The 2016 NFL Draft is just under a month away, meaning teams are in full fledge evaluation mode of the 2016 draft prospects. The draft is the biggest event of the NFL offseason, giving teams the chance to improve their teams with new talent. Starting with the defensive secondary prospects, I have been releasing my top five NFL Draft prospects at each position. Today, we take a look at the interior defensive linemen group. For reference, here were my top five interior defensive linemen in last year’s draft.
The Browns need a lot of help, but the defensive line may be one of the more pressing needs. The team has a couple young players to build around, but it still needs more help. This draft is going to be very fulfilling for teams looking for interior defensive linemen. The class of interior defensive linemen is deep and talented with some future playmakers littered throughout. So with that, let’s take a look at my top five interior defensive linemen in the 2016 NFL Draft.
DeForest Buckner is a powerful player with a rare size at 6-foot-7, 291-pounds. In 13 games as a senior last year, he notched 83 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, five passes defended and 10.5 sacks. The Oregon Duck is one of the most unique players in the draft with size that is not seen often on the defensive line. He uses his length well keeping blockers away from his body. He has strength in his long arms, allowing him to disengage from blocks with ease to get free and get the ball carrier.
Even with his size, he gets off the line quickly and with a powerful punch to stun the blocker. He pairs his size with good athleticism to move with agility and fluidity. He has the athleticism and effort level to chase ball carriers down the field. He is best as a run stuffer because of his ability to disengage from blocks and fill holes, but he also has the strength and power to rush the passer. Buckner’s talent draws consistent double teams, which opens up opportunities for his fellow defenders. He has the versatility to play multiple positions on the line, both in a 3-4 and 4-3 defense.
But, Buckner is not a perfect prospect. With his height comes leverage problems and stance problems. He can get too high, which allows the blockers to get him off balance and out of the play. He can improve and refine his pass rushing skills, adding more moves to get to the quarterback. He can also miss tackles because he tries to tackle with his arms rather than his whole body. Overall, he is a unique prospect with a lot of talent and who can right away improve a team’s run defense.
Sheldon Rankins is powerful with unique athleticism for a man his stature. In 13 games as a senior in 2015, he notched 58 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, one pass break-up and six sacks. The Louisville Cardinal has a rare combination of power and athleticism for a defensive lineman. His power comes from his whole body, especially from his strong lower half and his arms. He uses his arms to inflict a powerful punch to blockers that immediately stuns and pushes back the blocker. He keeps his arms extended to keep linemen away from his body to be able to disengage immediately.
Rankins has active hands that also help him disengage from blocks. He keeps his eyes in the backfield, allowing him to know when to get off the block and get to the ball carrier. He is not often pushed back, making a stout player at the point of attack. His feet are extraordinary for a 299-pound man. His feet are always moving and are coordinated to move really well and always keep his power going forward. He shows quickness to close on the ball carrier. He has versatility to play multiple positions on the line, both in the 4-3 and 3-4 defense.
Rankins, though, does have some deficiencies in his game. He does not have the ideal height of a NFL defensive lineman. As a pass rusher, he does not have a refined repertoire of pass rushing skills. If he cannot bull rush or slip a block with initial quickness, he can get stuck on a block and not get to the quarterback. He also does not get off the line very quickly, allowing linemen to get a headstart. But in the end, he has power and athleticism that will make him incredibly hard to block against the run, which could develop him into a good pass rusher.
Robert Nkemdiche is a freak athlete, able to move like an edge rusher at 294-pounds. In 11 games as a junior last season, he posted 29 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, two passes defended, a block kick and three sacks. The Ole Miss star has great quickness and explosion off the snap. He can explode quickly, gaining an immediate advantage versus the blocker. He uses his quickness to penetrate and cause havoc in the backfield. He uses fluidity and strong hand usage to slip blocks and get to the backfield. His quickness and penetrating ability makes him an excellent pass rusher for interior defensive lineman.
Nkemdiche has multiple pass rush moves, including a spin move that most defensive tackles wish they had. He has the ability to chase down ball carriers to sideline. His athleticism makes a versatile lineman who can play in any system at multiple positions, including on the edge in certain situations because of his ability to bend and gain the edge with quickness. He can use good hand usage, strength or quickness to disengage from blocks with relative ease.
But, Nkemdiche can also drive you nuts watching him. He can lose all of his technique for a stretch, coming off the ball with his head down and with his arms not extended. He tends to bend his arms and twist while engaged on a block, allowing the blocker to control him or even knock him off balance. These technique flaws can lead him to lose track of the ball and where the play is at. He will not be a stout, gap-filling player because he tries to penetrate all the time, which can cause him to get out of position or be pushed off his area. He also has character questions, like off-field incidents and inconsistent play, that teams must investigate before selecting him. His rare athleticism and taent is hard to find, making him a player who could be a real game changer in the NFL.
A’Shawn Robinson is one of the best run defenders in the entire draft. In 15 games as a junior last season, he notched 46 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, two passes defended, one block kick and 3.5 sacks. The Alabama Crimson Tide star has really good size and length for the position. At 6-foot-4, 307-pounds, he has a body that is well built to play in the trenches. His arms of 34 ½-inches are strong at the point of attack. He keeps them extended, not allowing blockers to get into his body. The extended arms allow him to be able to quickly disengage from blocks and get free to make a tackle.
Robinson is a stout run defender, who is not often pushed off his spot. He keeps his eyes on the backfield while engaged on blocks, giving him the ability to know when to break away from the blocker and make a play on the ball carrier. He has a good motor with the athletic ability and will to chase down plays from behind. He has the versatility to play either in a 4-3 or 3-4 defense.
But, Robinson is not a great pass rusher. He is a limited pass rusher because of his lack of quickness, great hand usage and leverage. He does not use his hands well on pass rushing situations. Without great quickness, he can only use power and technique to reach the quarterback. He can get too high because of his height, causing him to not be able to push back blockers very quickly. The Alabama product is just going to be limited as a pass rusher in the NFL. Nevertheless, Robinson will make his money stopping the run and be a stout run defender in the NFL.
Andrew Billings is the most raw player on this list, but might have one of the highest potential. In 12 games as a junior last year, he posted 40 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, one forced fumble and five and half sacks. The Baylor Bear star is one of the strongest players in the entire draft. He can move blockers with ease, treating them like dolls on some occasions. He uses good arm extension to keep the blockers off his body and to generate power against them. His strength helps him get off blocks, ripping away from the grasp of the offensive lineman. He is not often pushed backwards, making him a stout player at the point of attack. He plays with good low leverage to generate the power. What makes him even more unique is that he moves extremely well for a 311-pounder. He has the athleticism to chase ball carriers toward the sideline.
But, Billings will only be 21 when he begins his rookie season in the NFL, making him still a young and developing player. He tends to bend forward too much, which can cause him to fall to the ground or get off balance. This tendency to bend too far can lead to him losing track of where the play is at on the field. He can refine his overall technique like his hand usage. His height also could be an issue in the NFL, standing at only 6-foot-1. But nevertheless, Billings has extraordinary power along with unique athleticism that could make him a big time playmaker in the NFL.