Finishing with these players in the trenches, we are looking at the interior defensive line. This group includes everything from players, who will primarily line up head-up on the offensive tackle to straight over the center. I will always mention with specific alignment I believe fits the individual players best, although with many hybrid fronts we see in the NFL, most guys will be moving around – especially on passing downs.
This group has been called one of the weakest ones throughout the draft process and when I compare it to some of the classes we have seen these last several years, I certainly don’t think it matches up with them. At best, I believe two of them will be drafted in the first round and I wouldn’t be totally shocked the first one comes off in the late twenties. However, I think there could be some valuable players on day two and even beyond that. Four of my top five prospects I would classify as three-techniques (so shaded to the outside shoulder of the guard), but after that there are several names, who will play head-up or shaded to one side of the center.
Make sure to check out my video breakdown of the top interior offensive linemen!
But now let’s get into this list:
1. Christian Barmore, Alabama
6’5”, 310 pounds; RS SO
Despite being “only” a four-star recruit and not starting full-time until this past season, Barmore has seen a meteoric rise and decided to enter the draft with two years of eligibility left. After recording six tackles for loss and two sacks as a rotational D-lineman his freshman campaign, he racked up 9.5 TFLs, eight sacks and three passes batted down at the line, earning himself first-team All-SEC accolades and ending this past season by being named the National Championship game’s Defensive MVP.
The first time scouts laid eyes on this young man, most of them thought this would be the next great Alabama defensive lineman. At his measurement, with the good thickness throughout his frame, he is one of those guys, who you want to get off the bus first. Barmore was lined up anywhere from shade nose to a 4i technique along that Bama front, being asked to two-gap as well as penetrate. The length and power simply jump off the screen for this kid. He is like a bulldozer, just running into and knocking around big men. He can stand up blockers and toss them to the side as the running back approaches and he has plenty of anchor strength to stand his ground against double-teams, being able to sustain blows from the side and stay square in those situations. You see some guards do everything just right in terms of engaging with low pad-level, rolling the hips through contact and churning those legs, yet this guy just locks out and doesn’t move off the spot. And then he has the power to pull them to the side as well as the lateral agility to get a hit on the running back in the hole. However, he is at his best shooting through gaps and creating chaos. Barmore has some violence in those hands and the brute force to blow through the door, showing that ability to work through lateral contact. Even when it looks like the blocker is in great position to seal him on those wide zone plays, Barmore just knocks down the hands, powers through the reach and gets to the ball-carrier anyway, often times twisting them down to the turf.
As a pass-rusher, Barmore of course has the power to go through big linemen and create that push up the middle as a bull in the china shop, but he is even more dangerous when he lands those with club-swim or -rip maneuvers, which he has really improved his success rate at, and clearing the hips of a guard. When he gets that instant win off the line and those guys allow him to get to the edge of their frame, it’s pretty much over, because he rarely gets pushed off track, as they try to still impact his path to the quarterback. And he is extremely flexible for a man his size, when you look at the angles he runs at and the way he can corner around blockers, in combination with those hand swipes. The Crimson Tide coaches used him to loop outside quite a bit and he is a great table-setter for any games up front, because of the way he can pull blockers with him as he attacks through a gap. He gets those big arms up when he approaches the passer and what I really appreciate about him is the level of effort he displays, to continue working as a pass-rusher, which also extends to him chasing around quarterback out to the sideline. His 65 total pressures since the start of 2019 are the most of any interior D-lineman in the country. In the National Championship game, Barmore was a frequent visitor in the backfield, recording 12 pressure and eight defensive stops that day, including an absurd TFL on 4th & 1 at the end of the third quarter, to basically seal the win.
With that being said, Barmore still has to learn playing under a little more control, refine his technique and recognize run schemes quicker. His pad-level can rise against double-teams, which creates vertical movement in the process and he allows some guards to scoop-block him on the backside of zone run plays, because he doesn’t bring that far foot across to get around them. Barmore is rarely the first guy off the snap and at this point, his motor can still kind of run hot and cold. He’s just not super consistent overall. He may make people drop their jaw one snap, where he just blows through a gap and then on the very next one, he gets sealed away from the play, because is a tick late in his reaction. This past season, he had a couple of games with zero pressures (Tennessee and Florida) and it took until the playoff that he really established himself as that top-tier IDL prospect.
Some of the ebbs to the flows of Barmore’s game certainly stem from the complexity of assignments up front for Alabama, where they ask their guys to stack, two-gap, penetrate, stunt and all of those on a weekly and series basis. I think he will be much more consistent, when he’s allowed to play a more defined role. Down the stretch, Barmore was getting doubled every other snap, especially when you look at Alabama’s two playoff games. I personally like him best in an upfield role, where his brute force and flexibility allow him to be a disruptive player, but if he continues to grow, he could be an impact player in pretty much any role up front.
2. Levi Onwuzurike, Washington
6’3”, 290 pounds; JR
A former four-star recruit back in 2016, Onwuzurike redshirted his first year up in the Pacific Northwest. The following two seasons, he was primarily a rotational D-lineman, recording ten tackles for loss and five sacks combined over that stretch. In 2019, he became one of the key members of that Washington defense as a starter, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors, thanks to 45 tackles, six of them for loss, two sacks and a blocked field goal. He opted out of this past season, to focus on his preparation for the draft.
Levi played a lot out of position, as a shade nose and even a true zero-technique in the Huskies’ front, despite weighing in at under 300 pounds, but he rarely let that become a problem. He is very mobile in terms of working down the line in the zone run game and he has those sudden hands, to disengage as he is mirroring the ball-carrier stringing the play out wide, as well as being able to back-door centers. When he isn’t in a head-up alignment, he flashes that ability to crash across the face of zone blockers and penetrate. And if the offense tries to seal him on the backside and they pull the guard across from him, Onwuzurike can work over the top and fill that hole, as the ball-carrier tries to hit it. If he was allowed to just play three-technique and get upfield, he might have had twice as many tackles for loss. On more gap-schemes, he has those snaps, where he fires off the ball, lands his hands inside the chest of the blocker and just dominates the point of attack. Plus, he has the base strength to hold his ground against double-teams, where he twists his shoulders to minimize surface area for that secondary blocker, and takes bumps from the side. Onwuzurike has the length and short-area quickness to get off blocks late and wrap up ball-carriers, who think they have an open lane. The big man also shows great hustle on bubble and tunnel screens. I saw him chase down 4.3-level C.J. Verdell from Oregon on a swing screen in 2019 and then he did the same thing later with another running back.
