By Kris Norton | @CKrisNorton
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — If a National Football League team’s primary concern is having a premier quarterback, its secondary need is chasing down the opponent’s signal caller. With average NFL scoring at an all-time high, defensive talent is needed now more than ever.
Of the 32 players that will hear their name called in the first round on April 25, a record-breaking 14 may come along the defensive front.
In a crowded class headlined by Nick Bosa (Ohio State), Quinnen Williams (Alabama), and Clelin Ferrell (Clemson), top-tier talent will fall throughout the first round.
Major first-round defensive line prospects met with the media at the NFL Scouting Combine prior to participating in position and athletic drills Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Each athlete has a unique vision of what he can bring to the table.
Nick Bosa, Ohio State
Before Kyler Murray was measured Thursday, Bosa was the overwhelming favorite to go first overall in April’s NFL draft. Bosa is still considered to be ahead of the pack. If selected first, he would surpass his brother Joey who was drafted third in 2016.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Bosa. “(Joey) wants the best for me, he wants me to go number one.”
Though he is quiet and humble off the field, he’s a problem for offenses on the field. In just three games prior to his season-ending torn bilateral core muscle, Bosa totaled six tackles for loss, four sacks, one forced fumble and a touchdown.
Clelin Ferrell, Clemson
Aside from ensuring media members knew the pronunciation of his name (it’s CLEE-Lin), Ferrell spoke to his most important quality on defense.
“My versatility is something that is very, very important when you talk about my game,” said Ferrell during his turn at the podium. “I can play defensive end, I played some defensive tackle, 3-technique, I’ve also dropped into coverage, outside linebacker…”
Not only has Ferrell shifted frequently, he has excelled at every position. Arguably the most important cog in the best defensive front in football, Ferrell was an integral part in Clemson’s national championship season. From defensive end, defensive tackle and linebacker, Ferrell was responsible for 11.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and two defended passes.
Rashan Gary, Michigan
Blowing up in his position drills Sunday would go a long way for Rashan Gary. His athleticism is undeniable, but his production at Michigan was questionable.
Gary completed his three-year college career with just over 100 tackles and only 10.5 sacks.
When asked about what teams should take away from the potential top-10 pick, Gary said, “That I am the best in the draft, offensively and defensively, period.”
Ed Oliver, Houston
The 2017 Outland Trophy winner was a nose tackle with the Cougars, leaving him susceptible to double-teams and limiting his disruptive impact on the field. Though he had no regrets over his time spent in college, he did offer a glimpse into his future.
“Do I feel like I would be better in the 3-technique? Yeah, I feel like I would be better in the 3-technique,” Oliver said. “Do I feel like I would be used in the 3-technique, in the league? Yeah, I do.”
Questions regarding Oliver’s position at the next level are not limited to the defensive line. Multiple teams have reportedly asked about his interest in playing linebacker in the NFL.
Jachai Polite, Florida
The Florida junior proved to be one of the elite edge rushers in college football and he is not afraid to mention it.
“I feel like I’m the most athletic (edge rusher) in the draft,” Polite said on Saturday. “My bend, speed, first step. That’s it.”
In his third season, Polite finished sixth in the NCAA in sacks (11) and forced six fumbles in 13 games.
Montez Sweat, Mississippi State
Since transferring to Mississippi State from Michigan State, Sweat recorded 98 total tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 21 sacks and one forced fumble over the past two seasons. Sweat believes that a combination of factors contributed to his success in college football.
“I think my effort, my length sets me apart from a lot of pass rushers,” said Sweat. In addition to his relentless motor, Sweat’s frame is something to behold. At 6 feet, 6 inches, only 260 pounds and nearly 36-inch arms, Sweat has a scary frame to build into and a high ceiling for improvement.
Quinnen Williams, Alabama
Outside the majority of draft prospects who praised their physical gifts, the Alabama defensive tackle credited much of his success to his mind. “I have the best IQ level for football,” Williams said. “I feel I can break down film like a quarterback to watch for tendencies.”
In his second season, the redshirt sophomore was responsible for 71 total tackles, including 18.5 tackles for loss, which was second in the Southeastern Conference. He had eight sacks and one pass defended.
The 2018 Outland Trophy winner and unanimous first-team All-American was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Bednarik Award as the best defensive player in the nation.