Concluding our look at the players in the trenches, we are putting the interior D-line under microscope. This group anything from true zero-technique over the center all the way out to four-/five-technique playing head up on the offensive tackle, in terms of base positions. Obviously depending on scheme, alignment and role can vary a lot.
There’s a clear top two from the same school as chance may have it, then a trio of interesting body-types that some NFL teams may refer to as tweeners, a couple of specific fits with narrow skill-sets that they are outstanding at however and then it’s a lot of variety in terms of what people may value. This class is also loaded with two-down nose tackles on the back-end, but overall I think the depth of the group may be a little overstated.
Once again, evaluations are purely based on my film study and done in a vacuum, without taking schematic fits or skill-sets teams are looking for into account, and I have one name up here that I don’t really see anywhere else.
1. Jordan Davis, Georgia
6’6”, 340 pounds; SR
A top-500 overall recruit in 2018, Davis played in 11 of 14 and started in four games of his freshman season, which coaches voted him to the Freshman All-SEC team for. In year two, he started eight contests and was a co-winner for Georgia’s Defensive “Up Front” Award with four tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He had an underwhelming junior season, when he was limited to just one TFL and sack, but then came back in his final year and was a force in the middle of that Bulldog defense, that was playing in a completely different league to the rest of college football. Davis personally was one of two guys from that unit (along with Nakobe Dean) to make the first-team All-American team, with a career-high five TFLs to go with a couple of sacks, and won the Bednarik Award, which is presented to the country’s best defensive player.
Before we get into anything else – this is a behemoth of a man, Davis primarily lined up at one-technique for the Bulldogs defense, where he can stack and shed blocks in the run game, but he has spent some time two-gapping as a true nose as well. He can straight-up bench-press guards and centers into the backfield and he’s almost immovable at the point of attack, no matter where the blocker is coming from. He has some absolutely stupid plays, where he’s standing there in his gap like a giant wall you don’t want to run to, yet even as the back cuts to the opposite side of the blocker, the massive Bulldog D-tackle meets him in the hole by working over the top. Davis showcases sound technique working against double-teams, in terms of locking out with both hands inside the frame of the primary man and rolling his hips through. It’s almost comical to see him bounce of blockers and when people try to trap him. For a guy his size, Davis can really run when he’s in chase-down mode, as well as possessing the lateral agility and great pursuit overall to the outside in general, to make him a factor against wide zone concepts for example. The difference in motor from 2020 to ’21 was incredible, not getting caught on the wrong side of blocks and routinely getting hands on the ball-carrier in the backfield, actually starting to cross-face zone blockers regularly. And he’s almost impossible to get in front of on cut-off or scoop blocks, with the force he brings as an upfield player.
Davis also showed more effort and attack-attitude as a pass-rusher in 2021. When he commits to the bull-rush, not a lot of people can stop his momentum and usually he can at minimum push the interior of the pocket back and make quarterbacks uncomfortable, with no room to step up. However, because opposing linemen have to lean into blocks against him and put all they have into holding their ground for the most part, Davis can punish them for forward weight distribution by pulling them to the side. At Georgia, they liked to run a variety of gap-exchanges and games up front, where Davis showcased the quicks and overall movement skills to bend around and shoot through a different gap. Particularly, they ran a ton of T-T twists on the inside, where he freed up one of his teammates by crashing across the center’s face and drawing attention from the guard to that side. While he was subbed off on the majority of third downs because of the ridiculous depth of talent up front for Georgia, he did rush the passer on just over 600 snaps in his career and last season he quietly put up 26 total pressures on just 221 pass-rush snaps. He also did a much better job of recognizing pass and pulling blockers to the side, as he transitions to becoming a rusher, particular off play-action
Until this past season, Davis was often a tick late off the ball and there were still quite a few times, when he had the green light to go. Some of that is on early downs is based on the design of the defense, where he was supposed to look at the man, rather than the ball, but there’s still room for improvement. As I mentioned, he rarely stayed on the field on third downs and doesn’t yet provide a whole lot in the pass game, other than pushing into the depth of the pocket. He’s a slow burner in that regard without a developed group of moves, winning either with the bull-rush or push-pull when he does. In the run game, there’s not a whole lot to criticize, but he could become more efficient with first two steps to counter run schemes and not have to rely on his strength to just pull blockers to the side – which he won’t be able to do as easily against NFL offensive linemen. Davis only played 47 percent of the defensive snaps and conditioning at his size will be a major question mark, as well as weight control altogether. Prior to this past season, he looked gassed after just a few snaps at times.
Going back to the 2021 season-opener against Clemson, Davis was a frequent visitor in the backfield and drew attention, since I recognized the talent in my prior evaluations, but I didn’t think his motor was running hot enough to become a first-round pick. Well, he was an absolutely monster in the middle for a historically great Georgia defense and allowed his linebackers to run freely a lot of times. You usually have to deploy two blockers if you don’t want him to wreck run plays and there’s plenty of room to grow as a pass-rusher, when you look at his combine performance for the ages. Davis’ 4.78 in the 40 might just be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen (including a 1.68 ten-yard split). He came up just an inch short of the best mark in the vert (32 inches) and while not as many guys participated, he jumped nearly a foot further in the broad than any other interior D-linemen (10’3”). He also moved way too easy during the wave drill at 341 pounds, and ultimately received a perfect RAS score. The value of run-stopping nose tackles can be debated, but Davis is as good at his job as probably any other player in this draft at their respective one.