At 32 ½-inch arms, he may not be super long, but he uses it to full extension, to control blockers in the run game and not allow them to get into his frame as a pass-rusher. Levi can wreck guards with the bull-rush, especially from wider alignments. And he has that suddenness, to cross the blocker’s face, in combination with the rip move, while his club is pretty powerful, to get the shoulders of interior linemen twisted. It might not end up in a pressure, but you see that quickness to get around the initial blocker when he lands his hand-combat or shoves that guy out of the way, before a guard comes from the side and lands a rib-shot, to slow him down. Onwuzurike dealt with a lot of doubles in general and still created push up the middle of the pocket and found ways to get past, kind of slipping through and getting into the quarterback’s face anyway. Even though it’s not very effective yet, because he doesn’t threaten the edge initially and plants that inside foot hard enough, his spin move certainly shows potential. Over his last two years in college, he recorded 57 total pressures on 466 pass-rushing snaps. Onwuzirike only practiced on the first day of Senior Bowl, but quickly shook off the rust and showed that he is one of the top defensive players in this draft. That explosion off the ball was apparent right away, as he shot into the backfield on several occasions in team drills versus the run and powered through almost any lineman during pass-rush one-on-ones.
However, in the run game, Levi wants to peak a little on plenty of snaps and gets caught disengaging, trying getting to the other side of a blocker at times, before the ball-carrier has committed and gives up his gap in the process. On play-action, it can take him a while to transition into being a pass-rusher and at that point it being a long way to the quarterback. Overall, Onwuzurike gets way too wide in his rush lanes and doesn’t always have a plan, doing a lot of stutter-stepping to force the blocker to stop his feet, but then not attacking the hands, which allows guys to get into his chest and take him way off track. And while it’s obviously not an easy skill to acquire, just being aware of a guard sliding over and being pro-active with his hands, to land a secondary move, would have made him much more productive in the pass-game. With just seven sacks on about 1000 career snaps and being probably a pure three-technique at the next level, he doesn’t come in with the greatest resume.
While I do believe Levi will almost exclusively line up shaded to the outside of guards in a four-down front, it’s good to have it on tape, where he can deal with double-teams and show some versatility on passing downs. I love the power in the hands, the twitchiness and the strength at less than 300 pounds. He will have to work on being more effective with his approach as a pass-rusher, but if a team is looking for that type of player, I certainly wouldn’t mind spending a late first-round pick on him. While I do think there is a little bit of separation between numbers one and two, with better consistency at this point, I get why some people have Levi as their IDL1.
3. Dayvion Nixon, Iowa
6’3”, 305 pounds; RS JR
After starting his career at Iowa Western Community College, Nixon qualified academically for D1 football and committed to the Hawkeyes as a top 50 overall recruit, where he had to redshirt his first season. In 2019 he was more a rotational player and only started one game, recording 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks along the way. Then he kind of exploded out of nowhere last season, improving to 13.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks, to go with a pick-six against Penn State, earning himself Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and unanimous first-team All-American honors along the way.
Nixon presents kind of a stocky build and plays strong. He equally dominated from three- and one-tech alignments. His snap anticipation and get-off were much improved in 2020 and he really looked like a different player to be honest. His upfield burst jumps off the screen and he can tear through the reach of blockers on the front side of zone run plays, while continuing to work through contact to get to the ball, when he is lined up away from it. However, he also has a really strong base and initiates contact with great pad-level, to anchor against down-blocks, while twisting his body to split double-teams and create a moshpit in the middle on several occasions. And while it’s sort of an odd skills, he sells holding calls really darn well, when he doesn’t get to the ball. Nixon displays impressive change of direction and fluidity in his lower half, when reacting to screens, with the quick burst to chase those down, and he just doesn’t look like an interior lineman when he is running around in open space. Just go back and watch his pick-six against Penn State. That was such an athletic play from start to finish, especially when he crossed over the quarterback at the end of it.
This guy also brings a lot of force at first contact in the pass game and has plenty of twitch as a rusher. He displays sudden hands, with a powerful club and a quick swim or rip to follow that up. Plus, when he gets underneath the blocker, he can ride that guy all the way back into quarterback’s grill and just force him to move around. Nixon’s natural power often shows up when he knocks centers to the turf, as he slants into the A-gap and inadvertently crashes into them from the side. That makes him a great table-setter for any stunts, while showing good timing to work as the secondary guy on interior twists or even loops all the way out to the edge. He is a problem when crossing the face of the blocker in solo situations thanks to his quickness in short areas and then off that, I’ve seen him jab as if he was going cross and win towards the side he was originally aligned on. Overall, Nixon provided 44 total pressures on 503 pass-rushing snaps these last two years combined and 31 run stops on 338 snaps defending it.
While he did show tremendous growth from the 2019 season, the biggest area of improvement for Nixon is still recognizing blocking schemes and countering the first step of blockers. Too often you see him straight up on the man and only getting hands on the ball-carrier from the side or backside linemen be able to scoop him up in the zone run game, if initial contact can keep him from shooting through the gap. He allows blockers to get too close to his chest in general and he loses vision on the ball-carrier because of it. As a pass-rusher, Nixon needs to become more effective and pro-active with his hands and get around the blocker more tightly, actually clearing their hips rather than wasting steps laterally. While he did have a limited snap count and wasn’t nearly his dominant 2020 version, he got completely shut down by USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker in their bowl game two years ago. There’s still a very up-and-down nature to Nixon’s game and he really only has eight contests, where he looks like that player he was last season.
