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2023 NFL Scouting Combine Preview - Defense

(Mandatory Photo Credit: Jack Aaron / The Daily Emerald)

Written by: Joseph Yun

Twitter: 2Yoon2ZeroBlitz

The 2023 NFL Scouting Combine is underway this week as 300+ prospects get to interview with their prospective employers, work out, and hobnob with their fellow athlete colleagues in Indianapolis. Who will stand out and elevate their stock on the defensive side of the ball? Who will rise / fall in their most significant job interview to date? Are there any surprises in store?

ICYMI, I previewed the offensive prospects going through the paces here.


The Favorites: Will Anderson, Jr | Myles Murphy | Tyree Wilson | Lukas Van Ness | Tuli Tuipulotu | Nolan Smith

- This group features multiple top 15 selections and potentially the first overall selection in Anderson, Jr. Wilson isn’t far behind in terms of talent to WAJ and should be a top ten selection. Murphy is a surefire first-round choice after a standout career at Clemson. LVN is an EDGE prospect from Iowa, who pumps out premier EDGE rushers on the regular. While not as hyped as Wilson or even Murphy, the former Hawkeyes product should test well enough to merit top-20 consideration. After two relatively mediocre seasons, Tuipulotu was one of the shining stars for the woeful USC defense in 2022. He busted out with an incredible 22.5 tackles for loss and a 13.5 sack campaign. If he can test well, he’s a surefire Day 2 selection with some first-round potential in there. Smith was injured for the back half of the national champions’ season but he flashed enough as a junior to merit first-round status. If he can prove his medical maladies are behind him, he’s an elite talent. The character is unquestioned as he could’ve left the team to prepare for the draft but he chose to stick it out and be around his teammates.

Sleepers: Keion White | Adetomiwa Adebawore | Felix Anudike-Uzomah | Isaiah Foskey | Dylan Horton | Will McDonald IV

- Many of the Senior Bowl standouts reside in this group including the biggest winner of them all in McDonald IV. The former Cyclones' pass rusher was all over the place and easily was the best of them all in Mobile. He’s a bit on the smaller side so the measurements will be important for him. He has quite enjoyed the meteoric rise up the boards as of late and if he tests well, an early Day 2 trip awaits. Foskey was somewhat muted but had a solid Senior Bowl week overall. There are enough athletic traits to rebound into a middle to late Day 2 selection for him. He needs to test well, however. White and Adebawore were two of the biggest winners in Mobile, which has boosted their stock into the stratosphere after less-than-ideal seasons by their teams. Anudike-Uzomah got on the radar after two standout seasons, racking up 19.5 sacks and humiliating everything the Big 12 threw at him. If he can test moderately well, he can continue his ascent up the boards at a rapid clip.

Super Sleepers: Nick Hampton | YaYa Diaby | KJ Henry

- If you’re looking for any sleeper EDGE prospects on Day 3 to build the depth in the room, these three are for you. Henry was the biggest winner in the group after a surprise performance there. He has escaped the looming shadow of his former Clemson linemates in a big way and elevated himself into the early Day 3 range. Diaby strung some good reps together consistently in Mobile. He put on some good tape as well early on in the season, further boosting the stock. Hampton has posted 21 sacks through three years and acquitted himself well in Mobile with a couple of good practice sessions.


The Favorites: Bryan Bresee | Keeanu Benton

- Bresee has been IDL2 for a solid calendar year and hasn’t moved off that much. Benton had a pretty solid Senior Bowl process to solidify his stock as a top-five IDL prospect. Not much has changed with these three at the top. Jalen Carter, while the top-ranked IDL, has off-field issues to deal with now that an arrest warrant was issued in connection to the car accident tragedy that happened in Athens. He will suffer a precipitous fall if these allegations are proven to be accurate by the local authorities.

Sleepers: Siaki Ika | Calijah Kancey | Zaach Pickens | Jalen Redmond

- Ika is a Baylor big man coming in at a listed 6’4 358 so nose might be in his pro future. He had a bit of a fall-off from his junior season to his senior one in 2022, however. The former Baylor tackle needs a big week to recover a bit. Kancey is the latest and greatest defensive lineman from Pitt. He’s been remarkably consistent the past two seasons as he posted 13.5 and 14 tackles for loss to go along with seven and 7.5 sacks, respectively. He’s a bit undersized, however, so the measurements will be critical for him. The former Pitt IDL is one of the most underrated interior forces in the class and should be a late Day 2 selection at the latest. Pickens and Redmond had good Senior Bowl efforts to further increase their value as well. The Mobile pair should be early to middle Day 3 selections if they continue their good push this week.

