(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)
The following represents a partial list of some of the top talent available along the defensive line in the upcoming draft:
Here are some of the top defensive line prospects in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft according to NFL.com.
Buckner, 6-foot-7, 291 pounds, is a consensus pick as the top defensive line prospect available in this draft, and he could be a top-five overall pick as a result. While Buckner played for four seasons at Oregon, he was a full-time starter in just 2014-15, and in those 28 games he had 164 tackles, including 30 for loss, plus 14.5 sacks, and nine passes batted at the line of scrimmage. Buckner doesn't take plays off, he's productive against both the run and the pass, he looks the part in his uniform, and he's more than a one-trick pony as a pass-rusher. The number of tackles Buckner had in his last two college seasons – 164 – is impressively unusual for the position he played, and he really blossomed as a senior. He has the potential to become a quality 3-4 defensive end with better-than-most pass-rush ability. He has been compared to Calais Campbell, and some scouts even see Bucker as being the better athlete at this stage of their respective careers.
Robinson, 6-4, 307, spent his first two seasons at Alabama learning the college game and Nick Saban's system, and then in 2015 he was a factor for a team that won the national championship. In 2015, Robinson had 46 tackles, including 7.5 for loss, and 3.5 sacks. A lot of college defensive linemen either are overpowering or too athletic for those assigned to block them, but Robinson was able to be one or the other depending upon the situation and the opponent. The difference between an average NFL career and a decorated one for Robinson will come from his ability to learn the nuances of defensive line play, because his skill level won't be as special among professionals as it was in the Southeastern Conference. Can he adapt? How quickly does he adapt? Robinson will have to be more than a two-gap interior defensive lineman to thrive in the NFL.
Nkemdiche, 6-3, 294, is another guy who looks the part in a uniform but has statistics that aren't nearly as pretty. He started 34 of 35 games over three seasons at Mississippi, but seven sacks and 19 tackles for loss aren't big numbers. There are times when Nkemdiche will dominate, but it was a sometimes thing. He gets pressure on the passer at times, but Nkemdiche doesn't have a counter move if his initial one is handled by the offensive lineman. And there was that incident in early December in an Atlanta hotel when Nkemdiche was under the influence and either jumped or fell from a window on the fourth floor. That didn't help him with the NFL.
Hargrave, 6-1, 309, competed at a lower level of college football at a lower level of competition at South Carolina State, but the guy is the polar opposite of Nkemdiche in that he was PRODUCTIVE. Hargrave played four season of college football, and his annual sack statistics jumped from two in 2012, to 5.5, in 2013, to 16 in 2014, and then slipped slightly to 13.5 in 2015. That's 37 sacks, to go along with 62.5 tackles for loss, and Hargrave did what NFL scouts look at first when evaluating players at lower levels of competition: he dominated. Hargrave is going to have to get stronger, because he won't survive in the NFL with his quickness alone. There is going to be some learning involved for Hargrave, and he will have to work to refine his technique because his size won't be enough to allow him to win one-on-one matchups consistently. But he was productive.
During his high school days in Waco, Texas, Billings, 6-1, 311, set a state record in power-lifting with 2,010 total pounds at the state meet (805 squat, 705 dead lift, 500 on bench), and that strength and power are what he utilizes on the football field. After contributing 29 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, as a freshman Billings blossomed in 2014, with 37 tackles, including 11.5 for loss, and then in 2015 the Big 12 voted him co-Defensive Player of the Year when he led Baylor with 15 tackles for loss and tied for the team lead with 5.5 sacks. In terms of his pass-rushing, Billings is said to utilize "power over plan," which usually only works for a time in the NFL. And is he more than a nose tackle? Having just turned 21 in March, Billings figures to be given a chance by some team as a high pick.
Reed, 6-3, 307, is another of those players who was born 20 years too late. If he were entering the NFL in 1996 instead of 2016, Reed would be much more valued for his ability to set the edge, hold his gap, and prevent running lanes from opening. But Reed, who played two seasons at East Mississippi Community College before joining Alabama for the 2014-15 seasons, isn't much of a pass rusher at all. He had just two sacks in 28 starts for Alabama. Reed is a very good run-down player, but if he cannot become more effective as a pass-rusher he won't be able to stay on the field when the opponent deploys its offense in multiple-wide-receiver sets. Reed may be an elite run-stopper, but he's going to need more than that one trick to make it in today's NFL.
THE 2015 DRAFT, DL STATISTICS
Number drafted: DEs: 23; DT/NT: 18
Picks by round: DEs: 5 in the first; 3 in the second; 4 in the third; 2 in the fourth; 1 in the fifth; 5 in the sixth; 3 in the seventh; DTs: 2 in the first; 2 in the second; 2 in the third; 3 in the fourth; 3 in the fifth; 5 in the sixth; 1 in the seventh
Highest pick: DEs: Dante Fowler, Round 1, 3rd overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars; DT/NT: Danny Shelton, Round 1, 12th overall by the Cleveland Browns
Biggest impact: Overall, Leonard Williams was just more productive than Vic Beasley, the eighth overall selection of the Atlanta Falcons. While Beasley started all 16 games and finished with 26 tackles and four sacks, Williams started 15 of the 16 games for the Jets and contributed 63 tackles and three sacks. Williams was the sixth overall pick in Round 1.