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2016 NFL Combine Participants: Defensive Line Watch List for Saints and Fans

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The big one, the NFL Scouting Combine is coming up soon. The list of invites is already out, and I'll take a look at D-line top prospects in this post.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images


Since I feel the defense is our highest priority heading into this years draft, I'm looking at the D-line here. Namely DE and DT positions, Some of the players listed as DE can play LB as well. I'll look at the defensive ends first, the key to the helping the Saints generate a pass rush. All the links to the player come from the evaluations at NFL Draft Tracker. You can follow the link to view any positions you are interested in.

Let's take a look at Deforest Buckner: Link

Buckner is the highest rated DE in this years combine. Grade is 7.32 or a pro bowl-caliber player. Expected to go in the top 15, The New Orleans Saints would be extremely lucky to have Deforest fall to them at number 12 and I just can't see them passing this one up.

In 2015 Buckner had 83 tackles, 17 for a loss and 10.5 sacks. From the tracker analysis:

Strengths:
Rare tackle production for defensive lineman with 163 over last two seasons. Long arms and good play speed allow him maximum field coverage to tackle. Flexible upper body. Can flip shoulders, then hips around the edge of blockers allowing him to play on the other side of the line. Has size and athleticism for scheme versatility. Quick off the snap and difficult to cut­ off in run game.

WEAKNESSES:

Plays too tall after the snap. Pad level so high that it impacts ability to stop and change direction with necessary body control. Needs to bend more when penetrating in order to avoid redirect blocks. Will need to play with wider base to take on blockers on next level. Has habit of turning shoulders and getting knocked out of position rather than taking on blocks with squared up pads.

BOTTOM LINE

Headed into this season, Buckner was a traits prospect who flashed with quickness, strength and overall athleticism, but he put those traits together in 2015. Buckner has the body type of a classic 3-­4 defensive end who can control the point of attack with length and power, but he has above average pass rush potential for that position which figures to push him into the early stages of round one. Buckner has similar power to former teammate Arik Armstead, but is a much better pass rusher and has a chance to become a dominant force in the NFL.


Deforest Buckner has the complete package in my opinion. Strong pass rusher, with good tackling mechanics. Something sorely missing from the Saints in recent history and would be a complement to Cam Jordan on the other side. Hopefully other teams will have more pressing needs that allow him to fall to the 12th pick, but this years draft is deep at the position so we'll look at the next player in line.

Joey Bosa: Link Draft grade: 6.76

Both Joey's Father and Uncle played in the NFL. His father John Bosa was drafted 16th by the Miami Dolphins in 1987. As a freshman Joey had 13.5 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. Missed the season opener for violation of team rules the next year, and had 16 tackles for a loss with 5 sacks in 2015. Bosa has the potential to play as either DE or in the OLB position. Was flagged 14 times the past two years, 10 times for offsides.

ANALYSIS

STRENGTHS

Has an NFL-­ready frame. Good muscular definition and flexibility to go along with a confident, competitive attitude. Solid upfield burst off the snap. Has booming power in his hands. Uses arm extension and forward lean as his primary weapon. Generates speed-­to-­power bullrush and plays off of that with a punch and pull technique that pulls tackles off-­balance.

WEAKNESSES

Too contact-­oriented in his rush and needs to learn to leverage himself around the edge. Forward lean can cause him to go flying when defenders give him a shove.

NFL COMPARISON

Ryan Kerrigan

BOTTOM LINE

Body beautiful college end who has the talent and upside to play with a hand down or standing in the pros. Bosa may not have the pure edge speed to be an elite pass rusher, but his hand usage and ability to generate push as a bull-rusher should make him a very good 4­-3 base end or a 3-­4 outside linebacker. Bosa has a few more flaws than some may be willing to admit and his upside may be good rather than great, but his traits and growth potential as a player make him a safe selection. Bosa might be at his best with a defensive coordinator willing to move him around the field.The regional combine workouts have already started. The one in Houston was held on 2-13-16, the one in Arizona is on 2-20-16, and the Big one, the NFL Scouting Combine runs 2-23-29-16.

