NFL Draft News & Analysis

2024 NFL Draft Watch List: 10 prospects to know at every defensive position

Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Kool-Aid McKinstry (1) returns a punt against Louisiana Monroe Warhawks at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

• Florida State’s Jared Verse: The edge defender would’ve likely been a top-20 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft had he declared. Instead, he enters the summer as a projected top-10 pick in 2024.

• Alabama’s Kool-Aid McKinstry: He enters the summer as the top cornerback in the 2024 draft and is one of the top punt returners, as well.

• Illinois’ Jer’Zhan Newton: After a dominant 2022 campaign, Newton stands as the top interior defensive lineman in the 2024 draft ahead of the season.

Estimated Reading Time: 16 mins


The 2023 NFL Draft is in the books, so it’s time to turn our attention to 2024.

As you head into summer scouting, here are 10 players at every defensive position to keep an eye on.


Interior Defensive Lineman

Jer’Zhan Newton, Illinois

In an exclusive interview with PFF, Newton revealed that he returned to Illinois partly because he wanted to be a first-round pick. He has a strong chance to accomplish that in 2024.

He was the most valuable Power Five interior defensive lineman this past season, according to PFF’s wins above average metric. Newton led that same group with 59 pressures, while his 13 tackles for loss or no gain were tied for the most among FBS interior defensive linemen.

Leonard Taylor III, Miami (FL)

Taylor was a top-10 recruit coming out of high school in 2021, according to On3’s consensus ratings.

He lived up to the hype this season, especially as a pass rusher. The sophomore’s 19.5% pressure rate and 16.2% pressure rate trailed only Pittsburgh’s Calijah Kancey among Power Five interior defensive linemen. Taylor has the potential to be the top defensive tackle in the 2024 draft with an increase in workload after he played only 370 snaps in 2022. 

Michael Hall Jr., Ohio State

Hall played only 266 snaps this past season as a part of Ohio State’s defensive tackle rotation. He flashed on that limited workload, though, with an 80.3 grade and six sacks.

Maason Smith, LSU

Smith played all of eight snaps last season before tearing his ACL. Despite his 6-foot-5, 300-pound frame, he lined up mostly along the edge for LSU in his freshman year, showing how incredible of an athlete he is. In 2021, he recorded four sacks on 198 pass-rushing snaps.

Dontay Corleone, Cincinnati

As a redshirt freshman this past season, Corleone led all FBS defenders with a 93.8 grade.

His 94.7 run-defense grade was also the best mark by a defensive player since Micah Parsons in 2019. Despite ranking just 256th among interior defensive linemen in run-defense snaps (172), “The Godfather” registered the sixth-most run stops (27). 

Highest single-season run-defense grades in PFF College era (Since 2014 among DI, EDGE and LB)
Name School Position Season Run-Defense Grade
Quinnen Williams Alabama DI 2018 96.5
Maurice Hurst Michigan DI 2017 95.0
Reuben Foster Alabama LB 2016 94.9
Micah  Parsons Penn State LB 2019 94.8
Dontay Corleone Cincinnati DI 2022 94.7
Vita Vea Washington DI 2017 94.7

Ruke Orhorhoro, Clemson

Orhorhoro was an all-around stud in the middle of Clemson’s defensive line in 2022. He was one of only four ACC interior defensive linemen to earn 75.0-plus grades as both a pass rusher and a run defender. He’s also played all over the Tigers’ front, from nose tackle to edge defender.

Mekhi Wingo, LSU

After an impressive freshman season at Missouri, Wingo transferred to LSU this past season.

He practically never came off the field for the Tigers, as the sophomore’s 821 snaps were 30-plus more than any other interior defensive lineman in college football. His 84.3 run-defense grade ranked third among SEC interior defensive linemen, while his four sacks were tied for the most.

Kris Jenkins, Michigan

Like Corleone, Jenkins is a dominant run stuffer in the middle of Michigan’s defensive line. 

The junior’s 31 run-defense stops were tied for the most in the nation among interior defensive linemen, and his positively graded run-defense rate placed him third among Power Five players at the position.

DeWayne Carter, Duke

Carter was one of the best pass-rushing interior defensive linemen in college football this past season. His 52 pressures trailed only Illinois' Jer’Zhan Newton for the most in the Power Five. The redshirt junior’s eight sacks were also tied for first in that same group. 

Brandon Dorlus, Oregon

At 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds, Dorlus blurs the line between edge defender and interior defensive lineman. He spent his sophomore 2021 season lined up more on the interior before playing out on the edge this past season.

Regardless of his role, the junior produces at a high level. Dorlus’ 88 pressures over the past two years lead all returning Power Five edge defenders.


Edge Defender

Jared Verse, Florida State

A surprise returner for the 2023 season, Verse was a projected top-20 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft before announcing that he’d stay in Tallahassee for another year.

