2018 NFL Draft Board: Top 100 Defensive Prospects

With the draft rapidly approaching, I’ve spent countless hours pouring over tape to update evaluations & rankings. Here are HawkTalk’s Top 100 Defensive Prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft.

These are my personal rankings and draft grades for the 2018 defensive class, and not necessarily a projected draft order. The rankings are arranged by the following position groups: EDGE, DL, LB, CB, and Safety. I’ve included notes & Seahawks draft targets at each position. But first, here are a couple couple general thoughts to start things off:

Many analysts have bemoaned the supposedly “weak” 2018 draft class, which is a complaint you’ll never hear from me. There is always talent to be found in such a large pool of prospects; it’s all about evaluating accurately and finding the right player-team fit.

I also recommend ignoring any notion of there only being 15-20 first round grades in a given year. NFL teams typically have fewer than 32 of course, as they (rightfully) devalue some 1st-round prospects due to need or scheme fit. For example, the Seahawks may not have a R1 grade on an undersized CB like Jaire Alexander, as they place a high value on height and length to fit Pete Carroll’s defensive scheme. However, it’s important to look through an unbiased lens from a pure evaluative standpoint. An average draft class should theoretically have 32 total first round grades, simply because that’s how many picks there are. I think there are close to 30 in 2018. Not all 1st-round picks are equal of course, which is why I reserve “Top-5” and “Top-15” grades for the very best players.

While the 2018 draft class is relatively thin on depth, that’s more of an issue on the offensive side of the ball. The defensive crop is comparatively strong, with plenty of R1-3 talent and solid depth into day-three of the draft. Anyways, enough preaching! Let’s get into the Top 100 Defensive Prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft:


EDGE rushers

Rank EDGE Grade Position
1) Bradley Chubb Top 5 DE/5T
2) Marcus Davenport Top 15 EDGE
3) Harold Landry R1 EDGE
4) Ogbonnia Okoronkwo R1 EDGE/LB
5) Duke Ejiofor R2 DE/5T
6) Lorenzo Carter R2 EDGE/LB
7) Josh Sweat R2 EDGE
8) Sam Hubbard R2 DE
9) Uchenna Nwosu R2-3 EDGE/LB
10) Arden Key R2-3 EDGE
11) Rasheem Green R2-3 DE/5T
12) Kemoko Turay R3 EDGE/LB

Bradley Chubb is all that in a bag of chips. Not quite on the same level as Myles Garrett a year ago, yet still an absolute game changer whether the offense calls run or pass… Marcus Davenport has such an intriguing blend of size, athleticism and natural talent. He’s quite raw, but compares favorably to the promising 2017-version of Seahawks DE Dion Jordan. I wrote about him extensively in January, since he became a trendy 1st-round mock draft choice for SeattleHarold Landry played like a top-10 pick in 2016 before struggling through injuries and inconsistency last year. He put a lot of concerns to rest with a terrific Combine performance, and would be a great value for any team outside the top-20… Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is one of my favorite prospects in the entire draft, though he remains criminally underrated by NFL Draft media. His resume is surpassed only by Chubb over the last two years, and he was the most dominant defender throughout Senior Bowl week. Instead of focusing on the 6’2” height and 4.74 40-time, check out the rest of his of his superb Combine/Pro Day testing: 33.75” arms, 1.60 10-yard split, 10’5” broad jump, 38” vertical, and 6.84 3-cone. He’s a dynamite pass rusher, an impact run defender from the LB position, and very capable in coverage. I think “Obo” is a steal outside the first round in this draft…

Top Day-3 EDGE: Tyquan Lewis, Chad Thomas, Leon Jacobs, Ola Adeniyi, Jeff Holland, Dorance Armstrong, Hercules Mata’afa, Jalyn Holmes, Kylie Fitts

Seahawks EDGE Targets: Davenport, Landry, Ejiofor, Sweat, Green, Okoronkwo, Carter, Nwosu, Turay, Jacobs, Tee Sims, Demone Harris

There is a significant cliff in this year’s stack of edge rushers, with a big drop-off after the 2nd or 3rd round. If Seattle wants to draft a DE who can contribute to the rotation as a rookie, they’ll likely have to do so by the end of day-2. While the Seahawks have some exciting young talent at DE, the group is thinner than ever before under Carroll. All that said, there’s a decent chance Seattle drafts a DE early (probably after trader-John goes to work of course).