Kevin Dodd: Link Draft grade: 6.33

The Clemson DE only played 4 games in 2013 due to a knee injury, had only 8 tackles, 2.5 for a loss in 2014, but 2 years removed from the knee problems, in 2015, had 23.5 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks.

ANALYSIS

STRENGTHS

Relentless competitor with NFL-­ready frame. Refuses to give offensive lineman a play off. Not content to be around a play, wants in the action. Won't lay on blocks and able to improve his position after contact through footwork and strength.

WEAKNESSES

Has just one year of full-­time experience under his belt and was able to feast on some lesser tackles. Hand usage is still a work in progress. Too willing to take on blocks with a lowered helmet or allowing blocks into his frame rather than controlling the rep with his natural hand strength. Uses same hand swipe at the top of his rush and would benefit from greater diversity of approach. Still learning to consistently unlock his top play speed. Gets in a hurry to attack in space quarterbacks and running backs in space lunging after them rather than striking from balanced base.

BOTTOM LINE

The arrow is pointed up for Dodd who finished the season with a streak of five consecutive games with a sack. Dodd already looks the part of an NFL defensive end and his desire to make plays coupled with his physical traits and talent should have him shooting up draft boards. His lack of college snaps could preclude him from being "pro­ ready", but his instincts and football intelligence should expedite the learning process.

Shaq Lawson: Link Draft grade: 6.21

Dodd's Clemson teammate, Shaq Lawson ranks slightly less than Dodd himself after the 2015 season, but has more playing time experience. Playing as a reserve in 2013 and 2014, racking up 10 and 11 tackles for a loss respectively, Lawson broke out in 2015 as a starter. He had 25.5 tackles for a loss and 12.5 sacks.

ANALYSIS

STRENGTHS

Built like a tank with thickly muscled legs and a broad chest. Clemson played him at 5-­technique and standing up on the outside. Scheme versatile and will likely appeal to be 3­-4 and 4-­3 teams. Very powerful at the point of attack. Able to punch, extend arms and control the line of scrimmage or set a hard edge. Able to shock and shed blockers and has the hand quickness to staggered block attempts.

WEAKNESSES

Thickly bound with very average flexibility. Average athlete for an end position. Not a natural hip bender and will have to focus on keeping pad level lower to unlock his leverage potential. Shows obvious signs of fatigue as game wears on.

BOTTOM LINE

Productive backup for two years before putting together an All­-American season in his first year as a full- time starter. Lawson is built like a full­-grown man and combines his instincts, toughness and power to fill up a stat sheet and set an early tone. Lawson's frame and game are easily translatable to the NFL, but his average athleticism and pass rush skills will likely have teams viewing him as a 3­-4 edge setter or a 4-­3 base end. Lawson may also have value as 3­-4 defensive tackle in an upfield scheme.

Noah Spence: Link Draft grade: 6.06

Noah Spence's drug problems are well documented, banned from the Big Ten after failing 2 drug test in 2014 (Ecstasy), he underwent treatment and transferred to Kentucky State in 2015. He went on to have 22.5 TFL, and 13.5 sacks. The Saints have already expressed interest in him with a meeting after the Senior Bowl, and have been known to give a player a chance at redemption. I think their interest for him might be more as an OLB, which is another important team need.

BOTTOM LINE

His issues are well-­documented, but his recovery and turnaround is what has NFL teams excited. Spence has been accountable for his actions and worked just as hard off the field as he has on the field to change his life and attack his problems. His inability to hold the point of attack combined with his ability to rush the passer make him a logical choice as a 3-­4 rush linebacker. The speed of the game make take a year or two to get used to, but Spence should become a starter early in his career.

The following players I view as second or later round prospects and you can follow the links for their full profiles.

Johnathan Bullard: Link Grade: 6.08

BOTTOM LINE

Has the frame to add more functional strength and mass and may need to since his best fit appears to be as a 1­-gapping defensive tackle in an attacking scheme. Bullard can be a very disruptive player off the snap when his pad level is good and he's an excellent tackler allowing no broken or missed tackles all season. Bullard will need to improve his pass rush and add necessary size, but he is an ascending talent whose game should continue to improve at the next level.

