News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft interior defensive line rankings

Nov 23, 2019; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman Christian Barmore (58) celebrates his sack on Western Carolina Catamounts quarterback Tyrie Adams (12) during the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

This may very well be the weakest position group of the entire 2021 NFL Draft class.

While we have a first-round grade on only one defensive tackle, there’s a legitimate chance that not a single one of these guys is ultimately selected in the first round. If you want a pass-rusher from the interior, there’s only a handful of guys with that sort of skill set in this class.

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1. Christian Barmore, Alabama

Barmore is right up there with Derrick Brown and Javon Kinlaw as a prospect. He’s got the size, burst, length and flexibility to win in several different ways. But more importantly, it’s already led to elite production. Barmore has earned pass-rushing grades of 88.1 (2019) and 91.5 (2020) in his two seasons at Alabama.

The concern with Barmore is that he had some “meh” games this past season, and his game-to-game effectiveness doesn’t match those elite numbers. However, he did show up when it mattered most and utterly dominated the two best interior lines he faced all season with 12 pressures in the two playoff games.

2. Alim McNeil, N.C. State

McNeil is the rare nose tackle who can also affect the passing game. He played true 0-technique in N.C. State’s defense this past season and was quite easily the most immovable nose in college football, leading all Power 5 defensive tackles in run-defense grade (92.1). At 340 pounds with a legit get-off, McNeil plops down against double-teams and doesn’t cede an inch. While still more disruptor than a playmaker, McNeil has shown flashes over his career.

I think the most encouraging thing about McNeil’s tape is that even though he has almost no pass-rushing moves to speak of, he’s still earned pass-rush grades of 80.8 and 77.5 over the past two seasons. You can forgive a true junior for being a little raw, but the fact that he’s still producing for as raw as he is? That is what we like to see.

3. Marvin Wilson, Florida State

Wilson is a difficult eval after how uninspiring his senior tape was. He returned to school in 2020 hoping for a Derrick Brown-esque leap in draft stock even though he would have been an early Day 2 pick at worst last year. That’s because his 2019 tape was special and littered with reps like these.

That season he earned his second consecutive 90.0-plus overall grade to go with a 90.9 pass-rushing grade. But when he returned to play a different role in Mike Norvell’s defense — one that featured a lot of three-down fronts — Wilson’s effectiveness fell off a cliff. He only earned a 67.7 overall grade with 10 total pressures on 127 pass-rushing snaps.

Wilson is not a high-level athlete by any means. He wins more with upper-body strength and relentless hands. While that can still be the case in the NFL, his senior season gives us pause.

4. Levi Onwuzurike, Washington

Onwuzurike is another Washington opt-out along their defensive line. Unlike edge teammate Joe Tryon, though, Onwuzurike has already shown some high-level production. He earned a 90.8 overall grade back in 2018 as a part-time player on 391 snaps before taking a bit of a step back to 82.5 in 2019.

Onwuzurike’s calling card is undoubtedly his explosiveness. He has that coveted ability from the defensive tackle position to win almost immediately at the snap.

That’s almost exclusively how he wins, which is a worry. He needs to gain the upper hand immediately, or else he often fails to recover. NFL offensive linemen are far more athletic and far less likely to get themselves into positions that can be exposed at the snap like that. We saw that happen when he faced a talented Oregon offensive line back in 2019 and earned only a 51.3 overall grade. Onwuzurike still needs a Plan B.

5. Tyler Shelvin, LSU

Shelvin is a plug-and-play run defender. He was the lynchpin of the Tigers' run defense en route to a national championship in 2019. He earned an 88.3 run-defense grade that season as a redshirt sophomore. With his flexibility and body type, Shelvin is about as sure a thing in that regard as anybody else in the class.

While he’s unlikely ever to offer anything as a pass-rusher, evidenced by his six pressures in all of 2019, that’s an afterthought with how good he is against the run.

The biggest worry with Shelvin isn’t even on the field — it’s in the kitchen. Shelvin’s weight has fluctuated wildly throughout his career and was reportedly up to 375 pounds before opting out this season. That’s not going to fly in the league.

6. Osa Odighizuwa, UCLA

Odighizuwa is an intriguing prospect because he has multiple years of quality production but was part of a defensive line at UCLA that wasn’t really putting him in positions to make plays. He didn’t get a ton of opportunities as a pass-rusher to truly go one-on-one with freedom. He then went to the Senior Bowl and was one of the highest-graded interior players in the one-on-ones, and it was legitimately impactful to his draft stock.

The most intriguing thing about Odighizuwa is his ability to hold up as a run defender despite being only a hair over 280 pounds. That’s rarely the case for undersized edge defenders, but it speaks to just how strong Odighizuwa’s lower half is. He’s earned above-average grades in run defense ever since his true freshman season at UCLA. With over 34-inch arms, Odighizuwa should be coveted by base 3-4 teams that want someone to go head-up with offensive tackles.

7. Tommy Togiai, Ohio State

Togiai’s COVID-related absence from the national championship game flew mostly under the radar, but that would have been a vastly different game had the junior been on the field. That’s because he was the single most impactful defender in the game prior against Clemson.

 

Even though Togiai only played 291 snaps in 2020 — and even that was a career-high mark — he still showed more than enough to go early in the draft. He racked up 24 pressures in seven games, with a ridiculous 10 against Indiana. He’s got the blend of quicks and power to excel as a 3-technique in the league.

8. Daviyon Nixon, Iowa

Nixon grabbed headlines and notoriety for his sack production, but his tape was too much of a roller coaster in 2020. Nixon earned grades of 80.6 and 90.3 against Northwestern and Penn State this past year but also earned grades of 44.0, 52.2 and 59.3 against Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin, respectively.

He does show playmaking ability that you can’t often coach. He didn’t rack up 20 run stops in eight games as a fluke. Nixon possesses the kind of pop on contact that you love to see from a defensive lineman, and he can be a weapon early on as a penetrator.

9. Bobby Brown, Texas A&M

We came into the 2020 season with high expectations for Brown after he posted a very impressive 82.3 overall grade as a true sophomore in 2019. Even though Texas A&M took a massive step forward, Brown stagnated to a degree.

While his production isn’t quite at the level you’d like to see from a top defensive tackle prospect, Brown more than has the physical tools to be a plus run defender in the NFL. At 6-foot-4, 325 pounds, with long arms, Brown is the definition of a block-controller. He can two-gap about as well as anyone in this class.

10. Marlon Tuipulotu, USC

Tuipulotu played second fiddle to teammate Jay Tufele along the USC defensive line as far as draft status went before the 2020 season. After Tufele opted out, though, Tuipulotu took over as playmaker. His two-sack, five-run-stop game against Arizona State, as well as his six-pressure outing against Utah, were two of the best outings we saw from the position last season.

Tuipulotu didn’t flash nearly as much against better competition, though, and he doesn’t have the type of elite tools to still project highly. He was the lowest-graded interior defender in attendance in the one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl.

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