Richner: 2015 Defensive Prospects

Last Updated: 2/25/2016 7:35 PM ET

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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.

This year's crop of defensive prospects is one of the deepest I have seen in several years. The deepest position group on defense is in the secondary, specifically the cornerback position. The PAC-12 and SEC dominate this group, with seven of the 12 players in the ranking coming from these two conferences.

A lot will change between the start of college and next May; 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 Prospects

Player Height Weight School Career Games Career Sacks
Trey Flowers 6-4 268 Arkansas 36 12
Shawn Oakman 6-9 280 Baylor 13 2
Dante Fowler 6-3 277 Florida 25 6
Mario Edwards 6-3 294 FSU 22 5
Ryan Mueller 6-2 245 Kansas State 39 14
Alvin Dupree 6-4 264 Kentucky 35 16
Lorenzo Mauldin 6-4 244 Louisville 37 14
Martin Ifedi 6-3 275 Memphis 36 19
Anthony Chickillo 6-4 277 Miami (FL) 38 12.5
Frank Clark 6-2 277 Michigan 38 7
Shilique Calhoun 6-5 256 Michigan State 27 8.5
Markus Golden 6-3 260 Missouri 26 6.5
Randy Gergory 6-6 240 Nebraska 13 9.5
Charles Tapper 6-4 281 Oklahoma 18 5.5
Cedric Reed 6-6 258 Texas 31 11.5
Hau'oli Kikaha 6-3 246 Washington 29 16.5

Last year we saw Jadeveon Clowney ride the wave of popularity and intrigue all the way to the number one pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. This year's crop of pass rushers from the defensive end position doesn't have the same the name factor as last year. Leading the class are four standouts who utilize a rare combination of speed and power to rush the quarterback. Randy Gregory (Nebraska), Hau'oli Kikaha (Washington), Alvin Dupree (Kentucky) and Trey Flowers (Arkansas) round out the best of the best from this group.

Gregory, who only has one year of major college football under his belt, is built like a clone of current San Francisco 49er Aldon Smith. At 6'6” and 240 pounds, Gregory has the long arms, speed, and athletic ability that strike fear in opposing lineman. In just 13 career games, Gregory averaged 2.19 impact plays per game and has the highest average amongst defensive ends.

Kikaha was tied for the third most sacks last season with 13. For his career, he has 16.5 sacks, 26 TFL, and four forced fumbles. He has a career mark of 50.5 impact plays, an average of 1.74 impact plays per game.

The top two pass rushers from the SEC don't hail from Alabama or LSU; this year Kentucky and Arkansas have the top returning defensive ends. Dupree, in 35 career games played, has 16 sacks, 34.5 TFL, three forced fumbles, and three blocked kicks. With 57.5 career impact points, he has an average of 1.64 impact plays per game.

Trey Flowers decided to hold off on the NFL for one more season. Likely a mid-round selection, he returns to Arkansas to erase any doubts from scouts' minds that he should be a first round selection. At 6'4” and 268 pounds, he has the size and strength to hold his own, set the edge and is a factor on rushing downs. With a career mark of 55 impact plays, an average of 1.53 impact plays per game, Flowers is on the brink of becoming a household name.

The rest of the defensive group is filled with gifted young athletes such as Shilique Calhoun (Michigan State) who should capitalize once again off of the nation's top defensive backs, which should give him a few more seconds to rush the quarterback. Martin Ifedi (Memphis) leads all players on this list with 19 career sacks. Memphis will face off against both UCLA and Mississippi this season and both games will be given some national exposure. If Ifedi can dominate, it will go a long way to solidifying his spot amongst the top pass rushers in this year's draft class.

Outside Linebacker Prospects

Player Height Weight School Career Games Career Sacks
Vic Beasley 6-3 235 Clemson 35 21
Jordan Jenkins 6-3 252 Georgia 27 10
Jake Ryan 6-3 236 Michigan 34 8
Noah Spence 6-3 252 Ohio State 24 8.5
Eric Striker 6-0 221 Oklahoma 26 6.5
Tony Washington 6-3 250 Oregon 36 8.5
Devonte Fields 6-4 250 TCU 16 10
J.R. Tavai 6-2 250 USC 28 3.5
Kyler Fackrell 6-5 245 Utah State 27 8
Eli Harold 6-4 250 Virginia 24 10.5
Shaq Thompson 6-1 228 Washington 26 2.5

The unquestioned leader in this group is Vic Beasley (Clemson), a long time starter for the Tigers, with 21 career sacks. At 6'3” and 235 pounds, he uses his smaller size to get low and his speed to get around the corner. A true playmaker, Beasley is excellent in going for the strip sack. With five career forced fumbles, he is adept at causing turnovers and getting after opposing quarterbacks.

Eli Harold (Virginia), at 6'4” and 250 pounds, is an imposing figure from the outside linebacker position. Harold is capable of dropping into coverage, a tackling force on run downs, and he can rush the quarterback coming off the edge. He has 10.5 career sacks, three forced fumbles and a career total of 37.5 impact plays with an average of 1.56 impact plays per game. With his long arms, Harold is able to shed would-be blockers with excellent hand technique.

