Every Senior Bowl player you need to know: Defense

Steve Palazzolo runs through PFF's notes on the country's top defensive draft prospects.

| 10 months ago
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Every Senior Bowl player you need to know: Defense


In what has become the premier event in-between championship weekend and the Super Bowl, Senior Bowl week is upon us and it’s a great look into the future of the NFL. While one week of practice and a few game reps does not make or break a prospect’s future, the opportunity to validate thousands of college snaps with the entire NFL watching closely is invaluable.

With PFF working hand-in-hand with the Senior Bowl, it’s also a great chance to get an in-person look at prospects we’ve graded on those thousands of snaps. Our evaluation process is always ongoing (be sure to check out our live blog once practices begin), and while the larger sample size from the film room is most important, Senior Bowl week is just another part of the process.

Make sure to take a look at yesterday’s offensive breakdown here

Edge defenders

Beyond Joey Bosa at the top, the edge defender class has plenty of room for movement. A number of juniors were placed in the first round in the latest PFF mock draft, and their standing at the top is not set in stone. Senior Bowl class may not have any top half of the first round prospects, but it’s a deep group looking to vie for position on day two. Perhaps most notable is Noah Spence whose hype may take off with a good week. He started out at Ohio State before ending up at Eastern Kentucky where he graded at +5.9 on his 123 snaps against FBS competition this season.

Though he’s listed as an edge defender, Wisconsin’s Joe Schobert dropped into coverage nearly as often as he rushed the passer (190 rushes, 188 snaps in coverage), but he’s had incredible production as a pass rusher the last two years. He’s picked up 13 sacks, 22 hits, and 58 hurries on only less than a season’s worth of rushes the last two years (341). The coverage ability adds to his versatility and he’s a prime candidate to make a bigger name for himself with his every down consistency this week.

Among the other notable names, Penn State’s Carl Nassib won’t wow anyone from an athleticism standpoint but he explodes into blockers and wins with his hands, a big part of his +34.6 grade this season. Baylor’s Shawn Oakman, on the other hand, will wow everyone from a physique standpoint, but his +11.0 grade on 678 snaps against Power-5 competition is underwhelming.

Two players trying to live up to their production are Oklahoma’s Eric Striker and Utah State’s Kyler Fackrell. Striker will fight the undersized label at six-feet, 221 pounds, but his +28.9 and +39.4 pass rush grades each of the last two years is difficult to ignore. He can be overwhelmed in the run game, but he’ll be out to prove that there is a position for him on an NFL field. Fackrell had a huge senior season after being limited to only 31 snaps in 2014. He was disruptive as a pass rusher and stout against the run, but he’ll look to answer the obvious questions about strength of competition this week.

Interior defensive line

Perhaps the deepest position in the draft, teams in the market for interior help should have numerous options on the first two days of the draft. Two players made it into our last mock in Penn State’s Austin Johnson and Alabama’s Jarran Reed. Both have a similar production profile, better against the run than they are as pass rushers, but they go about it in different ways. Johnson has quick hands, able to shed and make plays though he’s not always stout against double teams. Reed handles the doubles better, but he can also make plays in run game as his nation-leading 13.4 percent run stop percentage attests. Both players have the versatility to get a look at either nose tackle or defensive end in a 3-4, with the latter perhaps being the best fit for Johnson.

Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins brings two years of gaudy grades to Mobile, finishing at +55.4 last season and +42.6 this year. Finding his best fit will be crucial as he often looks better playing head up and shedding blocks rather than shooting gaps, despite being listed at a size that’s less than ideal for that role (6-foot-2, 300 pounds). He reminds of Timmy Jernigan of the Baltimore Ravens.

Rankins is similar to Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day from a size standpoint, and both players went head to head all season in our grading. Day finished strong to grade at +59.0, second-best among all interior defensive linemen. He can shoot gaps or win with his hands, equally proficient as a pass rusher (+31.4) as he was against the run (+28.7). He has a chance to solidify his status as a potential first round pick this week.

Another name to watch is Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler. He can drive blockers into the backfield, though he sometimes loses interest in anchoring and holding his gap against double teams. This week is big for him to prove that his +32.1 grade against the run (fourth in the nation) will hold up against better competition.

Linebackers

Two of the nation’s top four graded run-stopping linebackers will be on display in Missouri’s Kentrell Brothers and West Virginia’s Nick Kwiatkoski. Brothers led the nation with 78 stops, grading positively in all but two games. Kwiatkoski initially caught the eye with a strong outing against Alabama to kick off the 2014 season and he hasn’t disappointed since. He’s willing to take on blockers and held his own in coverage so look for a strong week to put him on the radar across the league. Both Brothers and Kwiatkoski were around the ball quite a bit, so they also have their fair share of missed tackles as well (18 for Brothers, 13 for Kwiatkoski).

The biggest name among the linebacker class is Alabama’s Reggie Ragland as he hopes to carry on a tradition of first round Bama linebackers. He dabbled on the edge this season, and at times made more plays there than he did in the middle, and he’ll get a chance to show that this week in Mobile. His +9.9 pass rush grade finished ninth in the country while his +13.6 grade against the run came in 18th. Ragland left a lot of plays on the field, though his closing speed makes for some exciting hits in both the run game and in coverage. There’s a lot to like about his game, but still a lot of questions before locking him into the first round.

Ohio State’s Joshua Perry will get a close look as he steps out of the shadow of the more dynamic Darron Lee (Ohio State teammate and potential first round pick). Perry outplayed Lee for much of the past two seasons, though he did it in unexciting fashion, making the plays that came his way and missing only nine tackles the last two seasons. He’s done a fine job in coverage the past two years, so keep an eye on his one-one-one drills against running backs.

Defensive backs

It may be cheating to put Duke’s Jeremy Cash with the defensive backs as he was an outstanding glorified linebacker for the Blue Devils. Our All-American strong safety, he led is an undersized force around the line of scrimmage and sure to garner Deone Bucannon comparisons. Cash is excellent at taking on and defeating blocks, as big reason for his +20.4 grade against the run and +13.9 pass rush grade. The big question is just how effective can he be covering tight ends, running backs and slot receivers to increase his value to the NFL.

Boise State safety Darian Thompson has put together two straight years to strong grades, +18.1 and +17.8, as he looks to add free safety talent to a depleted talent pool in the NFL. As for most safeties, versatility is key, and he has graded well against both run and in coverage, but if he can show range on the back end, he can make a big move in the draft.

None of the cornerbacks stood out this year from a grading sense, so it’s a big week as they look to separate from the pack. Temple CB Tavon Young was better in 2014, but had his moments this year and has allowed an NFL passer rating of 64.4 into his coverage the last two seasons.

Virginia’s Maurice Canady was also better in 2014, but if he checks in at his listed 6-foot-2, he’ll jump up on a number of team boards on size alone. Still, he struggled 2015, and his 2014 tape that saw eight passes defensed and a +2.3 coverage grade brings some hope.

There are a number of small school defensive back prospects headed to Mobile as well, and our evaluations will continue as we get a closer look this week.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • Jeff

    From what I have read this might be the best year for defensive players in a long time. Especially when you include some of the injured ones and have looked at last year’s games. Being a Dolphins fan it couldn’t come at a better time! With a corner in 1st, MLB in 2nd & safety in 3rd or some order similar. You could double up at DB’s….

  • Izach

    Interesting no mention of miles killbrew