Nick Bosa

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NFL Draft Preview: Pool Stacked With Elite Defensive Linemen

Matt Citak
April 16, 2019 - 3:44 pm
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The NFL draft kicks off one week from Thursday down in Nashville, Tennessee. Leading up to the start of the first round, I will be breaking down the top prospects at each position, and whether or not the Giants or Jets may have interest.

We took on the quarterbacks and running backs to start before discussing the wide receivers and tight ends last week. After getting the “hog mollies” out of the way, we now turn our attention to the other side of the line with this year’s top defensive linemen.

Both the Jets and Giants find themselves toward the top of the draft again this year, and with both teams in desperate need of some help along the defensive line, chances are they will both emerge from next week’s draft with at least one top D-lineman.

The Jets certainly made some moves to improve their defense this offseason, but Anthony Barr reneging on his agreement with the team has left a hole at edge rusher. With the return of Leonard Williams, Henry Anderson and Steve McLendon, Gang Green already has three starters for the defensive line in Gregg Williams’ 3-4 system, although the team could still use another pass rusher. Luckily for the Jets, they will have plenty of elite options to choose from if they don’t trade down from No. 3.

Despite many fans clamoring for the Giants to take a QB with the No. 6 pick, the number of quality defensive linemen who should be available there could make general manager Dave Gettleman pass on the signal-callers. With the way the roster is currently constructed and considering James Bettcher’s 3-4 scheme, New York’s starting defensive line at the moment includes B.J. Hill, Dalvin Tomlinson and Olsen Pierre. While this group has some promise, it undoubtedly could use an influx of talent.

This year’s class of defensive linemen is the best and deepest one in years. Let’s dive right in.

Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State

Despite appearing in only three games during his junior season, Bosa’s strong performance at the combine locked down his top-three status. The 6-foot-4, 266-pound defensive end ran a 4.79 40-yard dash to go along with 29 bench reps and a 7.1-second three-cone drill. It didn’t hurt that Bosa racked up four sacks, 14 tackles (six for a loss) and a forced fumble in those three contests in 2018.

Bosa is the best pass rusher in this draft and is considered by many to be the top overall prospect in the entire draft. Bosa has tremendous size, speed and technique, which helps him excel against both the run and pass. He can fit as an end in both a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, and many believe he can quickly become as dominating of a pass rusher as his older brother, Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers.

The Giants have no shot at Bosa at No. 6, but could the Jets land him at No. 3? Chances are he will be gone before the Jets are on the clock, but if he somehow falls into Gang Green’s lap, Mike Maccagnan will sprint to the podium to announce the pick himself.

Quinnen Williams, DT, Alabama

Williams was already in the discussion to be a top-five pick after his strong season at Alabama. But then he put together a superb performance at the combine, which left many people thinking that Williams could be the top defensive player to come out of this draft class. Measuring in at 6 feet 3 inches, 303 pounds, Williams ran an incredible 4.83 40-yard dash.

Quinnen Williams
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Images

Williams has shown that he can completely wreck a game, thanks in part to his incredible ability to use his strong hands to shed blockers. He is a freakish athlete who has an extremely fast first step, and his quickness and athletic abilities should translate well at the next level. There is a reason why many have compared him to All-Pro talent Aaron Donald.

If the first two picks of the draft go as expected (Kyler Murray, Nick Bosa), the Jets would likely choose between Williams and Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen at No. 3. Williams would offer the Jets some insurance in case Williams doesn’t return in 2020 and would add a dynamic talent to Gang Green’s D-line. The Giants have to pray for a miracle for him to drop to No. 6, but if he does, I can say with about 95% confidence that Williams would be the pick.

Montez Sweat, DE/OLB, Mississippi State

Sweat has been one of the draft’s biggest risers over the last few months. The edge rusher from Mississippi State put together a strong 2018 campaign, picking up 11½ sacks, 14 tackles for losses, 53 total tackles and a forced fumble. That alone was enough to make him a top-20 prospect, but then Sweat shined at the Senior Bowl before crushing it at the combine, which has led to him likely jumping up into the top 10.

