Richner: Defensive Prospects (09/01/15)

Last Updated: 10/13/2015 9:05 AM ET
2016 NFL Draft - Defensive Prospects.

College football season is just around the corner, and the first scouts are already out on the road rating prospects and getting their first look at draft-eligible players.

The two deepest position groups on defense are at cornerback and defensive end. The ACC is the top conference this season for standout secondary play. Leading the conference are Florida State and Virginia Tech, both are stocked with elite prospects starting at cornerback. Along the defensive line, it always starts with the SEC; Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, and Florida all return top tier pass rushers.

A lot will change between the start of college football season and next April's NFL Draft; some prospects will continue to shine while others will falter. Inevitably, a small handful of players come out of nowhere, a player who was lost on a lot of scouts' radars will, without notice, burst onto the national scene and rise all the way to a top-ten draft pick.

Defensive End Stats

Player School Games Tackles Sacks
Jonathan Allen Alabama 26 36.5 5.5
Carl Lawson Auburn 14 17 4
Shawn Oakman Baylor 26 71.5 13
Kamalei Correa Boise State 27 58.5 13
Bronson Kaufusi BYU 36 84.5 15.5
Jonathan Bullard Florida 36 82 5.5
Jordan Jenkins Georgia 40 113 15
Devonte Fields Louisville 16 47 10
Shilique Calhoun Michigan State 40 67 16.5
Sheldon Day Notre Dame 35 77 3.5
Joey Bosa Ohio State 29 83.5 21
Charles Tapper Oklahoma 31 62.5 8.5
Emmanuel Ogbah Oklahoma State 26 60 15
DeForest Buckner Oregon 41 106.5 7.5
Derrick Alexander Tulsa 38 70.5 17
Dadi Nicolas Virginia Tech 36 93 14.5

On the defensive side of the ball the two positions with the most talent from top to bottom are cornerback and defensive ends. This year's crop of defensive end prospects has a handful of players who are capable of being top fifteen selections in next year's NFL Draft.

Leading the charge is Joey Bosa (Ohio State), a likely top five selection in his own right. At 6'6” and 275 pounds, he possesses the perfect combination of speed and power from a defensive end position. His production in just two seasons is nothing short of outstanding. In 29 career games, Bosa has recorded 21 sacks, 34.5 TFL, and four forced fumbles. He has a career total of 69.5 impact plays, an average of 2.4 impact plays per game.

Some players look the part, as though they were built in a lab, and Michigan State defensive end and former Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the year, Shilique Calhoun, has everything that you can want from a premier defensive end. At 6'4” and 257 pounds, he has the frame and muscle structure that screams elite athlete. For his career he has 16.5 sacks, 29 TFL, three forced fumbles, one INT, and one blocked kick. He has registered 62.5 impact plays with an average of 1.56 impact plays per game.

Being the size of a 747, Shawn Oakman (Baylor) is not an under the radar prospect, but is a very intriguing prospect who has shown flashes of dominating opponents but lacks consistency. Oakman, who stands 6'8” and 275 pounds, is a freakish specimen and while he might look the part, he has yet to live up to the expectations of a first round talent. Opponents were able to gain over 4.5 yards per carry when running to Oakman's side. He will need to prove to scouts that his size matches his level of play.

One name to watch out for is former TCU and current Louisville defensive end prospect, Devonte Fields. With only sixteen career games played, Fields was suspended from TCU following allegations that he punched and threatened an ex-girlfriend. In all likelihood, this will be his last opportunity to show scouts that he is ready both on and off the field to be an NFL caliber player. Fields only has one full season under his belt. In that time he registered ten sacks, 20.5 TFL, two forced fumbles and one interception. He has amassed 43.5 impact plays, an average of 2.72 impact plays per game.

A few less heralded prospects to look out for this upcoming season are Kamalei Correa (Boise State), Derrick Alexander (Tulsa) and Carl Lawson (Auburn) who is returning from an injury. Correa is an exceptional athlete capable of punishing opponents with a superior inside rip move.