Kamalei CorreaLink Grade: 5.59

Entering the draft early, Correa could have helped his chances with another year in college. Not all players can be taken in the first rounds and could be an interesting later round pick as a LBer.

BOTTOM LINE

Correa will likely transition into a full-time 3­-4 outside linebacker as a pro. While he doesn't have as much play strength as expected and is still raw as a pass rusher, NFL teams will be attracted by his quick-twitch athleticism and moldable traits as a pass rusher. The tape says Day 3 of the draft, but the upside could get him called earlier. He might require patience as there is still work to be done for Correa.

Shilique CalhounLink Grade: 5.14

BOTTOM LINE

Calhoun?s career could go one of two ways -- he'll become more aggressive and improve his hand usage which will unlock his full potential as an NFL defensive end OR he will become a decent NFL starter who doesn't have the upfield burst to win up the field as a pass rusher and isn't strong enough to hold up at the point of attack. Calhoun may need to become tougher against the run before he is handed a starter's position, but the skill­set is there if he can unlock it.

Defensive Tackles/NT is another position the Saints could either beef up or be drafting for depth. As pass rush is a higher priority for me, I'll limit my reviews with the top candidates and let you navigate the links for the rest.

A'Shawn RobinsonLink Grade: 6.59 (chance to be come pro bowl-caliber player)

Robinson has played both inside and outside for Alabama, racking up 38 stops, 8 TFL, and 5.5 sacks during his freshman campaign, playing all 13 games and starting 2. As the National Champion Tide's main cog in the middle, he had 46 tackles, 7.5 FTL, and 3.5 sacks. It would be hard to pass up A'Shawn if a pass rusher isn't the BPA with the 12th pick. Key here is his ability to plug up a leaking run defense. A characteristic of the next prospect as well.

ANALYSIS

STRENGTHS

Body beautiful for an interior lineman. Well-­proportioned with powerful, tree­ trunk legs make it tough to move him off the spot. Has boom in his punch and dislodges guards and centers if they try and wait on him. Pure power to toss a one-­on-­one block aside. Athletic enough to give reasonable chase to the ball. Well schooled in using length to stuff cut blocks. Has frame and length to eat blocks and allow linebackers to run free. Heavy tackler. Running backs do not break his tackles and he rarely fails to finish when he's locked in on his target. Able to generate pocket push when he gets it cranked up as a pass rusher.

WEAKNESSES

Pad level is his arch enemy. Plays too upright when asked to move. Looks to have flexibility to drop his pads, but doesn't do it enough. Should be more consistent against double teams. Doesn't impose his will as often as he could. Basic pass rusher without a winning, go-­to move or effective counter.

BOTTOM LINE

Hard to find an interior lineman with a more well-­proportioned frame than Robinson. His size and overall talent level will have NFL teams drooling and projecting him along any and all defensive fronts, but his film might leave them hungry for more. As opposed to teammate Jarran Reed who already plays with polish, Robinson is a projection-­oriented two-­gapper who can step in right away and help plug holes in a leaky run defense. If Robinson can improve his leverage issues and pass rushing, he has all-­pro potential; however, he's not a sure thing to become a star.

Andrew Billings: Link Grade: 6.44

Billings has a weight lifting back ground, setting a state record in power-lifting with 2,010 total pounds at the state meet (805 squat, 705 dead lift, 500 on bench).  A true NT, he had 15 TFL and 5.5 sacks in 2015. Pretty high on this prospect myself, and did you notice he will only be 21 for training camp. A young player with the potential to be a long term solution for any NFL team.

ANALYSIS

STRENGTHS

Elite power with a weight­lifting background. Generates booming power from hip explosion and when his leverage is on point, he can be menacing. Moved from offensive line to defensive line in college and is getting better by leaps and bounds each year. Drops his pad level even lower when splitting double teams and charging through gaps. Uses violent, powerful swats and slaps to free of opposing hand placement. Instant reaction time makes it difficult to cross his face. Gets arm extension into blocker and stays clean as he pursues laterally. Ridiculous closing burst to the sideline for a big man. Dominates single blocks and is a sure­fire tackler when he gets hands on a running back. Improving pass rusher with an effective bull­ rush.