2. Devonte Wyatt, Georgia
6’3”, 305 pounds; SR
This former number two DT recruit out out junior college in 2017 appeared in all but three of 28 games his first two years combined for Georgia. In 2020, Wyatt first became a full-time starter for the Bulldogs, even though he only recorded two tackles for loss and no sacks over the course of ten games. This past season he took his game to another level, racking up seven TFLs, 2.5 sacks and a couple of forced fumbles, which earned him second-team All-American recognition.
Early on in his career with the Bulldogs, Wyatt flashed on tape quite a bit by shooting into the backfield, but unfortunately was rather reckless and not really under control early on. In 2021, those sparks turned into negative plays for the offense routinely. He shows excellent snap anticipation in general and takes away the opportunity to reach-block him instantly. You see him shoot up that B-gap and creative penetration on several occasions, when he’s allowed to get upfield. Wyatt routinely flashes in the backfield by squeezing past blockers, being able to contort his body and split creases between two guys. He’s capable of being lined up as a three-technique on the backside of zone runs, but beat the guard across the face and chop down the back for a tackles for loss. He shows the ability to cover a ton of ground laterally and force the run back inside on the front-side, as well as basically scrape over the top of the action as he feels himself being down-blocked / combo-ed on away from it. In short-yardage situations, you saw Wyatt aim right for the center and help stop the quarterback on sneaks. And his production in the backfield would have probably been even greater if not for a lot of the gap-exchanges and -control they ran under Kirby Smart.
As a pass-rusher, Wyatt’s get-off is as good as you’re going to find in this draft among interior D-linemen. He can overwhelm guards with his combination of that initial quickness and power, where he can take guys off balance if they set him too softly and when they shift their weight forward, he can win on push-pull maneuvers. This guy can corner exceptionally well for an interior rusher. Working across the face of blockers, he has those rapid hands to get up the gap cleanly. Wyatt packs a violent club and unlike most 300-pound men, Wyatt has the ability to kind of disconnect his upper and lower half to some degree, in order to clear the hips of blockers, whilst he’s still following through on his hand-combats. His cross-chop in particular was a nightmare to deal with for guys at the Senior Bowl, which combined with a violent rip-through allowed him to win almost all of his pass-rush one-on-one’s. What I loved to see through his two practices there was how he fought through holds and didn’t allow guys to get away with them, by going at less than 100 percent. Wyatt shows some impressive sudden bursts and lateral agility, to win on wide loops, by engaging with a blocker until the path is cleared and he can shed the man. And he can just pave the way for his teammate on T-E twists by jacking up the offensive tackle. He was even used as a spy basically at times and showed the burst to run down the passer heading out to the sideline. Wyatt was the one the opposing teams were sliding the protection towards, where routinely he would get past the guard and the center was already waiting for him.
Similar to a couple of other Georgia defenders, the first question mark with Wyatt is why it took him until his fourth season to deliver any kind of significant production. In the run game, he doesn’t always impose his will and re-set the line of scrimmage, like you’d think he’s capable of. He has to do a better job of landing his hands inside, playing with extension through blocks and creating leverage for himself to step into the play-side gap on zone schemes. And his anchor against double-teams isn’t up to par for his size. Wyatt doesn’t player very big as a pass-rusher either, not powering through blockers when he can’t defeat the hands or finishing his rushes by driving guys the rest of the way, if he can’t quite get around them. And he has yet to learn how to fluidly transition from one move to another, if he crosses the face of his initial blocker and another lineman slides in front of him.
Because of how freaky teammate Jordan Davis’ combine showing was, people forget what Wyatt put on display athletically. He ran the fastest 40 time (4.77) and 10-yard split (1.66) among the IDL in Indy and during the on-field drills he showed great burst and ability to change directions, along with displaying really violent hands when hitting the bags and being able dip the shoulder. At the Senior Bowl, his get-off was different to the rest of the group and he routinely overwhelmed guards with his combination of that initial quickness and power. Pro Football Focus actually handed him a grade of 89.8 was the best among Power-Five interior D-linemen. I would like to see him play up to size more in some regards, but Wyatt is clearly the top three-/4i-technique in the draft to me.
3. Logan Hall, Houston
6’6”, 280 pounds; SR
Barely a top-2000 overall recruit in the 2018 class as a 220-pound defensive end, Hall transformed his body and game throughout his collegiate career. After recording just 6.5 tackles for loss and one sack over 22 career games heading into his senior season, he blew up for 13 TFLs and six sacks, which earned him first-team All-AAC recognition.
This guy presents a very lean 280-pound body, with just over an 80-inch wingspan. He looks like an undersized 3- or 4i-technique, but was used also more as a defensive end in 2021, in the place of Saints first-round pick Payton Turner. Hall comes off the ball looking to punch the chest of the man in front of him on early downs and despite being outweighed by 40-50 pounds by some guards, he often gets them to step backwards. He can hold his ground firmly for the most part, using good leverage thanks to ankle flexion, to counteract some of the natural pad-level disadvantages that would be brought on based on his height. I believe Hall has good awareness for run schemes and countering the first steps of the man responsible for him. When he realizes the offense just tries to seal him on the back-side, Hall can slip over the block instantly with a high-swim move and then flattens down the line, to show off his freaky pursuit speed. I thought this past season we saw him get uprooted by combo-blocks far less frequently, by attacking the closer man and not allow them to connect their hips, to create unified drive. Hall can also contort his body to fight across the reach of zone-blockers, lowering the back-side shoulder and ripping through frequently. And the Cougars scheme didn’t really allow him to just line up in a gap and shoot upfield to create chaos.
