NFL Draft News & Analysis

2023 NFL Draft: Defensive line prospect superlatives

Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (31) reacts after a stop against the LSU Tigers during the first half at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

  • Will Anderson Jr. takes home “best hands:” Anderson's hand technique helps set him apart from the rest of the edge defender class in this year's draft.
  • Calijah Kancey wins “best get-off:” Given his stature, it probably isn't surprising that Kancey has the quickest get-off among the interior defenders in this class.
  • Tyree Wilson is the “most versatile” edge defender: Wilson's ability to align anywhere outside the guard enables him to fit any scheme.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

If the NFL is truly a copy-cat league, I’d expect defensive linemen to come off the board early and often in this year’s class. It’s hard to see the Nos. 1 and 2 defenses in sacks this past season make the Super Bowl and come to any other conclusion. The defensive line is where the top-end talent is usually easy to identify, making it a favorite in the first round.

Here’s who tops the class in each aspect of the positions:

Best hands

Edge: Will Anderson Jr., Alabama

Anderson may be on the smaller side for the position, but he still packs a punch on contact. He’s able to swat away hands or drive through offensive tackles' pads with relative ease for a lighter edge rusher. The scary thing is that he can even stand to improve his pass-rush toolbox at the next level, which is why you consistently see him as the top non-quarterback in mock drafts.

Interior: Jalen Carter, Georgia

The uniting factor between the two best defensive linemen in this draft class is their ability to manipulate offensive linemen with their upper bodies. Carter has some of the more powerful hands you’ll ever see from a defensive line prospect, especially one that’s not a hulking nose tackle. The power he showed on tape for only a true junior was special.

Best pass-rush moves

Edge: B.J. Ojulari, LSU

Ojulari has easily the deepest bag of moves in the edge class. While he doesn’t necessarily have one dominant go-to move, his varied pass-rush toolbox means he almost never goes home empty-handed, which is why he averaged 4.3 pressures per game the past two seasons. Making that all the more impressive is the fact that Ojulari won’t turn 21 years old until early April.

Interior: Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh

A big part of the reason Kancey ranks so highly on the PFF draft board despite his less-than-ideal physical stature is that he knows wholesale how to rush the passer. He has a more well-rounded set of pass-rush moves than most starters at the position currently in the NFL. And when you watch him on tape, he never quits. He racked up 47 pressures on only 275 pass-rushing snaps this past season because he never gives up on a rush.

Best get-off

Edge: Nolan Smith, Georgia

It may not be terribly surprising that the edge who runs a 4.39-second 40 with a 41.5-inch vertical and 10-foot-8 broad jump has an elite get-off. Flip on the tape, and it matched those testing numbers from Indy. He is the best pure speed-rushing prospect in this class and can be an impact run defender as well with his get-off despite being undersized (238 pounds).

Interior: Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh

Kancey has one of the best get-offs you’ll ever see from an interior player. He’ll get into guards' chests prior to them even getting out of their stances. He may not be an every-down player, but Kancey is a problem as a pass-rusher.

Best two-gapper/edge-setter

Edge: Lukas Van Ness, Iowa

Van Ness’ long arms (34 inches) combined with his uncanny ability to sink low into contact make him damn near impossible to move off his spot. Add in the fact that he’s 272 pounds, and Van Ness has all the makings of an elite run defender in the NFL. Now the question becomes where at? He split his time evenly between the edge and on the interior last season for the Hawkeyes and could do something similar in the league.

Interior: Mazi Smith, Michigan

Smith is arguably the strongest defensive tackle in the draft class. His ability to be an immovable block in the middle of a defense will be in demand come late April. After a slow start to the season, Smith finished with 18 run stops over his final nine games in 2022. 

Most Versatile

Edge: Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech

Wilson is a behemoth at 6-foot-6, 271 pounds. He possesses the juice to play off the edge as well as the play strength to hold up on the interior. He can handle any alignment from the outside of a guard’s shoulder outward, which is why so many are connected to his services in the top 10 — he fits every scheme.

Interior: Jalen Carter, Georgia

Part of the beauty of Carter’s game is his ability to win in so many different ways. He has the lower-body strength to get plopped down at nose tackle, the length (33 ½-inch arms) to go toe-to-toe with offensive tackles, and the quickness to get past guards, which is why he was the top non-quarterback on the PFF draft board prior to his off-field issues this spring.

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