NFL Draft Prospects: Defensive Tackle Rankings

Written By: Cody Manning

We are less than three weeks away from the NFL Draft! As we inch towards the 26th, teams are finalizing their big boards, bringing in players for visits, and trying to figure out who they want to target. In this latest version of our top five rankings, we look at the hog mollies that battle away in the trenches. They might not get the stats or the recognition, but they are key to helping a defense stopping the run as well as getting the pressure on the quarterback. In last year’s draft, we didn’t see one get drafted until the 2nd round (Malik McDowell — 35th Overall) but that should be different in 2018. I believe we should have at least two or more go in the first round with teams like the Dolphins, Redskins, Chargers, Cowboys, Titans, and Falcons.

1. Vita Vea: Washington

Height: 6’4”

Weight: 347

Career Stats: 37 Career Games

Tackles: 99

Tackles for a loss: 15

Sacks: 9.5

Pass Deflections: 5

Fumble Recoveries: 0

Forced Fumbles: 2

Vita Vea has the size, strength, and speed that NFL teams are searching for from the defensive tackle position. During the combine, Vita showed off his strength by posting 41 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press and surprised people with a 5.1 40-yard time which caught some scout’s eyes by moving his large body that fast. While he did come in as a freshman and contribute to his team with 17 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, and 1 sack. He more than doubled his stats the next year as he posted 39 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, and 5 sacks. This was the beginning of Vea showing off his raw potential to be one of the best defensive tackles in college football.

Vea is a big guy who can clog lanes at the next level and he should be able to constantly demand double teams from the lineman. While he has the size, what is impressive is how smooth he is when he uses his hands to get rid of the lineman to make a tackle or get pressure on the quarterback. He has very quick feet in small space which allows him to get by the lineman, but he also has the strength where he can literally toss them to the side with one arm to clear a path to the runner. He has a violent side of him which makes it tough to deal with him, he will fill gaps to make the tackle or bounce the runner to the outside. He also showed the ability to read quarterbacks as he increased his number of pass deflections his senior year.

While he can look very dominant, his biggest problem is that he can be inconsistent with his play. He has times where he disappears and isn’t getting any type of pressure on the offense. If his first move doesn’t help him win the battle, then he has a habit of raising his pad level then he ends up getting stood up while getting blocked. He is also very slow out of his stance, so if his initial quickness isn’t on point then he must rely on his strength to move the lineman out of the way. While it does help him out at times, he can depend on it too much instead of trying to develop more moves to help him win future battles. Because of this, teams may not want to leave him on the field in passing situations.

If Vea can become more consistent and develop into a professional, then I believe he has what it takes to make it at the next level. He should be able to come in and contribute as a rookie right away. He can come in as a starter for teams as a rookie and should be able to be at least a key part of a team’s rotation. NFL teams should be able to depend on him help stuff the run, and demand double teams to help linebackers roam freely. If he properly develops into a consistent performer we should see him at an All-Pro level and be talked about being one of the best defensive tackles in the league.

Projected Round: 1st

Team Fits: Dolphins, Redskins, Chargers

NFL Comparison: Haloti Ngata

2. Da’Ron Payne: Alabama

Height: 6’2”

Weight: 311

Career Stats: 35 Career Games

Tackles: 102

Tackles for a loss: 5

Sacks: 3

Pass Deflections: 5

Fumble Recoveries: 2

Forced Fumbles: 1

Da’Ron Payne is another defensive tackle that should be able to come into the league to help bolster an NFL team’s defensive line. Like Vita Vea, Payne contributed as a freshman but saw major improvement his sophomore season. He tripled the number of tackles, tackles for a loss, and sacks. He also improved his numbers significantly his senior year has he had more tackles then he did the previous two seasons combined. He impressed scouts with his speed at the combine where he ran a 4.95 40-yard dash, 7.58 3 cone drill and a 4.71 20-yard shuttle. This showed how he fast he can move his big body in small space.