The two things that stand out to me most about Hall as a pass-rusher are how light he is on his feet and how violent that initial club is. He features a great club-swim combo which he combines with beautiful foot-work to actually step past the blocker. You see it a lot, where he’s lined up to one shoulder of a guard and beats them across their face, while leaving that guy folded up like a jackknife often times. When he can’t fully clear contact, he tends to hook the near-arm as he goes by, to not be pushed off track. Hall’s feet and arms are synced in impressive fashion to win cleanly on those types of maneuvers and he displays the flexibility to reach down low with his inside hand and corner his rushes as he tries to get around blockers. The amount of instant wins he got with that high swim was absurd, at times with a little one-two hesitation initially. When guards don’t get their cleats into the turf properly or deaden their feet on a two-handed punch, Hall can straight up run through them a few times. He did so a couple in the Tulsa game of 2021. His stutter-bull could be devastating at the next level. When he doesn’t actually get home, he still displays non-stop leg-drive to force QBs off the spot. And then of course he packs such as a sudden counter spin, where he can actually step around blockers in one motion and puts the ice-pick arm on the back of the opponent, to clear the hips and propel himself forward. Hall has experience rushing off the edge on longer downs, where he displays pretty impressive ability to flatten his rush around the corner. And it’s funny to watch the ease with which Hall pulls down quarterbacks, making them look like they’re little kids. Altogether, Hall recorded 30 total pressures on 296 pass-rush snaps in 2021, but that production was limited due to routinely getting doubled and lining up in the A-gap (four-point stance).
While his height at the very high-end of the spectrum, Hall is pretty slim for that (around 280 pounds). His arms are a quarter of an inch short of 33 inches and his hand are around 9 ½ inches, while having an extremely high-cut build. So he’s certainly a bit of a tweener at his current size. Hall tries to win too many blocks in the run game with his quickness and exposes his ribs to strike at, when really he should be trying to anchor. While it’s become less frequent, he still gets driven deep into the defensive backfield at times on double-teams, not showing the ability to anchor against the angular man. Hall doesn’t offer a very diverse rush arsenal or at least hand-combats, with the initial approach being the high swim on the majority of passing downs, the spin as a counter and bull-rushing guys who set him too softly sprinkled in – that’s basically it. And he goes for that spin move way too much, even in the run game, particularly when he should just control his area and tries to get around bodies because he’s eager to make a play. The Cougars rotated their bodies up front a lot to allow him to stay fresh.
Hall himself said during Senior Bowl week that his most natural spot would be the three-technique, but I think he can move out from there all the way to a six. Down in Mobile, he came in at a lean, mean 278 pounds, showed impressive lateral agility to beat guards across their face when lined up on one shoulder in pass-rush drills and if the initial move was shut down too often, his length gave him a little more room to error. He also had an excellent combine showing, being tied for the second-fastest ten-yard split among the IDL at the combine (1.68), as part of his 4.88 in the 40, and ranking in the 85th percentile in both the agility drills. I still question Hall’s approach as a run-defender, where he should be focused more on locking out to control his space and his pass-rush arsenal needs to be broadened, but Hall to me in early of an early day two selection.
4. Perrion Winfrey, Oklahoma
6’4”, 300 pounds; SR
The number one overall JUCO recruit in 2020, Winfrey chose Oklahoma over Alabama among other big-time programs. He recorded 5.5 tackles for loss and three passes batted down in his first season with the Sooners. His numbers drastically increased this past year, doubling his TFL output and recording 5.5 sacks. He was named a second-team All-Big XII member at the end of both those campaign.
Winfrey presents such a unique body composition, with a pretty rectangular frame that barely has any fat on it, a massive 85 ½-inch wing span (35 ½-inch arms), along with 10 ½-inch hands, and no neck it looks like with the helmet on. He’s a twitched up interior defensive lineman, who spent the majority of his snaps in the B-gap, but was also deployed at shade-nose and did a lot of gap exchanges at OU. He shows the ability to be a game-wrecker, when he’s allowed to just crash through gaps and create chaos. Being tied for the second-fastest ten-yard split among the IDL at the combine (1.68) backs that up, Winfrey has the short-agility to back-door zone blockers with the swim or rip, along with the get-off explosion to deny scoop-blocks on the backside altogether, and he squeezes things down significantly from on lateral schemes away from him. There was one snap in the Oklahoma State game last season, where his natural amount of power was glaring, as he shot up the B-gap from the backside and took the guard with him, who stepped away from him on a zone run, and took both him and the RB five yards down behind the line of scrimmage. Even when caught on the wrong side of blocks, such as the center blocking down on him, whilst the guard pulls the other way, Winfrey has the quicks to get off with the arm-over and chase down the back. And he had a few nice diving tackles from the side as the flowed down the line against zone concepts. Winfrey was frequently asked to loop outside on the weak-side of the formation on base downs and change up his aiming points just before the snap with some late shifts up front.
