2018 Defensive Tackle rankings – top prospects

2018 Defensive tackle rankings – With the college season ending soon, we’ve compiled evaluations of the top defensive tackles eligible for the 2018 Draft.

ICYMI – we’ve already provided detailed evaluations of several position groups in preparation for the 2018 Draft:

Without further ado, here are HawkTalk’s initial 2018 defensive tackle rankings:

1) Maurice Hurst | 6’2, 285 lbs | Michigan, rSR | NFL position: 3-Tech | Top 15 talent

Maurice Hurst posted 5 sacks and 11.5 TFL as a part-time player in Michigan’s defensive line rotation last year. He returned to Wolverines this fall, emerging as one of the most dominant defensive players in the country.

Hurst is highly explosive off the ball with quick, agile footwork. He smoothly crosses the face of blockers and works through gaps on balance. He also plays with outstanding pad level, even considering his short stature.

Speaking of which – Hurst lacks prototypical size for a DT, but has a compact build and packs great power in his hands. He knows how to use them as well, showing a variety of developed techniques (club/swipe & rip, swim moves, stack & shed, push-pull). He’s also a smart, instinctive player who consistently disrupts and finds the ball.

Hurst’s 2017 performance should earn himself a spot in the top half of the first round in 2018. This may be a lofty comparison, but he reminds me of Bengals’ All-Pro DT Geno Atkins.

A lot will depend on combine testing, but Hurst is arguably the best DT in the nation. That’s despite playing out of position at nose tackle for Michigan – a spot at which he’s woefully undersized. I love the toughness he’s exhibited battling vs. constant double teams at his size.

Hurst isn’t a clear fit for 3-4 fronts due to his mediocre size and length, but his mobility is rare for a defensive tackle. An NFL team will give Hurst extra space at 3-Tech (or even 5-Tech) and let him go 1-on-1 with offensive guards. Good luck to them.

*As an aside – watching Hurst’s 2016 tape reminded me how much I liked Delano Hill leading up to the 2017 draft. The Seahawks got a good one in the Michigan safety.

2) Vita Vea | 6’5, 340 lbs | Washington, rJR | NFL position: NT/3T | Top 15 talent

Vita Vea is a monstrous nose tackle at 6’5 340 lbs. However, Washington lines him at multiple spots along the defensive line to take advantage of his uncommon athleticism. He is incredibly nimble and explosive at that size. His workout numbers include a ridiculous sub-4.90 40-yard dash and a 33” vertical leap.

Vea packs tremendous power and strength into his thick frame. He dominates vs. the run simply by occupying multiple blockers and holding his ground. He also stacks and sheds linemen as well as any defensive tackle in college.

Vea isn’t just a classic run-stuffing NT though. He is the rare over-sized DT who offers plus pass rushing ability. He produces outstanding power behind his bull rush to frequently push the pocket. It cannot be stopped with one blocker when Vea keeps his pads low. He also mixes in a vicious club/hump move to clear paths to the QB.

Vea looks like an elite top-5 talent at his best. Unfortunately, he doesn’t always play with maximum intensity, which comes with the territory for a man his size.

He may not have the stamina to take full advantage of his 3-down skill-set in the NFL. That’s nit-picking, though Vea’s inconsistent motor shows up even within Washington’s defensive line rotation. He tends to stand up high when tired, which saps explosion and allows double-teams to move him off his spot. It will be crucial for him to keep his weight in check to reach his full potential in the NFL.

Vea passed on a likely first round spot in the 2017 draft to return to Washington this year. He’s certainly improved his game, generating hype as a potential top 10-15 pick in 2018. He compares favorably to Pro Bowlers Linval Joseph, Dontari Poe, and the great Haloti Ngata.

3) Taven Bryan | 6’4, 295 lbs | Florida, rJR | NFL position: 3T/5T | 1st round talent

Next up is a DT prospect that (jumps) erupts off the tape… almost literally.

Taven Bryan grades off-the-charts in a crucial skill for interior linemen – explosion off the ball. His remarkable get-off may be quicker than any DT prospect since Aaron Donald. That includes three of my personal favorites from recent years:

  • Chris Jones – 2016 (1.69 10-yard split – 310 lbs)
  • Grady Jarrett – 2015 (1.69 10-yard split – 304 lbs)
  • Chris Wormley – 2017 (1.62 10-yard split – 298 lbs)

Bryan reacts to the snap with impeccable timing, and fires into gaps to penetrate the line. He constantly re-directs runs in the backfield, and creates instant pressure in the pocket. It’s a rare ability that will make Bryan highly coveted when he enters the draft. He’s also a weight room warrior who displays immense power when using proper leverage.

Unfortunately, Bryan often shoots through gaps recklessly, losing stability through contact. The out-of-control attacks allow blockers to ride Bryan out of the play, and create big holes in the running game. Bryan more than makes up for that with his disruptiveness, but he’d benefit from a more disciplined approach.

Bryan also tends to play too high, and needs to be more consistent with his hands. But his raw athleticism can’t be taught, and he’s flashed dominance this fall despite the flaws. His performance vs. Texas A&M is perhaps the best DT-tape scouts will watch this year.

Bryan could potentially rise to the upper half of the first round – even in a top-heavy DT class. We’ve graded him as a Day-1 talent for now and will be watching for continued improvement. He should light up the NFL combine next spring, assuming he declares for the draft.