WEAKNESSES

Top heavy. Powerful but short. Once he gets going in a direction, struggles to slow down and change directions. Recovery athleticism is average. Plays with good initial effort but an average secondary motor.

BOTTOM LINE

Billings won't turn 21 until March of 2016, but he has the overwhelming strength of a full­-grown NFL defensive tackle. With elite power and unusual closing speed for a big man, Billings has a chance to become something we rarely see ­-- a playmaking nose tackle with the ability to dominate at the point of attack. Teams will decide through research and interviews whether Billings can handle the NFL life at such a young age, but if he can, he has all-­pro potential.

The rest you can follow the links to and I'll only give the bottom line reviews.

Chris Jones: Link Grade: 6.2

BOTTOM LINE

Ascending prospect whose production this season matched the flashes he showed on tape. Jones has the quickness off the snap to disrupt in the gaps and the strength to control the point of attack. Like Jordan Phillips, Jones plays with an elevated pad level which needs work. With a body type and skill set to play all along the defensive line in both odd and even fronts, Jones has a chance to come off the board early and make his mark in the pros.

Vernon ButlerLink Grade: 6.15

A Louisiana Tech prospect, the Senior had 50 tackles,10 TFL and 3 sacks with 8 QB hurries. 2nd or 3rd round possibly.

BOTTOM LINE

Athletic interior lineman with long arms and outstanding athleticism that allows him to work on offensive linemen with a combination of power and quickness. Butler has a raw but diverse skillset as a pass rusher that should excite NFL evaluators who see the potential of what he can be with more coaching and experience. With his effort and defensive ball awareness, his ceiling appears to be high with a chance to become a high-­level starter for an odd or even front defense.

Sheldon RankinsLink Grade: 6.18

13 TFL, and 6 sacks in 2015

BOTTOM LINE

Everything about Rankins game screams winning football player. He has been extremely productive as a bull­rusher and edge rusher and he can hold the point of attack or play in gaps. Rankins is a ball of power with rare foot quickness, a great motor and outstanding feel for his position. With so many teams playing in sub­packages now, I would expect both 4-­3 and 3-­4 teams to consider him for an interior spot despite his shorter stature. Thanks to Rankins' ability to disrupt, I think he has a great shot at getting starter's snaps early on, but don't be shocked to see him fall a little in the draft due to his smaller stature.

Willie HenryLink Grade: 6.05

BOTTOM LINE

Henry is an athletic 3­-technique who turns 21 in March and should continue to add functional mass and power to battle and win at the point of attack. Henry's sack numbers were bolstered by his work in T/E twists and might not be indicative of his ability to beat pass protection consistently, but his understanding of twists and close­out quickness could keep him on the field on third downs. Henry should find his way into a starting lineup sooner rather than later.

And the following players show some of the depth available in this years draft.

Austin JohnsonLink Grade: 5.98

BOTTOM LINE

Johnson has the lower body power to become a block­-eating nose tackle with the ability to keep linebackers clean, but his energy, pursuit and tackle production show that he is much more than that. Johnson has technique and pad level issues to improve upon, but he?s never content to just sit on blocks and he's very rarely dominated on a snap. Johnson's strength and activity will make him a draft favorite of salty defensive line coaches.

Kenny Clark: Link Grade: 5.89

BOTTOM LINE

Has the strength and talent to be a plug and play 4-­3 nose, but lack of size and concerns about his value on third downs could push his draft value into the second day. Clark's wrestling background gives him a huge leg up at the point of attack and he won't be 21 until October which means he's still filling out his frame. Would benefit from a year of rotational work as he continues to physically mature.

There is some of the prospects who will be trying to improve their stock at this years Combine. Take a look at who I've presented as well a follow the link provided to the Draft Tracker. Feel free to discuss other positions in the comments as well.