As a pass-rusher, Winfrey can torque his upper body in impressive fashion for a big man and has such rapid arm-over maneuvers. He is sudden in his movement and can keep blockers off balance with subtle hesitation moves. He flashes some clean cross-face wins against guards from a three-technique alignment, where he jabs with the outside foot and gets by with the high swim. Winfrey also displays some crazy flexibility on wide loops, paired up with strong follow-through swipe, and the ability to stick his foot in the ground almost like a running back, as he sees a blocker overset and leave a lane underneath him. When he commits to the bull-rush, the force he can generate combined with his absurdly long arms (35 ½ inches), make it really tough to brace against it. That’s something we saw over and over again throughout Senior Bowl practices, where he just ran through guys and dominated during one-on-one’s. And the former Sooner showcases some oddly great balance, to swallow a punch or get knocked off track, yet somehow stay on his feet. As the quarterback steps up and is looking to scramble, Winfrey locks out his blocker, getting ready to disengage and chase him out wide. Overall, he recorded 30 total pressures on 285 pass-rush snaps this past season, despite lining up at the nose and having to work across multiple gaps a lot of times.
However, Winfrey is routinely late to get into his stance and off the ball, while other times he’s caught offside when trying to guess the snap (count). He relies heavily on his physical tools and flashes more than he dominates at this point of his career. The OU D-tackle has to a better job of attacking half the man in the run game and not getting hung up with blocks for as long altogether. Way too often he gets caught on the wrong side of blocks, in part because he doesn’t read the first steps appropriately. At times he’ll try to get around combo-blocks at the nose and get driven out way off his spot laterally. Even within the gap-exchange heavy OU defense, there’s a lack of discipline to his run-defense. Winfrey simply doesn’t look like the most fluid mover, when you see the way he’s straining and those plodding steps. As a pass-rusher, his eyes constantly go down as he bangs into bodies, not showing enough of a plan in that regard. And his timing and angles when setting up twists are off quite a bit, to where you see from run into his teammate on T-T crosses.
Inexplicably, Winfrey wasn’t voted the National team’s DT of the week down in Mobile in favor of UConn’s Travis Jones, who did physically overwhelmed blockers as well, but I thought in terms of the way he practiced and just the swagger he brought to the table alone, Winfrey could have been named MVP of the entire week. His ascent at this stage of the process is kind of reminiscent of what we saw from former Oklahoma D-tackle Neville Gallimore, as both spent a lot of time in the A-gaps, which isn’t necessarily conducive to highlighting his strength, compared to this practice environment, where guys get singled out and he was able to be highly disruptive. Snap anticipation, block recognition and hand-placement are all major areas of improvement for him, but if he learns to really utilize his power and length accordingly, he could be a problem to deal with as a B-gap defender.
5. Travis Jones, UConn
6’4” ½, 325 pounds; SR
A top-2000 overall recruit in 2018, Jones immediately became a starter for UConn and recorded 86 tackles, twelve of those for loss and four sacks over his first two years combined. He sat out the 2020 COVID-marked season, but came back even better, putting up a career-best 7.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks this past year, as one of the very few bright spots for a struggling program.
If it weren’t for Georgia’s Jordan Davis, we would talk about this guy as the strongest man in the draft probably. He is like a bear in the middle of that UConn defense, just owning his body and not moving off it, as blockers lean way into him. Jones pretty effortlessly bench-presses opponents on solo blocks and tosses them to the side as the ball-carrier approaches. Against linemen who try to drive him off the spot from the side, you often see guys almost bounce off his quads at times. Whether he’s lined up on the backside or if the center initially gets his body in front of him on lateral run concepts, Jones can squeeze things down and often time turns the shoulders of the blocker completely sideways, forcing the running back to redirect. Approaching true double-teams, where the center and guard step together and try to move him backwards, he showcases good forward lean, sink in his hips and digs his feet in the turf, to hold his ground. In goal-line and short-yardage situations, there was no success to be found up the A-gaps, as the line of scrimmage would only move one direction – back into the offensive backfield – and the ball-carrier would run into a brick wall. Watching the Army game, I don’t believe the dive action on their triple options ever accounted for more than two yards whilst Jones was on the field.
As a pass-rusher, everything with Jones starts with the brute force he brings into pocket, constantly driving blockers back into the quarterback’s lap and forcing them to slide sideways. Even if opposing linemen do impede his charge early in the rep, when he does lock out with those 34 ¼-inch arms and jerk the pads backwards he can accelerate through anyway. Off that, he can grab cloth and pull guys to the side, in order to open up the direct path towards the passer. If you watch the Senior Bowl practice footage, you see him bull-doze offensive linemen over and over again, not allowing them to lay the anchor and slow down his momentum. Thanks to that, he was voted National DT of the week and the Defensive MVP of the game, where he at one point took Memphis’ Dylan Parham and seated him in the space previously occupied by the QB for a “non-contact” sack. Jones works in violent club-swim combos, to win across the face of blockers, and he can pull the arm over to get off as guys leans into him in general. He also routinely puts that long arms up once he sees the quarterback load up for the throw. Despite constantly being double-teamed on critical downs, Jones was able to rack up 25 total pressures on just over 300 pass-rushing snaps last year.