Payne is a run stuffer, he uses his large frame to his advantage to help fill gaps to stuff run plays or bounce them to the outside. His presence alone demanded double teams, if not triple teams at times. This allowed other defenders on the defense to make plays on the quarterback or the runner. He also showed the intelligence by recognizing plays and reacting to them very quickly. He has a fast-quick step at the ball which allows him to win early battles with lineman, so he can gain leverage, so he can make a play on the runner. He brings effort every play, this showed when Alabama was up 40 points on Vanderbilt, and Da’Ron continued to bring his best every snap.

He will need to develop more as a pass rusher because his moves are limited so if he doesn’t succeed at first then he will typically hang back and react to the quarterback. Early in his career, he won’t be depended on getting pressure on the quarterback. He may demand attention from the lineman, but he needs to develop more to be effective on third downs. While he can find ways to get pressure on the quarterback, he does have times where he will take bad angles on the quarterback and will completely miss him, which could attest to the lack of sacks he has in the stat column.

Payne has the traits and abilities that teams should want from a defensive tackle at the next level. He has a big body that he knows how to use to his advantage and should be able to contribute as a rookie. He will be able to demand double teams right away and will fill gaps in the right defensive scheme. I believe he should be able to start as a rookie and should be a cog for a defensive unit. If he develops more pass rush moves, then by his third season he should be able to be a three-down player and be a player that a team can depend upon every season.

Projected Round: 1st

Team Fits: Redskins, Chargers, Cowboys

NFL Comparison: Brandon Williams

3. Maurice Hurst: Michigan

Height: 6’2”

Weight: 292

Career Stats: 41 Career Games

Tackles: 130

Tackles for a loss: 32

Sacks: 13.5

Pass Deflections: 3

Fumble Recoveries: 1

Forced Fumbles: 2

Maurice Hurst is a very consistent performer that could come into a defensive rotation and be productive for the team that selects him. He started playing significant time as a sophomore and was a player that his teammates could depend upon. He showed improvement by increasing his tackle for a loss number by going from 6.5 as a sophomore to 11.5 as a junior. His senior year he found the ball more as he had 59 tackles, compared to the 35 and 33 numbers he posted the previous season. A team will get a player that showed he can improve in certain areas of his game and could be a great professional at the next level.

One of the things that makes Hurst great is the quick initial burst that allows him to win the early battles versus lineman. He is light on his feet, his speed allows him to fill gaps and be a perfect defensive tackle to run a stunt with. Maurice can be disruptive with his quickness by filling gaps before lineman has the chance to get their hands on him. He also uses his hands well to keep the lineman from locking on to him and has a variety of pass rush moves he is effective with which allows him to get pressure on the quarterback. He can close space on quarterbacks and runners, so he can end plays very quickly in space.

He is undersized so if he can’t keep lineman from locking on him then they can have their way with him, so he can get taken out of the play, and they can clear a path for the runner. Sometimes his speed can be a disadvantage to him at times because it results in him taking bad angles, so runners can just make one simple move to get by him. I also notice he had moments where he was hesitant which also would take him out of plays. He also will need to find ways he can shed lineman, so he can be more effective versus the run. One knock against Maurice is that he may be scheme-dependent, he seems like he would be a better fit in a 4–3 defense as a 3-technique.

Hurst will come in more as a pass rushing defensive tackle as a rookie, and that may be his role as a rookie to get pressure on the quarterback. He does have the ability to fill gaps to stuff runs or bounce it to the outside with his initial quickness. I believe he needs to add some size to be productive at the next level, so teams may want to use him as a rotational player his rookie year. He has first-round talent, but he might not be able to make that type of impact right away. If he bulks up while keeping that speed he has, then by his third season he could develop into a Pro Bowl caliber type player.

Projected Round: Late 1st-Early 2nd

Team Fits: Titans, Falcons, Cowboys

NFL Comparison: Gerald McCoy

4. Taven Bryan: Florida

Height: 6’4”

Weight: 291

Career Stats: 30 Career Games

Tackles: 62

Tackles for a loss: 10.5

Sacks: 5.5

Pass Deflections: 1

Fumble Recoveries: 3

Forced Fumbles: 1

Taven Bryan has such a high ceiling as a player he just started to show he can tap into his potential from this past season. In his first two seasons of college football, he had a combined 25 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, and 1.5 sacks. During his final season at Florida, he showed his abilities as he posted 37 tackles, 6 tackles for a loss and 4 sacks. He has so much talent that he has yet to tap into and showed flashes of what he can do, which is why he could go as high as the first round in the draft.