Even though we have to be a little hesitating with overhyping physically talented players, who really excelled in a COVID-shortened season, I think Nixon has shown enough to warrant top 50 consideration. After all, players are allowed to grow and you see plenty of that upside in 2019, when you watch the tape, but he simply didn’t know to unleash it yet. And with more focus on that area, that should only improve going forward. Coaching will be huge to create consistent urgency on every snap. I believe Nixon’s best fit is as a penetrating three-technique in an even front.
4. Tommy Togiai, Ohio State
6’2”, 300 pounds; JR
Just outside the top 50 overall recruits back in 2018, Togiai saw plenty of action right away as a rotational D-lineman for the Buckeyes. His first two years in that role, he recorded 26 total tackles and two for loss each per season. And while he didn’t have any sacks through his first two years, he recorded three in 2020 as a starter, when the season was shortened to just eight games, to go with 4.5 TFLs.
Togiai mostly played shade nose for the Buckeyes’ 4-3 defense and really was a table-setter for that unit. He displays a lot of juice off the snap from that spot and you routinely see him overwhelm centers at the point of attack in one-on-ones, coming in with a natural leverage advantage and jolt in his hands, to set the tone. He’s a wrecking ball out there, who can jerk big linemen to the side, when the ball-carrier is in range. Despite not having prototype nose size, he has plenty of strength to hold his ground versus double-teams. Versus zone runs, Togiai can anchor and penetrate on the front-side, but also does a nice job of squeezing blockers down from the backside of run plays overall and when he wraps up any body part of the ball-carrier, those guys usually don’t get away from him anymore. The Buckeyes were one of only six teams in the country to hold their opponents to under 100 yards rushing per game on average and this guy was one of the biggest keys to it. So while he wasn’t asked to two-gap, in those even fronts he can basically fill any role and be an impact run defender from day one at the next level.
However, Togiai is far from just a two-down run-stuffer. When he is matched up one-on-one, he can put linemen on skates and you see him literally push those guys into the lap of the quarterback, making them move and allowing teammates to finish off for sacks. And if he doesn’t put them flat on their backs, once he gets them leaning one way, he can pull them to that side and open up a direct path to the quarterback. He is also crafty with the way he hooks the arm of the blocker and doesn’t allow them to flip and push him past the quarterback. Togiai can be really set loose on passing downs, when he is in wide three alignment (almost over the tackle), to build up force, as he can take a couple of steps before engaging with the guard soloed up. You see those guys put everything they have into trying to slow him down, but once he gets that initial momentum going, they rarely find a way to re-anchor. Yet, he also has the quicks to beat them across their face, if they set too far to the outside, and he will only become more difficult to block, once he adds some power-to-speed maneuvers, where he engages to make blockers stop his feet and then gets around them. When Togiai gets close to the quarterback, but still has an opponent in-between the two, he gets those big paws up, to take away passing lanes. While his sack total isn’t overly impressive, the former Buckeye did have 24 total pressures on less than 200 pass-rushing snaps, getting one on 12.7 percent of those.
As much as he can influence plays, Togiai needs to find a way to finish them more regularly. I don’t think he quite has the upside as a pass-rusher as the guys in my top three, based on measurements and quick-twitch athleticism. Togiai’s lack of length shows up when he has that arm-over move shut down, because he can quite reach over the top. If a team has three good defensive ends and one of them excels at rushing over guards, this guy might be taken off the field in favor of that third man rotating in. Considering Togiai is only 300 pounds, he will likely not play as much in the A-gaps as he did at Ohio State and he never played at least 300 snaps in any season and he had no sacks and just six career QB pressures before this past season.
Togiai is one of my favorite players in this draft. He may never be a super star or blow you away with great statistical numbers, but he will make a defense better as soon as he gets out there for them. His automatic pad-level advantage and the natural strength to own his space in the run game and the ability to push the pocket up the middle will lead to a lot of production for his teammates, as linebackers are allowed to stay clean and make tackles, while the quarterback will be flushed out and wrapped up by the guys off the edge thanks to him. Depending on how much you ask your D-line to get upfield, I think Togiai can actually play one-technique for you and then try to break the anchor of guards on third-downs.
5. Milton Williams, Louisiana Tech
6’4”, 280 pounds; RS JR
Only a two-star recruit back four years ago, Williams has added 50 pounds from his final high school weight and got bigger every year. He redshirted for one year barely saw the field as a freshman, but has been an impact these last two seasons and he was dominant across the board versus Conference-USA this past year in particular. Over these last two seasons, he has combined for 19 tackles for loss and ten sacks, earning honorable mention and first-team all-conference accolades respectively.
Williams played between three-, 4i- and five-technique for the most part in the Bulldogs’ 3-4 front. He really has some juice off the ball and can either shoot through gaps and flash color in the backfield or stack up blockers in the run game. You see Williams knock blockers backwards at first contact and then jerk them to the side, when their weight is too far out in front routinely. In short-yardage situations, he can create disruptive by just moving offensive linemen backwards. On lateral run schemes, he shows the quickness to flow on the playside, but then redirect as he sees the ball-carrier cuts back. However, even more so, it’s that ability to be shaded towards one side of a side and rapidly wrap up the back, when he goes up the opposite gap. He also flashes that ability to back-door blockers on zone runs with a sudden arm-over maneuver. Williams squeezes and chases down runs from the backside very well and gets involved on a lot more tackles than most guys in his position would, which is in part thanks to his pure speed, but also his strong motor. You see him at times get cut off in the backside B-gap and shuffle across the formation, to get hands on the ball-carrier on off tackle runs the other way. Williams also displays the change of direction, to go from moving upfield to pivoting off one foot and chasing after a screen out near the sideline.