The former Albany edge defender dominated in his first season at the FBS level, posting a 24.4% pass-rush win rate that ranked fourth among Power Five edge defenders. His 10 tackles for loss or no gain tied for sixth. 

Dallas Turner, Alabama

It’s not easy to stand out when your counterpart is Will Anderson Jr., whose 207 career pressures are the most in the PFF College era.

That’s been Turner's predicament over the past two seasons, but the spotlight will be fully shining on him with Anderson now in the NFL. Over Turner’s first two years, his 14 sacks are tied for the second most among returning Power Five edge defenders. He’s on the slimmer side for the position at 240 pounds but makes up for it with his elite burst and agility. 

Chop Robinson, Penn State

Robinson dominated in his first year with the Nittany Lions after transferring in from Maryland. He led all Power Five edge defenders in overall grade (90.6) and pass-rushing grade (92.4) this past season. Robinson’s 23.6% pass-rush win rate ranked sixth among that same group. He’s not the biggest (6-foot-3, 242 pounds) edge defender, but he is incredibly explosive and relentless. 

J.T. Tuimoloau, Ohio State

Tuimoloau's outing against Penn State in 2022 was one of the most complete performances you'll ever see. In that contest, he recorded two sacks, two interceptions (one of which he returned for a touchdown), a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a tackle for loss, a batted pass and three pressures. He does need to be more consistent, earning just a 67.0 grade in the other 12 games. Still, his physical tools are worth betting on early in the draft.


Bralen Trice, Washington

For the first time since 2019, Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. didn’t lead the nation in total pressures.

Trice set the pace this past season with 70 pressures and was college football's most productive pass rusher. The redshirt sophomore also led all FBS edge defenders in pass-rush win rate (29.5%) and placed second in pressure rate (22.4%).

Laiatu Latu, UCLA

If there was a Comeback Player of the Year award in college football, Latu would have been a top candidate.

The redshirt junior missed the 2020 and 2021 seasons at Washington after he was forced to medically retire with a neck injury. He resumed his career this past season at UCLA and was one of the most productive edge defenders in the country. Among Power Five edge defenders, Latu tied for second in pressures (64), ranked third in pressure rate (21.7%) and tied for third in sacks (12). He has good power at 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds with an array of pass-rushing moves at his disposal.

Jack Sawyer, Ohio State

Between Sawyer and the aforementioned Tuimoloau, Ohio State secured two top-five overall recruits at edge defender in the 2021 class. Sawyer has been mostly a rotational edge for the Buckeyes the past two seasons but should start alongside Tuimoloau since Zach Harrison was drafted by Atlanta Falcons.

As a sophomore, he led all Buckeye edge defenders and ranked 11th in the Big Ten with a 16% pass-rush win rate. He also placed in the top 10 in the conference with a 73.4 run-defense grade. He’s still noticeably raw overall, but a season as a full-time starter should reveal more of his potential. 

Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Washington

Tupuola-Fetui broke out in 2020 with a 91.8 pass-rushing grade, which ranked second among all edge defenders in the country. He played only five games the following season due to a torn Achilles tendon that he suffered in spring practice. He was healthy the following year but was third in Washington’s edge rotation, behind Trice and Jeremiah Martin.

He’s earned just a 61.4 grade over the past two seasons, raising questions over whether the torn Achilles has made him lose a step. ZTF can respond to those doubts this season, as he’ll likely start alongside Trice.

Gabriel Murphy, UCLA

Latu wasn’t the only transfer edge defender who excelled for UCLA.

Gabriel Murphy and his twin brother, Grayson, joined the Bruins after they dominated at North Texas. While Grayson still excelled as a pass rusher, Gabriel was the more well-rounded of the two this season, as he was one of two Power Five edge defenders who earned 80.0-plus grades as both a pass rusher and a run defender on at least 400 snaps. The other was No. 3 overall pick Will Anderson Jr. 

Princely Umanmielen, Florida

Umanmielen’s 88.1 pass-rushing grade over the past two seasons ranks fourth among returning Power Five edge defenders.

The junior can do more than just get after the quarterback, too. His 21 run-defense stops this past year placed him in the top 10 among Power Five edge defenders. 


Linebacker

Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Clemson

The son of former All-Pro linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Sr., the sophomore linebacker has lived up to his father’s name and then some.

The younger Trotter excels on passing plays, as he was the only Power Five linebacker to earn 80.0-plus grades as a pass rusher and in coverage in 2022. Trotter ranked second in that same group in both passer rating allowed (42.9) and open target rate allowed (47.6%).

Barrett Carter, Clemson

Clemson easily boasts the best linebacking corps in the country heading into the 2023 season.

