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2015 DRAFT PREVIEW: Defensive line


(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2015 NFL Draft, set for April 30-May 2.)

Who's the best quarterback. Which team will be getting the best quarterback? After one of the quarterbacks is picked first overall, will the next team up pick the other quarterback?

But sometimes the best quarterback isn't the best prospect. What happens then? On April 30, Leonard Williams is going to find out, because there is some opinion among the scouts that this draft's best player in fact this USC defensive lineman.


View some of the top 2015 NFL draft prospects at the defensive line position.

He is 6-foot-5, 302 pounds, and last season for the Trojans, Williams played defensive end, defensive tackle, and even some nose tackle. And with more and more NFL teams going with multiple defensive looks within the same game, a lineman with Williams' versatility becomes even more valuable. Williams is impressive physically in that he passes the eye-test, and he was impressive physically on the field during games. Quick, strong, and powerful are words that can describe Williams based on the competition he faced on the college level. And remember that when you're watching those clips of Williams from last season, he was doing all of it as a 20-year-old. Think Richard Seymour. Or Kevin Williams.

As a junior in 2014, Ray was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year after leading the conference in sacks with 14.5 and tackles for loss with 22.5. Those 14.5 sacks in 2014 are a school single-season record and ranked third nationally. In 2013, Ray appeared in all 14 games (no starts) and finished with nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. An explosive athlete, Ray rushes the passer with passion and purpose, and one of his main weapons are fast hands, which is a trait most college players have to develop in the NFL. He combines his powerful hands with good short-area quickness and what coaches refer to as the "proper playing demeanor" to be a pass rusher who will have to be accounted for on every play. Ray's issue is he's only 6-foot-3, and his arms are short. The fear there is that a tackle like Dallas' Tyron Smith could simply engulf Ray and neutralize him completely. But he pursues the ball relentlessly, he's physical, and he always delivers a blow when he arrives at the ball. That's what playing defense in the NFL has come to be about.

Armstead started 13 of 15 games in 2014, with the two he missed the result of an ankle injury, and he recording 46 tackles, 16 quarterback pressures, 2.5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss. As a freshman at Oregon in 2012, Armstead – 6-7, 292 – joined the basketball team after football season but ended up getting a redshirt. He comes from a family of athletes, and Armstead showed marked improvement from 2013 to 2014. His current size speaks for itself, but his frame is indicating he can get even bigger. Armstead is quick and explosive for a man his size, but sometimes in college he seemed to be more interested in kicking the opposing offensive lineman's butt instead of finding the guy with the ball and getting him on the ground. Armstead is still young – he won't be 22 until mid-November – and that mitigates how raw he still is as a player. Patience.

Considered the top nose tackle prospect in this draft, Shelton (6-2, 339) had 16 tackles for loss and led the nation with five fumble recoveries in 2014. His career at Washington spanned 53 games, and he started 40 at nose tackle. He was Academic All-Pac-12 as a junior, and as a senior he became the first Huskies player to earn first-team Academic All-America honors since 1991. As all nose tackles must be, Shelton is a space-eater who becomes difficult to move because of a good understanding of leverage. Good quick hands allow Shelton to shed blockers and get to the running back. What also is said about Shelton is his effort is inconsistent, and if he's blocked he will quit on a play. When Shelton played against a power offense like Stanford's, he was effective and productive, but not so much against the opponents utilizing spread offenses. Shelton may end up being a two-down player in the NFL.

In the summer of 2012, Brown was playing in the Under Armour All-American Game and graduating from high school, and by the end of the 2014 season he was a finalist for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy (most outstanding defensive player) and for the Outland Trophy (top interior lineman). During his three seasons, the final two as a full-time starter, Brown was productive to the tune of 29 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, six passes defensed, and two forced fumbles. He will be a 21-year-old rookie with a wife, (Faith) and two children (Rayna and Mayah). Good against the run, Brown (6-2, 319) is going to have to become a more polished pass-rusher to be a three-down lineman in the NFL. Some scouts believe Brown can play multiple spots along the line in either a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment.

Number drafted: DEs: 25; DT/NT: 14
Picks by round: DEs: 3 in the first; 4 in the second; 4 in the third; 3 in the fourth; 3 in the fifth; 3 in the sixth; 5 in the seventh; DTs: 1 in the first; 2 in the second; 3 in the third; 2 in the fourth; 3 in the fifth; 0 in the sixth; 3 in the seventh
Highest pick: DEs: Jadeveon Clowney, Round 1, first overall by the Houston Texans; DT/NT: Aaron Donald, Round 1, 13th overall by the St. Louis Rams
Biggest impact: It was Donald, and it wasn't even close. Clowney had his rookie season ruined by injury, but Donald was a full-time starter for the Rams, and his nine sacks had him tied-for-20th in the NFL.

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