Having talked about the top interior offensive linemen on Tuesday, we move back to the defensive side of the ball with their direct opponents.
Unlike many mainstream pages, I am not differentiating between outside linebackers, defensive ends and defensive tackles, because the job descriptions don’t match a lot of times.
A base D-end in a 3-4 has completely different responsibilities than one in a 4-3 who is primarily an edge pass rusher and those are way more similar to actual outside backers that line up on the edge than actual stand-up backers.
Therefore you will find my rankings on edge rushers here next week and this edition includes all interior D-linemen, meaning anything from head-up on the offensive tackle to true nose tackles lining up across center.
I don’t remember the last time we had such a talented group at the top. Three of them will probably be selected in the top 20 and up to nine of them could be top 50 overall prospects, with one being so talented that he might go in the first round despite possibly not being available at all for the 2019 season.
For me, I don’t consider current injuries in my positional rankings. You will find their impact on my big board once I’m done with every position. Most of these guys project as upfield penetrators, who will be asked to play one gap and create problems for opposing offenses, even if their schemes or teams’ needs didn’t allow them to do that at the collegiate level.
With the number of sub-packages and hybrid defenses, true fits aren’t as important as long as you can be a disruptive player and help out your team.
I will refer to many of them as “3-techniques”, meaning they line up on the outside shoulder of the guard and only play that B-gap in base sets.
Just missed the cut
Isaiah Buggs, Alabama
Due to being over-aged coming into high school, Buggs wasn’t NCAA eligible and attended Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
In his second year there he was considered the country’s top national juco recruit and drew the eyes Nick Saban.
Buggs already started all games in 2017 but last season was when he really took off, recording 13.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, three pass knockdowns and a couple of forced fumbles for the Crimson Tide.
He has the versatility to line up all over the defensive front, rushing off the edge as well as playing D-tackle and facing the chaos inside. He has good strength and pad-level to control the point of attack with heavy hands.
Often times he stops the flow of zone-plays by just owning his space and almost daring the running back to bounce outside, while also stonewalling pulling guards coming his way. Buggs can engage with offensive linemen and force them to lean into him, before ripping through one arm and freeing himself up to hit the QB.
He works best when using the lean of blockers against them and disengaging to put pressure on the passer. He is excellent at using the push-pull move or just bull-rushing his man and then using a path underneath him once he is even with the quarterback.
However some people might also refer to him as a tweener at 6’3”, 285 pounds, because he doesn’t really have edge speed or bend and is kind of one-gear pass rusher with little twitch. Buggs shows some good usage of his hands to keep blockers off his body in general but can get a little sloppy with it as the game goes along. He struggles to recover once opponents get their hands inside his frame and don’t always have a plan before the snap as a pass-rusher.
Overall Buggs’ motor can run hot and cold a little and he can get hung up on some blocks. Buggs had a really solid Senior Bowl week, where he showed more potential as a pass rusher, an area in which he always seemed a little more reactionary to me.
He doesn’t bring any special traits with him and I want to see play with more fire, but he has experience lining up anywhere on Bama’s front, is a rock against the run and has the strength to convert more into an interior pocket-pusher after having played on the edge a lot.
Daylon Mack, Texas A&M
This kid arrived at College Station with high expectations as a five-star recruit out of Texas. Those only rose when he made 9.5 tackles for loss in a reserve role as a freshman. Unfortunately, he failed to build on that success over the next two years, earning just one start and with his only multiple-TFL game coming versus Nicholls State.
Last season as a senior Mack proved once again that he can be a disruptive, as he put up double-digit TFLs and 5.5 sacks, while also blocking a field goal. With an incredibly wide build and trunks as legs, Mack is a rock against the run.
Lining up at 1-tech primarily for the Aggies, he has the low center of gravity and core strength to hold his ground at the point of attack, while fighting his way down the line against zone plays. His jump off the ball and first-step quickness is exceptional for a 320-pounder.