Super Sleepers: Dante Stills | Nesta Jade-Silvera

- Stills showed out at the Shrine Game after a productive career at West Virginia that saw him end up with 137 tackles, 53 tackles for loss, and 24 sacks. Interestingly, he could’ve had double-digit sacks for four consecutive seasons but barely missed out with at least 9.0 sacks in two of those years. He could be a steal for someone on Day 3 if he can translate his production and Shrine performance into testing well. NJS was dominant in Mobile and won nearly every rep he was a part of throughout the week. The former Sun Devil got himself on the radar and will look to continue the good momentum this week in Indy. He’s likely drafted before the fifth round at this point.


The Favorites: Noah Sewell | Trenton Simpson | Henry To’oTo’o | Jack Campbell | DeMarvion Overshown | Drew Sanders

- There’s a clear pecking order in the linebacker group with these guys. The order will be interpreted in different ways depending on preference. Sewell is, of course, the younger brother of Lions and Oregon standout Penei Sewell. The athletic testing will be important for him as he’s a bit of a throwback to the old generation of linebackers. Perhaps a slide down a level to EDGE will do him wonders at the next level. Simpson was one of the best linebackers in the country as a sophomore before leveling off a tiny bit as a junior statistically. He’s a really good athlete who can play literally everywhere but IDL and was used as such. The versatility will be a major plus for a smart defensive coordinator. Expect him to test well and solidify his stock as a first-round selection. Campbell was the unquestioned leader and do everything type for the vaunted Hawkeyes defense. He has an interesting story as he signed with Iowa, transferred to Cincinnati and converted to TE, and transferred back to Iowa after one season and converted back to linebacker. The drills will be interesting to monitor for him. Sanders has a case to argue that he is the best linebacker in the class. He’s athletic enough to play outside on a consistent basis but is likely better suited inside. The height and weight combo is intriguing as he’s listed a 6’5 230. He could be a versatile weapon used all over the place. Overshown was at the Senior Bowl where he did enough to maintain his already high stock as an athletic run stuffer who can hang with tight ends.

Sleepers: Dee Winters | Dorian Williams | Owen Pappoe | Ivan Pace, Jr | Daiyan Henley

- This category is chock full of Senior Bowl caliber prospects who stood out during that event or merited an invite. Pace proved that he belongs at the level with a great week after leading the Cincinnati defense over the past two seasons. He was extremely productive rushing the passer in Mobile, which was on par with his senior season with nine sacks and 20 overall. The size is what it is at this point but if he can run well, it shouldn’t matter as a potential Day 2 subpackage type. Mobile’s DW initiated brothers were all over the place there and certainly elevated their stocks. Williams in particular impressed throughout the week, which was in line statistically. He was the leader of the Tulane defense and it showed. The on field drills will be important for him as he needs to prove lateral agility. Henley did well enough to justify a top 5 positional ranking and will look to maintain if not improve. He’s a former Nevada transfer who did well leading the Washington State defense in 2022. Unfortunately, Pappoe didn’t get to participate in the Senior Bowl due to a shoulder injury but is reportedly on track for Indy.

Super Sleepers: SirVocea Dennis | Mohamoud Diabate

- One ACC and Pac-12 standouts populate the super sleeper section. Dennis needs the Combine to tweak some things from the Senior Bowl. He was solid but lost a few one on one battles with running backs as well. He’s another Pitt defensive star product who improved his numbers year on year so the development is there. Diabate transferred to Utah after two productive years at Florida. While he couldn’t quite replicate his junior season at UF, he was nonetheless still effective at Utah. The former Utah Ute is athletic and should impress in the counting tests. The drills should be where he shines the most. Utah is known for producing standout defensive products so hopefully some of that developmental magic is in store.


