terms of plugging gaps and taking up space. He’s not a great pass-rusher, but he can chase and run and get off blocks and make plays. So he’s not just a guy sitting there and eating up space. He can do that, but he gets off blocks and makes plays.

At 6'3", 307 pounds, Reed has the frame and skill set to line up in a few different spots and have an immediate, significant impact at the next level, regardless of scheme. It's not often two-down run-stuffers are regarded as clear-cut first-round talents, but that's certainly what Reed is at this point.

Jonathan Bullard, Florida

Considered by some to be a defensive end, Bullard played both inside and on the edge for the Gators, and his best spot at the next level could be as a 3-technique. No matter what scheme he ends up in, Bullard is a versatile defender with a mean streak who can blow up plays in the backfield and get after the quarterback.

Bullard's ability to read the snap count and explode with a ridiculous first step made him a huge problem or interior blockers, as Jonah Tuls of USA Today points out here:

Jonah Tuls @JonahTulsNFL

Holy crap Jon Bullard https://t.co/LcFUBnnxIv

At 6'3", 285 pounds, Bullard's size puts him right on the edge between an end and a tackle, and his skill set should allow him to be a consistent playmaker in the NFL regardless of where he lines up. That said, he could be particularly dominant as a 4-3 tackle, using his combination of explosiveness and power to both collapse the pocket and blow up running plays before they get started.

Bullard was extremely disruptive and productive over the past two seasons, racking up 26 tackles for loss and nine sacks. He seems to be on the first-round bubble for many, but Bullard has the talent and demeanor to warrant a top-20 pick.

Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech

If any NFL fans were unaware of Butler during the 2015 college football season, his showing during Senior Bowl practices certainly remedied that. After weighing in at 6'4", 325 pounds, Butler flashed incredible agility and quickness for his size, along with the power one might expect from a player with such a massive frame.

Butler capped off an impressive week in Mobile with this sack during the Senior Bowl, bull rushing and tossing his blocker aside before stripping the ball away from the quarterback, shared here by The Hog Sty's Robbie Duncan:

Robbie Duncan @RobbieDuncanOL

This sack by Vernon Butler in the Senior Bowl game. Look at the power. My God.... 😮👀👀 https://t.co/C30jZR0QUw

Butler's rare combination of quick feet, power and explosiveness were on full display here, courtesy of film-cruncher extraordinaire Ben Fennell:

Ben Fennell @BenFennell_NFL

Just not the movement you'd expect when you see 6'3 320... Moves so well https://t.co/rbbVTWalx7

As more and more NFL teams move to 3-4 base schemes and hybrid fronts on defense, prospects like Butler will be in even higher demand. He's big enough to be a true nose tackle, but athletic enough to play multiple spots in various alignments.

There's something for everyone in this year's crop of defensive tackles, but Butler's size and skill set bring something extremely unique to the table that no other prospect at the position can claim. If he manages to slip out of the first round, he could easily end up being one of this year's biggest draft steals.

Kenny Clark, UCLA

Flashy edge-rushers steal most of the headlines, but nothing frustrates a quarterback quite like immediate interior pressure. Few defensive tackles in this year's impressive class collapse the pocket as effectively and consistently as Clark.

One of this year's top quarterback prospects—Cal's Jared Goff—found that out the hard way last season, as did Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong, complied here by Rolo of Draft Breakdown:

Rolo @RoloEdits

Kenny Clark Sack https://t.co/uU44onft3w

Rolo @RoloEdits

Kenny Clark DRIVING his guy back https://t.co/gU56Pwp0up

Clark is powerful at the point of attack, whether he's bull rushing guards into the backfield or showing textbook stack-and-shed ability against the run. His 75 tackles in 2015 were second among Bruins defenders, as were his 11 tackles for loss and six sacks.

Clark played mostly nose tackle and 1-technique for the Bruins, but he's versatile enough to play the 5-technique spot for a 3-4 team in the NFL. He also has the mean streak NFL teams love to see from trench players, as Kyle Crabbs of NDT Scouting points out here:

Kyle Crabbs @NDTScouting

Here lies Alex Lewis, who once tried his luck against Kenny Clark. https://t.co/W2byXOZmXW

There are bigger names in this class, but Clark is as well-rounded as any defensive tackle in the draft. It's possible he could fall through the cracks and drop to the second round, but he's a legitimate first-round talent who will make an NFL team extremely happy this fall and beyond.

Luke Easterling is a Featured Columnist who covers the NFL draft for Bleacher Report. He also covers the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Scout.com. Follow him on Twitter @LukeEasterling.


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