Sweat excelled in pass-rushing one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl, where he used his elite size, speed and strength to consistently blow by offensive linemen. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound edge rusher then made history at the combine by running a 4.41 40-yard dash, setting the record for a defensive lineman. All of this has led to Sweat being considered one of the top pass rushers in this year’s deep class, despite having a minor heart condition.

Due to his size and speed, Sweat is likely to be one of the first defensive linemen off the board. He likely won’t go as high as to the Jets at No. 3, but he will definitely be in consideration for Gang Green if they end up trading down a few picks. Similarly, Sweat will likely be near the top of the Giants’ draft board at No. 6, and could be just the pass rusher Big Blue has been trying to find for the last few years.

Ed Oliver, DT, Houston

Oliver began the 2018 season as one of the top defensive prospects in the country. He helped his draft stock in his junior season at Houston, totaling three sacks, 14½ tackles for losses, 54 total tackles and a forced fumble in just eight games, but a knee injury forced him to miss the end of the season. While generally liked as a prospect, it wasn’t until Houston’s pro day when Oliver truly started shooting up draft boards.

Oliver ran an unofficial 4.75 40-yard dash at his pro day, a very impressive number considering his 6-2, 287-pound frame. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. described Oliver’s first step as being “one of the fastest I’ve seen from a defensive tackle,” which highlights his great speed and motor. Oliver doesn’t have the pass-rush moves of Donald, but there is no denying that he is a very good football player.

Barring a trade down, Oliver won’t be in the discussion for the Jets at No. 3. But the Giants at No. 6 is a much more realistic landing spot for the defensive tackle. Bettcher’s defense requires D-linemen to shoot the gap and attack, which happens to be Oliver’s strong suit. If Gettleman wants to go defense at No. 6, it would likely come down to Sweat or Oliver.

Rashan Gary, DE, Michigan

Gary is an interesting prospect. The 6-4, 277-pound defensive end has the physical traits teams dream of. He ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at the combine with a vertical jump of 38 inches, offering a rare combination of size and speed. Despite having this elite athleticism, Gary was unable to translate his physical prowess to on-field production.

Gary left scouts wanting more following his three seasons at Michigan. The New Jersey picked up just 9½ sacks during his time in Ann Arbor, including only 3½ sacks and 6½ tackles for losses in 2018. That is hardly the production of a top-10 pick. He shows flashes of dominance against offensive linemen, but too often Gary can disappear from a game and needs to improve his consistency if he wants to put together a successful NFL career.

But even with limited collegiate production, Gary’s potential will likely lead to him hearing his name called sooner rather than later on Day 1. No. 6 is a little too high for my liking, but Gettleman may consider the defensive end out of Michigan there. If the Giants go with a quarterback, defensive tackle or linebacker at No. 6 and Gary drops, don’t be surprised to see Big Blue pull the trigger on him at No. 17.

Brian Burns, DE/OLB, Florida State

Despite flying a bit under the radar, Burns is one of my favorite pass-rushing prospects in this entire draft. The edge rusher out of Florida State has a lean frame, coming in at 6-5, 249 pounds, and is incredibly quick off the ball. Burns ran an impressive 4.53 40-yard dash at the combine, which combined with his production last year bodes very well for his draft stock.

Burns racked up 52 tackles, 15½ tackles for losses, 10 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2018 and finished with 24 sacks in three seasons at FSU. He will need to hit the weight room and put on some muscle before Week 1, but he should be able to quickly grow into a 4-3 end. Burns is going to leave a lot of teams regretting that they passed on him.

Depending on what the Giants do at No. 6, Burns could easily be Gettleman’s target at No. 17. In fact, if New York goes with a QB or even linebacker Devin White with their first pick, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Big Blue trade up a few picks to ensure they land a top pass rusher in Burns.

Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson

Wilkins is one of the most athletic defensive tackles in this draft, which may come as a surprise to some after learning that he weighs in at 315 pounds. He proved it at the combine, running a 5.04 40-yard dash while also showing his quickness and agility in the field drills. Along with his great physical traits, Wilkins is known for his high character after serving as one of the locker room leaders for the reigning National Champion Clemson squad.

Wilkins put up good numbers in 2018, finishing with 50 total tackles, 14 tackles for losses, 5½ sacks and a forced fumble. He has experience lining up at both defensive tackle and as a base end, and proved to have strong lateral quickness during his days as a Tiger. Clemson had the best defensive line in college football last season, and Wilkins will likely be the first of the Tigers to come off the board.

While the Giants already have a few defensive tackles whom they like on the roster, Wilkins might be too appealing to pass up at No. 17. Bettcher would probably love to deploy Wilkins’ versatility all over the team’s D-line.

Jeffery Simmons, DT, Mississippi State

Simmons might be one of the most talented all-around players in the draft. However, a torn ACL suffered in early February may cause him to miss the entire 2019 season. Add that to the assault incident that occurred a few years ago at Mississippi State, in which he was seen on video punching a woman, and it should come as no surprise that his draft stock has fallen.

Based on talent alone, Simmons is one of the top defensive linemen in this draft. He recorded 63 tackles, 17 tackles for losses, two sacks and a forced fumble in 2018 despite facing a lot of double teams throughout the season. Simmons has stayed out of trouble since the 2016 incident, which will help his cause. Any team that is willing to let Simmons redshirt his rookie year could end up with one of the biggest steals of the draft.

Unlikely to be considered at No. 17, the Giants could easily target Simmons with their early second-round pick, although it remains to be seen if he actually drops to Day 2. The Jets would likely also consider Simmons in the beginning of Round 2 if the team is able to pick up additional draft capital.

Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson

Next up from the Clemson defensive line is Ferrell, the one true defensive end likely to be drafted in the first round from the national champs. Measuring in at 6-4, 264 pounds, Ferrell was a highly productive end in college, picking up 27 sacks over his final three seasons, including 11½ sacks and three forced fumbles in 2018.

Ferrell has the size, speed, length and strength that teams desire from a defensive end. He should be able to help against both the run and pass almost immediately, and with some NFL coaching, Ferrell's production should improve even more at the next level. He is a complete defender who should offer consistent production.

Clemson Tigers defensive end Clelin Ferrell (99) in action during the second half against the Norte Dame Fighting Irish in the 2018 Cotton Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at AT&T Stadium.
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Images

Ferrell is projected to go in the middle-to-late part of Round 1, and if the Giants don’t get a pass rusher at No. 6, then the Clemson defensive end will likely be in the conversation at No. 17. Bettcher could do wonders with Ferrell as a part of Big Blue’s defensive front.

Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson

Lawrence is a mammoth of a man, coming in at 6-4, 342 pounds. But don’t think that means the big guy can’t move. Lawrence ran a 5.05 40-yard das  and has the size, power and athleticism to play a variety of positions along the defensive line. Over his three seasons at Clemson, Lawrence racked up 131 total tackles, 18 tackles for losses and 10 sacks.

The massive defensive tackle has some surprising explosiveness given his size. No matter where he lines up, Lawrence showed a tendency of constantly creating pressure and causing disruption in the backfield. He likely isn’t going to have a double-digit sack campaign, but Lawrence has shown more than enough for teams to be confident that he can produce in the NFL.

The Giants spent a top-30 visit on Lawrence, so clearly they have an interest in the big D-lineman. Many think he projects as a traditional nose tackle, but his athleticism should allow him to line up at several positions along the line. The Giants will likely give Lawrence some consideration at No. 17 and would love it if he dropped to No. 37. The Jets are unlikely to land Lawrence unless they trade down from No. 3 and collect more picks.

Matt Citak is a web producer for WFAN. Check him out on Twitter at @MatthewCitak.