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The Ultimate Combine Preview: Defensive Linemen And Linebackers

Posted Mar 4, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS - The 2018 season unofficially kicks off this week as the entire NFL descends upon Indianapolis for the Scouting Combine. Free agency is just around the corner, but hundreds of draft prospects will be put under the microscope as decision-makers try to sort through who they will or won’t pick in April’s NFL Draft. On Sunday, the defensive linemen and linebackers take to the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium to prove themselves in athletic testing drills. Who should you be watching? Let’s take a closer look.

Top Pick

This is the player at each position who I feel is at the top of the class coming into the event, and who should hear his name called first among the position in April.

Defensive End: Bradley Chubb (N.C. State)

Does Bradley Chubb have the highest ceiling of all the edge rushers in this class? I would argue that he does not. But he was without question the best player in this group. At over 270 pounds with a 6-4 frame, Chubb has an NFL body, uses his hands very well, beats tackles in a number of ways, can defend the run, get after the quarterback, and make plays in pursuit on a consistent basis. In terms of the "safe" players in this class, regardless of position, Chubb is right there near the top. In what is a thin edge rusher class overall, his value will be very high.

Defensive Tackle: Derrick Nnadi (Florida State)

This is not a common opinion but my favorite interior defensive lineman in this class is the senior, Nnadi, a player I’ve referred to as a "soul stealer" in the past because of his ability to completely dominate opponents at the point of attack. This isn't meant to slight Washington’s Vita Vea, Michigan’s Maurice Hurst, Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne, or Florida’s Taven Bryan. Nnadi isn’t an impressive athlete and likely won’t test particularly well in drills on the turf, but as a football player in the trenches there’s no one I’d rather have.

Linebacker: Roquan Smith (Georgia)

A bit undersized at 6-1, 236 pounds, Roquan Smith is built like most of the top linebacker prospects coming out of the college ranks in the last few years. He’s very athletic and should test extremely well. He's also very physical. He can get stuck on blocks at times and there are some snaps where I think he’s a bit late to react to the action, but I think his overall game projects best to today’s NFL. I think it’s pretty close of the players at the top, but I think Smith takes the cake.

Workout Warrior

This is the player at each position who I expect to see perform best in the athletic testing portion of the workout (40-yard dash, cone drills, jumps, and/or bench press).

Defensive End: Kemoko Turay (Rutgers)

A high school track athlete and basketball player who didn’t take to football until his junior year, Turay had one gridiron offer going into college - and it was from Rutgers. He redshirted his first year on campus at 210 pounds and jumped onto the scene as a redshirt freshman. Turay has been on the radar of scouts and analysts ever since. A tall 6-4 with long arms, the senior now holds a 253-pound frame and his athleticism pops off the film whenever you watch the Knights. With his track background, explosive first step, and freaky flexibility off the edge, I expect Turay to be one of the most impressive testers in the edge rush group. Keep an eye on Harold Landry from Boston College in this group as well.

Defensive Tackle: Kentavious Street (N.C. State)

Street started 10 games at defensive tackle as a sophomore, but slid outside as a 280-pound defensive end in his junior season of 2016. He stayed in this position for the rest of his career opposite of Chubb. At times, the North Carolina native slid inside, but most of his time was spent on the edge. Projecting him to the NFL, however, I view Street as a disruptive interior pass rusher with extremely impressive flexibility, a quick first step, a motor that never quits, and the ability to hold up on the inside. If you compare him to the edge rushers, his numbers may look pedestrian at the end of the day (until they’re weight-adjusted), but I expect him to test extremely well when he’s compared to the defensive tackles in this class. Other interior linemen who should test well are RJ McIntosh from Miami, Rasheem Green from USC, and Andrew Brown from Virginia. I would have included Hurst in this group until ESPN reported that a heart condition was discovered in a medical examination.

Linebacker: Fred Warner (BYU)

After watching Warner this fall, I wrote down that he was one of the most athletic linebackers who I have ever studied (if he wasn’t already at the top of the list). At 6-3, 236 pounds, the three-year starter was an outside linebacker in BYU’s 3-4 scheme, and he spent a ton of time out in space. It is a bit shocking to see a guy his size move the way he does, and he displays that fluidity, closing burst, and very "easy" movement skills on a consistent basis on film. Warner isn’t just a "space" player, however, as his experience in the trenches showed up when he was asked to play off blocks in the run game. I think he’s one of the true sleepers in this class, and will be thrust further onto the radar nationally after this weekend’s workout. UCF’s Shaquem Griffin should test extremely well at the linebacker spot (he’ll also go through a DB workout), as should Indiana’s Tegray Scales, Ohio State’s Jerome Baker, and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds.