The natural power and athletic traits may all be there, but at this point, there’s very little nuance to Jones’ game. Unless it’s obvious passing downs, he allows blockers to get into his chest and stymie his rush early, from which point on he’s content with just gradually walking them backwards. Other than the bull-rush and swim he doesn’t throw really anything else at blockers in that regard. The few times he does try to win with hand-combats, his aiming points and overall technique are a little bit off and he has to revert to pushing the pocket once again. As much of a monster in the middle as he is in the run game, what he could improve on is contorting his body to limit the sideways movement as an angular blocker comes in on combos, not presenting as much surface area to drive through. While on outside zone schemes, he doesn’t instantly flow along and offenses were able to work out to the edge. And he’s routinely a tad bit slow from snap to step, as blockers get their foot down to establishing positioning. That also hurts his pad-level at times as opponents can get underneath him, while not chasing the ball outside his area very hard.
This guy looked like a man amongst boys for the most part down in Mobile. He’s certainly a one-trick pony, but being able to put large men into the lap of the quarterback by running right through them is one hell of a trick. There’s certainly room for improvement here, but as long as he takes coaching, you’re not going to move this dude off his spot a whole lot in the run game. Because of how ridiculous those two Georgia boys were, Jones got kind of lost in the shuffle as far as his combine performance goes, but he was top-five among the IDL in all the drills he participated in, including a 4.92 in the 40 and being tied for the best mark in the three-cone drills (4.33) at 325 pounds. We look at Jones as a pure nose, but he actually lined up in the B-gap on 80 percent of defensive snaps this past season according to PFF (although from my own charting their numbers can be off quite a bit). He doesn’t have a lot of experience at two-gapping, but if he works on his snap anticipation and technique against angular blocks, he should be able plug those A-gaps and create push up the middle as a zero- or one-technique.
6. DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M
6’4”, 290 pounds; JR
A top-20 overall recruit in 2019, Leal combined for 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks through his first two years with the Aggies, while also putting up one’s across the board in interceptions, fumbles forced and recovered. As a junior he put up career-highs across the board, with 57 total tackles, 12.5 for loss and 8.5 sacks, yet somehow the public perception around him has gone from potential top-five pick heading into the season to now being looked at as a fringe top-50 pick.
This is one of the leanest 290-pound guys you will ever find and his first step is more edge rusher-like. Leal has the athleticism to play on the edge on a lot of base downs, but also the natural power to project well as an interior player. He showcases impressive flexibility to corner, especially flattening down the line in the run game when he’s unblocked (initially). He flashes some pretty crazy force when pulling off blockers and wrapping up ball-carriers behind the line on the front-side, or squeeze the tackle’s butt into the running back trying to get through the B-gap. Even when blockers have their hands inside his chest, he shows the balance and flexibility, to still glide over into the hole and wrap up the ball-carrier, or flow over the top of blocks when it looks like he doesn’t have leverage. Yet, he also flashes in the backfield by back-dooring blockers with a rapid arm-over at times. And you see the suddenness to flat-out make pullers miss. Leal’s pursuit speed when turning his head or redirecting laterally and chasing after a quick screen or slant is absurd for 290 pounds. He looks more a linebacker in that situation.
Leal is a very flexible and fluid mover on rush downs, shocking offensive tackles with how quickly he’s by them on inside moves sometimes. When he lands a good club-swim combo, it can be a beautiful thing – he routinely hits those with good, fluid coordination. Leal brings that sudden dip of the shoulder, to reduce surface area for the blocker. Yet when he catches blockers with an open chest trying to counter the hands, he can also create some good push at the end of his reach, If he continues working on using weight transition against blockers – and he flashes some of that – that could be a big problem for his opponents. You saw it at times when tightly engaged, pulling cloth and forcing blockers to do the same, resulting in holding penalties. He has shown the ability to curve his path and loop from the A-gap all the way outside the opposite tackle. And he has the closing burst to quickly take away angles for the QB to escape on scrambles. His ass-rush production was certainly limited by playing over the center on longer downs and looping out wide, rather than being allowed to just pin his ears back.
With that being said, Leal has to do a better job of feeling contact on an angle and countering it. While you like to see the lateral mobility on the interior, he flows too much against lateral schemes and takes himself out of his lane, allowing running backs to cut it up behind him. And overall I don’t trust him to anchor against double-teams on the interior, at times getting driven back by like five yards, where he also tries to peak around guys. Clearing the hands of blockers before they even get into his chest will be big for Leal as a pass-rusher. If the initial move doesn’t hit or there’s not a clear chance to counter off it, his rushes tend to stall quite a bit. A lot of the smart teams had their guards quick-set him, which basically took him out of the play. There are some completely useless spin moves on tape, where he barely moves off the spot. And he kind of disappeared in the 2021 Alabama game, getting hung up with blockers routinely, other than the one time he was unaccounted for.
Where Leal fits at the next level is a justified question, because the athletic testing is pretty average, clocking in at five flat in the 40 and leaping jump 28 inches vertically. So that may lead some teams to think of him as a pure interior player, yet he doesn’t show the ability control his space in that role consistently if faced with any combo-action. I lean towards tweaner with him, rather than a player, whose versatility is a benefit, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a productive player in the right system. He may have only 39 total pressures on 412 pass-rush snaps this past season (32 on 324 as a sophomore), but PFF credited him with 23 run stops. If you allow Leal to move across the front and penetrate, he can a thorn in the sight of offense, because he has the flexibility to corner from any spot as a rusher as well. Just don’t put him in one spot and think he figures it out anyway.
