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NFL Draft Preview: Top 10 defensive tackles and where the Bills stand

This is the tenth installment of a position-by-position preview of the 2018 NFL Draft. Previous installments were on running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles, interior offensive linemen, cornerbacks, safeties, outside linebackers and inside linebackers.

Overview: Quality. Quantity. Variety.

The 2018 class of defensive tackles has it all, making this a good draft for teams needing help in that area.

It has interior linemen who thrive in a 4-3 front, such as the one the Buffalo Bills use, as three-techniques or under tackles. It has those that excel in a 3-4, either in the middle at nose tackle or quasi-ends that line up between the nose and an outside linebacker.

At least two players in this category, Alabama's Da'Ron Payne and Washington's Vita Vea, are seen as talented enough to be selected in the top half of the first round. Others figure to be chosen in Round One and there should be plenty taken within the first two nights of the draft. Grade: A-.

The best: There isn't a whole lot of guesswork behind what makes Alabama's Da'Ron Payne the easy choice to put at the top of the list at this position.

He's big (6-2 and 311 pounds) and wide and incredibly strong. The guy can bench press 545 pounds. Put him in the middle of a defense and he'll clog gaps, get push and/or simply toss blockers aside.

"My high school coaches, they pushed me a bunch in the weight room," Payne told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine. "They didn't want nothing but greatness and I went in every day and just tried to beat my numbers every day and just tried to keep being consistent at it and keep building, and I think it got me to where I'm at today."

Washington's Vita Vea isn't too far behind Payne. He's frequently compared with the Philadelphia Eagles' Haloti Ngata, whose most dominant years were during the nine seasons (2006-14) he spent with the Baltimore Ravens. As with Ngata, Vea has remarkable quickness and agility for his size (6-foot-4, 347 pounds) to go along with considerable power. His freakish physical qualities allow him not only to be positioned all over the line but also be a factor on special teams, where scouts marveled over seeing him sprint 40 yards to tackle a punt returner in the open field as well as block a punt.

"He does things that normally people of his size should not be doing, but he does it with such ease that you take it for granted," Ikaika Malloe, Vea's position coach at Washington, told ESPN.com. "He's got footwork like a linebacker or even a DB. He can backpedal with the best of them and change direction and flip his hips."

Vae ran for 578 yards and 11 touchdowns as a high school running back. He played quarterback, too, although that didn't work out quite as well.

"It was just something that I tried to put too much effort into one play and I was focusing too much on throwing the perfect pass that when my time came to throw that ball to the receiver down the field, I chucked that ball like 30 feet up in the air and it was gone," Vae told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine. "And there were my quarterback dreams -- up in the air. Lost with the wind."

Bills view: The need here diminished greatly after they signed free-agent defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to a five-year, $50-million contract. That doesn't mean the team should avoid addressing it. Kyle Williams turns 35 in June and this could very well be his final season in the NFL, so grooming a replacement makes sense.

Besides Lotulelei and Williams, the Bills' depth at the position is hardly overwhelming with Adolphus Washington, Rickey Hatley and recently signed Tenny Palepoi.

Where will baby bro go?: Star Lotulelei's younger brother, Lowell, is a defensive tackle prospect from Utah. He's projected as a seventh-round pick, and more likely an undrafted free agent. Either way, he's someone who could very well be on the Bills' radar at Star's urging.

Lowell's senior season in 2017 was the worst of his four years and a steep decline from 2016, when he had a career-best 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. In '17, he had a career-low 16 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He's plenty big, at 6-1 and 315 pounds, but was seen as being too heavy and out of shape last season.

Sleeper: Nathan Shepherd, Fort Hays (KS) State.

The Canadian-born Shepherd was a dominant player at a small school, despite limited exposure to football growing up. Another factor making him a second- or third-day pick is the fact he'll be 25 years old, a few years older than a typical rookie, at the start of the season.

Still, the 6-3, 315-pound Shepherd caught the attention of NFL talent-evaluators with what he did on the field during Senior Bowl practices before suffering a broken hand that caused him to miss additional workouts and the game. He was fully recovered for the Combine.

"He has all the physical traits and showed he could compete with top players at the Senior Bowl," former NFL scout Greg Gabriel said in Pro Football Weekly's 2018 draft guide. "He just needs to learn the game – hand use, positioning, etc. Shepherd gets off the ball quickly and has some explosiveness. If he is a quick study, Shepherd may contribute as a rookie, but more than likely he needs a year strictly spent developing. His upside is huge."

Next: Defensive ends.

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TOP 10 DEFENSIVE TACKLES

1. Da'Ron Payne*, Alabama. 6-2, 311. In high school, he was an internet sensation with a viral video showing him bench-pressing 465 pounds. In college, that total jumped to 545, with a 635-pound squat.

2. Vita Vea*, Washington. 6-4, 347. He came close to entering the draft in 2017, but decided to remain in school.

3. Maurice Hurst, Michigan. 6-1, 292. He lacks ideal height, but makes up for that with great strength and quickness.

4. Taven Bryan*, Florida. 6-5, 291. He needs to show more awareness at the line, considering he knocked down only one pass in 36 career games.

5. Harrison Phillips*, Stanford. 6-3, 303. He had a career-high 13 tackles in the Pac-12 title game against USC.

6. Tim Settle*, Virginia Tech. 6-2, 329. He reinforced his place on the NFL map with 36 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks as a senior last season.

7. R.J. McIntosh*, Miami (FL). 6-4, 286. Although he only had 2.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons, he impresses scouts with his ability to consistently generate pressure and get hits on the quarterback.

8. Trenton Thompson*, Georgia. 6-2, 288. There is plenty to like about his skills, which are helped by a nice mix of athleticism and power. The concern is that shoulder and knee injuries severely limited his playing time in '17.

9. Derrick Nnadi, Florida State. 6-1, 317. The best thing he has going for him is a tremendous work ethic.

10. Deadrin Senat, South Florida. 6-0, 314. He could have problems with the NFL's new rule prohibiting the lowering of the head on contact, given that targeting ejections caused him to miss six quarters of his first two games last season.

*-Underclassman

 

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