2023 NFL Draft's best at everything: Top defensive line performers in 10 distinct categories

Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Nick Herbig (19) reacts after a sack against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the second quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Herbig takes home multiple categories: The Wisconsin edge defender may be undersized, but he was undoubtedly one of college football's most productive edge defenders in a variety of situations.

Kobie Turner proves to be underrated: The Wake Forest defensive tackle proved to be the top performer in three different categories, which helps illustrate why he may be the most underrated interior defender in this year's class.

Calijah Kancey‘s dominance as a pass rusher: Even with his lack of size, Kancey brings elite pass-rush ability that makes him one of the best interior defensive linemen in this year's class.

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

With the 2023 NFL Draft less than a month away, and because it's easy to get bogged down by each prospect's evaluation, it's always important to take a step back to compare and contrast the class as a whole. From a macro point of view, this enables teams to distinguish which positions offer more options and depth at varying points in the draft. And zooming in on an individual position enables teams to gauge how prospects stack up according to the individual traits that a team values.

This will help identify not only the premier prospects in the class but also the ones who may not have the most well-rounded skill sets yet do offer specific strengths that can be leveraged when used correctly.

With that in mind, we are going to take a look at which defensive linemen (edge defenders and interior defensive linemen) performed best in 10 specific stat and traits-based categories.

Note: In an effort to keep the player pool to “draftable” prospects, only players who made PFF's top 200 prospects are eligible to be nominated.

Best pass-rush grade

EDGE: Nick Herbig, Wisconsin (91.1)

Despite his tweener size (6-foot-2 and 240 pounds with 31 1/4-inch arms), Herbig was arguably the best pure pass rusher in this draft class, as evidenced by his pass-rush grade that ranked first among all prospects in PFF's top 200. Wisconsin was wise to align Herbig wide to take advantage of his get-off (1.59-second 10-yard split; 86th percentile among EDGEs), upfield burst, bend and capable hand technique, leading to his 23.9% pass-rush win rate that ranked inside the 94th percentile among edge defenders.

DI: Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh (92.4)

If an NFL defensive tackle prospect is going to measure in at 6-foot-1 and 281 pounds with sub-31-inch arms, then he better be an excellent pass rusher. Luckily for Kancey, he's undeniably the best pure interior pass rusher in the class and one of the best in the past half-decade.

While his lack of size is seen as a detriment in many instances, it does help Kancey minimize his strike zone when rushing the passer, giving opposing blockers little surface area to land strikes and impede his progress. Kancey's elite 9.69 raw athletic score is easily identifiable on tape, as his quickness, burst and cornering enable him to generate pressure in a hurry. Kancey's 16 pressures in 2.5 seconds or less were the second most in the entire class, behind only San Diego State's Jonah Tavai (21).

Best run-defense grade

EDGE: Will Anderson Jr., Alabama (86.6)

Even though Anderson's player comparison in the PFF draft guide is a stronger Randy Gregory, another Dallas Cowboys draft pick may be more appropriate: DeMarcus Lawrence.

Much like Lawrence, Anderson is an impressive pass rusher who will undoubtedly make life difficult on opposing quarterbacks throughout his NFL career but may do his best work against the run. Boasting 86.0-plus run-defense grades over the past two seasons, Anderson thrives at setting the edge and making plays against the ground game. And similar to Lawrence, offenses need to worry about Anderson even when he's on the backside, as his ability to pursue with proper angles enables him to be a nuisance to opposing running games.

DI: Kobie Turner, Wake Forest (93.2)

Even though he's not heralded among the top defensive tackles in this class, Turner was one of college football's most effective defensive linemen over the past four years, posting 84.0-plus overall grades in his last three seasons at Richmond and only season at Wake Forest. Turner is a spark plug against the run, showing the ability to penetrate and make plays in the backfield in addition to taking on and discarding blocks at the line of scrimmage.

Turner is a little light (6-foot-2 and 288 pounds with 32-inch arms) right now, but don't be surprised if he develops into one of the most productive interior defensive linemen from this class.