Carter is one of college football's most well-rounded linebackers. The sophomore was one of three in the Power Five to earn 75.0-plus grades as a run defender, a pass rusher and in coverage. His seven combined interceptions and forced incompletions were tied for the most among FBS linebackers, as well.

Cedric Gray, North Carolina

Gray flew around North Carolina’s defense this past year on his way to becoming a PFF second-team All-American.

The junior made first contact on a ball carrier 122 times in 2022, which was 15 more than the next-closest defender in college football. It was also the best single-season mark by a Power Five player in the PFF College era.

Most plays with first contact among FBS players in PFF College era (Since 2014)
Name Position  School Season Plays with first contact
Rodney Butler LB New Mexico State 2016 133
Cedric Gray LB North Carolina 2022 122
Leighton Vander Esch LB Boise State 2017 121

Tommy Eichenberg, Ohio State

Eichenberg was a PFF first-team All-American this past season and is the most valuable returning linebacker in college football, according to PFF’s wins above average metric

The redshirt junior is a dominant run stuffer, as his 49 run-defense stops in 2022 ranked second among linebackers while his 20 tackles for loss or no gain were tied for third.

Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Georgia

Dumas-Johnson is the next great Georgia linebacker, following in the footsteps of past Bulldog greats, such as Roquan Smith and Nakobe Dean.

In fact, over the past two seasons, the only SEC linebacker with a higher grade than Dumas-Johnson is Dean. The sophomore led the SEC this season with a 79.9 run-defense grade. 

Jaylan Ford, Texas

Ford was an honorable mention All-American for PFF this season and a turnover machine for the Longhorns.

The junior’s four interceptions led all FBS linebackers, and he tied for second in the Power Five with two fumble recoveries. His three forced fumbles also tied for sixth in the country. 

Maema Njongmeta, Wisconsin

Njongmeta is the highest-graded returning Power Five linebacker, earning an 89.9 mark this past season.

The redshirt junior is a menace when coming downhill, as he was the only Power Five linebacker who earned 85.0-plus grades as both a pass rusher and a run defender. His 17 tackles for loss or no gain ranked fifth among that same group, as well.

Ty’Ron Hopper, Missouri

Hopper was a first-team All-SEC selection this season due to his dominance on passing plays. 

The Florida transfer was one of four Power Five linebackers who held top-15 grades both as a pass rusher and in coverage this past season. The junior also ranked second among SEC linebackers with a 51.7% open target rate allowed.

Smael Mondon Jr., Georgia

Mondon is a downhill threat for the Bulldogs. His 22 pressures and 11 tackles for loss or no gain both ranked sixth among SEC linebackers this past season. He’s only 220 pounds but brings impressive explosiveness and closing speed.

Junior Colson, Michigan

Colson has been starting for Michigan since his true freshman season in 2021. He significantly improved in 2022, bettering his grade from a 48.5 to a 75.6 mark. If he makes another big leap, he has the tools to become one of the top linebackers in the class. 


Cornerback

Kool-Aid McKinstry, Alabama

Among returning players in 2023, McKinstry is the best cornerback, the best returner and has the best nickname.

Kool-Aid was a first-team All-American for PFF this past season, and his 18 forced incompletions tied for second among cornerbacks. The sophomore also led all Power Five players with 332 punt return yards. He’s the most valuable returning Power Five cornerback, according to PFF’s wins above average metric.

Kalen King, Penn State

Joey Porter Jr. may have gone 32nd overall in the 2023 NFL Draft, but King was Penn State's true star in the secondary this past season.

In single coverage, the sophomore led all college cornerbacks with a 93.3 grade and an 18.3 passer rating allowed. His 15 forced incompletions in single coverage tied for third among FBS cornerbacks, as well.

Cooper DeJean, Iowa

DeJean is the most versatile cornerback in college football. He can excel both in coverage and as a run defender, either on the outside or as a slot defender. 

DeJean was the only cornerback in the country to earn 85.0-plus grades both in coverage and run defense. His five interceptions tied for fourth among Power Five cornerbacks, while his 15 run-defense stops tied for the most among FBS cornerbacks. A move to safety may be in his future, but he showed he’s a more than capable cornerback.

Denzel Burke, Ohio State

Burke started at outside cornerback as a true freshman with Ohio State and allowed only a 48.4% completion rate while forcing 10 incompletions and not allowing any touchdowns. 

He regressed as a sophomore, letting up a 110.2 passer rating when targeted. He’s a physical press cornerback at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, and he could be a first-round pick with a bounce-back junior campaign.

Josh Newton, TCU

Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson won the Jim Thorpe Award as college football's best defensive back in 2022. However, he wasn’t even the highest-graded cornerback on his own team.

Newton led all Horned Frogs cornerbacks with an 81.9 grade, and he ranked fourth among Power Five players this past year with a 35.3% completion rate allowed. The Louisiana-Monroe transfer is also the third-most valuable returning Power Five cornerback, per PFF’s wins above average metric.

