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2021 NFL Draft Sleepers: Defense, Pt. 1

Some of the less-heralded names to look out for while prepping for the upcoming NFL Draft.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Ohio State vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2021 NFL Draft approaching, it is prime season for mock drafts and big boards. While these are always a blast to come up with, every year there are prospects who get pigeonholed into rounds and rankings that are lower than where they should be.

Whether it be poor combines, a lack of exposure or scouts and pundits’ misinterpretation of where value lies, diamonds in the rough get overlooked every draft season.

With this piece, we’ll be looking at defensive tackles, edge defenders and linebackers the New Orleans Saints should be considering.

DT- Osa Odighizuwa

As a 6-foot-2, 282-pound defensive tackle, Osa Odighizuwa will be labeled a tweener throughout the draft process. But that shouldn’t diminish how good of a player he is.

Primarily playing the three-technique at UCLA, he excelled both as a run defender and a pass rusher because of his length and explosiveness. His 34” arms make up for his lack of size, as he’s able to rip up and through people at the point of attack.

Even as an undersized DT, Odighizuwa ranked in the Top 30 of the country in run defense tackles, and his average depth of tackle was only 2.8 yards past the line of scrimmage. His run stop rate of 7.4% was well above average for DTs.

Over the past three seasons his PFF run defense grades go: 83.2, 80.6 and 78.4.

While he surely needs to bulk up a bit if he’s going to play 3-tech in the league, he’s shown he can find a way to hold his own in that regard on the interior in college. And he dominated from the defensive end spot at times on run plays.

Where Odighizuwa’s potential really excites me is his pass rushing from the 3-tech spot. He’s often just too quick and explosive for guards and centers.

Totaling 76 QB pressures and 13 sacks over the past three seasons at UCLA, Odighizuwa has been productive for a while now. And he’s gotten more efficient through the years, with an 81.4 grade in true pass rush situations and a 14.1% pass rush win rate in 2020.

Where evaluators may see a tweener because of Odighizuwa’s size, I see versatility. He gains advantages in pass rush situations on the interior and on the edge when it come to run defense.

If utilized correctly, he could be a real difference-maker in someone’s D line rotation. And he has the potential to bulk up and be a three-down 3-tech.

That’s more than enough to get excited about for Odighizuwa as a 3rd or 4th round pick. I’d be disappointed if he fell past Day two.

EDGE- Payton Turner

Power, burst, bend and balance. You name it. Payton Turner has everything an edge defender needs to be a great pass rusher.

Turner started to turn the corner and became a real force in 2019, and took it to another level in 2020 despite missing some games.

In only 103 pass rush snaps in 2020, he recorded 11 pressures and five sacks, to go along with a career-high 90.0 PFF pass rush grade and a 16.8% pass rush win rate. And the year before, he put up a respectable 33 pressures and four sacks.

A true edge, he combines his ridiculously long arms (35.38”) with some great agility for a 6-foot-6, 270 pound dude to swipe through and around opposing tackles.

Here, he puts a nasty inside swim move on BYU’s Brady Christensen, who might be a first round draft pick.

He’s also just got remarkable burst and speed.

I mean this tackle barely touches the guy as he bends around the edge for a sack.

He might only have four and a half games of production from 2020 that’s caused some hesitation by some scouts/GMs. But that small sample was elite stuff, and it’s not like he wasn’t already a good player the year before.

Every arrow seems to be turning upwards for Turner, and if last year was any indication of what he can do in the league, he’d be an absolute gem on Day two.

LB- Justin Hilliard

Justin Hilliard is probably the most sleeper-ish prospect on this list. The guy just barely played over his tenure at Ohio State.

From 2018-2020, he only played 456 snaps due to various injuries. But the thing is — when he played, he was awesome.

In 231 snaps during the 2020 season, Hilliard posted an 82.2 run defense grade and 81.0 coverage grade. All the efficiency is there. He just needs to stay healthy.

He’s got good closing burst and some pop when he makes contact with ball carriers. He just glides through and around opposing blockers on screens and outside stuff.

He absolutely punishes guys when he hits them. His 10.9% run stop rate is above average for LBs.

But what intrigues me is the coverage ability. He looks like a big corner out there guarding tight ends.

Hilliard can be a bit jumpy sometimes, but when he digs in and has to lock on to a RB or TE, he’s up to the task. He’s got good hip flexibility and acceleration.

He only allowed a mere 8.3 yards per catch in coverage last season.

I have no doubt that Hilliard could step in and do a decent job at the weakside linebacker spot in the league if he’s healthy. But that will be the key to whether or not he sticks.

The injury concerns are well-warranted, but once the fourth or fifth round rolls along, I would argue he’s worth the risk.

What do you think of these prospects? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @AndrewBell_98.