5 biggest defensive voids left by NFL draft departures
Jeff Dooley takes a look at which prospects will leave behind big shoes to fill and identifies their potential replacements.
5 biggest defensive voids left by NFL draft departures
On Tuesday, we looked at the five college football teams having to fill the biggest voids on offense as a result of early entrants to the 2016 NFL draft. Here are the five teams facing the most impactful losses on the defensive side of the ball:
1. Ohio State: Joey Bosa, DE
The No. 1 edge defender in PFF grades in 2015, Bosa appears to be a lock for the top five in this year’s draft, and possibly the No. 1 selection overall. He was dominant against both the run and the pass, ranking No. 1 at his position in run-defense grade and No. 2 in pass-rush grade, recording 70 QB pressures on the season. Between Bosa and fellow early entrants Darron Lee (LB), Eli Apple (CB) and Vonn Bell (S), and departing seniors Adolphus Washington and Joshua Perry, the Buckeyes have to replace a lot of talent on defense.
The replacements: OSU fans got a glimpse of what life will be like without Bosa when he was ejected for a targeting penalty against Notre Dame in this year’s Fiesta Bowl. In stepped Sam Hubbard, who graded out well against the Fighting Irish and on the season finished as the Buckeyes’ third-best pass-rusher. He has a long way to go before he’s the run defender Bosa was, but Hubbard is a potential breakout player in 2016. At the other defensive end spot, Tyquan Lewis figures to take over as a starter, after grading very well against the run in 2015 and slightly above-average as a pass-rusher.
2. Florida State: Jalen Ramsey, CB
The second-ranked cornerback in our PFF grades this season, Ramsey was one of the best defensive players in all of college football. He excelled in coverage in his first season as an outside corner, but he did more than just lock down receivers; he also graded positively when asked to provide support in run defense and when getting pass-catchers after the catch, and when he rushed the opposing quarterback. He is a potential top-5 pick.
The replacements: As it will be for Ohio State with Bosa, it won’t be easy for FSU to replace Ramsey with just one player. Marquez White was FSU’s second-best coverage defender this season, behind only Ramsey, and he figures to take over the role of locking down the opponent’s No. 1 receiver. But the player who might replace more of Ramsey’s all-around playmaking ability could be freshman safety Derwin James. He did it all for the Noles in 2015, grading out very well as a blitzer, as a run defender and in coverage. He could be FSU’s next star in the defensive backfield.
3. Clemson: Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, DEs
Quarterback Deshaun Watson got a ton of attention during the Tigers’ run to the national title game, and with good reason. He finished the season as PFF’s second-ranked QB versus Power-5 competition, behind only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, and he is a potential early-entry candidate himself next year. But Clemson wouldn’t have come within a score of a national championship were it not for the excellent play of its defense, and in particular the standout play of defensive ends Lawson and Dodd. They ranked No. 13 and No. 19, respectively, in PFF’s edge defender grades this season, and when Lawson went out early with an injury in Clemson’s semifinal matchup with Mayfield and the Sooners, Dodd stepped up. He recorded a ridiculous 12 quarterback pressures in the Tigers’ win, and added seven more in the title game loss to Alabama to finish with 67 on the season, good for fourth in the nation. The early departures of Lawson and Dodd along with defensive backs Mackenzie Alexander, Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green mean it will be a new-look defense at Clemson next season.
The replacements: Freshman Austin Bryant flashed as a pass-rusher from the defensive end position in 2015 during his limited action, recording three or more quarterback pressures in three different games this season, including versus OU in the semifinals when he came on in relief of Lawson. He’s on breakout watch for next season. Fellow freshman Richard Yeargin also earned a positive pass-rushing grade in limited snaps.
4. Ole Miss: Robert Nkemdiche, DT
The crown jewel of Hugh Freeze’s standout 2013 recruiting class, Nkemdiche is likely to join Rebels teammates Laquon Treadwell (WR) and Laremy Tunsil (OT) in the first half of the first round of the 2016 NFL draft. There is some question as to whether his stock will drop as a result of the suspension he received for the team’s Sugar Bowl game after an off-field incident that saw him jump out of a window and eventually get charged with marijuana possession, but he certainly proved himself on the field in 2015. He graded out as the team’s best pass-rusher as well as one of its best run defenders.
The replacements: The aforementioned suspension started the defense’s life without Nkemdiche earlier than expected, but defensive tackle D.J. Jones stepped up with a standout performance in his place. He played a pivotal role in Ole Miss’ big win over Oklahoma State, earning an excellent grade in run defense while also producing two hurries and one sack as a pass-rusher. The Rebels will be looking for more of the same out of Jones next season. (Check out Tuesday’s article for how they might be able to replace their offensive stars.)
5. Oklahoma State: Emmanuel Ogbah, DE
While he only graded out slightly above-average against the run, Ogbah still ranked as one of the best edge defenders in the nation last season – that’s how good of a pass-rusher he was. He recorded 76 quarterback pressures this season, which ranked second in the country, including 12 sacks. He figures to bring that dynamic edge-rushing ability to an NFL team as a first-round rookie in 2016.
The replacements: The most likely candidates to take over for Ogbah are a pair of young players who earned positive pass-rush grades this season despite not seeing the field a ton. Jarrell Owens earned positive pass-rushing grades in the majority of his games this season, recording a total of 13 pressures. Jordan Brailford produced the same amount, standing out in two games in particular: A Week 9 win over Texas Tech, and in Oklahoma State’s Sugar Bowl loss to Ole Miss.
Jeff Dooley | Editor-in-Chief
Jeff is the Editor-in-Chief of PFF, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post's NFL coverage. He previously worked as the editor for ESPN Insider's NFL, Fantasy, and College Football coverage.