2016 NFL Draft Top 20 Defensive Linemen

Every draft class has its strengths and weaknesses. The biggest strength of the 2016 NFL Draft is clearly the defensive line, where an insane amount of talent is about to enter the NFL. When evaluating draft prospects, I classify defenders by the following positions: defensive linemen, edge defenders, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. Defensive linemen is basically a combination of 4-3 defensive tackles and 3-4 defensive ends. So, if you are looking for a player like Joey Bosa, he won't be in this article, as I have him as an edge defender. With this in mind, here are my top 20 defensive linemen in the 2016 NFL Draft. 1. DeForest Buckner, Oregon Buckner is the near unanimous choice as the best defensive lineman and that is for good reason. Returning for his senior season, the 6-foot-7, 291 pound lineman added another 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss to his impressive résumé. He plays just like you would expect a player his size to and is a better prospect than former Oregon teammate Arik Armstead who was drafted at No. 17 last year. Buckner is a better run defender than pass rusher right now. He is best fit as a 3-4 defensive end and is a lock to be selected in the top 10. 2. Chris Jones, Mississippi State  While you may know Chris Jones from his unfortunate mishap while running the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, he is a legitimate first round prospect. He recorded only 8.5 sacks in college, but this doesn't tell the whole story. Watch his film and you see a defender that was constantly influencing the game. Mississippi State moved him all over their defense, playing end, tackle and even as a blitzing linebacker at times. He needs to become more consistent, but this is a player who fills every size requirement (6-foot-6, 310 pounds with long arms and big hands) while putting together impressive tape in the SEC. He is a top 15 player for me. 3. Sheldon Rankins, Louisville After dominating at the Senior Bowl, Rankins firmly put himself into round one, and he'll probably hear his name called in the top half of the round. If you are looking for a three-technique, then he is your guy. He has the quickness to shoot gaps and disrupt plays. Weighing in at 299 pounds and being only 6-foot-1, he isn't going to be a fit for every defense. However, put him in a defense that let's him attack upfield and everything will be fine. Productive interior pass rushers can be hard to find, which is why Rankins will go early in the draft. 4. Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss Since I don't have access to specific information regarding off-the-field incidents and medicals, these rankings only take into account on-field talent, which is why Nkemdiche comes in at No. 4. The talented, but troubled, defender has been hyped as a future first round selection since committing to Ole Miss. An elite athlete with undeniable talent, he will put together stretches of quality, disruptive film and follow it with some not so good film. He is still a raw player and never fully put it together at Ole Miss. However, he has the traits that NFL teams are looking for on the defensive line. Questions about him off the field will cause him to fall. 5. Jarran Reed, Alabama Alabama's front seven was nearly impenetrable at times last year and one of the main reasons for that was the play of Reed. The 6-foot-3, 307 pound nose tackle dominates at the point of attack and can be nearly impossible to move. He is by far the best run-defending defensive lineman in the draft. While he is a dominant run defender, he doesn't offer much as a pass rusher. Despite this lack of pass rush, Reed is still a first-round prospect because of his elite run-stuffing ability. Quality nose tackles have a huge impact on defenses and they usually aren't asked to do much in terms of rushing the passer, so don't worry too much about his pass rush. 6. Andrew Billings, Baylor While Reed is the prototypical, run-stuffing nose tackle, Billings is the rare playmaker at the position. With a combination of power and speed that doesn't come around very often––especially for players who are 311 pounds––he had 25.5 tackles for loss the past two seasons. There are times you see him running around the field and wonder how he is a nose tackle. Teammate Shawn Oakman received all of the hype entering the season, but there is not doubt that Billings is a better player and prospect by a significant margin. 7. Kenny Clark, UCLA A prospect who I feel doesn't get talked about enough on the defensive line is Clark. He is a strong run defender who holds his spot and occupies blockers. UCLA ranked 88th in the nation in run defense last season, but that wasn't his fault. One player can only do so much. For example, he had strong showings against Arizona and Nebraska, but the two teams each ran for over 300 yards against the Bruins. As a pass rusher, Clark possesses a strong bull rush. Expect to see him come off the board in the early to middle part of the second round. 8. Jonathan Bullard, Florida  Bullard is a player who can play multiple spots on the defensive line. He can line up at defensive tackle and end in a 4-3 defense and defensive end in a 3-4 defense. At the NFL Combine he said he is best fit as a three-technique. However, he would be undersized here at 285 pounds. A quick player off the line, he makes his biggest impact on opponent's ground game. With his ability to penetrate gaps and disrupt plays, he would be best utilized in a one-gap scheme. 9. Austin Johnson, Penn State I feel like Johnson is the forgotten defensive tackle in this draft class. Penn State had one of college football's best defensive lines in 2015, and he was the glue that held it together. As the one-technique, he constantly took double teams that freed up Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel. Johnson isn't the type of player who will be making flashy plays all game, but he is a strong run defender who occupies blocks and doesn't let offensive linemen move him around. With 6.5 sacks in 2015, don't discount his pass rushing ability either. As a player who does the dirty work of a defense and is always hustling, Johnson is one of my favorite players in the draft. 