4) Tim Settle | 6’3, 335 lbs | Virginia Tech, rSO | NFL position: NT/3T | 1st round talent

It’s uncommon for there to be even a single “true” nose tackle in a draft class with elite athletic traits. If Tim Settle enters the 2017 draft, he’ll make it two (along with Vita Vea). Settle is an extraordinarily fluid athlete, with superb straight-line burst for a 335 lbs defensive tackle. He ran a 5.35 40-yard dash as a 6’2, 339 lbs teenager at the 2014 Nike SPARQ combine.

Like Vea, he makes quite an impact as a pass rusher for a nose tackle. Settle creates instant pressure on the QB with the fluidity of a defensive tackle 50 lbs lighter. While Vea primarily wins with brute force, Settle is more likely to explode into gaps with a smooth go-to swim move. He also wins straight through blockers with a powerful bull rush, giving him rare pass-rushing upside.

Settle is also highly aggressive (if a bit undisciplined) vs. the run. He disrupts running schemes with constant backfield pressure, and plays with a great motor for his size. He’s not quite as stout as Vea (particularly vs. double-teams), but is still a load for blockers to move.

Settle is still somewhat raw – unsurprising for a redshirt sophomore in his first year as a full-time starter. He can be pushed laterally down the line, turned away from the play, and hits the turf too regularly. He’ll also often successfully shed a block only to miss the tackle.

Settle may be better served by returning to Virginia Tech for his junior year. The upside is there – at the very least – to secure a spot in the first round of the 2019 draft. We think he’s already worthy of that now, even without the extra year to refine his game.

5) Da’Ron Payne | 6’2, 310 lbs | Alabama, JR | NFL position: NT/3T | 1st round talent

The track record of Alabama’s recent defensive tackle prospects is working in Payne’s favor. Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson and Dalvin Tomlinson are all off to strong starts to their young careers. Payne is easily the best athlete of the bunch, and probably has the highest upside as well. He won’t turn 21 until after the 2018 NFL draft.

Ultimately, we wouldn’t be surprised if Payne returned for his senior year. This defensive tackle class will be strong at the top with a few underclassmen declarations, and Payne’s statistical production hasn’t caught up to his overall impact.

Also of note – the NFL talent on Bama’s defensive line doesn’t end with Payne:

  • Senior Da’Shawn Hand is a former 5-star recruit who should factor into the mid rounds next spring.
  • Sophomore Raekwon Davis is a highly intriguing prospect for 2019, with 54 tackles and 6.5 sacks this year.
  • JUCO transfer Isaiah Buggs (JR.) has received zero NFL draft hype as far as I can tell, but he’s also really impressed for the Tide this fall.

6) Christian Wilkins | 6’3, 300 lbs | Clemson, JR | NFL position: 3T/5T | 1st round talent

Wilkins is highly regarded by several respected NFL Draft pundits, even receiving some hype as a potential top 5 pick. His overall production is solid and it’s clear he possesses elite movement skills. However, his game hasn’t quite caught up to his athleticism at this point. He tends to stand straight up and get locked in by blockers, which completely neutralizes his athletic advantages. The combination of mediocre length and use of consistently poor leverage is a bit alarming.

Wilkins hasn’t made the same kind of impact this season as the defensive tackles evaluated above. A breakout was anticipated after Clemson used him on the edge a lot in 2016, but his play has stagnated. We presently grade Wilkins as a second rounder for 2018, which is probably the lowest grade we’ve seen for him. *Edit – I’ve updated this post to push his grade up to a 1st round talent. I still have concerns about length & bend, but his performance down the stretch justifies the jump.

7) Derrick Nnadi | 6’1, 310 lbs | Florida State, SR | NFL position: NT/3T | 2nd round talent

Nnadi will help an NFL team’s run defense from day one. He’s so strong, reliable and impactful vs, the run, and that should translate well to the pros. He’ll fit perfectly in 4-3 defensive fronts as a 2-down defensive tackle at either 1-Tech or 3-Tech.

The question with Nnadi is whether he can develop into an effective interior pass rusher at the NFL level. He’s not devoid of talent in that area by any means, but he doesn’t profile as a 3-down defender. Our best guess is Nnadi gets drafted right where we have him graded – in the second round.

8) Dre’Mont Jones | 6’3, 295 lbs | Ohio State, rSO | NFL position: 3T/5T | 2nd round talent

  • Excellent timing & explosion off the snapspecial athletic traits and fluidity for a near 300-pound man.
  • Packs strong initial punch into the chest. Once there, he throws blockers aside or extends & drives his legs to push the pocket.
  • Uses a variety of initial movements & fakes to set up his go-to swim move. Also possesses a deadly spin move.
  • Needs to get stronger to consistently hold up vs. the run on the inside – tends to get stood up if too high, or forced into the ground otherwise.

Few defensive tackles at the college level can match Jones’ impact on the game at his best. He plays with such an enticing combination of athleticism, fluidity and advanced hand use, that’s is easy to overlook the raw aspects of his game.

Jones’s production has been held back this year by injury, inconsistency, and the Buckeyes’ deep defensive line rotation. That, plus youth and inexperience could mean a return to Ohio State next season. We’ll circle back to Jones again this offseason if he does indeed declare for the draft.

More defensive tackle prospects worth monitoring:

Harrison Phillips | 6’4, 295 lbs | Stanford, SR

RJ McIntosh | 6’4, 295 lbs | Miami, JR

Isaiah Buggs | 6’5, 295 lbs | Alabama, JR

Greg Gaines | 6’2, 320 lbs | Washington, rJR

Zach Allen | 6’5, 285 lbs | Boston College, JR – (more of a 5T/DE type)

Da’Shawn Hand | 6’4, 290 lbs | Alabama, SR

Breeland Speaks | 6’3, 285 lbs | Ole Miss, rJR