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NFL Draft Scouting Report: Projections, rankings for defensive prospects

Here is a list of the top players available in the 2018 NFL Draft by position on defense. Asterisk denotes underclassman.

DEFENSIVE END

Grade: C+

Defensive ends defined the 2017 NFL Draft, which began with the Cleveland Browns making Texas A&M's Myles Garrett the top overall pick and proceeded with five other players at the position chosen in the first round. That won’t be the case this year. The draft class has at least one that's exceptional, North Carolina State's Bradley Chubb, and a couple of others that likely have first-round grades. After that, there's a cluster of solid defensive ends who should be taken in the middle rounds on down. NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said at the NFL Scouting Combine that teams anticipated the downturn at the position, and, therefore, “went heavy on the edge-rushers last year." At 6-foot-4 and 269 pounds, Chubb has the size – along with considerable athleticism, strength and nonstop effort – to continue to dominate in the NFL as he did in college. In 40 career games, he has 198 tackles, including 54.5 for loss and 25 sacks (with 10 in each of the last two seasons). Marcus Davenport, of the University of Texas-San Antonio (UTSA), is widely seen as one of the better ends in the draft. The former wide receiver is a raw, but highly talented prospect.

Day One

Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State. 6-4, 269

Marcus Davenport, Texas-San Antonio. 6-5, 259

Sam Hubbard*, Ohio State. 6-5, 270

Day Two

Arden Key*, LSU. 6-4, 238

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma. 6-1, 243

Rasheem Green, USC. 6-4, 275

Da'Shawn Hand, Alabama. 6-3, 297

Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest. 6-4, 264

Kemoko Turay, Rutgers. 6-4, 252

Jalyn Holmes, Ohio State. 6-4, 283

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Grade: A-

The 2018 class of defensive tackles has plenty of talent, depth and variety. You want interior linemen who thrive in a 4-3 front, such as the one the Buffalo Bills use, as three-techniques or under tackles? This group has it. You want tackles 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? You’ll find them in this draft as well. Alabama's Da'Ron Payne and Washington's Vita Vea, are viewed 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. Payne is big (6-2 and 311 pounds) and wide and incredibly strong. The guy can bench press 545 pounds. Place him in the middle of a defense and he'll clog gaps, get push and/or simply toss blockers aside.  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.

Day One

Da'Ron Payne*, Alabama. 6-2, 311

Vita Vea*, Washington. 6-4, 347

Day Two

Maurice Hurst, Michigan. 6-1, 292

Taven Bryan*, Florida. 6-5, 291

Harrison Phillips*, Stanford. 6-3, 303

Tim Settle*, Virginia Tech. 6-2, 329

R.J. McIntosh*, Miami (Fla.). 6-4, 286

Trenton Thompson*, Georgia. 6-2, 288

Day Three

Derrick Nnadi, Florida State. 6-1, 317

Deadrin Senat, South Florida. 6-0, 314

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

Grade: B+

For a position that’s not valued as highly on defense as some others, there are three legitimate first-round draft prospects in Roquan Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Rashaan Evans. Smith is the best of that bunch, with his “close to perfect” tape, according to ESPN analyst Louis Riddick. A former high school quarterback, he is also known as an excellent presence in the locker room. Vander Esch grew up playing eight-man football in his hometown of Riggins, Idaho – population 419. He has one season of big production, which might be a slight concern for some teams. Evans is the latest in a long line of NFL-ready linebackers to play for Nick Saban at Alabama. Josey Jewell didn’t run well at the combine, with a 4.82-second 40-yard dash that could push him down to the third round. Malik Jefferson has been an NFL prospect since high school. He won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. Micah Kiser (394 tackles) and Tegray Scales (36 tackles for loss the past two seasons) are two of the better options in the later rounds, although in general the Day Three picks aren’t quite as strong, meaning the strength of this class is in the first round.

Day One

Roquan Smith*, Georgia. 6-0, 225.

Leighton Vander Esch*, Boise State. 6-3, 240.

Rashaan Evans, Alabama, 6-2, 232.

Day Two

Josey Jewell, Iowa, 6-1, 236.

Malik Jefferson*, Texas. 6-2, 240.

Day Three

Micah Kiser, Virginia. 6-0, 236.

Nick DeLuca, North Dakota State. 6-3, 243.

Tegray Scales, Indiana. 6-0, 228.

Jason Cabinda, Penn State. 6-1, 243.