The one wild card as a pass rusher in this group is Eric Striker (Oklahoma). A smaller pass rusher in the mold of a Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis, Striker is a one trick pony who uses his speed and ability to beat his man around the corner to get after opposing quarterbacks. Last year he saw his most playing time, which resulted in 6.5 sacks. While he is still raw, his athletic ability and speed jump off the screen. If he can manage to put it all together and start working on a couple of counter moves, he could make a name for himself as a possible first rounder.

Shaq Thompson (Washington), while not the caliber of pass rusher as a Vic Beasley or Eli Harold, is by far the best pass coverage outside linebacker. In just two seasons as a starter, he has seven pass breakups and four interceptions. A former standout saftey in high school, Thompson is quick enough to cover slot receivers and strong enough to handle tight ends. A bit of a rover, Thompson plays a hybrid saftey/linebacker role that allows him to move around the field and make plays.

Both Noah Spence (Ohio State) and Devonte Fields (TCU) will miss some time this upcoming season due to suspensions. Spence, who tested positive for drugs, missed the Ohio State bowl game and will miss the first two games in 2014. Fields will not be stepping on any football field this fall since he was suspended by the university for allegations that he threatened his ex-girlfriend. Both these players have immense talent, but NFL teams will be wary of selecting either of them next spring unless the can truly show they have improved both on (if/when he joins a team) and off the field.

Defensive Tackle Prospects

Player Height Weight School Career Games Career TFLs
Gabe Wright 6-3 284 Auburn 39 16
Tyler Davison 6-2 309 Fresno State 39 15.5
Carl Davis 6-5 315 Iowa 31 5.5
Michael Bennett 6-2 288 Ohio State 34 17.5
Arik Armstead 6-8 290 Oregon 26 5
Chris Covington 6-3 300 Rice 26 19.5
Ellis McCarthy 6-5 330 UCLA 22 4
Leonard Williams 6-5 300 USC 26 26
Danny Shelton 6-2 339 Washington 39 7.5

This year's crop of defensive tackle prospects can be split into two groups; pass rushers and run stuffers. The pass rushing group is led by Leonard Williams (USC), a powerful pass rusher capable of dominating his opponents who reminds some scouts of former All-American Ndamukong Suh. Williams is 6'5” and 300 pounds and last year he battled through some injuries and was still capable of five sacks and 12.5 TFL. For his career, he has 13 sacks, 26 TFL and 48 impact plays. With an average of 1.85 impact plays per game, Williams is the highest ranked amongst all defensive tackles. While capable of disrupting the quarterback pocket, William and his USC teammates were stout against the run last year, giving up only 120 YPG on the ground and holding opponents to just 14 rushing TD last season.

Two other pass rushing defensive tackles are Michael Bennett (Ohio State) and Chris Covington (Rice). Both of these players have shown great speed and the ability to be a defensive presence along the interior. Bennett is a bit on the smaller side and uses his speed over power in most cases to cause havoc in the backfield.

The top run stuffers in this year's class are Carl Davis (Iowa), Danny Shelton (Washington) and Ellis McCarthy (UCLA). Combined, these three players weigh just under 1,000 pounds. Davis, at 6'5” and 315 pounds, along with his defensive teammates, held opponents to just 124 rushing yards per game last season and only surrendered seven rushing touchdowns.

Shelton is a mammoth run stuffer at 6'2” and 339 pounds. He routinely clogs up the interior running lanes, forcing opponents to go outside. While he won't fill up the box score, Shelton does the dirty work that allows for his teammates to make plays around him.
McCarthy is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. At 6'5” and 330 pounds, he has the strength to take on two or even three blockers. If he can improve his technique and skill set, he can help push UCLA over the hunt and into contention for a national title.

Inside Linebacker Prospects

Player Height Weight School Career Games Career Tackles
Trey DePriest 6-2 250 Alabama 40 110.5
Stephone Anthony 6-3 245 Clemson 39 143
Amarlo Herrera 6-2 231 Georgia 41 161
Ramik Wilson 6-2 237 Georgia 30 112.5
Dencel Perryman 6-0 242 Miami (FL) 34 200
Benardrick McKinney 6-5 249 Mississippi State 26 129.5
A.J. Tarpley 6-2 241 Stanford 41 168
A.J. Johnson 6-2 245 Tennessee 36 242
Terrance Plummer 6-1 232 UCF 38 179.5
Eric Kendricks 6-0 230 UCLA 39 259.5
Hayes Pullard 6-1 235 USC 39 214

The vaunted Stanford defense has another top prospect this season; A.J. Tarpley at the inside linebacker position. He is an aggressive defender who attacks the line of scrimmage. He has the size and physical capabilities for taking on defenders and shedding his blocker to make a play on the football. A tough run defender, Tarpley shows great instincts to shoot his gap, get into the backfield and make a stop. He has 16 TFL in his career.

The most impressive tackler in this group is A.J. Johnson (Tennessee). With 242 tackles throughout his career, he is the unquestioned leader of the Vols defense. Trey DePriest (Alabama) has started each game during the last two seasons and he is looked upon as the leader and director of another top flight Alabama defense.