Javon Bullard, Georgia

Whether you classify him as a cornerback or safety, Bullard’s true home is in the slot. In fact, he was an honorable mention All-American for PFF this past season at slot cornerback. 

The sophomore’s 79.3 grade ranked third among Power Five slot cornerbacks in 2022. He surrendered only 0.88 yards per coverage snap from the slot, sixth in that same group. Bullard’s 82.6 grade in zone coverage ranked fourth among all Power Five corners, as well.

Kamari Lassiter, Georgia

Georgia tends to leave its cornerbacks on islands, making it very easy to see whether they’re up to snuff.

Lassiter’s 190 snaps in single coverage were the sixth most in the Power Five in 2022. Of the sophomore’s 34 targets in single coverage, he allowed only 13 catches. He’ll be the reigning back-to-back champs’ top outside cornerback this season with Kelee Ringo now in the NFL.

Fentrell Cypress II, Florida State

After four seasons at Virginia, Cypress is transferring within the ACC to Florida State.

This past year, he ranked fifth among Power Five cornerbacks in yards allowed per coverage snap (0.53). In single coverage, he placed fourth in the Power Five with only a 4.5% open target rate allowed. 

Jason Marshall Jr., Florida

Marshall excels in press coverage. 

The sophomore surrendered only a 35.2 passer rating when targeted in press over the past two seasons, eighth among Power Five cornerbacks. For comparison, spiking the ball every play nets a 39.6 passer rating. 

Malachi Moore, Alabama

Moore excelled as a true freshman for Alabama, earning an 82.1 coverage grade while lining up mostly at slot cornerback, but he returned just a 63.8 coverage over the past two seasons. Moore’s battled injuries in that stretch but should be a full-time starter for the Crimson Tide in 2023, whether in the slot or at safety.


Safety

Kamren Kinchens, Miami (FL)

Kinchens led all college safeties with a 90.0 grade and a 90.7 coverage grade in 2022. His six interceptions were also tied for the most in the Power Five. He’s a true centerfielder at free safety.

Calen Bullock, USC

Bullock was a PFF first-team All-American in 2022 thanks to his dominance in coverage.

The sophomore’s five interceptions were tied for fifth among all safeties. He was also the third-most valuable safety in the country, according to PFF’s wins above average metric. 

Andrew Mukuba, Clemson

Mukuba had a very disappointing sophomore season, posting just a 50.2 grade.

However, he was battling injuries and was coming off a stellar freshman year. Over the past two seasons, the sophomore’s 17 coverage stops were tied for eighth among Power Five safeties, while his 10 forced incompletions tied for ninth.

James Williams, Miami (FL)

Between Kinchens and Williams, Miami is set to field the best safety duo in the country heading into next season.

Both Williams and Kinchens recorded 89.9 coverage grades over the past two seasons — tied for first among returning Power Five safeties. At 6-foot-5, Williams has unbelievable length for a safety, which he used to force six incompletions in 2022. 

Rod Moore, Michigan

Moore is arguably the most well-rounded safety in the country heading into next season and was an honorable mention All-American for PFF in 2022.

He was one of two Power Five safeties in 2022 who earned 80.0-plus grades both in coverage and as a run defender. The other, Alabama’s Brian Branch, was taken in the second round of the 2023 draft. Moore’s four interceptions tied for seventh among Power Five safeties. 

Aubrey Burks, West Virginia

Among returning Power Five safeties, only Kinchens posted a higher grade in 2022 than Burks (84.9). 

The sophomore’s 12 coverage stops this past season also tied for the most among that same group. He was named first-team All-Big 12 by PFF for his efforts.

Demani Richardson, Texas A&M

Richardson is heading into his fifth season as a starting safety for the Aggies. Over the past two years, the senior’s 29 run-defense stops are tied for ninth among Power Five safeties, while his 18 coverage stops are tied for fourth.

Cole Bishop, Utah

Bishop is arguably the best downhill safety in college football. This past season, he led all Power Five safeties with 20 pressures. The sophomore’s 35 run-defense stops and 14 tackles for loss or no gain over the past two years were also top-five marks among that group.

R.J. Mickens, Clemson

The second of two Clemson safeties on this list, Mickens is the underrated star in the Tigers’ secondary.

The junior’s 87.2 grade over the past two seasons is second to only Kinchens among Power Five safeties. In that span, he gave up only 0.28 yards per coverage snap, tied for seventh in the Power Five.

Tyler Nubin, Minnesota

Nubin is a hard-nosed run defender as Minnesota’s strong safety. His 83.4 run-defense grade in 2022 ranked 11th among Power Five safeties. Nubin’s 18 run-defense stops were also a top-15 mark in that same group. 

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