Defensive Tackle Stats

Player School Games Tackles Sacks
A'Shawn Robinson Alabama 27 59.5 5.5
Jarran Reed Alabama 14 38 1
Andrew Billings Baylor 25 55 2.5
Beau Blackshear Baylor 39 70 7
Vernon Butler Louisiana Tech 36 89 2
Robert Nkemdiche Mississippi 24 52.5 4
Chris Jones Mississippi State 26 42 6
Maliek Collins Nebraska 25 40 5.5
Vincent Valentine Nebraska 25 49 4
Adolphus Washington Ohio State 37 70.5 9.5
Anthony Zettel Penn State 37 61 16
Darius Hamilton Rutgers 36 83 10.5
Eddie Vanderdoes UCLA 26 70.5 2.5
Kenny Clark UCLA 26 67.5 1
Antwaun Woods USC 37 52 5

After talking to a couple of NFL General Managers, one of the takeaways from this year's defensive tackle group is the versatility these young players have shown. Some of the guys can be split outside and rush the passer from a five or even seven technique, or they can slide inside and play a 2-gap technique.

As the top rated high school prospect in the country, Robert Nkemdiche (Mississippi) has seen his name in a few headlines over the years. A rare athlete, he can slide up and down the defensive line of scrimmage all while playing at a high level. He has missed a few games due to injuries and was thrust into the starting role during his freshman year. He still has a ways to go in terms of his overall development. In 24 career games, Nkemdiche has registered 52. 5 tackles, twelve TFL, and four sacks. He will need to improve on his ability to collapse the pocket and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He isn't at the level of an Aaron Donald or an Ndamukong Suh in terms of where those players were at when entering their junior seasons.

The teams looking for a stout run-stuffing cog in the middle of their defensive line should look no further than Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson. At 6'3” and 312 pounds, he is solid as granite and capable of shutting an opponent's interior rushing attack. In 27 career games, Robinson has 59.5 tackles, 14.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and two blocked kicks. He has amassed 30 impact plays, an average of 1.11 impact plays per game. If Robinson can maintain his level of production, there is little doubt that he will be considered as a first round caliber player.

The statistical leader from the defensive tackle spot in this group is Anthony Zettel (Penn State), who has been terrorizing opponent's backfields for the last two seasons. He is built in a similar mold to current Seattle Seahawk defensive tackle, Michael Bennett. Zettel displays the speed and quickness to beat his opponent with a wide array of interior pass rushing moves. He does a great job at consistently attacking his opponent and doesn't give up on plays. He might not be the prototypical size for an NFL defensive tackle, but his effort and production suggest that he could be a first or second round talent.

The rest of this position is filled with premier athletes capable of taking the next step and cementing their status as future first round draft picks. Watch out for Eddie Vanderdoes (UCLA), Adolphus Washington (Ohio State), and Vincent Valentine (Nebraska) as a few prospects who I expect will have a big year.

Outside Linebacker Stats

Player School Games Tackles Sacks
Scooby Wright III Arizona 27 195.5 14
Kris Frost Auburn 36 123 3.5
Terrance Smith Florida State 41 122 3
Leonard Floyd Georgia 25 82.5 12.5
T.T. Barber Middle Tennessee 35 192.5 4
Jaylon Smith Notre Dame 26 141.5 3.5
Joshua Perry Ohio State 39 153.5 4
Eric Striker Oklahoma 39 100 15.5
Steve Longa Rutgers 26 173.5 5
Tyler Matakevich Temple 35 311.5 2.5
Curt Maggitt Tennessee 33 106.5 13.5
Peter Robertson Texas Tech 37 132 17
Myles Jack UCLA 26 135.5 1
Su'a Cravens USC 26 104.5 5
Dadi Nicolas Virginia Tech 36 93 14.5

With a historic 2014 season including winning the Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik awards, Scooby Wright III (Arizona) has set the bar that will be difficult to match. As a lightly recruited outside linebackers (some schools were wary of his lack of prototypical size), Wright III has proven doubters wrong. In 27 career games Wright has recorded 195.5 tackles, fourteen sacks, 38 TFL, six forced fumbles and one interception. He has amassed a total of 74 impact plays, an average of 2.74 impact plays per game. Wright flies around the field and is capable of making plays in the backfield and deep in the secondary.

In addition to Wright, the Pac-12 Conference has another outside linebacker who is capable of punishing opponents. Myles Jack (UCLA,) a two-way player for the Bruins, has ten career rushing touchdowns on his resume to go along with 135.5 tackles, 15 TFL, 18 PB, three interceptions, one sack, and one forced fumble. He has amassed 49 impact plays with an average of 1.88 impact plays per game. As one of the nation's best coverage linebackers, Jack is athletic enough to run stride for stride with some of the country's best tight ends and has the speed to cover tailbacks coming out of the backfield. He is a unique player with skill sets on both sides of the ball that we haven't seen in college football for some time.

