** 9 Weeks into the 2017 College Football season, Harry Latham-Coyle brings you his initial 2018 NFL Draft position rankings on defense. Follow Harry on twitter @Hlc1221 and tweet @TheInsideZone with your thoughts on the list. **
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
1. Christian Wilkins, Clemson
Wilkins is a diverse interior rusher who flashes a range of skills across Clemson’s defensive front. Quick and explosive of the snap, Wilkins is stout against the run and wins in different ways as a pass rusher. With Clemson’s deep rotation, Wilkins played a lot off the edge last year and this only compliments his game: he is bendier and more athletic than most defensive tackles and that shows on tape. An all-around package who is going to be an immediate difference-maker for an NFL team.
2. Maurice Hurst, Michigan
Hurst is an athletic penetrator who can dominate as a three-technique. Undersized (probably a little over 280 pounds), the success of Aaron Donald shows how valuable pure athleticism is in a pass-rushing defensive tackle. By no means a liability against the run, Hurst uses his hands well to control the offensive lineman and has exceptional pad level, using his shorter frame to get under the blocker. You will not find a more explosive defensive tackle in this class, and a team is going to fall in love with Hurst and take him in the Top-15.
3. Da’Ron Payne, Alabama
Payne is a traditional ‘Bama DT. Stout, powerful and with heavy initial hands that can rock a defender. He has more shimmy than some think, and wins in a number of different ways. He is the best two-gap defender in the class and an excellent run defender with Herculean upper-body strength. I’d like to see more pass-rush success, however, and that is why he is not at the top of this list.
4. Vita Vea, Washington
Vita Vea is a behemoth, built like Maui (from Disney’s Moana) and with similarly luscious flowing hair. At his best, he is nigh-on unblockable, with ridiculous athleticism at somewhere near 340 pounds and a powerful bull rush that drives linemen into the backfield. At his best, Vea is an ideal 3-4 nose tackle who can eat a double team but when he gets his pad level too high he compromises his sheer mass and can be neutralised. He needs to develop some pass-rushing skills beyond his bull rush if he is to stay on the field on third down, but he has ridiculous size and agility and is beginning to put it together this season.
5. Derrick Nnadi, Florida State
Nnadi is a great run defender who is extremely stout as a one-tech on FSU’s defensive line. He has some wiggle as a pass rusher but is not hugely proficient in this facet, limiting what he will be able to do early in the NFL. However, he has exceptional pad level and great hand usage to go alongside a powerful stodgy frame and impressive non-stop motor.
Sleeper: Kendrick Norton, Miami
1. Clelin Ferrell, Clemson
A dominant edge presence, Ferrell is ludicrously impressive as a redshirt sophomore on the best defensive line in college football. Bendy and explosive as a pass-rusher, Ferrell sets himself apart from other defensive ends with his ability to play the run, using his natural power and instincts to make plays. A tremendous athlete, he keeps his eyes up, enhancing his natural traits by playing intelligent fundamental football.
2. Bradley Chubb, NC State
I was too low on Chubb coming into this year but this is the best edge defender in college football. While he lacks the athleticism of the rest of this list, Chubb is technically proficient, powerful and knowledgeable about his game and how to succeed. The NFL craves bendy speed rushers off the edge and Chubb is neither of those things, but he has the best hands in the class and can rock even the biggest tackles. Analytical evaluators who focus on athleticism will not love him, but Chubb is a damn-good defensive end and he is going to be a very good NFL player.
3. Arden Key, LSU
Key is battling back from injury and time away from LSU for undisclosed reasons. A twitchy and bendy pass-rusher, Key has put on some weight for this year to attempt to allay concerns about his thin frame and lack of power. He can hold up against the run but needs to develop better hand placement and learn to use his athleticism more rather than try to combat power with power. His explosion off the snap and ability to turn the corner is outstanding, but the key (pun fully intended) will be if he can maintain these skills while also adding more weight. Early returns have been okay, but to cement himself as a Top-10 prospect he needs to show more
4. Harold Landry, Boston College
Another speed rusher, Landry converts speed into power well and can fly off the edge. Bendy and refined technique-wise, Landry is no doubt an excellent pass rusher with a habit of making big plays. Deficiencies as a run defender plunge him down my rankings. Landry is driven off the LOS regularly and struggles to hold up against powerful tackles and guards. An outstanding pass-rusher, Landry will likely go high but not everyone is going to love him.
5. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma
Okoronkwo is a player I am higher on than a lot of other draft analysts. I love the way he embarrasses tackles with speed and agility and his delectable spin move. He’s a bit of a tweener, with 4-3 teams likely looking at him as an outside linebacker, but in a versatile front he could be utterly dominant. Okoronkwo has a gorgeous inside swim, setting up linemen by threatening outside speed and coming hard back inside, whipping away the tackle’s hands en route to the quarterback. He doesn’t get credit for being a solid run defender, and the only reason he isn’t higher on this list is his size and potential NFL future elsewhere. A draft-crush of mine, and someone I am excited to watch more of the rest of the season.
Sleeper: Hercules Mata’afa (My favourite defensive lineman to watch, Mata’afa will have to move to the edge for the NFL. He warrants consideration for this list based on his work from the interior, but the lack of time spent opposite tackles means I don’t know what he is at this position. Explosive and powerful with great hands and bend, he could be a first-rounder if a team loves his skill set)
1. Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
Edmunds is a flowing athlete with ideal size. Equally proficient in coverage and against the run, he is improving game-by-game and excelling on a good Hokies defense. He can run with any halfback out of the backfield, and has improved his physicality when taking on blockers from last season. He has a tendency over pursue, but this will settle with better coaching and the instincts are there. This class of linebackers does not really have a true standout, but Edmunds is my top-rated player due to the most complete blend of skills.
2. Roquan Smith, Georgia
The big riser from early season performances, Smith wasn’t even on the radar of most analysts through summer prep-work. Smith is a ferocious run defender who rocks offensive lineman close to 100 pounds heavier than him (listed at 225 pounds) with considerable force. He is a good athlete and coverage linebacker, and if continue to develop will become a force in the NFL. Georgia’s defense is fittingly full of Bulldogs, and Smith is the best of them, leading from the front and setting the tone.
3. Rashaan Evans, Alabama
Alabama has a pair of linebackers worth discussing, with many preferring Shaun Dion Hamilton to teammate Evans. I like both of them, but Evans is a gem. He can play across a 4-3 defense or in a 3-4, possessing a complete portfolio of skills. Still recovering from a groin injury, Evans can cover and plays the run with physicality and athleticism and is a fearsome hitter with violent hands.
4. Malik Jefferson, Texas
A lot of people rank Jefferson as their top linebacker, but he is a guesser lacking the instincts that make a top linebacking prospect. A tremendous athlete and high-level recruit, Jefferson’s Texas career has been largely underwhelming. He has range and speed, but needs to put it together. He struggles to get off blocks too often to be a true force as a run-stuffer, and I think there is going to be a stiff learning curve when he reaches the NFL. Yet it is rare to find such a dominant athlete at linebacker, and Jefferson is having an improved season on all fronts, so he still finds a place among by top-5.
5. Jerome Baker, Ohio State
Love off-ball linebackers that can cover? Meet Jerome Baker. With easy agility and range, he has the smarts to stay with offensive players in coverage. He was tremendous last year, but this season appears to be thinking to much and perhaps playing within himself for fear of injury, missing some tackles and not impacting the game with particular regularity or force. He is still playing at a decent level (and is being asked to do more as a blitzer, accentuating his skill set) but a strong second half of the season would cement Baker’s status as an exciting linebacker prospect.
Next Best Players: Cameron Smith, USC and Shaun Dion Hamilton, Alabama (Like I mentioned earlier, this was a tough position to separate 1-5. Smith and Dion Hamilton just lose out, and all of these names I rate similarly.)
1. Jaire Alexander, Louisville
Alexander is the top corner in the class based off last year’s tape, as he has missed most of the first half of the season, playing just one game. A smooth cover man, he can play in the slot or as a boundary corner and has tremendous ball skills and agility. He may be undersized but Alexander is a very good coverage corner who can play in any scheme with success.