Davenport and Landry are great options if Seattle actually picks at 18th overall, though that may be doubtful… The top candidates are Duke Ejiofor (5T-DE) and Josh Sweat (LEO-DE) on the second day of the draft. Ejiofor fits the Michael Bennett mold as a plus-sized run-stuffer with the instincts and natural athleticism to pressure the pocket from multiple alignments… On the other hand, Sweat is a raw physical marvel and tough run defender with just enough pass rush production to warrant a 2nd-round pick. The Seahawks have shown heavy interest in him during the pre-draft process… If a versatile EDGE/Linebacker-type (a la Bruce Irvin) is still on the table after signing Barkevious Mingo, there are several excellent options in this draft: Okoronkwo, Lorenzo Carter, Uchenna Nwosu, Kemoko Turay & Leon Jacobs… Seattle is also taking a close look at Tee Sims & Demone Harris, two late-round/UDFA small-schoolers…


Defensive Line

Rank DL Grade Position
1) Vita Vea Top 15 NT/1T
2) Maurice Hurst Top 15 3-Tech
3) Da’Ron Payne R1 1T/3T
4) Taven Bryan R1 3T/5T
5) Tim Settle R2 NT/1T
6) Harrison Phillips R2 NT/1T
7) Nathan Shepherd R2-3 3-Tech
8) Derrick Nnadi R3 1T
9) B.J. Hill R3-4 1T/3T
10) Da’Shawn Hand R3-4 3T/5T
11) Breeland Speaks R3-4 3T/5T

Much of what I wrote in my November DT rankings post still applies to this interior Defensive Line class. Like the EDGE group, there is steep cliff at DL after the first two rounds… Sorry to break it to you guys – Vita Vea has a better chance of being a top-10 pick than falling to Seattle at 18. His ability to collapse the pocket is extraordinarily rare for a man his size, and he combines that with dominant run defense. If not for issues with stamina and resulting inconsistency, he’d be an elite top-5 talent… Maurice Hurst lacks size and perhaps a fully healthy heart, yet no one can question his heart on the field. He played way out of position at NT for Michigan last year, and was still a complete force. He’s visiting the Seahawks, and he’s so good that it’d be difficult to pass on him (health permitting) after trading down from 18…

Top Day-3 DL: Justin Jones, R.J. McIntosh, Trenton Thompson, P.J. Hall, Foley Fatukasi, Deadrin Senat, Jullian Taylor, Andrew Brown

Seahawks DL Targets: Hurst, Hand, Speaks, Hall, Fatukasi, Taylor, Poona Ford, Bilal Nichols, Abdullah Anderson

The DT rotation is mostly set for Seattle in 2018 with Jarran Reed, Naz Jones, Shamar Stephen & Tom Johnson. However, it wouldn’t hurt to add more interior disruption for both the present and future if Malik McDowell’s status remains uncertain. That need could conceivably be satisfied by drafting a talented 5T-DE (Ejiofor or Green, for instance) who can slide inside in passing situations. It’s much tougher to narrow down top DL candidates compared with EDGE defenders, but the names listed above stand out in one way or another. The Seahawks have met (or will meet) with Hurst, Ford and Anderson during the pre-draft process. And the remaining names are all draft-able prospects with the athleticism to offer pass-rush upside, though they’re all projects in that regard.