10. A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama In general, Robinson is one of the more highly rated defenders in the draft. However, I have him at No. 10 in my defensive line rankings. This doesn't mean that I don't like him as a prospect. I actually like what he brings to the table as a run defender. The reason I have him at ten is because I don't see much pass rush from him. He wasn't a productive pass rusher at Alabama, and I'm not sure these traits will develop for him at the next level. As a 3-4 defensive end, you would like to have pass rush from him to select him in the first round. A 3-4 defensive end that doesn't rush the pass well is still a valuable asset as long as the player is a quality run defender, which Robinson is. A run defending 3-4 defensive end isn't a player that you take in a first round, but it is a nice piece to add on day two of the draft. 11. Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech The first prospect from a non-Power 5 conference, Butler made easy work of the competition in Conference USA, recording 23 tackles for loss the past two seasons. Put together his quality tape with a 6-foot-4, 323-pound body with above-average hand size and arm length and you get a NFL prospect who teams will want. Butler is best fit as either a one-technique in a 4-3 defense or a five-technique in a 3-4 defense. It is a good year to be a fan of the Bulldogs, as they have two players that should come off the board by the end of day two in Butler and running back Kenneth Dixon. 12. Maliek Collins, Nebraska An athletic defensive tackle who likes to attack upfield, Collins is the three-technique to look for on day two. Over the past two seasons, he recorded 23 tackles for loss, but only four sacks. This lack of sacks is concerning, but the entire Nebraska defense struggled in 2015 due to a scheme change. At some times last year he played a blitzing linebacker role, despite his 6-foot-2, 311 pound frame. He has the appearance of a more productive professional than collegiate player. 13. Jihad Ward, Illinois Every draft there are players that are selected high on the basis of potential. One of these players this year is Ward. In two seasons in Champaign, spent playing defensive end and defensive tackle, he recorded only 4.5 sacks. In fact, he had only 3.5 tackles for loss in 2015. However, this is a player who looks the part (6-foot-5, 297 pounds) and at times flashes the ability to be a quality player. He doesn't have much defensive line experience and was a wide receiver only a few years ago. Give Ward to one of the better defensive line coaches in the NFL and he could become a special player. 14. Hassan Ridgeway, Texas University of Texas football has been struggling in recent years, but it produced a good one in Ridgeway. With 9.5 sacks in two years as a starter, a solid argument could be made that he was the Longhorns' best player. When he was on the field he played well, especially as a run defender. However, conditioning issues and minor injuries limited him to a rotational role that saw him play only about 50 percent of snaps. If these two problems don't carry over to the NFL, then Ridgeway will be a fine player. 15. Sheldon Day, Notre Dame  Day is a classic example of a college player who is going to be knocked for being undersized at the next level. At 6-foot-1, 293 pounds, he comes in as one of the smaller defensive tackles in recent draft classes. In college he was able to win on quickness and a non-stop motor, but will this work in the NFL? He can struggle at the point of attack and against double teams. At the Senior Bowl he looked good at both defensive tackle and end. Day may not be an every down player in the NFL, but he should be a player that gives quality snaps in multiple spots, especially as a three-technique. 16. Javon Hargrave, South Carolina State To be drafted from the FCS level a player needs to have extremely good film. Hargrave goes well beyond this measure. In 2014, he recorded 16 sacks, including a whopping six in one game, and he added another 13.5 in 2015. Watching his tape, it seemed like he impacted every other play and he loved his swim move. In terms of projecting him to the NFL, he is going to face a steep transition in the level of competition. He will no longer be able to just rely on athleticism. Anytime a player is as productive as Hargrave was, especially as a defensive tackle, the NFL is going to take notice. 17. Bronson Kaufusi, BYU Kaufusi spent 2014 as an outside linebacker in BYU's 3-4 defense, but made the move down to defensive line in 2015. At 285 pounds, this is where he will play in the NFL. A four-year contributor with 26 career sacks, he has been on the map for a while now. However, a lot of his sacks weren't a result of his work, but more from mistakes on the offensive line and plays taking a long time. He should be drafted in the third round. 18. Adolphus Washington, Ohio State The fact that we are still discussing day two prospects at player No. 18 is a testament to the depth and quality of the defensive line class. Considered to be a potential first round pick earlier in the process, Washington is now more likely to go later on day two. He has shown the ability to be a disruptive defender, but it isn't always there. He played as a three-technique at Ohio State, but he should be able to transition to a 3-4 defensive as a defensive end if need be. 19. Willie Henry, Michigan Henry's testing numbers from the NFL Combine are above-average in all areas and it is easy to see that on film. His quickness when playing is obvious and is his biggest attribute. He plays fast and aggressive, but this can also be turned into a negative, as he was heavily penalized (multiple offsides penalties and a silly personal foul against Michigan State). He also has some experience at defensive end. Henry is another player who needs to be able to play more consistently. 20. D.J. Reader, Clemson Reader is one of the biggest defensive linemen in the draft. He weighed in at 327 pounds at the NFL Combine, but was reported to weigh more at other times. On the field, he uses this size well and his strength is evident. Clemson mostly asked him to clog run lanes in the middle of the line and he did just that. He doesn't have much pass rushing ability, but that isn't what a team will be drafting him for. Select him in the middle rounds of the draft and a team will have a dependable run stuffer. Matt Pearce is a graduate of National Football Post’s Introduction to Scouting and Scouting Boot Camp and is a journalism student at the University of Nebraska. Follow him on Twitter@Matt_Pearce13

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