Over the next few weeks the Patriots.com/Patriots Football Weekly staff will break down the prospects for the 2015 NFL Draft by position. Today take a look at the defensive line.
From big-bodied defensive tackles who can take up blockers to undersized pass-rushing defensive ends, the defensive line crop in this year's draft class offers plenty of talent and variety. While it seems that the bulk of the linemen – both tackles and ends – are speed-based players coming from the college ranks, there are still a handful of prospects with a run-stuffing style and mentality. Overall the defensive line is both top-heavy and deep. From the top five picks right through the seventh round, the defensive line will be a positional option for all 32 teams.
Top of the crop
USC's Leonard Williams is a Pro Bowl defensive lineman just waiting to happen. He can probably play just about anywhere on an NFL defensive line, utilizing his mix of size, power and athleticism to toy with opposing offensive linemen. He should be a top-5 pick and an impact player as a rookie. Another defensive tackle type with elite upside is Washington's Danny Shelton. He's basically a young Vince Wilfork. He's a tree stump with athletic ability. He's the total package on and off the field and will be the foundation of some team's defensive line for years to come.
Given that Wilfork has moved on to Houston, there is a decent chance the Patriots could target a defensive lineman near the top of the draft for a second year in a row. With 2014 top pick Dominique Easley coming off a rookie season that ended on injured reserve, New England could look to pair a more stout player with its young penetrating interior lineman. If that's the case, Florida State's Eddie Goldman and Texas' Malcom Brown might be interesting options at the end of the first round. Each has the size to play the run and take on blockers, but also offer some athleticism in the modern style NFL defense. If the Patriots wait a little, Iowa's Carl Davis or Arizona State's Marcus Hardison might fill the bill in terms of defensive line need. Tennessee-Chattanooga's Derrick Lott could also be a late-round option.
If New England looks more to the edge of the defense – maybe to add depth to the unit behind the likes of Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard – Mississippi State's Preston Smith, Stanford's Henry Anderson and Utah's Nate Orchard could provide the well-rounded style that Bill Belichick likes in his edge defenders.
Keep an eye on
The guys to keep an eye on among the defensive linemen are the edge rushers. The group offers plenty of undersized, speed-based aggressors with a proven ability at the college level of getting to the quarterback. Which of those will make it at the next level is always a question. Nebraska's Randy Gregory is really small and failed a drug test at the Combine. Can he overcome those apparent hurdles for NFL stardom? Some certainly think he will. Orchard drew rave reviews at the Combine from the offensive linemen he'd faced in his college career. And he's been compared to Ninkovich. Sounds good. Among the bigger bodies, Washington State's Xavier Cooper seems to have everything it takes – on and off the field – to be a successful defensive tackle at the next level, especially in a league looking for more and more athleticism up front on defense. Many of the same things can be said about TCU's Chucky Hunter, a guy who could be a steal as a possible late-round prospect.