7. Phidarian Mathis, Alabama
6’4”, 315 pounds; SR
Just outside the top-100 overall recruits in 2018, it took Mathis a couple of years to earn a starting gig on that talented Crimson Tide defensive line. He started making his impact felt as a junior, when he reached five tackles for loss and three passes batted down, before sky-rocketing to 53 total tackles, 10.5 TFLs, nine sacks and two more bat-downs, which made him a second-team All-SEC selection in 2021.
Mathis was asked to play gap-control on the majority of base down snaps, usually reading the first movement of the man rather than the snap from a four-point stance, and he was a big factor in the Crimson Tide holding opponents to just 87.4 rushing yards per game (fifth-best in the FBS). He has an impeccable anchor and ability to play with extension through blocks, along with the suddenness to pull blockers off himself that lean into contact. He showcases impressive core strength to hold his ground against angular blocks, as well as distribute his weight to the play-side lineman on combo-blocks and slightly turning his body to drop his hips with an anchor-step. If he does feel some initial movement on those and can’t absorb the force with his lower body, he lets himself fall into the crease between those two and forces the ball-carrier to work around them. At the same time, he was assigned two-gapping duties quite a bit as well, where locking out and keeping his base square made it very tough for offenses to get through either gap next to him. Mathis may not look like the most mobile D-linemen, but on lateral run schemes you see him chase down the line and make plays for minimal yardage outside his area routinely. And overall, when he’s engaged with a blocker and sees ball-carriers come towards him, he can halt their momentum and wrap up to great effect.
In passing situations, Mathis wasn’t allowed to really get upfield and put himself into positions to actually get his hands on the quarterbacks a whole lot, but he would create push up the middle on a large amount of those snaps. Just like in run defense, he keeps his arms extended on bull-rush maneuvers and showed the power to rush through one shoulder of the blocker when lined up shaded towards it. When guys try to shoot two-handed punches and get their feet stuck, he will land a club-stab combo to work through the opposite shoulder at times. Mathis was also asked to loop from a three-technique outside the tackle quite a bit against teams that threw the ball more on early downs, which wasn’t helpful at leading to sack production, but he could effectively condense the pocket from the edge with the long-arm and be reliable in contain. And he does well to hesitate initially to set up T-T twists as the secondary man, whilst being subtle with grabbing cloth and pulling guards with him in order to clear a path for the end to come inside when setting up stunts.
With that being said, Mathis is just such a linear athlete. There’s not much to critique in terms of what he was assigned to do, but it’s not super exciting either. He’s not very appealing for a penetrating role in the run game, because he doesn’t really have an explosive first step and he can’t just stick his foot in the ground and go from vertical to horizontal movement instantly. His pass-rush profile clearly was confined by the coaching points he was given, establishing contact first rather than getting upfield, but you didn’t see him want to disengage and work around blockers anyway when allowed to. The question now is if he’s physically capable of showing a little bit more as a pass-rusher. From what you see on the tape, the flexibility and lateral quicks may not be there. Alabama took him off the field on the majority of third downs and his nine sacks can fool you, since he only had 18 other pressures on 325 pass-rush snaps. Mathis is also pretty slow to switch from run to pass on play-action.
I thought Mathis showed better juice off the snap than I expected and was tough to slow down once he got an angle to the quarterback from what I saw at the Senior Bowl. He also did something I had as a coaching point for him, as I wanted to see him utilize the rip more frequently off his power, so he could actually clear the hips of the blocker. With that in mind, I don’t look at him as somebody, who you want to line up wide in NASCAR packages and tilt on an angle, but if you formulate a plan around him in a more hybrid pressure front, where he can help you work in different games, he can stay on the field for some obvious passing downs at least. Mathis very much reminds me of another former Alabama D-tackle in now-Viking Dalvin Tomlinson, but I actually have Mathis graded slightly higher coming out of college.
8. Matthew Butler, Tennessee
6’3”, 300 pounds; RS SR
A top-500 overall recruit in 2017, Butler barely saw the field his first two years on campus, before two almost identical statistical seasons, with 88 total tackles, six for loss and 4.5 sacks combined. This past season as a fifth-year senior (due to the COVID exception), he put up career-highs across the board (47 tackles, 8.5 for loss and five sacks).
Butler presents a dense frame that carries 300 pounds very well. He primarily lined up in the B-gap and projects well as a three-technique at the next level, with the ability to play gap-control or penetrate. The Volunteer maintain has the force in his hands to jolt back the pads of blockers at the point of attack and keep his own chest clean with that 81 ½-inch wingspan. If you put up on the outside edge of the guard and teams try to run that way, they better not expect to actually move him off the spot, plus he gets involved on a lot of tackles as the back cuts up the A-gap. At the same time, he can engage with good extension on zone-blockers and swipe across to once he sees an opening to chase down the line from the backside. Butler gets really low with great flexion in his knees and ankles to withstand combo-blocks. You don’t see many cutbacks behind the tackle on zone runs to his side, because he gets moved sideways and it creates that crease to the unblocked end-man. On down-blocks with the center on him as the backside DT, as the offense pulls his guard across, he works over the top well, by slapping at the opposite elbow and creating an angle for himself. He’s also pretty quick to recognize play-action and switch to his rush, at times ripping through the back-side shoulder of the guard and shooting up the A-gap off zone fakes. And what I love about him is that you see him chase after the ball 30-40 yards downfield on several occasions.