As a pass-rusher, he certainly also that suddenness and those twitchy movement skills to him. Williams gets around guards routinely by giving them a little wiggle and then the high swim, to go with pivoting his hips, to get them pointed to the quarterback simultaneously. He shows the ability to jab one way and beat blockers across their face with that move as well, where you rarely see his opponents be able to redirect laterally before he has already cleared their hips or they end up getting flagged for grabbing him on the way by. And then as opponents don’t set him strong enough, he can work through them and put them on roller-blades with the bull-rush. On third downs, you saw him move out to the edge and come from a two-point stance as times, where his ability to corner to the quarterback whilst working through contact can really shine, as well as being able to shorten the arc with power. Williams was one of the most productive interior pass-rushers in the country this past season, with 30 total pressures on just under 250 pass-rushing snaps (12.1%) and a 21.8 percent pass-rush win rate. And those numbers are even more impressive, considering how many three-man rushes Louisiana Tech used, because of which Williams saw a lot of doubles from the tackle and guard. This guy was a one-man wrecking crew against UAB last season.
The biggest reason to pause a little bit with the evaluation of Williams is the fact he is a bit of a one-year wonder. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of just over 90 this past season, after he was at 72.6 in 2019. You see him get sealed or hinge-blocked too easily on the backside of runs, because he doesn’t mirror the first step(s) of linemen effectively enough. And with only 31 ½-inch arms, the further outside he plays – which at 280 pounds, three-technique will be his closest alignment to the ball – the more often he will lose the length battle. Williams had a tough time making much of an impact in the BYU game, when he faced technically sound offensive linemen, who were able to attack his frame constantly. As effective as he was rushing the passer last season, the arsenal of moves isn’t very broad yet. And he played less than 500 total snaps in ten games this past season and missed large portions of series almost inexplicably.
Williams put up ridiculous numbers at the Louisiana Tech pro day, where 34 reps on the bench press was probably his worst one, as he was in the 97th percentile in all other categories, including clocking in in the low 4.6s for the 40 and below 6.9 in the three-cone drill. There are some concerns about only having one dominant season, which came in this odd year of college football, but with that freakish testing, he’s not making it past day two. If you teach him to be a little more effective and diverse with his hand-combats, I think he can be a high-level pass-rusher in year two already and with how quickly he can get off blocks in the run game, he will make several stops in that area. So I think a three-tech or a 4i in more of hybrid front is his most natural fit, while kicking out to the edge on some passing downs.
6. Alim McNeill, N.C. State
6’2”, 320 pounds; JR
A former top 200 overall recruit, McNeill immediately stepped into action with the Wolfpack and played over 400 snaps all three years in college (between 10 and 11 games respectively). These past two seasons in particular, he was the rock in the middle of that N.C. State defense. In 2019, he recorded 7.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, but inexplicably wasn’t recognized for it by the ACC. Last year they thankfully made up for it, by making him first-team all-conference, with only one sack and 4.5 TFLs, but a pick-six.
Starting out as a linebacker and running back in high school, McNeill began his collegiate career at 299 pounds and added weight both years, to really build up that massive frame. He almost exclusively played true nose for the Wolfpack these last couple of years in their 3-3 front (90.7 percent between A-gaps) and uses a rather passive three-point stance to be able to play under control. McNeill has just an absurd anchor, while playing with great leverage and weight distribution. You constantly see him take bumps from the side in the run game, but his base is just so sturdy, that he barely moves an inch, plus he has some pretty crazy grip strength, to pull big linemen to the ground in order to disengage. However, in the zone game, he can also cross face and rip through, while his effort in pursuit is excellent overall. The center and guard may be engaged with him, but McNeill still finds a way to reach those edges and get his hands on the ball-carrier. And you can’t really leave him soloed up on the inside either, because he will move the blocker a couple of yards into the backfield and force the ball-carrier to redirect. On more angular blocks, McNeill has displayed some gap-shooting ability, while ripping underneath the blocker trying to push him down the line. Even when he is showing in the gap and the blocker tries driving him from the side, he will own that space and limit any cutbacks.
The N.C. State nose-tackle has certainly flashed some pass-rush ability the few times he was in one-on-ones, but with him being head-up on the center and the two ends across the tackles for the most part, he did face a lot of slide protections and was the recipient of guard help, which often forced him to take these wider rushes. I think he has become much more active with his hands in that department though. McNeill has shown the ability to toss the first man to the side and then drive the second blocker backwards, as well as split two blockers and sort of power through their reaches. When he is facing solo-blocks, he shows that bear-like strength, to grab the pads of linemen and yank them to the side and his most effective move at this point is a tight swim after engaging initially. Every once in a while, he flashes a spin move that has a lot of potential, if he learns to clear the hips of the blocker while doing it. At times, you will see somebody slide his way and he hits that guy with a spin. that will leave the blocker turning himself around as well. And he does a really good job staying on his feet against cut-blocks in the quick game. The sack production may not always be there, but McNeill has recorded 50 total pressures over 764 pass rush snaps these last three seasons combined, despite all the attention he has received from offensive lines.
As sturdy as he may be against the run, McNeill could still play with a little better extension to keep vision on the backfield. It might be a coaching point to some degree, but McNeill gets very locked in with just holding his ground and staying engaged with the center, rather than reading blocks and working around them, in order to get to the action. And on down-blocks, he hasn’t shown the desire to work over the top and gets himself out of the play to some degree because of it. As a pass-rusher he hasn’t had a lot of chances to show out, but his aiming points are a little off and he doesn’t offer a very diverse skill-set at this moment. There is really only the bull-rush, quick swim and a spin every once in a while. And he doesn’t always come off the ball with much of a plan. While his snap total is pretty high for a nose, the snaps he did get taken off the field came primarily on third downs and I don’t expect him to have a major role on those at the next level either.
This dude is an immovable object in the run game, who eats double-teams for breakfast. It’s almost comical how McNeill simply doesn’t move, even though a guard tries to blast him from the side. Like I mentioned, the upside as a pass-rusher is fairly limited, but when I look at somebody like Brandon Williams for the Ravens, they find ways to make use of his strengths in that regard, as he could be more of a table-setter for different games up front. One of my favorite plays in 2020 was that pick-six he had against Virginia in the fourth quarter, where he tipped the ball to himself, to really put the game on ice.
7. Marlon Tuipulotu, USC
6’2”, 310 pounds; RS JR
Once a top-five defensive tackle recruit, Tuipulotu only saw the field in one game as a freshman due to a back injury, before playing in every and starting all but two more games these last three seasons. Over that stretch, he recorded just over 100 tackles, 15 of those for loss and 6.5 sacks. In the absence of teammate Jay Tufele, Tuipulotu really shined inside for the Trojan defense in their limited amount of games and was recognized as a second-team all-conference selection in the process.
