There’s no question about which position in the 2016 NFL draft has the most strength in numbers at the top end, and that is the defensive line group. A top ten in a lot of ways doesn’t do justice to the depth and quality available, with a heck of a lot of talent in the next ten too. The full list of all the defensive line prospects will be out shortly to give those guys their due credit, but for now here is a look at the top ten, of which almost all of them are graded as first round talents. Everyone is almost certain to have a great deal of variety on how to order this group, with so many warranting very close grades. Sr = Senior, Jr = Junior, So = Sophomore. An “r” prefix indicates a redshirt year (sat out for a year without playing, usually their first year of college).
1. DeForest Buckner, Oregon, Sr. 6ft 7, 290 lbs.
1st Round It was a slight surprise that Buckner returned for his senior season, as he both far outplayed his teammate Arik Armstead (who went 15th overall last time to the 49ers) and is the far superior prospect. It was clear when watching Oregon in 2015 with both of the big lineman in the same team that Buckner offered more. It proved worthwhile in the end to wait though. After a slow start to his final year, including a poor showing in week 2 versus Michigan State in a pivotal game, his play by the end of the season was frighteningly good, especially against California and Oregon State. Buckner is only scratching the surface of what he can eventually be. His role within the Oregon defensive scheme doesn’t put him in a position to make the flashy plays on film often, but he fully embraces the task given to him by his coaches to eat up blocks, close the pocket, limit the run game and open lanes and opportunities for his teammates to make plays. When he is let loose to rush the passer, his combination of length and power is tough to stop. He’s more than a big body, with under-rated explosion off the snap. He’s arguably put to best use continuing as a 3-4 DE, but could play the edge in a 4-3 scheme too, or even shift primarily inside in 4-3’s. There’s plenty of fine-tuning required to his technique and his balance that can occasionally negate his other strengths, but Buckner flashes some excellent use of his hands and adds a nice swim move to his standard bull rush. He will unquestionably enter the NFL as a much more effective pass rusher than he would have a year ago. As well as continuing his outstanding tackling ability with 83 stops, his backfield stats greatly improved with 17 tackles for loss (TFLs) and 10.5 sacks, from his 13 TFLs and 4 sacks the previous season. The potential upside with Buckner is huge, and brings the right character and work ethic to encourage that he’ll be able to reach his ceiling. There’s a very strong chance he goes in the top 5 in the 2016 draft, and surely won’t get out of the top 10 worst-case.
2. Sheldon Rankins, Louisville, Sr. 6ft 2, 304 lbs.
1st Round Rankins has enjoyed quite a rise up draft boards already at this relatively early stage in the process, most significantly due to a dominating performance during Senior Bowl practices. There was nothing out of character there however, as he has been a real stand out for the past two years for the Cardinals as a force on the defensive line. The Senior Bowl week was confirmation of the skill set that Rankins has displayed, with his exceptional reactions, speed off the snap and driving power proving impossible to stop during one on one drills against top O-linemen. That translated to game situations as an effective interior rusher with 26.5 TFLs and 14 sacks over the past two seasons as both a tackle and 3-4 end. Rankins isn’t the tallest at a shade under 6ft 2, and lacks ideal length, but the way he moves at his size is rare. His speed isn’t limited to his reactions and feet; Rankins has fast hands that are also heavy and violent. If his initial get-off doesn’t win, he follows up with his upper body technique to disengage and make the play. He backs all this up with a high motor and boundless energy to his overall very physical style of play. That effort shows up in his play versus the run as well, showing good awareness and timing to make plays on the ball carrier, as well as being effective in pursuit too. There’s some games in which Rankins was kept troublingly quiet (such as the bowl game versus Texas A&M), but when he’s on form he is incredibly destructive. His 2015 performance against Florida State is one of the most impressive individual game films of any prospect this year. He opened up eyes at the Senior Bowl but has backed that up over his Louisville career. It would be a surprise now if he didn’t go in the top half of the first round.
3. Andrew Billings, Baylor, Jr. 6ft 1, 310 lbs.
1st Round It was a little unexpected that Billings added his name into the 2016 draft class. On top of the strength at his position this year, the Bears defensive star was keen to finish off his degree as a Senior. Eventually, most likely due to a realisation of how high he could get selected, he made the tough choice to head to the pros now. This is not hyperbole to declare Billings as possibly one of the strongest athletes to enter the NFL in some time. Watch out at the upcoming combine for his bench press score, as the former national champion weightlifter could be the first to break 50 reps. On the field, Billings is near impossible to ignore being drawn to with his all-action, all-go play. Rarely coming off the field, he must be a nightmare to have to deal with all game long without any let-up. Requiring to be double-teamed constantly, Billings is still able to regularly beat that attention and cause disruption in the backfield. There’s some real depth at defensive tackle in this 2016 class but in terms of playing as a true 3-4 nose tackle, Billings is the best and ideal fit in that particular role from this group. Despite all the attention he draws, despite doing the dirty work and opening up opportunities for teammates rather than himself, he still piled up 14 TFLs this season. That included being limited for part of the year by an ankle issue during a stretch in the middle of the season. Despite how disruptive he can be, Billings can be fairly blinkered when charging, not always seeming to have the best awareness of what is happening around his as the play is developing. There are a few too many missed opportunities where the play goes right by him with a chance to position himself to make the stop lost. He really ought to finish more plays as well, often failing to do so when in position. He is known mostly as a future run-stuffing nose tackle prospect, but his ability and potential to be an interior pass rusher is a little underestimated arguably. Billings is very close to developing a truly dominant all-round game.