Finishing out the top three outside linebacker prospects is another Pac-12 player, Su'a Cravens (USC), who is a former safety that is now a hybrid linebacker. A factor down in the box, Cravens can make plays at the line of scrimmage or drop into coverage and be a threat to come away with a turnover. Cravens gives the USC defensive coaches a unique player who is capable of lining up on the outside, covering the slot receiver or coming off the edge and attacking opposing quarterbacks. Cravens has seven career interceptions; he has amassed 61.5 impact plays, an average of 2.37 impact plays per game. As he begins to grow into his role, look for him to take control and leadership of this young Trojans' defense.

Some under the radar prospects to keep an eye on are T.T. Barber (Middle Tennessee), Dadi Nicolas (Virginia Tech), Steve Longa (Rutgers) and Tyler Matakevich (Temple). Barber has 192.5 tackles and 22.5 TFL in just 35 career games. A run stuffing force, Barber has the brute force to take on offensive linemen and get off his blocks with ease. Matakevich is a straight tackling machine who has a career mark of 311.5 tackles to go along with 25 TFL. Make sure to check him out, he will be the one around the football.

Inside Linebacker Stats

Player School Games Tackles Sacks
Reggie Ragland Alabama 38 87.5 1.5
Salamo Fiso Arizona State 27 127 6.5
Cassanova McKinzy Auburn 35 152.5 3.5
Addison Gillam Colorado 24 139.5 6.5
Zeek Bigger East Carolina 39 174 1.5
Antonio Morrison Florida 33 136.5 1
James Burgess Louisville 36 133.5 4
Kendell Beckwith LSU 25 64.5 3
Kentrell Brothers Missouri 39 158.5 2
Dominique Alexander Oklahoma 26 142.5 2.5
Rodney Hardrick Oregon 41 124 1
Blake Martinez Stanford 37 89 4.5
Nick Vigil Utah 27 131.5 12.5
Nick Kwiatkoski West Virginia 36 181 2.5

The 2015 NFL Draft saw only one inside linebacker selected in the first round (Stephone Anthony, New Orleans Saints) and three inside linebackers drafted in the second round. The younger, and possibly more talented brother of one of our favorite inside linebackers in last year's draft, Zach Vigil, is about to burst onto the national scene. Nick Vigil (Utah State) is a complete inside linebacker who shows the ability to make adjustments and defensive calls. In 27 career games, Vigil has recorded 131.5 tackles, 25.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks, three PB, five forced fumbles and two interceptions. A playmaker on defense, he is looking to force a turnover and create havoc in an opponent's backfield. He has a total of 62 impact plays, an average of 2.3 impact plays per game.

A true playmaker on defense, James Burgess (Louisville) shows tremendous awareness and play recognition skills. He will routinely shut down an opponent's screen pass and disrupt short to intermediate passing lanes. He is a bit undersized for prototypical NFL standards, but this hasn't stalled Burgess' ability to be a consistent force for the Cardinals defense. In 36 career games, he has recorded 133.5 tackles, 21 TFL, four sacks, nine pass break ups, two forced fumbles, and six interceptions. He has amassed 58 impact plays with an average 1.61 impact plays per game.

A few under the radar prospects to keep an eye on from the inside linebacker position are Reggie Ragland (Alabama), Dominique Alexander (Oklahoma), and Kentrell Brothers (Missouri). Ragland has the potential, but he lacks the statistical production to warrant being the top inside linebacker prospect at the present time. With a dominant season he could cement his case as a future top draft pick.