Tuipulotu almost exclusively played shade nose for USC last season (after he lined up more in the B-gap in 2019), where he offers a massive load of natural power. He lands those hands inside the chest of the center with force and just has that natural gift of being able to pull that guy to the side, as the ball-carrier approaches, with that crazy strength in his hands to strike the pads of the blocker backwards. That is especially apparent when the guard is coming over on the backside of zone run plays, where he displays the ability to work through lateral contact, but also directly at the point of attack. Yet, at the same time, he has adequate mobility, to work down the line against zone run plays and he started attacking more through gaps this past season, combined with ripping through the reach of the blocker. Something I love about Tuipulotu is the great hustle he displays for a big dude, turning around and chasing after screens, or trying to run down receivers on sweeps towards the sideline constantly.
In the pass game is where I saw the biggest change for Marlon last season. He looked much more dynamic in that area and seemed to have added a little shake to his rushes. The large D-tackle was looking to earn more of that quick wins at the line of scrimmage, with hand swipes and actually stepping around the blocker. And he added a nice spin move to make blockers pay for overcommitting their hips, as they tried to ride him past the quarterback when he got the edge of their frame on the initial move. Of course he still has the massive power to work into the depth of the pocket, when he is soloed up with guards or centers. And he continues to work and tests the ability to anchor among the interior offensive line as a rusher. The Trojans lined him up more shaded to the outside shoulder of guards on passing downs and he was even looped all the way to the C-gap, where he showed good pace to make those games effective. While the sample size is small, Tuipulotu’s 15 total pressures last season on 159 pass-rushing snaps was actually significantly more effective than the other USC defensive tackle in this class – Jay Tufele – in 2019, compared to Marlon this past season as the solo-act, despite this guy spending the majority of snaps in-between the guards.
With that being said, the Trojans coaches still subbed him out quite a bit in third-and-long situations. There are certainly more sudden, quicker guys rushing on the interior and he will have to prove his value in that area, to become an every-down player. Last season was Tuipulotu’s only one with a clearly above-average pass-rushing win-rate and his pass-rush arsenal is still fairly limited. He doesn’t have that quick burst to strike fear into blockers laterally. When defending the run, the one thing I’d like to see him do a better job of is working over the top of blocks, when he sees the ball-carrier run through the other side and he can still get more effective crossing the face of his man on outside zone plays I believe, to be able to defend against the flow and force cutbacks.
I think Marlon will play either one-technique or as a true nose for whoever drafts him. He may not be a dynamic pass-rusher necessarily, but he can offer plenty in that regard, to be a desirable asset either way. And he will be a rock in the middle in terms of defending the run, swallowing combos and occupying players in general. Like I mentioned, there are some limitations with Marlon and I never expect him to play significantly more than 70 percent of the snaps, but there’s plenty of value in what he presents, especially if he continues to stay on the arc he is on, in terms of much improved he was this past season, compared to 2019.
8. Darius Stills, West Virginia
6’1”, 285 pounds; SR
After only seeing the field in one game as a freshman, this former three-star recruit started eight games in 2018 and as a junior he really came onto the scene, when he started all 12 contests and recorded 12 TFLs and six sacks, to go along with a couple of PBUs and fumbles forced each, which earned him first-team All-Big 12 honors. This past season, with three games less, his numbers dropped a little (7.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks), but he was still named the conference’s Defensive Lineman of the Year and a consensus All-American thanks to the way he impacted games, including an interception.
This guy presents a wide frame, but plays with consistent urgency and gets off the ball with some explosion, with his brother Dante actually being the only one to beat him off the snap more than every once in a while. That made him one of the best backfield disruptors in all of college football these last two years, shooting through with natural leverage, which he could maintain throughout plays. You constantly see him flash in the backfield and force ball-carriers to redirect or straight up blow things up. On zone run plays, he often rips through the play-side shoulder and works into the backfield, to make the RB cut back, and he has the quickness to back-door centers trying to seal him on the backside-. Even when lined up shaded to the backside, he can crash across the blocker’s face and disrupt things, When he is engaged with an offensive lineman, he can hit that rapid arm-over as the ball-carrier approaches, to show in the gap. And if he is caught on the wrong side of a block every once in a while, he really works to get over the top and get to the action anyway. At times, you see him make the first blocker slip off him, side-step another guy, trying to lead the way and still get hands on the ball-carrier. Watching this man absolutely destroy upbacks on the punt block team is one the biggest joys of my life. Despite playing a lot in-between the A-gaps and receiving plenty of attention, Stills was still on the field for almost every snap and he shows outstanding hustle, to chase guys down, which speaks to his incredible stamina and competitiveness.
Stills offers a ton of power and he routinely overwhelms several offensive linemen in their pass sets, to work into the depth of the pocket – especially when coming on an angle. Plus, he can kind of dip-and-rip underneath offensive linemen, while having the strength to power through contact, as you rarely see him get taken too much off track or widen the arc. Stills has a violent club arm, to twist the upper body of blockers and he follows through instantly high or low. When left one-on-one with centers, you see him rip to one side and ride the blocker upfield, forcing quarterbacks to take off up the middle routinely. If he has the freedom to counter the other way and he sees the blocker slide his direction, he can almost make that guy miss completely, as he steps through the other way and clears the hands with a perfectly-timed high swim. Stills ran a lot of stunts and twists at West Virginia, where he often times worked his way through as the actual set-up man, but he can also be effective as a looper, where he displays some suddenness, after hesitating initially. He bangs into two the guard and center a lot, as he gets double-teamed, and just continues fighting, to create push up the middle.