Linebackers

Rank LB Grade Position
1) Tremaine Edmunds Top 15 LB
2) Roquan Smith Top 15 ILB/WLB
3) Leighton Vander Esch R1 LB
4) Rashaan Evans R1-2 ILB/WLB
5) Malik Jefferson R2 MLB/WLB
6) Josey Jewell R2-3 ILB
7) Shaquem Griffin R3 OLB
8) Jerome Baker R3 WLB
9) Darius Leonard R3-4 LB

The 2018 Linebacker class is stacked top-to-bottom, especially when you factor in the coverage skills of the LB’s listed in the EDGE section above (Okoronkwo, Carter, Nwosu, Turay & Jacobs)… It’s no secret which two are at the head of this class. Tremaine Edmunds makes plays all over the field with an unparalleled combination of size, length, speed and quickness. He’s unbelievably unique, possessing all the upside in the world for an off-ball LB. He also has his weaknesses (awareness, instincts & play-strength), but those are all areas a 19-year-old can improve upon with experience… Not to be out-done, Roquan Smith is basically the prototypical modern-day Linebacker. His lack of size may be an issue taking on blocks (mainly if in two-gap fronts), yet he’s brilliant in virtually all other aspects. Particularly in coverage, where his elite range and recognition truly shine… Leighton Vander Esch isn’t all that far behind those two. I think he’s currently the best LB in this class vs. the run, and is no slouch in coverage either. His size and athleticism will play in any scheme, and his floor/upside combo is so enticing starting mid-R1… Rashaan Evans is incredibly fun to watch compared to most of the other undersized LB’s in this class. Why? He plays with stunning physicality to overcome it. Despite his iffy pre-draft process, he could still sneak into the 1st round…

Top Day-3 LB’s: Jack Cichy, Dorian O’Daniel, Fred Warner, Micah Kiser, Oren Burks, Matthew Thomas, Genard Avery

Seahawks LB Targets: Jefferson, Baker, Griffin, Leonard, Burks, Thomas, Zaire Franklin, Foye Oluokun

The Mingo signing did a lot to fortify the LB position for 2018, but Seattle is still in need of depth and youth. This is the year to replenish the stock, as the 2018 class is full of fast, explosive and talented Linebackers.

This vague Ian Rapoport report may suggest Vander Esch is visiting the Seahawks, yet I’ve seen nothing else to confirm that. Surely Seattle has greater needs in the first round than a pure off-ball Linebacker?… Malik Jefferson and Jerome Baker are talented and fit Seattle’s LB-profile, though their 2nd-round price tags may be too rich as well… Realistically, I expect the Seahawks to target LB early on day-3, then perhaps again in the late rounds or UDFA. None fit the bill better than inspiring UCF LB Shaquem Griffin. He’s everything that Carroll & Schneider are looking for this offseason: highly athletic, the ultimate competitor, smart-tough-reliable, and skilled. He’s the twin brother to Seahawks CB Shaquill Griffin, has overcome the mother of all adversity, and met with Seattle at the Combine. Last year, I was most certain of Seattle targeting Delano Hill among all mid-draft prospects – Griffin might be the guy this time around… Darius Leonard, Oren Burks and Matthew Thomas all possess the desired athleticism, and offer varying upside in the mid-late rounds… And lastly, Seattle is showing interest in an athletic duo of late round/UDFA LB’s: Zaire Franklin & Foye Oluokun (LB/SS).


Cornerbacks

Rank CB Grade Position
1) Denzel Ward Top 15 CB/slot
2) Joshua Jackson R1 CB
3) Jaire Alexander R1 CB/slot
4) Carlton Davis R2 CB
5) Isaiah Oliver R2 CB
6) Mike Hughes R2 CB
7) Nick Nelson R2-3 CB/slot
8) Isaac Yiadom R3 CB
9) Quenton Meeks R3 CB
10) Anthony Averett R3 CB
11) Donte Jackson R3 slot
12) Parry Nickerson R3 slot
13) Holton Hill R3-4 CB
14) M.J. Stewart R3-4 slot
15) Duke Dawson R3-4 slot
16) D.J. Reed R3-4 slot