One player who has caught my attention the past two seasons is Amarlo Herrera (Georgia). His play in pass coverage is as impressive as you will find in college football from a linebacker. With career marks of 10 PB and two INT, he can be a factor and is a three down linebacker.

The one player to keep an eye on and who could make a run at being the first linebacker drafted in the next NFL Draft is Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney. McKinney has the strength to take on lineman and win at the point of attack - he rarely lets ball carriers out of his grasp. With just two seasons under his belt and at 6'5” and 249 pounds, he will be asked to take on more responsibility this year. His sheer size already has some scouts drooling over his potential. He will need to put everything together and if he does, then the sky might be the limit for this young player.

Cornerback Prospects

Player Height Weight School Career Games Career INTs
P.J. Williams 6-0 195 Florida State 25 3
Ronald Darby 5-11 201 Florida State 28 2
Jalen Collins 6-2 198 LSU 29 2
Jalen Mills 6-0 194 LSU 26 5
Trae Waynes 6-1 182 Michigan State 23 3
KeiVarae Russell 5-11 190 Notre Dame 26 3
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu 5-10 195 Oregon 39 7
Steven Nelson 5-11 194 Oregon State 13 6
Alex Carter 6-0 202 Stanford 27 1
Quandre Diggs 5-10 200 Texas 39 8
Josh Shaw 6-1 200 USC 37 6
Marcus Peters 6-0 190 Washington 26 8

The cornerback position group is the deepest in terms of NFL- ready talent along the defensive side of the ball. Don't be surprised if three or four of these players are taken in the first round in next year's NFL Draft. The leader amongst this group is Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (Oregon). While he doesn't have the size to overpower wide receivers, he has the technique and speed to blanket receivers all over the field. In 39 career games, he has 30 PB, 7 FF, and 7 INT. For his career, he has 77.5 impact plays an average of 1.99 impact plays per game. He could have been a first round pick last year, but decided to return to Oregon, where he can be their leader on defense.

Quandre Diggs (Texas) is another smaller, yet strong, cornerback who can play bump and run. He is more than capable of getting up on the line of scrimmage and battling with receivers. A three year starter, Diggs has the experience to go along with a ball hawking mentality. For his career, he has 31 PB, 3 FF, and 8 INT. He has a total of 76.5 impact plays with an average of 1.96 impact plays per game.

Rounding out the top three corners is Marcus Peters (Washington), a quiet assassin on the outside for the Huskies. In just two seasons as a starter, Peters has 17 PB, 1 FF, and 8 INT. He has 53.5 impact plays, an average of 2.06 impact plays per game, the highest amongst all defensive backs in this group.

The rest of this year's defensive back class is filled with some young, exciting talent who has to take the next step in becoming a top flight corner. Players such as Trae Waynes (Michigan State) and Jalen Mills (LSU) will have to take over the number one corner position this year. A lot of responsibility will be placed on all these players to become a shutdown corner. If they can continue their growth and reach their full potential, then they should have a real shot at earning a first or second round draft selection.

Safety Prospects

Player Height Weight School Career Games Career INTs
Landon Collins 6-0 222 Alabama 27 2
Derron Smith 5-11 197 Fresno State 42 14
Kurtis Drummond 6-1 202 Michigan State 39 8
Cody Prewitt 6-2 217 Mississippi 38 9
Jordan Richards 5-11 210 Stanford 41 6
Sam Carter 6-1 215 TCU 36 9
Anthony Harris 6-1 190 Virginia 37 9
Karl Joseph 5-10 196 West Virginia 25 3

Four safeties were drafted in the first round in the 2014 NFL Draft. With the NFL becoming more of a passing league, the importance of having a solid back end to your defense is becoming more crucial to a championship caliber team. This year's crop of safeties have shown flashes of being standout players, they just need to put together a full season of extraordinary level of play to be considered for a first round selection.

One of the better free safeties in this group is Derron Smith (Fresno State), who can play the deep center field role for the Bulldogs defense as well as anyone. He has the highest number of career interceptions of a returning player in college football with 14. For his career, he has 74.5 impact plays with an average of 1.77 impact plays per game.

Cody Prewitt (Mississippi) is the big, physical safety who can come down into the box and be a factor in stopping an opponents' rushing attack or playing the deep cover areas in passing situations. At 6'2” and 217 pounds, there are few players in college football who have the size and speed combination that Prewitt has. He had six interceptions last season and for his career he has 11 PB, 4 FF, and 9 INT. Prewitt was often overshadowed by last year's top flight corner, Jason Verrett, who was drafted in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers.

Sam Carter (TCU) is the quiet saftey who opponents have to plan for and he always seems to be in the right spot on every play. A three year starter, he has 13 PB, 9 INT, 2 FF, and 7 sacks. He gets into passing lanes and creates turnovers for his team.

College Football Preview Pages:

Over/Under Win Total Picks (72 Teams)
In-Depth Team Analysis
Power Rankings
2015 NFL Draft Prospects
Subscribe to Packages