Overall, Stills is still a rather reckless player. In the run game, he tends to shoot upfield too far at times and open up room on the inside, while being pretty undisciplined with his gap control in general (even though I would guess the WVU coaches allowed that some degree). That shows up when he tries to crash through the play-side shoulder really hard and with West Virginia running a three-down front primarily, that can leave a huge lane, as the guard works up to the second level. He was never asked to actually stack-and-shed blockers and I’ve seen him get driven backwards a few times by combos or angle blocks on more vertical run schemes. Stills does a lot of stutter-stepping to set up his rush, where his chest isn’t protected against punches, which slow him down severely, and once that primary move stalls, you don’t see a whole lot of effective counters. He uses too many spin moves in traffic, that don’t really get him anywhere, Plus. he gets pretty wild in his rush lanes and therefore struggles to re-direct versus scrambling quarterbacks. His pressure numbers dropped pretty dramatically from 2019 to this past season from 33 total and 16 combined sacks and hits to 20 and six respectively, on 56 fewer pass-rush snaps.
However, when you look at the stats overall, with 51 total pressures on 588 pass-rushing snaps over the last two years, that is still a high win-rate at the position, and he did receive a lot more attention this past season. Stills also just recorded a 7.2 in the three-cone drill at his pro day (92nd percentile), speaking of that change-of-direction quickness. He is just this wrecking ball, who can create some issues for his own unit with that style of play at times, but he can also be a highly disruptive player, who will have to learn playing in a more defined role at the next level, but has that versatility to move along the front. I think he would benefit from staying in an odd front, but further away the center, as like a 3/4i and then maybe go back to the nose on passing downs.
9. Dayo Odeyingbo, Vanderbilt
6’6”, 275 pounds; JR
Split between a three- and four-star recruit between the four major rankings, Odeyingbo already flashed as true freshman with plenty of time in the rotation and took over as a starter from year two on. As a junior, he recorded 12.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, before leading the Commodores in TFLs (eight), sacks (5.5) and quarterback pressures (25) this past season, which earned him second-team All-SEC accolades.
Odeyingbo is mostly labelled an edge rusher, but he played a lot of 4- and 4i-technique, while almost playing as many snaps lined up anywhere further inside than shaded to outside of the offensive tackle. It’s pretty freakish, how explosive he is and the closing speed he has for close to 280 pounds. He shoots and locks out those arms, with forceful hands versus the run, to stand blockers straight up, and often plugged the B-gap with the offensive tackle’s ass, as he pushed him that way or at times sat him onto mentioned behind. He has the power to crash through the play-side shoulder, as well as the quick-twitch to back-door blockers in the zone run game. Odeyingbo won’t get pushed around on angle-blocks and even some double-teams. When he is shaded to one shoulder or lined up in a gap, blockers have a tough time crossing his face on zone runs, because he will slap the hands down and shoot through it, to take a direct path to the ball-carrier. And you just see a lot of guys slip off him, as they have their weight shifted forward and he pulls them down that way, to make them fall on their face. Vandy actually put him at nose at times on first-and-ten and large stretches of a series, especially against pass-heavy teams and in two-minute type situations, just because he would give centers so much trouble with how quickly he attacked them, to throw things of.
As an edge rusher, he has the pure strength to shorten the angle to the quarterback routinely and he has flashed a devastating inside move when tackles overset to the outside, pairing upper and lower body halves together beautifully to clear the blocker’s hips, in combination with the quick swim. Odeyingbo already showed flashes of being a terror at slanting through the B-gap and driving both the guard and tackle with him, and he has done quite a bit of looping when lined up inside the tackle, where he transitions into the bull-rush and put tackles on skates. He has the power to even drive centers and guards backwards when they are one-on-one, as he lines up across the front. Odeyingbo just has that violence to his game and he can yank the blocker’s pads to the side, when they lean into him. Just go back and watch him abuse Mississippi State’s center last season. He will continue to fight through contact and eventually free himself as a pass-rusher. He doesn’t utilize a lot, where he can actually get around blockers, but his spin move certainly has potential. This young man has improved every single season and while the sack production might not quite be there, he did collect 60 total pressures on 564 pass-rushing snaps over these last two years combined. Plus, Vandy used a lot of three-man rushes and didn’t really have anybody else to pay attention to up front – so you saw Odeyingbo get doubled a whole lot.
However, this guy is like a bull in the china shop. He has to learn how to play under better control. His technique versus double-teams could use improvement, in terms of attacking one shoulder and twisting his body (to split) and his aiming points are a little off in the run-game altogether, to establish gap-control as well. Odeyingbo is not very effective at getting quick Ws on his first pass-rush move. He doesn’t always rush with a plan and you see him just whack the hands of a blocker to the side and get into the backfield, but put so much into that, he has to catch his own balance again, before he can go on to the quarterback. And he slips off way too many tackles, with 23 missed on 106 attempts over his three years as a starter. At his current weight and looking at his skill-set, he can certainly be classified as a tweener right now. And having torn his Achilles this offseason will likely cost him his rookie season certainly hurt his draft stock.
This guy is such an interesting, almost weird watch. He will just overwhelm some guys as he bangs into them, but then lose his own balance because of it and sometimes he and the blocker land on the turf. There is still plenty to do in terms of actually being able to win consistently with technique and stay in his lane, but there’s a lot to work with. So I think he is better suited to create chaos on the inside and present inside-out versatility on passing downs, rather than be a true edge player. If he gets back to 100 percent, he could end up being a huge steal on day three potentially.
10. Osa Odighizuwa, UCLA
6’2”, 280 pounds; RS JR
The younger brother of former five-star recruit and third-round pick Owa Odighizuwa, Osa wasn’t nearly as highly recruited but still got an offer from the Bruins as well. He redshirted his first year on campus and was a rotational piece for UCLA, until he entered the starting lineup for the final eight games of his sophomore season. Since then he has started all 27 contests, but it took the Pac-12 until this past season to recognize him as a first-team all-conference selection.