Taven will come in as one of the more athletic defensive tackles in this class. He has an amazing initial burst which allows him to disrupt plays. This forced teams to double team him at times, but he still showed the strength to fight through them. He will stack lineman, then not only shred them but toss them to the side. He will get under the lineman’s pads and drive them back, so he can wreak havoc in the backfield and blow up plays. If you turn on his tape versus Texas A&M, then you can see how disruptive he can be as a player.

He is a bit undersized for his position, this shows when strong lineman locks their hands on him then drive him away from the ball. He is an attacker, so he excels too fast upfield at times which results in taking himself out of the play and is a target against screen plays. After his initial burst, he does sometimes have a bad habit of coming up straight out of his stance which causes him to lose the leverage battle against the lineman. If his first move fails, then he will typically start to raise his pad level, so he gets stood up on blocks. While he can explode into the backfield, he has times where he whiffs and will miss a tackle or a sack.

He will come into the league and be a great rotational player as a rookie. Like Hurst, he needs to bulk up a little more, but he can develop into a disruptor at the next level. He will need to develop as a pass rusher if he wants to stay on the field more, but his initial quickness allows him to become an effective pass rusher at the next level. He has so much untapped potential, if a team can find a way to elevate his play then he could develop into the best defensive tackle of this class.

Projected Round: Late 1st -2nd

Team Fits: Titans, Falcons, Lions

NFL Comparison: J.J. Watt

5. Harrison Phillips: Stanford

Height: 6’4”

Weight: 307

Career Stats: 31 Career Games

Tackles: 153

Tackles for a loss: 29

Sacks: 16.5

Pass Deflections: 2

Fumble Recoveries: 2

Forced Fumbles: 3

Harrison Phillips is one of the most productive defensive tackles in this draft. Not only is he in this draft but has at his position he led his teams in tackles this past season. He had two solid years of production without having any significant experience during his freshman and sophomore year. While showing productivity as a junior, he showed the ability to develop as he increased his tackles from 46 to 98 and tackles for loss from 10 to 17. He also showed consistency by having 7+ sacks both seasons.

Harrison has the knack of finding a way to get to the ball carrier and make the tackle. He uses his long arms and wide body to his advantage to help gain leverage against the lineman. He has a feel for how the play is developing and will push his way towards the back to help bounce it to the outside. He also has top strength as when he locks his arms onto the lineman he can move them to the side to make a play. He also is very smooth with his pass rush moves, so he can swim by them with ease to get pressure on the quarterback. Teams could depend on him to fill gaps, anchor, and stuff the run. He does a nice job when he wins the leverage battle at getting under the pads of the lineman and driving them back.

While Phillips does have the size and shows his strength, he has times where he just gets bullied around too much. I believe that it can be attested that he has a habit of raising his pad level too high at times when results in him getting pancaked into the ground. My biggest problem when I walked away from his film is that he spent way too much time on the ground. If he can’t find a way to stay off it at the next level, then I do fear he won’t be in the team’s rotation as much as he would like. He also isn’t the most athletic player, so if his initial moves don’t help win the battle when rushing the quarterback, he will just get stood up and isn’t being effective on that snap. He does need to work on his footwork because he can get lost with it at times which also can help stay off the ground.

Overall Harrison has the right tools and productivity that a team is looking for from a player coming in as a rookie. While he might not be perfect, he proved he can find the ball carrier, and help fill gaps to bounce plays to the outside. I think he will come in as a rotational player as a rookie, a team should give him time to develop as a player and I believe if they can help him come along then they should have a key piece on their defensive line in the future. By his third season, he should be a productive starter like he was in college when he started seeing more significant playing experience his junior season. If the team that selects him can help refine his play, then Phillips should be a starter for them for years to come.

Projected Round: 2nd-3rd

Team Fits: Falcons, Bills, Patriots

NFL Comparison: Bennie Logan