Cornerback Stats

Player School Games Tackles Interceptions
Jonathan Jones Auburn 32 51 6
Vernon Hargreaves, III Florida 24 72.5 6
Jalen Ramsey Florida State 28 106 3
Nate Andrews Florida State 28 109 7
William Jackson Houston 26 61 3
Tre'Davious White LSU 26 75 4
Eric Murray Minnesota 39 110.5 1
Will Redmond Mississippi State 20 62.5 3
KeiVarae Russell Notre Dame 26 93 3
Zack Sanchez Oklahoma 26 76.5 8
Jordan Lucas Penn State 37 103.5 3
Cameron Sutton Tennessee 25 70.5 5
Marcus Rios UCLA 20 15.5 2
Kendall Fuller Virginia Tech 26 91 8
Brandon Facyson Virginia Tech 15 29 5

In every sense of the word, Vernon Hargreaves (Florida) has been a “shutdown corner” for the Gators since he stepped onto the field. With a combination of skill, speed, quickness, and a high football IQ, Hargreaves has excellent route recognition abilities. He is capable of shutting down an opponent's top wide receiver option. Few cornerbacks show the aggressive nature in stopping outside run plays like Hargreaves. At 5'11” and 190 pounds, he is a little lighter than your typical shutdown corner, but opponents have had very little success when they throw in his direction.

The Virginia Tech Hokies have the most disruptive and premier starting cornerback tandem in college in Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson. Both of these players' statistical production puts them in the conversation as possible first round selections. Opponents will have a difficult time this season establishing a vertical passing attack against these two. Fuller averages 2.4 impact plays per game and Facyson averages 2.2 impact plays.

Even though he missed last season due to being suspended for academic violations, KeiVarae Russell (Notre Dame) showed enough promise and ability during his freshman season to be considered one of the nation's top cornerbacks. As a physical corner, he isn't shy about coming up and jamming opponents while pushing them off their route and disrupting the offensive timing.

A few under the radar prospects to keep an eye on are Nate Andrews (Florida State), Jalen Ramsey (Florida State), Cameron Sutton (Tennessee) and William Jackson (Houston). Ramsey has the ability to play outside or slide inside and cover the slot. Another physical corner, he relishes in coming down and taking running backs down in the open field.

Safety Stats

Player School Games Tackles Interceptions
Eddie Jackson Alabama 18 54 2
Darian Thompson Boise State 39 144.5 14
Jeremy Cash Duke 32 184.5 6
DeVon Edwards Duke 27 155.5 4
Nate Andrews Florida State 28 109 7
Jamal Golden Georgia Tech 42 87.5 7
Xavier Woods Louisiana Tech 26 108 6
Jalen Mills LSU 39 147.5 6
Deon Bush Miami, FL 33 104 3
Tony Conner Mississippi 26 106 2
Max Redfield Notre Dame 25 61 1
Vonn Bell Ohio State 29 92 7
Karl Joseph West Virginia 37 225.5 4
Michael Caputo Wisconsin 40 143.5 1

You won't find the next Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor in this group of safety prospects. In fact, there is not a first round graded prospect. We do have a collection of ball-hawking safeties who have proven to be turnover causing machines. Leading the case as the top safety in the class is Darian Thompson (Boise State) who has more interceptions than some of our top wideout prospects have touchdowns. In 39 career games, Thompson has recorded 144.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL, fourteen INT, and one forced fumble. He has amassed 56.5 impact plays, an average of 1.45 impact plays per game. Boise State will be facing a handful of first year starting quarterbacks this season, watch for Thompson to snag a few more interceptions.

Duke is better known as a basketball school, but is quickly becoming a must-stop for NFL scouts. This year they have one of the most disruptive and athletic safeties in Jeremey Cash. He is a physical force who lines up more often in the box and close to the line of scrimmage. As a tough and punishing hitter, Cash has a knack for separating the ball from a receiver with a single blow. In 32 career games, he has 20 TFL, 5.5 sacks, six interceptions and six forced fumbles.

The front seven for the Ohio State Buckeyes receive a lot of the media attention but Vonn Bell on the backend is the versatile defender who causes opposing quarterbacks to hold onto the ball for a half second longer than they would like. At 5'11” and 205, he is a heat-seeking missile capable of laying waste to anyone who dares come across the middle of the field. In only 20 career games, he has 92 tackles, seven interceptions and average of 1.07 impact plays per game. Bell has been called the catalyst of that fearsome Buckeye defense. If they are going to repeat as champions, Bell will be asked to take on more of a prominent leadership position.

Some under the radar safety prospects to look for during this college football season are Karl Joseph (West Virginia), Deon Bush (Miami), Jamal Golden (Georgia Tech) and Michael Caputo (Wisconsin). Golden is an experienced safety prospect who displayed a great deal of skill and savvy playmaking ability in his matchup against Florida State last season.