Azeem Victor, Washington. 6-2, 231.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

Grade: C+

Tremaine Edmunds is a top-10 talent who could slip just a bit because he doesn’t have a defined position. He’s just 19 years old. Harold Landry might have been a top-10 pick if he came out of school in 2016, when he had 16.5 sacks. He suffered an ankle injury that slowed him down in 2017, so he could be a steal for a team if he returns to form. Uchenna Nwosu, who made a pre-draft visit to the Bills, is primarily a pass rusher. Lorenzo Carter ran a blazing 4.5-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, solidifying himself as a second-round prospect. Jerome Baker has the athleticism teams crave in today’s linebackers. Warner has the coverage skills of a safety, and checks the physical boxes with his size. Shaquem Griffin is one of the most inspirational stories in the draft, as he’s overcome having his left hand amputated at 4 as the result of a birth defect to establish himself as an NFL prospect. Dorian O’Daniel is dynamite on special teams, which helped him have a long professional career. Darius Leonard added 50 pounds in college, so some scouts wonder how much more weight he can put on. He was the 2016 MEAC Defensive Player of the Year.

Day One

Tremaine Edmunds*, Virginia Tech. 6-4, 250.

Harold Landry, Boston College. 6-2, 250.

Day Two

Uchenna Nwosu, Southern California. 6-2, 245.

Lorenzo Carter, Georgia, 6-5, 243.

Jerome Baker*, Ohio State. 6-1, 225.

Day Three

Kemoko Turay, Rutgers. 6-4, 252.

Fred Warner, BYU. 6-4, 235.

Shaquem Griffin, Central Florida. 6-0, 222.

Dorian O’Daniel, Clemson. 6-1, 215.

Darius Leonard*, South Carolina State. 6-2, 213.

CORNERBACKS

Grade A-

This is a good year for teams that need a cornerback. Four or five of them could go in the first round, and plenty more will be Day Two picks. “The cornerback class is a

deep and talented pool of athletes that can line up at a variety of alignments,” Pro Football Focus analyst Sam Monson wrote in his preview of the position. Denzel Ward is likely to be the first corner taken, possibly in the top 10. The only knock on him is he played a physical style that could draw penalties in the NFL. Josh Jackson led college football with eight interceptions. He’s relatively new to the position after switching over from wide receiver while at Iowa. Mike Hughes has some off-the-field concerns that could push him out of the first round. Jaire Alexander played in just seven games in 2017 because of an injury. Had he put in a full season, he would be in the running for the top cornerback spot. Donte Jackson’s thin frame could be a concern for some teams. M.J. Stewart, who had 41 passes defensed in his college career, could move to safety in the pros. Duke Dawson figures to be an early contributor in the slot.

Day One

Denzel Ward*, Ohio State. 5-10, 191.

Josh Jackson*, Iowa. 6-1, 192.

Mike Hughes*, Central Florida. 5-11, 191.

Jaire Alexander*, Louisville. 5-11, 192.

Day Two

Isaiah Oliver*, Colorado. 6-0. 195.

Donte Jackson*, LSU, 5-11. 175.

Carlton Davis*, Auburn, 6-1. 203.

M.J. Stewart, North Carolina. 6-0. 200.

Day Three

Anthony Averett, Alabama. 6-0, 185.

Duke Dawson, Florida. 5-10, 202.

SAFETIES

Grade: B-

Some teams might view Minkah Fitzpatrick as a slot cornerback, but he’ll be a Day One starter no matter where he lines up. He earned playing time as a true freshman – a rarity at Alabama. Derwin James didn’t look 100 percent in 2017 as he recovered from a knee injury, but he was still graded as analytics website Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked safety. Marcus Allen isn’t related to the Hall of Fame running back of the same name, but is the godson of another one, Curtis Martin. Ronnie Harrison is best by the line of scrimmage, and could even play some dime linebacker. Justin Reid, the younger brother of NFL safety Eric Reid, has been a late riser in the draft process and could sneak into the first round. Quin Blanding is a good tackle, missing just 43 on 502 attempts, according to PFF. DeShon Elliott had six interceptions for Texas in 2017, and dropped a few others. Kyzir White could play some linebacker in certain schemes. Armani Watts chose not to run the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine. Undoubtedly, that will be a knock against him with some teams. Jordan Whitehead might fit best as a nickel cornerback in the pros.

Day One

Minkah Fitzpatrick*, Alabama. 6-0, 201.

Derwin James*, Florida State. 6-2, 211.

Day Two

Ronnie Harrison*, Alabama. 6-2, 214.

Justin Reid*, Stanford. 6-1, 204.

Day Three

Marcus Allen, Penn State. 6-2, 215.

Quin Blanding, Virginia. 6-2, 209.

Kyzir White, West Viriginia. 6-2, 216.

Armani Watts, Texas A&M. 5-11, 191.

DeShon Elliott*, Texas. 6-1, 210.

Jordan Whitehead*, Pittsburgh. 5-10, 195.

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