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2017 NFL Draft: Defensive line rankings

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A look at Justin’s 2017 defensive line targets.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

In recent years, I’ve committed to the concept of an NFL Draft “target board.” The idea is to narrow my scope down to 100 prospects, grouped into tiers that indicate where I’d look to select them in an actual draft. Instead of ranking every single player I’ve watched and graded, these are prospects I feel most confident in from a tape, measurables, production, and athletic testing standpoint. In the following days leading up to the draft, I’ll post my board position by position, and to help everyone understand the methods behind my madness, I’ll even include some handy charts and stats to give some insight into which players “checked all the boxes,” and which ones made the cut despite falling short in one area or another.

The cells in the accompanying charts are color-coded based (liberally) on NFL scouting combine averages per position:

  • Green = Significantly Above Average
  • Blue = Above Average
  • Yellow = Average
  • Orange = Below Average
  • Red = Significantly Below Average

Check below for my Defensive Line rankings

Malik McDowell Michigan State 6’6” 295

  • DOB: 6/20/1996
  • 2016: 34 TKL (20 solo) 7 TFL 1.5 SCK
  • Career: 90 TKL (51 solo) 24.5 TFL 7.5 SCK 2 FF 1 INT 1 kick BLK 1 TD in 36 games

A couple years back I noticed that Florida State defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. could really create havoc when he was fully engaged in the game action. I saw him run stride for stride with a running back, well down the field in pass coverage. Some pundits thought he was lazy, but I just saw it as a form of “senior-itis.” Like he was saving something for the paycheck. Not ideal, but I could understand it. I felt similarly about Robert Nkemdiche last year, and this year about Malik McDowell. I know coaches hate this sort of thing, but from an analytics perspective, I can make an argument for drafting the player, especially when I'm doing my shopping on Day Two or later.

As an interior lineman or 3-4 end, McDowell - who weighs just under 300 pounds - grades out mostly above average from an athletic standpoint. He's very tall, so this can lead to the usual leverage issues, but he's strong and fast enough to rush the passer from the edge. McDowell's quickness down the line of scrimmage and long arms serve him well in run defense. At his best he's probably a top-15 type prospect. But his reputation as a headache, and questions about effort may push him into Day Two. At that point I'd consider betting on his long-term potential.

Grade: 2nd Round

Jonathan Allen Alabama 6’3” 286

  • DOB: 1/16/1995
  • 2016: 69 TKL (33 solo) 16 TFL 10.5 SCK 2 PBU 1 kick BLK 2 TD
  • Career: 152 TKL (78 solo) 44.5 TFL 28 SCK 3 FF 7 PBU 2 kick BLK 2 TD in 56 games

Allen reportedly received a Day Two grade in 2015 and opted to return to Alabama for his senior season. As far as I was concerned, nothing about his game changed, but he had a Superman tackle against a running back at one point early in the season, and the next thing I knew, he was going number one overall.

Allen is a power player but he's kind of a 'tweener. He rushed the passer off the edge in college, but he's too slow to stay out there in the pros, and on the small side to play inside. I'm not sure how much more weight he can pack on at this point without sacrificing some juice. I think I could use him as a 3-technique - athletically that's his best fit - and get some good interior pressure as long as I spell him periodically. He has arthritic shoulders that haven't slowed him down to date, but it adds a layer of concern. All told, I think he's still a Day Two value.

Grade: 2nd Round

Chris Wormley Michigan 6’5” 298

  • DOB: 10/25/1993
  • 2016: 39 TKL (17 solo) 8.5 TFL 5.5 SCK 3 kick BLK
  • Career: 122 TKL (61 solo) 32.5 TFL 17.5 SCK 1 FF 2 PBU 3 kick BLK in 51 games

Wormley has a powerful bull rush, strong hands and long arms. He’s a versatile player who can line up at left end in a 4-3, or as a 5-tech in a three-man front, but ideally I would want to see him creating interior pressure as a 3-tech. I like Wormley’s athleticism and his scrappy, wrestler mentality when taking on and trying to shed blocks. He’s older than I would like in the early rounds, but this draft isn’t deep in interior pass rushing prospects, so I don't expect Wormley to last long.