The way Butler wins as a pass-rusher is with active and violent hands. He will often get into a track-line four-point stance on longer downs and stress the outside edge of guards with his explosion off the ball. Whether it’s grabbing at the back of the shoulder-pad or whack at the elbow of the guy in front of him, he can create a soft corner for himself. And then I like how he really pulls that inside arm all the way through and tries to clear the hips of his blocker on rip moves. Butler can add some shake to his rushes and work cross-face as O-linemen start oversetting to him. That ability to create issues with his first step and then work those moves in led to several instant wins during one-on-one’s at East-West Shrine Bowl practices. However, if blockers stand up too much as they prioritize getting their body straight in front of him, he has the power to drive through them. Butler was used to loop all the way from the B-gap to outside the opposite tackle at times, where he showed the ability to turn the corner by powering through with the rip. Generally speaking, his production on passing downs was limited by the fact that he was the only guy on that D-line to really threaten an offense and saw the center slide his way on a large amount of those snaps. Yet, he still was able to put up a solid 31 total pressures on 430 pass-rush snaps.
With that being said, Butler didn’t break out until his fifth-year senior campaign and become a play-maker for the Vols, as he finally reached more than three tackles for loss. Butler can get bumped sideways too easily by presenting the edge of his shoulder-pads and when countering wide zone schemes to his side – and this probably was a coaching point to some degree – he sells out to get to the outside edge of the blocker to where the back ended up having success getting North inside of him. I’d say he’s also rather slow to redirect if the offense gets him moving at an angle. In the pass-rush department, he’s a little reckless at this point. There’s still room for improvement to string moves together throughout games (which we saw to some degree in Las Vegas) and he would benefit from developing a spin move as a counter to the way he attacks upfield.
I think if you look at Butler’s combine performance, it tells you a lot about his game. He excelled in the explosiveness measurables, running a five-flat in the 40, jumping 32 inches in the vert (second-best among the IDL). However, he was in the bottom-fourth in the two agility drills and put up just 17 reps on the bench – although that latter number was surprising. It took a while for Butler to put it all together, but the natural talent was there and he’s just become a lot more consistent with his aiming points and technique overall. At the Shrine practices, you saw opposing linemen visibly get annoyed because their arms and elbows must have hurt, due to the Butler slapped them away, and he was frequent visitor in the backfield throughout team drills. He’s all-gas all the time, with the talent and work ethic to become a disruptive force up the B-gap.
9. Eric Johnson, Missouri State
6’4”, 300 pounds; RS SR
A no-star defensive end recruit out of high school, Johnson redshirted his first year on campus at Missouri State. From that point on, he played in a school-record 55 consecutive games as a five-year starter and was recognized as an All-MVFC second-team selection the past two seasons. He finished his career with 131 total stops, including 19.5 of those for loss and 6.5 sacks, but he ultimately put his name on the map with what he did at the NFL PA Bowl and Senior Bowl.
Johnson has that 4i-/five-technique body type and operated mostly out of a light four-point stance, having to stop the run first and foremost for the Bears. His wrestling background shows up constantly in the way he can fight to own his space. You routinely see him launch his arms into the chest of blockers and create actual knock-back. Missouri State felt comfortable leaving him at the nose to some degree and you see him own his space there usually. He comes in with low pads, a powerful base and locks out forcefully at the point of attack. And he displays the balance and ability to anchor against the angular action of combo-blocks, as he’s already engaged with somebody else, and he somehow twists his body to split the two opponents a lot of times. If there is some vertical movement initially, he kicks his feet back and re-anchors almost like an offensive lineman. However, he can also rip through the play-side shoulder of blockers on zone runs and not get moved horizontally as he has his shoulders turned sideways. Johnson may be caught in some bad positions as a run-defender at times, but still find a way to throw guys off himself in order to get to the ball. At times he even ends up with one foot in the air and his body leaning the wrong way, but somehow is able to redirect and wrap up the runner. When he’s unblocked on the backside on like wide zone or GT power, the way he can curve his path and twist down the RB in the backfield at times is eye-popping. And his pursuit is pretty crazy for a 300-pounder.
In the pass game, Johnson bends offensive backwards routinely with violent one-handed stabs. He has the power to drive guards back into the quarterback’s lap with full extension in his arms with that 82 ½-inch wingspan, and then he run down quarterbacks as they get going sideways. He brings a potent push-pull maneuver to the table off that, with serious force in his ten-plus inch hands. Yet, his initial quickness and ability to beat blockers across their face is something that really stood out when given true one-on-one’s in his game tape and the college all-star events, where he opens up a path for himself with a hefty club and steps through with the follow-up swipe to create angles for himself. Johnson keeps working the hands and gets off blockers on outside (B-gap) rushes a lot ultimately. And he flashes a pretty stunning spin move for an interior rusher, to get home after his rush initially stalls. Johnson was looped out wide and used on some cross-action inside, where he shows the ability to corner his rush and work through contact with the long-arm. His flexibility to dip underneath the reach of blockers as he turns the corner off stunts is highly impressive.