Trust The Tape

This is the player at each position who I don’t expect to test off the charts and is a better football player than he is an athlete. With that in mind, don’t drop him down the board with a subpar workout!

Defensive End: Duke Ejiofor (Wake Forest)

When I watch the senior pass rusher from Wake Forest, I don’t see a dominant athlete who is going to wow anyone with his quick first step or ability to bend when coming off the edge. He’s not that guy and I don’t expect him to test that way. Ejiofor is, however, a strong, tough, technically sound pass rusher who uses his hands very well. He has a defined plan of attack against tackles, and can defend the run well enough to be considered a three-down player in the NFL. He’ll never be a star, but Ejiofor is one of the "safest" players in the front seven in this draft class.

Defensive Tackle: Harrison Phillips (Stanford)

Phillips is a monster at 6-3, 307 pounds with pretty good length, catcher's mitts for hands, a strong lower half with the ability to dominate at the point of attack, and a mind for attacking offensive linemen on his way to the quarterback. He’s extremely instinctive, especially for an underclassman, and his ability to process quickly up front resulted in him being very productive in the Pac-12. What Phillips is not, however, is a plus athlete. He’s not a guy who labors in the backfield when he’s asked to change directions and he’s not terrible in pursuit, but he’s not someone who plays like he is going to impress on the track with his shuttles. I wouldn’t worry about it, because he seems to have the makings of a future starter on the inside.

Linebacker: Josey Jewell (Iowa)

This was an easy pick in this category because Jewell is one of the best pure football players in the draft. Jewell is an instinctive linebacker who was asked to do a ton for the Hawkeyes' defense and shouldered the load not just against the run, but also in coverage as an All-Big Ten selection. He was abused by Saquon Barkley out in space in their matchup this year, and that has resulted in analysts questioning his overall athletic upside and ability to play in space. I’m not here to tell you that he’s the next coming of Derrick Brooks, but Jewell can hold up well enough to be a three-down player in this league and I’ll still maintain that opinion up until the draft even if he has a below-average workout.

Stopwatch Shocker

This is the player at each position who I expect to see test better than most in the media believe based off of current projections.

Defensive End: Dorance Armstrong (Kansas)

The junior from one of the FBS’ worst programs over the last decade garnered some buzz after a solid sophomore season in 2016. The production wasn’t exactly there last fall, but he’s still a plus athlete who should impress on the field this Sunday. Armstrong is a smooth, twitched-up athlete who looks comfortable on the run. I expect him to really look the part during his workout despite him flying a bit under the radar as we enter the event.

Defensive Tackle: Vita Vea (Washington)

The casual fan may not be expecting much from a 340-pound nose tackle, but don’t sleep on Vita Vea’s athleticism. Vea is an impressive athlete who has been rumored to run sub-4.90 in the past, which would be a ridiculous feat for a man his size. He was a high school running back who played on the Huskies’ punt coverage team this past fall. I’ve compared him in the past to Dontari Poe coming out of Memphis (who went in the top 15 in 2012), but Vea’s likely the better prospect and, in my opinion, can play all three downs in the NFL.

Linebacker: Joel Iyiegbuniwe (Western Kentucky)

Not many people have heard about the junior Hilltopper, but after studying him I believe that Iyiegbuniwe is going to be one of the more impressive athletic testers on Sunday. A high school safety who made the transition to linebacker as a freshman, the Kentucky native was often one of the best athletes on the field for the WKU defense, playing sideline to sideline and boasting impressive straight-line speed, fluid hips in coverage, and the natural ability to navigate through traffic with ease. Don’t sleep on this kid moving forward.

Will Kill The Drills

This is the player at each position who may or may not be a great athlete, but he will look the best in the position-specific drills after the athletic portion of the workout.