4. Austin Johnson, Penn State, rJr. 6ft 4, 323 lbs.
1st Round I kept going back to the film over and over with Johnson, questioning whether it was the right call to place him above so many names in this strong DL class. Every time coming away with the same affirmative conclusion. He really could be one of the most under-rated players and an absolute steal a little bit down the road. The strength in depth not just in this group but in the 2016 draft as a whole means there’s a good chance Johnson is pushed down to a second round pick. Outside of a bit of polish to some rough edges in his game, there’s almost nothing lacking about him either physically or in his skill set. Johnson moves incredibly quickly for his big size to go with his length. His wide frame combined with that quickness is exactly what NFL teams look for at the position. Johnson excels in playing the run, totally an exceptional 78 tackles on the year from his interior spot. Yet despite that being his strength, he really stepped up as a rusher as well. In 2014, you could see the flashes of potential in that role with his speed, powerful hands and relentless effort, but it only resulted in 6 TFLs and 1 sack as he struggled to finish. It clicked this year though as his backfield production shot up to 15 TFLs and 6 sacks. He still can look a little wild and uncoordinated that leads to some inconsistency and balance issues, but with a little refinement and developing more of a plan when rushing, and the results could be devastating.
5. Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech, Sr. 6ft 4, 325 lbs.
1st Round After a couple years in a mostly backup role, Butler has been an impressive starter the past two seasons, albeit from the Conference USA with the Bulldogs. He’s showing already though in the post-season that he can play with the best however. Butler is another who, like Rankins, significantly helped himself during senior bowl week, proving impossible to contain during practice drills. He shares a lot of the traits with Austin Johnson mentioned previously, with the same movement ability at a near-identical size. Butler shows his athleticism with some impressive leaping ability to bat down passes and effectiveness in pursuit to the sidelines to make plays despite his size. Butler doesn’t shut down after his initial push on the pocket, always playing to the whistle and hustling to make additional tackles. His primary job though of stuffing the run and eating up space in the middle leads to his good tackle stats with 50 this season and 10 TFLs (13 in 2014). Less impressive among his stats however is just 5 career sacks over his four seasons. Three of those came this year, but overall isn’t great for a potential first rounder. He really needs to work on his pad level and leverage, consistently playing far too high out of his stance. His natural power and size has compensated at the college level, but needs to improve to continue to be effective in the pros. He has all the foundations and traits desired though, and in addition can fit into any defensive front and scheme.
6. Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss, Jr. 6ft 3, 296 lbs.
1st Round Every year there are polarising prospects; meet 2016’s version. Let’s tackle the many concerns and negatives first off. They are legitimate, and I’d be very worried about taking him. Even before the highest profile incident (the synthetic marijuana and falling out a window situation), there were already major concerns about his character and personality with much reported “baggage”, bad attitude and ego, very poor effort to work at his game, and ambitions away from football. One thing won’t hurt a prospects stock much, but multiple and varied concerns that suggest a pattern absolutely do. On the field isn’t necessarily a great deal better. Nkemdiche is about as gifted as anyone in this class. In terms of natural ability, he’d challenge for the best player in 2016. The problem is how rare that ability actually showed up on the field. When he wanted to be, Nkemdiche was unstoppable. His week 3 dominating performance against Alabama was a huge part in that key win. Trouble is, that was one of the few occasions he could seemingly be bothered to try that hard throughout an entire game. The effort on some snaps, and how quickly he’ll give up on a play gets downright infuriating. Someone will be unable to resist the potential though, and it’s hard to blame them if they think they can motivate him. The speed with which he can fly at nearly 300 lbs is just ridiculous, so much so that he made some incredible plays on offense this season as a running back and tight end early in the year, out-sprinting players two-thirds his size. The initial get-off from the snap followed by a powerful punch immediately puts his opposing lineman on the back foot. Some of the plays he makes against double and even triple teams that he faced are the kind that only a few have the ability to pull off. Just a shame it’s seen so infrequently. The 19 TFLs and 7 sacks are his 3-year career total. Good luck to whoever makes the gamble; it would be great if it does pay off and he fulfils his potential.
