Ranking the top 10 returning college defensive linemen | College Football | PFF

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Ranking the top 10 returning college defensive linemen

Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Nik Bonitto (11) reacts at the end of the first half against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Not every college quarterback has the innate ability to handle pressure with ease like Joe Burrow in 2019 and Spencer Rattler in 2020. All college football passers — especially true freshman — see their output drop significantly when a clean pocket dissolves.

Coverage is still more valuable than pass rush, but being strong in the latter area can still do wonders for teams. And the same can be said for big men up front who are capable of stuffing the run; having a talent discrepancy in that facet can make the run game valuable to a college offense.

The following are PFF’s top 10 defensive linemen returning to college in 2021 based on a bevy of factors, including PFF grade and other advanced metrics available to CFB Premium Stats+ subscribers.

Find the rest PFF's top returning college players series here:

QB | RB | WR | OL

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1. EDGE NIK BONITTO, OKLAHOMA

Bonitto might be the most underrated player in all of college football. The rush-end led all FBS edge defenders in pass-rush grade (93.6), pass-rush win rate (28%) and pressure rate generated (25.7%) in 2020. Among all Power Five edge defenders we have data on since we began grading college seven years ago, Bonitto ranks in the top five in all three metrics.

Bonitto’s explosiveness and athleticism caused headaches for every offensive tackle he faced, and no lineman succeeded in shutting him down in 2020. His lowest win rate in a single game this past year sat at 17.6% — a pretty solid day for most FBS edge rushers.

2. EDGE KAYVON THIBODEAUX, OREGON

As a five-star recruit who ranked second overall in the 2019 class, according to 247Sports, Thibodeaux brought plenty of hype with him to Oregon. He lived up to that as a true freshman in 2019, notching a 79.9 pass-rush grade, which was the second-best in the Pac-12 and over 10 grading points higher than any other first-year edge rusher in the Power Five.

His 2020 campaign was defined by a slow start, but he turned on the jets down the stretch and looked like an elite edge defender over his final four games (played in just seven for the year). Thibodeaux was one of the highest-graded players at his position over that span, boasting an 87.2 PFF grade that included a 12-pressure performance against USC and Alijah Vera-Tucker — a possible first-round pick in 2021 — in the Pac-12 Championship game.

If you were to build a perfect college pass rusher among those playing next year, Thibodeaux’s get-off and bend would be precisely what you'd want. He is an elite talent who is bound for a monstrous 2021. Be sure to circle the calendar for Week 2 when he goes up against the best tackle duo in college football — Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere — as the Ducks take on the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio.

3. EDGE DEMARVIN LEAL, TEXAS A&M

Leal has a lot of power with his 6-foot-4, 290-pound frame, and it showed routinely this past season. He notched an 80.0-plus grade as both a run defender and a pass rusher in 2020, something only four other Power Five edge defenders accomplished this past year. Leal displayed improved hand usage and a deadly push-pull. He flashed exactly that in his performance against Florida — which earned him a career-high PFF grade.

He was a consistent performer in 2020 with a single-game PFF grade north of 70.0 in nine of his 10 outings, which led him to an 88.3 PFF grade for the season. Leal may be 290 pounds, but he sure doesn’t play like it with his athleticism and twitch. Needless to say, he is clearly living up to his five-star recruiting status.

4. EDGE AIDAN HUTCHINSON, MICHIGAN

Hutchinson played only three games in 2020 before suffering a season-ending injury, but the Wolverine seemed to be on his way to taking that next step forward on his mere 149 snaps (82.5 PFF grade). With a clean bill of health, he is quite easily one of the best all-around defensive linemen in college football.

The 6-foot-6, 269-pound defensive lineman is versatile, has incredible power behind his hands and is one of the more polished players you will find at the position. For proof, look at his 2019 outing against Iowa when he became one of the few to post wins against 2020 Super Bowl champion Tristan Wirfs.

Hutchinson produced an 83.6 run-defense grade and 27 run stops along with a 76.0 pass-rush grade and 46 total pressures in 2019. Still, he never really put together a dominant performance from start to finish in 2019 like others on this list. Hutchinson was just consistently good throughout the year. We need to see more elite outings in 2021, and he easily has the potential to make good on that.