Grade: 3rd Round

DeMarcus Walker Florida State 6’4” 280

  • DOB: 9/30/1994
  • 2016: 68 TKL (46 solo) 21.5 TFL 16 SCK 3 FF 2 PBU 1 kick BLK
  • Career: 182 TKL (108 solo) 45 TFL 28.5 SCK 8 FF 1 INT 7 PBU 2 kick BLK in 51 games

I’ve seen Walker ranked as an edge defender, and I think that’s an oversimplification. If I stack him up against the outside pass rushers on my board, he’s simply not going to hold up athletically. At 280 pounds, Walker is another ‘tweener. He doesn’t change directions well, but I like his motor, run defense, and inside swim move. I think he’s going to have to see extensive action inside or as a 5-tech to reach his max potential, and that probably means adding some more weight.

Grade: 3rd Round

Larry Ogunjobi Charlotte 6’3” 305

  • DOB: 6/3/1994
  • 2016: 65 TKL (31 solo) 13.5 TFL 3 SCK 2 PBU
  • Career: 217 TKL (127 solo) 49 TFL 13 SCK 2 PBU 1 kick BLK in 46 games

Ogunjobi surprised me a bit with his strong athletic testing, and looks and plays with a style similar to recent undersized NFL defensive line picks Grady Jarrett and Sheldon Rankins. Ogunjobi has strong hands, a low center of gravity, and a powerful bull rush. He’s a solid run defender, and he’s able to get into the backfield quickly. I would have just liked to have seen him finish a little more often. As with Wormley, I expect positional scarcity to push Ogunjobi up the boards a bit on draft weekend.

Grade: 3rd-4th Round

Tanoh Kpassagnon Villanova 6’7” 289

  • DOB: 6/14/1994
  • 2016: 45 TKL (27 solo) 21.5 TFL 11 SCK 1 FF 1 PBU 1 kick BLK
  • Career: 105 TKL (65 solo) 37.5 TFL 22 SCK 4 FF 1 INT 1 PBU 3 kick BLK in 40 games

In reference to Kpassagnon, I’ve often noted that players with his size-adjusted athleticism don’t last long on draft weekend. I’ve seen him rated as an edge defender, and in my estimation this is another oversimplification. If I measure his athleticism against my pass rush targets, Kpassagnon looks average but enormous. Against defensive line targets, his numbers look strong, albeit at a low weight. This is one area where formulas like SPARQ paint an incomplete picture. From an analytic standpoint, Kpassagnon compares favorably to recent first round picks Arik Armstead and DeForest Bucker, and 2016 second round pick Jihad Ward. Unlike those players, Kpassagnon is making the jump from the FCS, but he’s held his own throughout the draft season, and should appeal to any team looking to fill a similar role.

Grade: 3rd-4th Round

Deatrich Wise Arkansas 6’5” 274

  • DOB: 7/26/1994
  • 2016: 49 TKL (21 solo) 5.5 TFL 3.5 SCK 1 FF 3 PBU
  • Career: 112 TKL (51 solo) 23 TFL 16.5 SCK 4 FF 6 PBU in 51 games

At this size, most people are probably looking at Wise as an edge defender, but I think he best projects as a 5-tech, where he already has some experience. I really like this player - He was terrific during the Shrine Game - but I don’t see the explosiveness or bend to win consistently as an outside pass rusher. Wise is a strong kid, gives great effort, and has he wing span of a condor. I’d just like to see him gain some weight to hopefully add the versatility to kick inside on passing downs.

Grade: 4th-5th Round

Tanzel Smart Tulane 6’1” 296

  • DOB: 11/6/1994
  • 2016: 67 TKL (34 solo) 18.5 TFL 5.5 SCK 1 FF
  • Career: 190 TKL (104 solo) 40.5 TFL 9.5 SCK 3 FF 2 PBU in 48 games

Smart is undersized, and the least athletic interior lineman on my list, but I just really liked what I saw of him on tape. Despite those below average testing numbers, he’s so quick off the ball, and frequently winds up in the backfield. I realize Smart was playing in a Group of Five conference, but I loved his run defense and production. He also received mostly favorable reports from people in attendance at Senior Bowl practices.

Grade: 4th-5th Round

Jeremiah Ledbetter Arkansas 6’3” 280

  • DOB: 6/2/1994
  • 2016: 49 TKL (17 solo) 7.5 TFL 5.5 SCK 1 FF 2 PBU
  • Career: 104 TKL (41 solo) 15 TFL 7.5 SCK 1 FF 3 PBU in 26 games

Wise’s former Arkansas teammate is another 5-tech type, but Ledbetter often lined up inside for the Razorbacks. I have little doubt he’ll be asked to add some bulk at the pro level. He’s a strong, scrappy dude with active hands and long arms to get into the passing lane. He’ll be a rotational player early on, but I’m excited about Ledbetter’s potential if he is indeed able to add good weight.

Grade: 5th-7th Round