At 280 pounds, you expect a pure upfield penetrator, but Osa displays an all-around skill-set and for his height, that 84-inch wingspan and the 34-inch arms are very good. He primarily lined up shaded to the outside edge of guards in a four-man front for UCLA, but was lined up in the A-gap quite a bit as well, where he wasn’t taken advantage of on many occasions. Odighizuwa plays with good leverage and extension in the run game, while having the incredibly strong lower to hold his ground. He excels at shifting his weight to anchor versus down-blocks and then squeezes down the gaps inside by pushing his man that way, putting that guy on his butt a few times. You actually see him drive some guys, who outweigh him by like 50 pounds, a couple of yards backwards in some short-yardage situations. And then he shows some suddenness to work across the face of blockers, as he sees the ball-carrier try to run through that gap, Osa has a very good understanding and feel for how to deal with double-teams, to where he keeps his hands inside the chest of the first man, but lean into the angular blockers. At the same time, you see him get into the backfield against zone runs with the high swim a few times as well. On those wide zone runs, he at times stops his feet almost and crosses the face of guards, to not let the play flow to the outside, and he displays excellent pursuit from the backfield of those lateral schemes.
Odighizuwa’s burst off the ball allows him to attack the edges of blockers as well as the middle, to power through them. He does a nice job of knocking away the hands of blockers or lifting up their arms, to be able to stab at their chest and drive them backwards. He really compresses the pocket with his rushes and even when receiving extra attention, creates that push up the middle. And he gets linemen to slip off him quite a bit, as they lean into the rusher too much. More than anything however, he displays that ability to link his arms and hips, in order to actually step around blockers, to where he can twist his body as he gets through the gaps and stay on his path to the quarterback, with the ankle flexibility to corner, while a blocker is engaged with him. He doesn’t do it consistently enough to totally clear his man, but the fluidity and flashes are there. And he just continues to work and somehow finds ways to slip through, to create pressure. Osa has experience rushing off the edge, where he can create issues for tackles by stabbing to the inside, and working as part of several stunts and twists, as well lining up at nose quite a bit and being strong enough to stay there, without having to substitute for base downs. Despite being able to set up twists or loop to the edge and drop out three or four times a game, he put up 54 total pressures on 621 pass-rush snaps over these last two seasons combined (which I think that number doesn’t fully represent what I just explained).
When he’s at the point of attack in the run game, he may have done everything right, but then as the ball-carrier approaches, tries to slide towards the opposite gap a little too early and leaves his gap unoccupied. And at his size, he won’t be able to hold his ground in the run game, much less push around offensive linemen in the run game like he did at times in the Pac-12. As a pass-rusher, his plan and moves overall could use some refinement, in terms of timing his hand-combats better and his approach depending on alignment. He needs to show better awareness for how offenses slide their protections and be pro-active against the man, who ends up being responsible for him. If he kept his chest clean more, he could be much more effective in that regard. There just aren’t a lot of quick wins and he doesn’t work in successful counters at this point. And at 6’2”, 280 pounds, he definitely has tweener stature and some evaluators may struggle finding the right position fit.
When I first watched Senior Bowl practices, I felt like Odighizuwa was constantly looking to just engage and shuffle his feet during pass-rush one-on-one, not showing any actual plan. But after he was – to my surprise – named the Defensive Lineman of the Week for the North team, I went back to the tape and zeroed in on him, to where I was more impressed with his hands and getting that initial flash as a pass-rusher. He just didn’t finish very effectively. Odighizuwa is not the easiest projection, because the measurements scream three-technique, but he plays much bigger than his size indicate and doesn’t necessarily have that slashing style of play. So I might actually like him better in a hybrid 3-4 front as four/five-technique. Either way, he flashes the tools to become a more productive player at the next level and he shows outstanding effort all-around.
Just missed the cut:
Jay Tufele, USC
6’3”, 315 pounds; RS JR
A former top 50 overall recruit, Tufele redshirted his first year on campus, then was named second-team All-Pac-12 in 2018 and improved to first-team all-conference as a sophomore, before opting out of the 2020 season. In his two seasons with the Trojans, Tufele recorded ten TFLs, 6.5 sacks, a pick and a scoop-and-score.
Tufele split time between 1- and 3-technique in the Trojans four-man front, but projects best as a three-technique at the next level. He is very quick off the snap and can be disruptive in a penetrating role. On zone run plays, he slants hard through the inside pad of the blocker to defend his gap and flash color in the backfield. When he just crashes through his gap, he can truly wreak havoc that way. And he has excellent lateral agility to redirect down the line on counter-type runs or when reacting to end-arounds, screens and other stuff. Plus, you see him drag down running backs coming through the opposite gap that he is shaded towards, thanks to his length and quicks in short areas. And he doesn’t settle with staying blocked, actively looking to disengage and get back into the play. Tufele has the get-off to give guys trouble on passing downs and works into the depth of the pocket, by going through the middle of the man or crash through one shoulder. He is crafty with the way he lifts up the arms of the blocker and gets into that guy’s chest, but also has the long limbs himself, to beat them with the high swim. And when he follows that up with stepping through with that near foot to clear the hips of the blocker, he can be a problem. Plus, he can also knock those blockers off balance, by grabbing underneath their shoulder plate and twisting their upper body that way, Tufele does a great job of attacking the inside shoulder of the tackle and draw the guard with him as the first guy on twists. Comparing this to a lot of other IDL prospects and what they did in their first two years, 46 total pressures on 654 pass-rushing snaps between 2018 and ’19 is certainly not too shabby.
On the flipside, Tufele raises his pads too quickly and gets driven off the ball on plenty of occasions. He gets uprooted on angle-blocks too many times and can’t anchor down against double-teams. And he is caught on the wrong side of blocks quite a bit, because he doesn’t actually read and counter the first step of blockers successfully. As a pass-rusher, he is not super effective with his hand-swipes, where his aiming points are a little off, And I don’t think he is under great control in that area in general, while lacking any reliable counter maneuvers and being able to string multiple moves together. He really only has the swim and bull-rush as a pass-rusher right now.
The reason I – unlike most rankings I saw out there – don’t have Tufele in my top ten (even though he obviously isn’t far off), is that inability to hold his ground on gap run schemes, if caught on an angle. There is certainly a lot of potential, but his teammate Marlon Tuipulotu absolutely had a better season in 2020 than he did when last seen and he offers little versatility across the front. To me, he is a pure three-technique in an even front.