Best against true pass sets

EDGE: Nick Herbig, Wisconsin (92.4)

Once again, Herbig is the top performer in this distinct category, as his elevated pass-rush ability makes him even more difficult to block on true pass sets. Herbig's wide alignment gives him the ability to pull offensive tackles onto an island, creating a two-way go that he can leverage to find consistent success. Herbig's incredible 40% pass-rush win rate against true pass sets helps illustrate his dominance against offensive tackles in one-on-one situations.

DI: Jalen Carter, Georgia (91.5)

As the premier defensive tackle in this year's class, Carter was going to earn a mention eventually. Given his physical dominance over blockers all season, interior offensive linemen had no chance to slow him down in one-on-one situations. Carter's heavy hands, quickness and technical superiority made him nearly unblockable against true pass sets, as evidenced by his outstanding 29.0% win rate in those situations.

Best against double teams

EDGE: Tuli Tuipulotu, USC

Tuipulotu surprised many when he showed up to the NFL Combine at sub-270 pounds after being listed at 290 pounds at USC. This will likely aid his ability to play on the edge in the NFL, where he showed a ton of promise during his time at USC. Given that Tuipulotu is one of the bigger edge defenders in the class, it's probably not surprising that he was also the best against double teams, posting a 27.7% success rate when combated by two blockers on the play that leads all edge defenders in this class.

Tuipulotu's ability to anchor against at the point of attack will be notable for teams that choose to play their defensive ends as a five-technique (outside shade of tackle but inside of tight end) due to the greater likelihood to face double teams against the run.

DI: Kobie Turner, Wake Forest

While Tuipulotu is one of the bigger players at his position, Turner is a bit undersized, so it may surprise many that he performed better than any other defender in this year's draft class against double teams, posting an impressive 33.8% success rate in those situations. Turner's ability to thrive against two blockers comes down to technique, as he routinely plays with a low pad level that provides him with a significant amount of leverage at the point of attack.

From there, Turner's active and heavy hands give him the ability to fight through and even make plays against double teams at a much higher clip than most in this class.

Best on third down

EDGE: Nick Herbig, Wisconsin (91.6)

The Herbig show rolls on, as the supremely underrated Wisconsin product also recorded the highest grade on third down among edge defenders in this class. Herbig's ability to get after the passer is a huge reason for that, but don't discount his plus run defense and coverage ability. His 14 stops on third down led all of college football in 2022.

DI: Jalen Carter, Georgia (92.3)

Carter's dominance on third downs shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who watched him play at Georgia, as he did well to make plays when it mattered most throughout the season. Carter recorded a 20.5% pressure rate and an 83.3 run-defense grade on third downs in 2022.

Best on early downs

EDGE: Viliami Fehoko, San Jose State (91.4)

Small-school prospects need to be a dominant presence every time they step onto the field if they're to stand out. Luckily for Fehoko, he checks those boxes with ease, especially on early downs, where he was excellent. His 10 sacks and 42 total pressures on first and second downs in 2022 both ranked first in this year's draft class.

While he's not the best athlete, which limits his NFL upside, Fehoko's motor, urgency and physicality should all enable him to develop into an NFL contributor.

DI: Kobie Turner, Wake Forest (94.3)

If you haven't figured it out already, Turner is probably the most underrated defensive tackle in this class, and his performance on early downs is just another reason why. However, while Fehoko did most of his early-down damage as a pass rusher, Turner was most effective as a run defender, posting an elite 95.2 run-defense grade on first and second down. Most impressively, Turner earned a negative mark on only 2% of his early-down run plays — the best rate in the class, by far.

Best get-off

EDGE: Nolan Smith, Georgia

You're tripping if you thought any edge defender other than Smith would win the “best get-off” after he posted a superhero-esque 1.52-second 10-yard split at the NFL Combine. And while combine athletic testing doesn't always translate to the field, it certainly does with Smith, whose get-off and upfield burst enable him to immediately stress an offensive tackle's quickness and range in pass protection.