5. EDGE MYJAI SANDERS, CINCINNATI

Sanders broke out as a true sophomore in 2019 with an 82.8 pass-rushing grade before taking his play to elite status in Year 3 this past season. The 6-foot-5, 258-pound speed rusher posted a 90.1 pass-rushing grade in 2020 that featured four or more pressures in all but one of his games played (had three in his worst pass-rush outing of the year).

He’ll see quite a few tackles with middling athleticism in the AAC, and most of those guys simply cannot handle his short-area quicks. Sanders also possesses the length desired on the edge, which helped him get his mitts on five batted passes in 2020. Cincinnati will boast a monstrous defense again in 2021, with Sanders being among the many reasons why.

6. EDGE WILL ANDERSON JR., ALABAMA

Anderson came to Alabama as a five-star recruit who ranked in the top 20 of the 2020 class, according to 247Sports, and he left his first season with a whopping 60 pressures. Not only was his total more than double that of any other true freshman, but it was also the most in the entire FBS. Sure, the 13 games he played in helped, but Anderson's 17.4% pressure rate still ranked eighth in the FBS pressure and his 19.5% win rate ranked 24th.

He has the requisite flexbility and bend for an edge rusher. He also blew up several run plays en route to an 81.1 run-defense grade. Very few true freshmen come close to ever sniffing those kinds of numbers.

The sky’s the limit for Anderson in 2021. He put up crazy numbers for someone of his age and still has room to grow with his technique. I’d bet on him producing at an elite level for the Crimson Tide this fall.

7. DI HASKELL GARRETT, OHIO STATE

Garrett was a four-star prospect and a top-100 recruit in the 2017 class, but he didn’t consistently see the field until the 2020 season after just over 400 snaps throughout his first three college seasons. Yet, Garrett broke out in a big way in 2020 with an astounding 88.9 pass-rush grade that trailed only Alabama's Christian Barmore — a likely first-round pick this April — for the best in the Power Five.

Garrett may have generated only 18 pressures in eight games, but he won on a consistent basis. In fact, his 17.9% win rate also trailed only Barmore for the best mark in the Power Five. He is a force of nature with heavy hands who is bound to wreak havoc again in 2021.

8. EDGE ZION TUPUOLA-FETUI, WASHINGTON

Tupuola-Fetui managed to play in only four games this past season due to COVID-19's impact on Washington’s season, but what he accomplished on his 222 snaps across those outings easily earned him a spot on this list. He was simply dominant, generating an elite 91.8 pass-rushing grade and 20 pressures, three of which were strip-sacks.

Tupuola-Fetui is the perfect representation of a power player and has a menacing bull rush. He’s going to be one of the most interesting players to keep an eye on early in the 2021 season.

9. EDGE DEMETRIUS TAYLOR, APPALACHIAN STATE

Taylor is among the group of players making use of their “super senior” season, as he'll return to App State for a fifth and final campaign. That is clearly a very good thing for the Mountaineers. Taylor was among the few to earn a 90.0-plus pass-rushing grade in 2020, and he came away with an impressive 20.6% pass-rush win rate (15th in the FBS). The 6-foot-1, 295-pound defensive end is one of few players capable of catching Sanders for No. 1 Group of Five pass rusher for the 2021 season.

10. EDGE TYREKE SMITH, OHIO STATE

Smith was a top-35 recruit in the 2018 class, according to 247Sports, but didn’t see the field on a consistent basis until the 2020 season. And the 6-foot-4, 267-pound edge rusher looked as good as many had hoped, posting an 85.1 pass-rushing grade, a 25.3% pass-rushing win rate (fourth in the FBS) and a 22.3% pressure rate generated (second in the FBS).

Smith has routinely shown to attack with quickness and win with power. He essentially played only half a season in 2020 (seven games) and was in the midst of a big-time breakout. Expect that to continue in 2021 and for Smith to end up in the elite tier of pass rushers by the campaign's conclusion.

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