Cameron Sample, Tulane
6’3”, 275 pounds; SR
Once just a two-star recruit without any Power-Five offers, Sample increased his role with the Green Wave every single season, recording 18.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks combined over these last three seasons, but never got any recognition for it by AAC coaches. However, Pro Football had him as a first-team all-conference edge defender last season, as he transitioned into more of a hybrid outside linebacker role.
Sample has plenty of pop in his hands, to knock blockers backwards at first contact, and he can even bench-press guards at times in the run game, while squeezing down from the backside. He has so much natural power and he plays with some of the best leverage you will find up front. You saw him absolutely destroy some tight-ends in that area. Sample has shown the ability to deal with blocks on the edge and the interior, while being able to discard them at the right moment on several occasions, as he came up with 31 defensive stops in 2020. When unblocked away from the play, he gets around blockers tightly and shows good pursuit. He had this one snap last season versus SMU, where was the unblocked end-man on a speed sweep and he just kept chasing, barely not being able to push the receiver out of bounds at the pylon. In the pass game, the explosion for a guy at 275/280 pounds is pretty crazy and he can bend better than a lot of pure edge rushers. Plus, then he has the power to rip and run through the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle, as well as routinely shortening the arc with power and flushing the quarterback. And he was more consistent with hitting inside counters this past season. Sample’s quickness can create major issues as an interior rusher, while having the sturdiness to stay there for base downs in sub-sets. He tremendously improved his pass-rushing grade from 69.1 to 90.4 last season and recorded an incredible 48 pressures on a little over 300 opportunites, giving him pressure-per-rush rate of 15.2 percent. What really has me intrigued about Sample’s potential on passing downs is the work he put in at the Senior Bowl, where he was arguably the top front-seven defender over the week. He routinely impressed me with being lined up shaded to one side and then when the blocker stepped that way, going around those guys and into the opposite gap with effective hand-swipes, clearing their hips effectively.
With that being said, Sample at this point is just a little reckless as a player, who needs to use technique more altogether, in order to defeat blocks. He will probably end up putting those guys on their asses, but at times you see him get sealed by tight-ends on the backside of run plays, because he doesn’t react to blocking schemes or the first step(s) of the offensive accordingly. In the pass game, he needs to keep his frame clean more consistently and keep adding to his pass-rush tool box, as he still relies heavily on his power at this moment. At his current size, he is kind of a tweener, with excessive weight in the mid-section for an edge and undersized as an interior defensive lineman.
I recognize that I’m probably higher on Sample than most analysts out there and he is primarily evaluated as an edge rusher. However, while I believe he could certainly play defensive end in a 4-3, before kicking inside on rush downs, zo me fits best as a three-technique or 4i in hybrid fronts. He is more than capable of holding his ground in the ground and he can create plenty of disruption, if you allow him to get upfield. No matter what you look at his as in base, he should be a problem for guards on passing downs.
Tyler Shelvin, LSU
6’5”, 350 pounds; RS JR
Just outside the top 50 overall recruits in the country, Shelvin was an academic redshirt his first year in Baton Rouge and it took until year two for him to crack the starting lineup right in the middle of LSU’s defense, recording with three TFLs and two passes batted down, leading up to winning the National Championship. He had planned on coming back to school in 2020, but opted out of the COVID-affected season.
Shelvin was an absolute rock in the middle of the Tigers defense, lining up almost exclusively right over the middle or as a shade nose. He gets his hands inside the chest of centers and controls them throughout the play, plus if the running back is in range, Shelvin can also bench-press and push off the blocker, or at times even putting guys flat on their back, to make first contact with the ball-carrier. And when he can grab a leg or something, that guy usually isn’t getting away from him. You see Shelvin getting doubled constantly, but there was just nobody, who could move this guy off the spot and he kept the LSU backers really clean. His base is just so sturdy, that getting banged from the side barely affects him and you see him actively shift his weight to that near-leg, in order to hold his ground. And every once in a while, you will see him arm-over centers, to get into the backfield. I watched opposing teams consciously running away from Shelvin, because they knew there was nothing happening up those A-gaps. On pass plays, Shelvin actually has a pretty impressive get-off and when he runs into basically anybody in protection, he will whack that guy’s pads backwards. Shelvin has those forceful hands, to pull blockers off himself, if they just get off balance momentarily, and you see those guys try to grab him a lot. Or he can rip underneath and fight through those holds. You saw blockers do everything they could, in terms of kicking their feet back an trying to grab as much grass as possible with their cleats, but they still ended up getting rocked backwards step-by-step, Because of that, offense routinely had to slid the guard over, to protect the integrity of the pocket.
While Shelvin eating up space in the middle can be valuable asset, don’t expect too much away from that. On zone runs, he may not get moved, but because he doesn’t flow with the play at all, if you get good movement on the front-side, there will be space anyway. He doesn’t have that quickness to work across a blocker’s face on outside zone runs and while he may push that guy down the line, he often gets sealed away from the run. To me Shelvin is a pure two-down run-plugger and LSU mostly agrees – he barely saw the field for third downs. You get a slow-burn push up the pocket usually or once in a while he will hit the rip successfully. There are no secondary moves, he doesn’t even show the want to attack the edges of blockers and when he was getting doubled, there was no plan of how to make an impact anyway. Overall, he recorded only two sacks and 10 total QB pressures on just under 400 pass-rushing snaps in his career with the Tigers.
This guy is a like a one-family house right over the ball and you will not move him in the run game. So if you need somebody to instantly upgrade your interior run defense, there are maybe one or two other names that can fill that void as well as Shelvin. However, I just don’t see much beyond that and in a league that throws the ball more every single year. Shelvin still hasn’t even played two full seasons and there is plenty of room to grow, but I didn’t see a versatile enough skill-set to make him a priority early on in the draft. Weight control could be a major issue and his snap total could also be pretty limited.
The next names up:
Marvin Wilson (Florida State), Jalen Twyman (Pittsburgh), Khyiris Tonga (BYU), Bobby Brown III (Texas A&M), JaQuan Bailey (Iowa State), Carlo Kemp (Michigan) & Ta’Quon Graham (Texas)