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2019 NFL Draft Features Historic Defensive Line Class

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystApril 22, 2019

Clemson defenders Clelin Ferrell (99) and Dexter Lawrence (90) look to the bench for the play during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Furman Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 48-7. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
Richard Shiro/Associated Press

The NFL has never seen anything quite like the 2019 defensive line class.

The "Year of the Defensive Lineman" isn't just a cute designation to drum up interest for the draft in Nashville, Tennessee. This incoming group is on the verge of setting an NFL record as 11 defensive linemen should be selected in the first round. 

It's not a sure thing, but this year's crop runs 13-deep in potential first-round front-line defenders. 

The current record stands at ten defensive linemen, which has happened twice, in 2003 and '11. Those two classes featured names like J.J. Watt, Cameron Jordan, Cameron Heyward, Kevin Williams and Ty Warren. 

An emphasis is placed on the top of this incoming group and rightly so. 

Ohio State's Nick Bosa is widely regarded as the best player in this year's draft class. Bosa received the highest single-season grade of any edge defender during the Pro Football Focus era. The Arizona Cardinals' new head coach Kliff Kingsbury and his affinity for a certain Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback might be the only reason why Bosa is not selected No. 1 overall. 

After Bosa, Alabama's Quinnen Williams is the best defensive tackle prospect since Ndamukong Suh. 

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"Quinnen Williams is the new-school next generation of pass-rush D-linemen," pass-rush guru and nine-year NFL veteran Chuck Smith said, per ESPN.com's Hallie Grossman. "He's big enough to do everything that every tackle has done in history. But the difference is, he's highly skilled.

"He is the new breed of hybrid that can do it all."

A third top-five option exists in Kentucky's Josh Allen, but his ranking depends on how teams perceive his positional fit. Allen led the Power Five Conferences last season with 17 sacks. However, he played outside linebacker in the Wildcats' base 3-4 front. His inclusion here relies on how the team that drafts him intends to utilize his skill set. For now, he's considered a linebacker, but he could get drafted as an edge-rusher and extend the record-setting number. 

Ed Oliver is yet another top-10 talent with ridiculous agility and movement skills for a defensive tackle. At 6'2" and sub-300 pounds, Oliver is undersized for the position. But his linebacker-like speed and athleticism make him a future matchup nightmare. 

These big names help build the class' reputation. The depth is what makes it truly special. 

Mississippi State's Montez Sweat, Florida State's Brian Burns and Clemson's Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell are all considered legitimate first-round options. Their performances and skill sets certainly demand as much. 

Sweat, in particular, could sneak into the top 10 or slide out of the opening frame altogether. The extreme disparity is based on health concerns. Sweat managed 22.5 sacks and 30 tackles for loss the last two seasons in the SEC before blowing away talent evaluators with a near-incomprehensible 4.41-second 40-yard dash for a 6'6", 260-pound defensive lineman. The production and physical profile portend an elite draft selection. 

Mississippi State defensive end Montez Sweat runs the 40-yard dash at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine.
Mississippi State defensive end Montez Sweat runs the 40-yard dash at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Unfortunately, doctors found a heart condition at the combine, and organizations are alarmed. According to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, the talented edge-defender is off some draft boards, while other teams take precautions. 

Last year, Maurice Hurst Jr., who earned top-20 status with his on-field play, plummeted to the fifth round due to a heart condition. Doctors didn't allow Hurst to participate in the NFL Scouting Combine, though, unlike Sweat. As long as a team is comfortable with Sweat's status, there's no reason for him to slide out of the first round. 

Assuming Allen is out of consideration due to a technicality and concerns over Sweat aren't too severe, seven defensive linemen appear to be first-round locks. 

The next tier could be a little tricky with multiple names worthy of consideration. 

Michigan's Rashan Gary looks like an elite prospect. He's already been an elite recruit. Yet, his on-field production never matched his potential. According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, the rumors of Gary's status falling in league circles should be believed. 

Gary isn't afraid to address the criticism, though, after managing only 9.5 sacks and 23 tackles for loss in three seasons. 

Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary.
Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

"Causing havoc [isn't on the stat sheet]," the 21-year-old defensive lineman said during an interview with NFL.com. "In college, teams were scared to run my way, so if I eliminated a team from running to the right side, you know it's coming to the left. So it's just my presence and the tenacity I bring every play."

Gary's potential will almost certainly be too tempting for him to fall any further than the mid- or late-first round. 

Notre Dame's Jerry Tillery is arguably the class' most underrated defensive line prospect, because he brings a unique skill set as a 6'6", 295-pound interior defender with elite pass-rushing skills. Earlier, Smith called Quinnen Williams a "new breed of hybrid." Tillery received an identical pass-rush grade from Pro Football Focus last season. 

Tillery's sack and tackle for loss numbers might not be as impressive as Quinnen Williams', but constant disruption and the ability to collapse the pocket don't show up on the stat sheet. Plus, Tillery presents 1- and 3-technique versatility. He is an elite defensive tackle available at a discount, yet not even the only opportunity for great value. 

Mississippi State's Jeffery Simmons is this year's wild card. Based purely on performance and physical tools, Simmons is a top-10 prospect. He's extremely strong at the point of attack and consistently plays at heels' depth. His ability to stack and shed is as good as anyone in the class. 

However, teams must reconcile two major factors when considering Simmons. 

First, authorities charged the then-elite collegiate recruit with simple assault in March 2016 for striking a woman multiple times. He was found guilty of malicious mischief and pled no-contest to the assault charge. He paid fines and the woman's medical bills.

Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons takes on a block against the BYU Cougars.
Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons takes on a block against the BYU Cougars.Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Second, he suffered a torn ACL in February while preparing for the draft. His playing status remains in question. A 10-month recovery places him on the field during the final quarter of the regular season, but his rehabilitation could take longer. 

Every team in the latter half of the first round will weigh the pros and cons of drafting an elite on-field talent that normally wouldn't be available. How those organizations feel about Simmons' personal and medical histories will determine if he's still a first-round selection. 

Clemson's Dexter Lawrence may be the most polarizing defensive line prospect. Whereas Simmons has two major questions marks, no one questions his skill set. Lawrence's standing is a little different. The 6'4", 342-pound interior defender has the natural tools to be a disruptive force, but that level of play doesn't consistently show up on film. Sometimes Lawrence plays too high and doesn't provide high effort. Massive defensive tackles aren't in vogue anymore, which could force Lawrence into the second round despite his immense physical gifts. 

Twelve names are already at the forefront. Another surprise option could sneak into those initial 32 picks.

Michigan's Chase Winovich looked like a try-hard overachiever during his Michigan career until teams found out how athletic the defensive end really is. The two-time first-team All-Big Ten performer, who registered 34.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks over the last two seasons, finished top three among edge defenders at the combine with a 4.11-second short shuttle and 6.94-second three-cone drill.

Still, there's even more depth beyond the aforementioned names. 

Boston College's Zach Allen, Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson, Ohio State's Dre'Mont Jones, TCU's L.J. Collier, Miami's Joe Jackson, Western Illinois' Khalen Saunders, Miami's Gerald Willis III, Texas' Charles Omenihu, Arizona State's Renell Wren, UCF's Trysten Hill, Charleston's John Cominsky, Old Dominion's Oshane Ximines, Florida's Jachai Polite and TCU's Ben Banogu are all potential top-100 selections. 

No team should leave this year's draft without bolstering its defensive front, because the quality found throughout the entire classstarting with a potential record-setting first-round cropis unprecedented. 

          

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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