2. Quenton Meeks, Stanford
Smart and instinctive, Meeks is a crafty corner who works hard and has a refined game. A flowing corner in coverage, he has good size and ball skills. Not an astonishing athlete, Meeks gets by more on technique. If he can develop further and better use his natural length, he would be my top corner in this class. He can tackle and fill in the run game. I love Meeks’ game, and I think the NFL team that drafts him gets a very solid immediate starting cornerback.
3. Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State
McFadden is third in my rankings despite an up-and-down season and the fact I am not enamoured with his current game. He is long and athletic with high upside, but is not a great technician and needs serious refinement. Potentially a lockdown NFL cornerback if he can develop and put together his natural physical traits, he is good in press and off man coverage but is a boom-or-bust prospect who will be desired by many teams for his ability neutralise bigger wideouts and tight ends in the redzone.
4. Denzel Ward, Ohio State
Ward could be the ideal slot corner for an NFL team: strong in man coverage and with long arms, he finds the football and makes plays. Improved in run support, he is smooth athletically and can rock a ball carrier, with his hit against Maryland well-worth a watch even if he was incorrectly ejected for targeted. Ohio State has had three first-round cornerbacks in the last two seasons, and Ward seems set to be the fourth.
5. Adonis Alexander, Virginia Tech
The second of the Alexanders, Adonis is long and physical but has some athletic troubles. Lacking twitch and natural lower body movement, Alexander will turn away certain suitors if he does not show better lateral agility either at the combine or in the second half of the Hokies season. He is a good zone corner and does possess an ability to drive on the football with closing speed. He has strong tackling ability, and a move to safety is not out of the question if he struggles initially, but his length and size entices me, as I am sure it will entice an NFL team early in the 2018 NFL Draft
Sleeper: Darius Phillips, Western Michigan
1. Derwin James, Florida State
James does a bit of everything at safety, but he does everything well. An outstanding athlete with unlimited upside, he can tackle at the line of scrimmage, blitz off the edge, cover tight ends across the middle, play deep zone coverage or lineup as a slot corner. He is long and physical with an instinctive style that is developing but already ahead of most college safeties. Missing all of his second season through injury, James has returned in strong fashion, showing his prowess in affecting every game. A lack of production interception and PBU wise may be a concern to some, but James affects the game on most plays. A natural leader with a chiseled frame and exceptional athletic traits, James is the best defensive player in the class.
2. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
Fitzpatrick pushes James close, however, and the pair of safeties should follow 2017’s Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker as Top-15 picks. Similarly versatile, Fitzpatrick plays a lot of corner for the Crimson Tide but is better suited to safety. He excels as a run-defender when asked to play in the box and can play single-high or in a cover two better than James. With natural range and ball skills, his time at cornerback only enhances his skill set, developing his man coverage skills and instincts. Two elite safety prospects in the same draft, and two extremely exciting pieces for creative defensive coordinators when they enter the NFL
3. Jordan Whitehead, Pittsburgh
Whitehead has some off-field issues that need to be squared by teams, but as a pure american football player is very good. A two-way player, Whitehead is extremely athletic. Lacking the height and weight of the aforementioned pair, Whitehead is a different player, less physical but equally able in run support. He has a great feel for coverage, and is a superb roamer deep in the secondary. Someone who is going to fly up a lot of draft boards in the lead-up to the draft.
4. Ronnie Harrison, Alabama
Harrison is the enforcer for Alabama’s secondary, a prototype strong safety with hitting prowess and ability in man coverage. He tackles everything and is an explosive short area athlete who can take on blockers. In a different ilk to many of today’s safeties, including those listed above, but as true strong safeties go there is no-one better in this class.
5. Armani Watts, Texas A&M
Watts formed a good tandem with Justin Evans last season, and it was somewhat surprising that he did not follow his teammate to the NFL, choosing to stay with the Aggies rather than declaring early for the drat. He is a well-rounded safety who is equally capable near the line of scrimmage as deep and is improved reliability wise as a tackler for this season. With excellent speed to close on the football, Watts does sometimes need to slow down and better harness this to avoid over committing and missing plays. His versatility will appeal to many NFL teams, and a spot on Day 2 is likely presuming he is the solid athlete most anticipate.
Sleeper: Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern
Follow Harry Latham-Cole on Twitter at @HLC1221
2018 NFL Draft Defense.