The Favorites: Christian Gonzalez | Joey Porter, Jr | Devon Witherspoon | Clark Phillips | Keelee Ringo

- Gonzalez is a locked-in first-rounder at this point after a standout season at Oregon that previously began at Colorado. He was a viable early Day 2 prospect before 2022 and only elevated his stock to a top-two corner status. He has excellent ball skills and should test well during the drills as a result. The athleticism is there, certainly to match it. JPJ is a legacy prospect much like Pat Surtain, Jr was. The son of Steelers legendary linebacker Joey Porter is a long and athletic corner that’s ball-dominant with 117 tackles and 20 passes defended in his career. The size is undeniable at 6’2 200+ and teams will be salivating at his potential. Witherspoon is in contention for CB1 as well. He’s another corner who’s always around the ball with 157 total tackles, five interceptions, and 25 passes defended to his name. A physical corner who loves to play tight to receivers and doesn’t give an inch. It will be interesting to see how he tests. Phillips exploded onto the scene as a redshirt freshman with 61 total tackles, two interceptions, and a whopping 13 passes defended in 2021. Teams rarely tested him in 2022 as a result but when they did, he made the offense pay with six interceptions, including two pick-sixes. He’s well-schooled fundamentally as are most Utah defensive backs and a pretty good athlete as well. A surefire first-round grade awaits. Ringo rounds out the quintet like his namesake on the Beatles. He’s a supremely talented athlete that should blow away everyone in testing. The former five-star prospect may not need to buy anything in Athens ever again for icing the 2021 championship for the Bulldogs with a pick-six. He put on a show in 2022, shutting down everyone including star Tennessee receiver Jalin Hyatt. Georgia might have yet another first-rounder on their hands with him.

Sleepers: Darius Rush | Kyu Blu Kelly | Julius Brents | Tyrique Stevenson | Riley Moss

- This Mobile quintet were standouts in Mobile and had excellent performances there at various points. Moss was the fastest DB at the festivities so the 40 time will be one to watch for him. Brents could draw further hype as a taller corner that could boost his stock into Day 2 if he tests well. Stevenson’s medicals will be scrutinized after getting injured at the event. He has come a long way from his Miami days and continued the good run of form from his brief Georgia stay. Early Day 3 is a great possibility for him if not higher, depending on testing. Kelly certainly has the bloodlines and the SB show to back him up. He was the alpha of alphas at the position in Mobile. A good Combine showing should have him climbing even higher on Day 2. Rush formed a really solid duo with fellow Combine participant Cam Smith in 2022. He was impressive throughout the process and merits a sneaky look into the early stages of Day 3 as a result if not higher.


The Favorites: Brian Branch | Christopher Smith | Jordan Battle | Antonio Johnson

- This group has four of the most battle-tested and veteran safeties who have been there and done that. Mr. Branch is the top safety on the board with his versatility and football IQ. He projects as a big nickel at the next level with his athleticism and instincts. If he can run a fast time, he should lock in a first-round selection. Smith was the veteran leader of the Bulldogs' defense. He’s an above-average athlete who should test well and prove his worth in drills. The former Bulldogs safety could play a bit of a floating big nickel role like Jevon Holland does for Miami. Jordan Battle is the next former Crimson Tide safety in line to earn a Day 2 selection if he can test as expected. Johnson is a bigger body safety, probably best suited in a hybrid dime linebacker/safety role so the athletic testing will be crucial for him. He’s in contention for S2 honors alongside his SEC compatriots.

Sleepers: Jammie Robinson | JL Skinner | Trey Dean III | Sydney Brown

- Robinson was the key linchpin in the Seminoles’ secondary that led the revival of Mike Norvell’s team in 2022. He played seemingly everywhere for the improved defense, earning an invite to Mobile, where he stood out. He’s not the biggest safety so the drills and testing will be important. The former Seminole could play a nickel safety role at the next level if he can run somewhere in the 4.5-4.6 range. It can be argued that Robinson could be one of the more underrated safeties in the class. Skinner was also in Mobile where he made a few plays but unfortunately is a late scratch for the Combine due to a hamstring injury. Trey Dean was a three-year starter with an impressive stat line. The former Gator stood out at the Shrine Game and converted to safety from the corner. If he can retain some corner athleticism and show out during the drills, he can boost his stock into the early to middle Day 3 range. Brown was a staggering winner at the Senior Bowl with his showing. He won nearly every single rep and was part of a much-hyped Illini secondary in 2022. He’s a quick twitch and bursty type of athlete that can hang with quicker receivers and smaller backs. Hopefully, he can test well during the Combine to retain some hype after Mobile.

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