7. A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama, Jr. 6ft 3, 312 lbs.
1st Round Robinson has spent the past two seasons starting for the Crimson Tide as part of a truly dominant front seven. That group in 2015 in particularly were as good as any I’ve seen in a long time as a sum of all their parts. Two things stand out primarily that Robinson brings as a prospect – his exceptional core strength, and his very appealing versatility that saw him play almost every technique across the defensive line, from the nose out to end. That NFL-ready strength and diversity should help him develop a role early in his career. Outside of that though, Robinson hasn’t quite broken out and shown a great deal. The strength is great, but there’s no real disruptive explosion or speed about his game. His pass rushing ability is fairly non-existent, with his very basic push getting him in position to make a play in the backfield on the occasions he gets his hand placement correct, which isn’t often as he fails to get good leverage and lacks much punch in his hands. For too much of his 2015 season Robinson was too passive, quiet and ineffective. Expectations for Robinson should be kept fairly limited for someone who is unlikely going to be among the top players at his position during his career. He is very dependable versus the run though and can excel in that area for a long time over the next decade or so. His performance versus LSU and Leonard Fournette this year is compelling evidence for that. The Alabama junior had the best game of his career in playing a big part in holding the star running back to just 31 yards that day.
8. Jarran Reed, Alabama, Sr. 6ft 3, 311 lbs.
1st Round Another star on the Alabama front, Reed joined the Tide as a junior college transfer in 2014. It was a rough start, as before even taking the field for his new school, he had a DUI that summer that could have put his future with the team in doubt. In fairness he has not had any reported off field issues since then. After a solid if unspectacular first season, Reed really steps up with a big senior season where he was the model of consistency, discipline and reliability for the eventual National Champions in 2015. Reed’s game is pretty simple and transparent but oh so effective. His stout presence at the point of attack sets the tone for the rest of the line to attack, as he eats up space and occupies double teams. He will never be one to threaten in the backfield much; that isn’t his function, instead making himself an immovable force in the interior and versus the run. What really stands out is his powerful hands which really pack a punch, followed by a strong anchor to deter any push from opposing linemen. His technique and strength make him built for the pros, and the team that drafts him firstly knows exactly what they are going to get from him, and also know that he can step into a starting line-up immediately as a plug and play lineman from day one.
9. Chris Jones, Mississippi State, Jr. 6ft 5, 308 lbs.
2nd Round While from a football perspective it would have been preferable to see Jones stay for him senior season in college and improve his overall game and consistency, he’s none-the-less an addition to the 2016 pool of players that should not be ignored, despite his announcement and subsequent presence in the draft going largely under discussed. There’s no question that Jones comes with first round measurables in terms of size, length and power, and that he flashes first round ability as a disruptor with an explosive pass rush. Right now though, the consistency isn’t quite there. The motor can run a little hot and cold. The great plays he makes get you excited but then leave you asking where is that powerful rush more often? Jones saw plenty playing time in his freshman season but was part of a strong rotation of defensive tackles that the Bulldogs had at their disposal. As a result, his snaps and number of starts were limited in his first two years before finally becoming a full time starter in 2015, and will enter the pros as still fairly inexperienced having started just 16 of his 39 games played. His game is very raw, and the fact that teams can’t be certain what they will be getting with him adds an element of risk to selecting him before the second round. In terms of upside and potential, Jones has as much as all these first round graded prospects above him. Having said all that, his game looked much improved all round as he took on a more prominent role this past season, helped by the fact that he had cut down some of the weight on his long frame, leading to a step up in production with a still admittedly modest 44 tackles, 7.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks. During his time in college, his athleticism and speed for such a big guy was put to use at times as a 4-3 defensive end as well as playing inside. It’s unlikely to see him used that way in the NFL but speaks again to his physical abilities (he even used to play some basketball before committing to football). The lack of expected development and questionable effort at times needs to be answered but if he can put it all together, Jones has as much to offer as anyone in this class.
10. Kenny Clark, UCLA, Jr. 6ft 2, 310 lbs.
2nd Round It was a tough year for the Bruins’ defence, losing key stars on every level to injury early on in the season. That left Clark with a lot on his shoulders to step up, which wasn’t easy with his own partner at DT lost for the year. Despite that meaning more attention on him, Clark did indeed step up and was effective amidst all the focus on him. Clark is fairly average in terms of size, athleticism and versatility which keeps him from being given a first round grade. While very impressive technically against the run, he has some limitations as an inside pass rusher. That said, he did a better job than some gave him credit for, with a handful of nice multi-TFL performances, including three sacks against Washington State. That isn’t easy to do with the Cougars being notorious for their ability to get the ball away quickly in their pass heavy scheme. In addition, he had a couple pass breakups in that game as well, showing his smart play to get his hands up, knowing that his chances of getting to the QB were going to be limited for the most part. His football IQ extends to his overall field and situation awareness that is the foundation of what makes him such a strong run defender. He times his disengagements off of blocks to perfection so often in order to make plays on the ball carrier. His 75 tackles this season speak to that ability. There may be a fairly limited ceiling with Clark, but he is strong, technically sound, smart and dependable, all of which will make him a solid day two pick, and if someone likes him enough could perhaps even see him sneak in to the bottom of round one.