Smith's pass-rush tool kit still needs refinement, but he has all the physical characteristics, in addition to the foundational technical aptitude, to develop into a pass rusher who is a threat to produce double-digit sacks each season.

DI: Adetomiwa Adebawore, Northwestern

While I think Adebawore has the traits to primarily be an edge defender, PFF has projected him to be an interior defensive lineman, making him the easy top performer in this category. Adebawore put on a show at the NFL Combine in March, producing a 9.7 raw athletic score, but his 10-yard split may have been the most impressive mark.

Running a 1.55-second 10-yard split at 282 pounds is truly breathtaking, and it translates on tape, as he's routinely the first defender firing across the line of scrimmage. He still needs some refinement, but his upside is unrivaled in this class due to his athleticism, motor and work ethic.

Best pass-rush hand technique

EDGE: Will Anderson Jr., Alabama

With 207 total pressures to his name at Alabama, Anderson unsurprisingly possesses the best hand technique in this class. He displayed sublime technique to parry and swat away an offensive tackle's hands, enabling him to consistently generate pressure. Much like the aforementioned Lawrence, Anderson's best move is a beautiful cross-chop that he uses to carve the corner and attack the pocket.

The best part of Anderson's pass-rush repertoire is that he blends different techniques with similar setups, making it difficult for tackles to ascertain which move he is going to utilize on that play. Anderson's hand technique is a big reason he'll be selected in the top five and make an immediate impact in the NFL.

DI: Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh

While Kancey's athleticism provides him immense upside as a pass rusher, his hand technique is what enables him to consistently fulfill that upside on the field. Given Kancey's lack of size, he's never going to be the most effective power rusher; therefore, he must rely on his athleticism to get to the blocker's edge while his hand technique and footwork enable him to consistently find success.

Kancey's size gives him little room for error, as blockers can usually stymie his rush once they land their hands. The fact that he was still able to be such a dominant pass rusher just speaks to how well he times and places his hands.

Best finesse rush

EDGE: Will McDonald IV, Iowa State

While Smith has the best get-off in the class, his lack of refinement at the top of rushes prevents him from also taking home the “best finesse rush” category — an area where McDonald currently thrives. Playing out of position on Iowa State's defense blunted McDonald's production in 2022, but when highlighting the plays where he played from more traditionally edge defender alignments, McDonald proved to be one of the most enticing pass rushers in the class.

Blessed with elite speed up the edge, McDonald possesses well-developed hand technique that allows him to consistently carve the corner with finesse rushes. He boasts an impressive cross-chop to parry opposing blockers' strikes while displaying some of the best bend and cornering ability in the class.

DI: Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh

Kancey's ability to win with speed and finesse is the best in the class, which is a big reason he's ranked so highly despite measuring in below many evaluator's thresholds for interior defensive linemen. Slower-footed interior offensive linemen have no chance against Kancey's overall athleticism and technical refinement in pass-rush situations.

Best power rush

EDGE: Lukas Van Ness, Iowa

While I'm not as high on Van Ness as most, he ranks highly on many evaluators' big boards on the back of his size, athleticism and power-rush ability. Honestly, Van Ness has displayed an ability to win with finesse as a pass rusher, but luckily for his pro prospects, he's probably the single-best power rusher in this class due to his thunderous bull rush and long arm.

Van Ness' ability to generate power and explode into opposing tackles enabled him to consistently condense pockets and generate quarterback pressure at Iowa.

DI: Jalen Carter, Georgia

Carter's ability to physically overwhelm opposing blockers was the backbone of his pass-rush success at Georgia, as he consistently battered opposing linemen with powerful club moves, imposing bull rushes and violent shrug escapes. A lot of this is due to Carter's ability to transition his quick get-off into immediate power at the point of contact, which routinely put offensive linemen on their heels (or even their backside).

And while there are stronger defensive tackles in this class, Carter's technique amplifies his power to the point that few can match. His overwhelming power provides him with a strong foundation to find pass-rush success in the NFL as long as his motor is running hot.

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