Welcome to the eighth installment of the BGA: 2016 NFL Draft series. As we head to the draft, I'll be sharing thoughts and observations about draft prospects for each position group. In our previous installment, we looked at this year's running back class, and we now move on to look at interior defensive linemen.
I'll be discussing whether the Jets are likely to have a need at these positions, and reviewing some of the top prospects, along with some players who might be options later on. This section will cover defensive tackles, nose tackles and players I expect to line up primarily as 3-4 ends.
These articles are not necessarily meant to be exhaustive, so if you wish to bring some other prospects into the discussion, please do so in the comments section below.
Jets' Needs: Interior Defensive Line
Despite losing Damon Harrison in free agency, the Jets are strong on the defensive line, especially after bolstering their depth by signing Steve McLendon and Jarvis Jenkins. If they were to select a defensive lineman in the first round, it would be the fifth one in six drafts. However, is that really so much more improbable than when they made Leonard Williams their fourth out of five drafts 12 months ago?
The possibility of drafting a defensive lineman would shift from unlikely to much more plausible if the Jets opt to trade Muhammad Wilkerson, which is still a possibility but far from certain based on recent reports. However, even if the Jets were to make that move, there isn't really a hole in the starting lineup, so expect a rookie to come in and compete for playing time with the likes of Deon Simon.
If a prospect with good potential should fall to them at some point during the draft, maybe they would be an option to stash on the roster or practice squad for development purposes.
2016 Draft: Interior Defensive Line
Last year, we basically glossed over the top defensive line prospect in the draft because he seemed the least likely selection for the Jets. However, Williams ended up being the Jets' pick at No. 6 and played a major role for them during the season. We'll therefore give consideration to the likelihood of the Jets drafting Oregon's DeForest Buckner, although realistically he should be gone long before they pick at 20.
Buckner has tremendous length and athleticism, and has the potential to be a disruptive force inside as a 4-3 tackle or a 3-4 end. Buckner has a lot of dominant plays on his highlight reel and performed well against some top linemen, but at times, he is too focused on attacking and his vision can be lacking. That might not matter if he ends up in the right system. Utah did a good job of taking him out of the game in the first half, so he switched over to the other side of the formation after half time but it didn't make much different. He dominated the left tackle on this play, though.
The interior defensive line seems to be a position that is extremely deep in the first round and beyond. One player sure to be high up in that mix is Louisville's Sheldon Rankins. Rankins is good against the run, but moreover is a productive and disruptive interior pass rusher.
Two more players that could be first-rounders are the Alabama duo of Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson. The pair are almost exactly the same size and often lined up together inside, but Reed is the better run stopper and is adept at handling double teams so he could project to a nose tackle role at the next level. Robinson is more disruptive as a pass rusher and would most likely line up as a three- or five-technique at the pro level.
Many people have assumed that Vernon Butler from Louisiana Tech is the best nose tackle prospect in the draft because he's the only projected first- or second-rounder to weigh over 315 pounds at 323. However, watching film on Butler, he's a more athletic player that projects to be another three- or five-technique at the next level. In fact, some draft experts have compared him to Wilkerson. You can see some of that in how well he gets a blocker off him to get after the quarterback.
Although Butler isn't really a nose tackle, a team could end up drafting one in the first round if it takes Reed or Baylor's Andrew Billings. Billings is only listed at 311 pounds, but his upper body strength makes him as powerful and immovable as any of this year's prospects. He did 31 bench press reps at the combine. Billings has overtaken his collegiate teammate Shawn Oakman, who at 6-foot-8 and 287 pounds, was previously expected to be a first-rounder based more on his look than anything else. However, under scrutiny, a lot of rawness has been exposed in Oakman's game, and now he might not even be a Day 2 pick.
Another projected first-round pick is Robert Nkemdiche from Ole Miss. Nkemdiche had a good combine and was productive as an interior pass rusher. However, there's some sense that he might not hold up too well against the run, so he might even be primarily used as a 4-3 end in base packages. Nkemdiche also saw time as a short yardage fullback, but the team nixed that idea when he suffered a concussion and knocked himself out of a game last season. Teams might also have off-field concerns with Nkemdiche, who was suspended from his team's bowl game after a bizarre incident in which he was arrested for marijuana possession after having fallen from a fourth floor window into a bush.
Two fast-rising prospects that might be trying to capitalize on teams' concerns around Nkemdiche and leap frog him into the first round are Florida's Jonathan Bullard and Mississippi State's Chris Jones.
Bullard is outstanding against the run and had a good combine, and he also was a disruptive pass rusher. Most immediately apparent from watching his film is how good his get-off is, especially when compared to the other linemen on a snap-by-snap basis. You can see how his speed at the snap was too much for his blocker on this fourth-down stop.
As for Jones, here's an outstanding article (with gifs) from Pro Football Focus about his rise. He has a combination of athleticism and length that lends itself to yet another Wilkerson comparison, but questions over his motor and technique will cast doubt upon how quickly he can develop into that kind of player.
Beyond round one, players like Kenny Clark from UCLA, Austin Johnson from Penn State and Adolphus Washington from Ohio State come into focus. Clark and Johnson are both 314 pounds and likely would fit more as a 4-3 defensive tackle than a nose tackle role. Johnson isn't as athletic as Clark, but plays the run well, so perhaps he could be a candidate to bulk up and become more of a space stuffer. Washington is another 300-pound interior rusher in the Rankins or Robinson mold.
Another dominant force at defensive tackle last season was Notre Dame's Sheldon Day. Day doesn't have the size and length of some of the top interior line prospects in this draft, but he can strike fear into opposing quarterbacks. That's exactly what happens here as his pressure directly causes the quarterback to panic and lose the ball for a touchdown.
Hassan Ridgeway is a similar prospect with slightly better size than Day, and the pair will be looking to get selected on Day 2. On the play below -- despite the fact it ended up being a Jared Goff touchdown pass -- Ridgeway demonstrates his ability to dominate against interior linemen with his power.
On Day 3, interesting prospects that could draw interest include Clemson's DJ Reader, USC's Antwaun Woods, Indiana's Darius Latham and South Carolina State's Javon Hargrave.
Reader and Woods could be nose tackle prospects with Reader weighing in at 327 at the combine and lifting the bar 30 times, and Woods having had the experience of playing nose tackle alongside Williams. Woods lacks ideal size and length, but then again, being short (6-feet) can sometimes create a natural leverage advantage. The 311-pound Latham had a productive season and scouts reportedly are impressed with his film, but he didn't have a great combine. Finally, Hargrave is probably the best small-school sleeper in this draft and might even get selected as early as the second day.
One last sleeper pick could be Georgia Tech's Adam Gotsis. The Australian took some time to develop, but broke out and started to become a dominant force last year before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Perhaps Gotsis would be a good player to draft with a view to him getting on the field in 2017. Gotsis was a player on the rise and has terrific length and good athleticism, which you can see here.
I'll be back to look at wide receivers next.