Mack can find the ball and back-door some blocks from the side by arm-overing them and taking down the back. He really improved his hand usage coming into his senior year, bench-pressing and disengaging from offensive linemen in the run game. Mack has dealt well with a load of double-teams and displays good hustle to chase people down behind the line of scrimmage or towards the sideline. This guy usually is not finesse around blocks – he wants to physically go through them.
The former five-star recruit can unlock his hips as a bull-rusher and gets offensive linemen to lean backward. He has a late rip move to free himself as a pass-rusher and can kind of throw people off himself late. Mack also has a good feel for when to get his arms up to knock down passes.
With that being said, Mack allows guards to reach him occasionally and takes himself out of the play that way. His lack of length with 31-inch arms will hurt his game in many ways going forward – the way he can lock out against offensive linemen, what he can grab on the initial club and his tackling radius, as he shows little ability to bring down somebody outside his frame.
Mack gets caught up with standing around across from offensive linemen and looking for a path to get through and doesn’t really get much done once his bull-rush attempts stall. He was often subbed out in third-and-long situations and his role might be limited to a two-down run-plugger.
Mack had a dominant East-West Shrine week and forced a bad snap in the actual game, which got him promoted to the Senior Bowl, where he set the tone early when he put Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher flat on his back on a bullrush in one-on-ones.
At 6’1” Mack might not fit every scheme, but with that low center of gravity and base strength, he will be a rock at nose guard for some team. He displayed a much-improved motor and started living up to his potential to some degree last season.
Greg Gaines, Washington
This former three-recruit from California moved up North and was an ultra-consistent performer for the Huskies these last four years. He was an honorable mention All-Pac 12 selection in both his freshman and sophomore campaign, before earning second-team all-conference accolades as a junior.
However, he saved his best for last, ending his career with a first-team selection last season. Overall he put together 21.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks for UW while being a big reason for his defense is the best in the Pac-12 all four years and top-five nationally these last two.
This guy is a true throwback defensive tackle, who has dominated Pac-12 offensive linemen for three straight years now. Gaines consistently was the first on the Washington front to get off the line and has been a rock for the Huskies against the run with a built-in advantage in terms of pad-level at 6’1”.
He has outstanding hands to create leverage and disengage when the ball-carrier is around, while consistently being the lower man.
In addition to that, he features an excellent base to not move off the spot against blockers trying to create push off an angle and swallows double-teams in order for his linebackers to run around free. Gaines was a huge reason for Ben Burr-Kirven’s nation-leading 176 total tackles.
The rugged D-tackle might not have great closing burst, but he certainly does hustle his ass off and missed just one tackle last season. Gaines is one of the most highly touted run-stoppers in the draft, but he has really come along as a pocket pusher and overall pass rusher, joining Quinnen Williams and Christian Wilkins as the only other two other interior D-linemen with at least 40 QB pressures and 35 defensive stops, despite playing almost 700 snaps on the year.
The initial punch he gets on an offensive linemen’s mid-section is incredible and at the Senior Bowl practice Gaines drove N.C. State center Garrett Bradbury back into the quarterback’s lap on his first snap on one-on-ones.
He sets up the bull-rush and then flashes some quick wins with a swim-move. He also ran some T-T stunts at Washington and shows active hands to swipe away lunging blockers. Moreover, he displays really good recognition skills against screen passes.
With 31-inch arms, he lacks some length to keep vision on the backfield while stacking up offensive linemen in the run game. He simply doesn’t have the burst to finish a lot of sacks. Considering the type of bull-rush he can use, I’d like to him combine that with the according to pull to take advantage of when his blocker is re-anchoring.
Gaines won’t jump off the type with any special quickness or athleticism, which is especially apparent when you look at how many freaks there are in this group of D-tackles. The most apparent deficiencies about him are the lack of flexibility and any sudden moves.
Gaines doesn’t have the athletic upside these other guys on the list have, but he is a disciplined team-player, who will instantly upgrade a run defense and can push the pocket.
The next guys up
Daniel Wise (Kansas), Kingsley Keke (Texas A&M), Armon Watts (Arkansas), Michael Dogbe (Temple), Demarcus Christmas (Florida State)