Not a whole lot has changed since my initial preview of the 2018 CB class two months ago. It’s not the top-heaviest group of Corners, but there should be solid depth throughout the draft… Joshua Jackson is an exceptional CB prospect, but not a likely target for Seattle in the 1st round (No CB is, really)… Denzel Ward and Jaire Alexander lack the size some teams prefer in boundary Corners, yet that hasn’t stopped them from developing into the top man-cover CB’s in this draft…

Top Day-3 CB’s: Tarvarus McFadden, Rashaan Gaulden, Avonte Maddox, Arrion Springs, Christian Campbell, Levi Wallace, Darius Phillips, Tony Brown, Kevin Toliver, Kameron Kelly

Seahawks CB Targets: Oliver, Davis, Yiadom, Meeks, Hill, McFadden, Campbell, Wallace, Brandon Facyson

The closer we get to the draft without Seattle signing Byron Maxwell, the more alarming the gaping hole at CB becomes. The Seahawks are set at RCB (Shaq Griffin) and nickel (Justin Coleman), but devoid of starting talent at LCB. However, we shouldn’t automatically expect them to buck the trend of avoiding the position in the top two rounds. They were in the same position last offseason after all, and waited until the late-3rd round to take Griffin. That was a stronger CB-class, though there are NFL-ready options in that range this year as well.

The top candidates are Isaac Yiadom and Quenton Meeks. Both are tall, lengthy Corners who near-perfectly fit the profile of Seattle CB’s. Yiadom didn’t post elite Combine numbers, but his size, tape-athleticism, physicality vs. the run and press-coverage skills could make him the Seahawks’ top CB-target on draft day… Meeks falls a hair short of the 32” arms threshold (31.75, same as Mike Tyson last year). Yet the rest of his athletic testing is superb, and he has the size/smarts to play CB in Seattle… If they were to actually draft a CB after trading down into Round 2, Carlton Davis and Isaiah Oliver would be the top targets. Oliver particularly, since he’s got a coveted combination of size and explosiveness… Amongst the tall & long CB’s expected to be available on Day-3, Brandon Facyson and especially Christian Campbell stand out as top potential Seahawks’ targets.


Safeties

Rank Safety Grade Position
1) Derwin James Top 5 SS
2) Minkah Fitzpatrick Top 15 FS/slot
3) Justin Reid R2 FS/slot
4) DeShon Elliott R2 SS
5) Ronnie Harrison R2-3 SS
6) Jessie Bates III R3 FS
7) Kyzir White R3 SS
8) Tarvarius Moore R3 FS
9) Marcus Allen R3-4 SS
10) Natrell Jamerson R3-4 FS
11) Terrell Edmunds R3-4 SS

This Safety class keeps growing on me the more I study it – there’s a reason the Seahawks are willing to deal Earl Thomas… I’ve covered the position group in detail at the links below:

Top Day-3 Safeties: Godwin Igwebuike, Jeremy Reaves, Dane Cruikshank, Trayvon Henderson, Troy Apke, Jordan Whitehead, Quin Blanding, Armani Watts

Seahawks Safety Targets: Reid, Bates III, Moore, Jamerson, Apke, Nick Nelson (CB), Foye Oluokun (LB)

I haven’t included any premium SS candidates because Seattle is set with Delano Hill and Bradley McDougald moving forward (and Chancellor too if he can somehow make it back). That said, Yale LB/SS Foye Oluokun has a little bit of Kam in him with the way he hits, and the Seahawks are hosting him for a visit…

They would be set at FS as well with an extension in place for Earl Thomas. Obviously trading Earl would change everything though, and Seattle is preparing for the draft as if that will happen. They’re targeting a trio of top Free Safety prospects: Justin Reid, Jessie Bates III and Natrell Jamerson. Add Tarvarius Moore and Troy Apke to the group as well, since they’re elite athletes with intriguing tape at FS.


Thanks for reading! I’ll follow this post up with rankings on the offensive side of the ball within the next week.

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