With that being said, his superior power and athleticism allowed him to be a great player at the FCS level despite lacking advanced football IQ at this point. He doesn’t show the greatest awareness for down-blocks when the ball goes out wide and he gets pinned inside because of it. Playing one half of the man and being able to track the ball will only become more important for him at the next level. In the pass-game, there’s very little instant wins for with that initial move and there’s too many reps, where he just mindlessly tries to ride guys back inside the pocket. The connection points on his hand-swipes are pretty wild at this point and he doesn’t yet understand how to really counter the different strikes blockers want to use. And Johnson tries to look over the top of blockers too much for my taste and doesn’t focus on getting home on his rushes
Full transparency, I had no idea who this player was at the conclusion of the college football season, but I stumbled across his name when I first worked through the college all-star event rosters. After kind of shocking offensive linemen with his quickness off the snap during NFL PA practices, suddenly dipping his shoulder and getting around guys in one-on-one’s, I thought Johnson’s physicality really stood out throughout Senior practices (as he got called up by Jim Nagy), moving big men backwards in the run game and creating push up the pocket. He certainly looked like he belonged there with those FBS standouts, after making guys look like little boys a lot of times against him on tape. There’s still a lot of room for growth in terms being more aware and pro-active in his technique, but you watch the sack he got in the NFL PA bowl, where he was the set-up man on a twist and just put the left tackle on his butt or that sick outside spin move he put on Kentucky’s Darian Kinnard during practices down in Mobile, I expect his ascent to continue.
10. Otito Ogbonnia, UCLA
6’4”, 325 pounds; SR
A top-50 defensive tackle recruit in 2018, Ogbonnia did a lot of the dirty work for the Bruins defense, while recording 76 total tackles, 8.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks and six passes batted down at the line over the course of 40 career games, although he never got love from the mainstream media outlets (second-team All-Pac 12 according to PFF).
This young man famously squatted 685 pounds at UCLA, which earned him a spot on the 2021 Feldman’s Freaks list, with the build of a fridge. You see that show up in the run game, were he operates from a wide base, makes use of that ridiculous 83 ½-inch wingspan to keep his frame and has been a nearly immovable object in the middle of the Bruin defense. If left one-on-one on more vertical run schemes, such as duo, Ogbonnia just jolts the pads of blockers back and keeps his eyes on the back to shed. You often see blockers really lean into him in those situations, because they desperately want to create some push, but he can just pull them to the side and following up with the arm-over to put himself dead in the gap for the ball-carrier to run into. Against zone concepts, Ogbonnia doesn’t allow opponents to get chest-to-chest and moves along laterally, being half a step in front, to stay in control, whilst showing good range to flatten down the line once the back sticks his foot in the ground to get downhill. Ogbonnia is so strong in his core and hips to holds his ground against combo-blocks, usually locking out on the interior lineman and creating a crease to the second man, while on combos that bump from the side leaves him mostly unaffected and leveraged to the gap, if the running back tries to follow behind. And in 2021, he showed more of a willingness to be a play-maker, getting across or back-dooring zone-blocks with the arm-over and creating disruption in the backfield.
Ogbonnia has the power to walk centers back into the quarterback’s lap with high frequency. If lined up in a gap and blockers allow him to get to one shoulder, he can often times just blow through and rip their reach out of the way. He can create torque pushing through the arm-pit region and following through with a forceful rip-move. I thought this past season we saw Ogbonnia be more active with his hands and actually get around blockers in the pass game, with the high swim being added sufficiently to his arsenal. You see him banged around quite a bit at times when slanting across a gap, as he’s passes along in protection, but he doesn’t seem to ever lose his balance. And when linemen only get one hand on him from the side late, he clears those like a turnstile. Last year, UCLA ran some T-T cross stuff, where Ogbonnia could draw two guys with him as the set-up man, but as the looper, he could also build up momentum and rock guards backwards as they tried to slide in front of him. He may have only produced 12 non-sack pressures on 291 pass-rush snaps, but he drew plenty of helping hands in the middle and actually was peeled off a few times as a quasi-spy or just to crowd throwing windows. And he consistently gets a paw up as he sees the quarterback release the ball, to at least makes those guys vary of trying to throw over his head.
With that in mind, Ogbonnia’s first step leaves things to be desired and he allows opposing linemen to get their base around him on reach-/scoop-blocks on too many occasions, if they give ground and don’t allow him to just shoot his hands into their frame and control the block. He has no quick-twitch to speak of, to keep blockers off balance with any type of counter of secondary hand-combats on passing downs. And he allows blockers to grab underneath his pads and make him far less effective rushing the passer at times. He’s very much a pure pocket-pusher and potentially looked at as a two-down player by some NFL teams. And while I like that he tries to keep vision on the quarterback and get his hands up, there are a few completely worthless jumps because he thinks the ball is coming out, instead of just working further to get home.
Once again referring to Senior Bowl practices, I thought Ogbonnia showed tremendous power off the snap, to run right through interior blockers during the pass-rush sessions early on and knock guys backwards in the run game throughout the week. He went to the combine primarily to do interviews, but also up 29 reps on the bench press, which led all defensive linemen at the combine. You combine that strong upper body with the mass in his lower half, I believe he will be an excellent zero- or one-technique to instantly boost your run defense. He may never be somebody who’s on the field for longer downs, but he push the pocket and has some good feel for interior games up front. And something that I really like about him is that you never see him pull up in pursuit of the ball.
The next names up:
Zach Carter (Florida), John Ridgeway III (Arkansas), Eyioma Uwazurike (Iowa State), Isaiah Thomas (Oklahoma), Thomas Booker (Stanford) & Derrick Tangelo (Penn State)
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