Defensive End: Harold Landry (Boston College)

I would argue that Landry could potentially be the best pure athlete of the edge rushers. His quickness, burst, and flexibility will help him shine in these position drills. When coaches ask these players to "run the hoop" and bend turning the corner on Sunday, Landry will really excite some people because of his ability to sink his hips and turn the corner at high speed. Landry is far from perfect, but I think it’s very likely he still ends up being chosen in the first round because of the lack of overall depth in this group of pass rushers.

Defensive Tackle: Da’Ron Payne (Alabama)

When I studied Da’Ron Payne as a sophomore in 2016, I thought he was a pretty unassuming player and a typical Nick Saban lineman. He was strong, used his hands pretty well, and was very competitive at the point of attack, winning more battles than he lost. In 2017, however, he took his game to another level. Payne flew all over the field and his athleticism really popped off the screen, even just watching the Crimson Tide on TV. Payne's a violent defender with heavy hands and a motor that never quits. His intensity and quickness should allow him to really stand out in the position drills.

Linebacker: Jerome Baker (Ohio State)

All of the same things I said about Payne’s athleticism and movement skills carry over for Baker, one of the best athletes in the linebacker group. A two-year starter for defensive coordinator Greg Schiano at Ohio State, Baker is undersized but explosive, which will allow him to look like one of the most fluid players going through drills on Sunday. A physical player who isn’t afraid to come downhill and play in the trenches despite his smaller frame, Baker will be one of the more impressive players taking the field for the workout.

Most To Prove

This is the player at each position who has the most to prove away from the field, whether it’s during the interview process, medical examinations, or even the weigh-ins.

Defensive End: Arden Key (LSU)

Of all the players in the entire draft, perhaps no one has as much intrigue or as many questions surrounding him this week as Arden Key. The junior from LSU was previously considered to be one of the top players in the country and a lock for the top five a year ago. After missing a chunk of the offseason, putting on about 30 pounds, suffering an injury, and seeing a drop in production in 2017, Key now is no longer certain to be off the board in the first round. How will he test? How will he get through the medical tests? How will interviews go? Those are the key questions this week in Indy.

Defensive Tackle: Trenton Thompson (Georgia)

A former five-star recruit, Thompson has plenty of talent and throughout his career with the Bulldogs he put that potential on display. A series of injuries throughout his career hampered his overall production, however, and an incident with police last offseason is something he’ll have to provide some clarity about. At the end of the day, this is a very talented player with scheme and position versatility. I expect he’ll test pretty well on the field, and he could go earlier than some expect come draft weekend ... if the off-field portion of this weekend fares well for him.

Linebacker: Jack Cichy (Wisconsin)

Cichy doesn’t have any character concerns, but injuries have plagued the talented linebacker over the last two years. His junior season was cut short after a torn pectoral muscle, an injury he suffered early on against Iowa and basically played with one arm for an entire half before being removed from the field by the team’s medical staff. After rehabbing the injury, he suffered a torn ACL in Training Camp of 2017 and never played a down as a senior. On the field, Cichy reminds me a lot of Sean Lee with his combination of instincts, toughness, and ability to both cover and defend the run. Off the field, the questions are the same. That knee will be put to the test this week.

Most Productive College Player

This is the player at each position who produced at the highest level, either in his final year in college or over the course of his entire career.

Defensive End: Ja’Von Rolland-Jones (Arkansas State)

No edge rusher drafted in the last decade has recorded more career sacks than Rolland-Jones (42). Only three players at that position have recorded more tackles for loss (63) during that same span. The speed rusher has a solid first step but is extremely undersized (6-1, 253 pounds) for the position in the NFL. While there are questions about how his skill set will translate to the league, there’s no questioning his production throughout his career. A strong workout this weekend would do wonders for his stock.

Defensive Tackle: Rasheem Green (USC)

A two-year starter for the Trojans inside, Green posted 16.5 sacks in just 26 starts, a very high number for a young player. A first-team All-Pac-12 player after leading USC with 12.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks as a junior, Green has a quick first step, natural athleticism, and the ability to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Can he hold up better against the run on the inside? That’s the big question facing Green moving forward, but his production getting after the passer will get him drafted early this spring.

Linebacker: Micah Kiser (Virginia)

Kiser started 37 games in three years for the Cavaliers, racking up a whopping 408 tackles during that span with 34 tackles for loss. The Baltimore native is a physical run defender and a bit of a throwback at the position at 6-0, 238 pounds with the ability to play inside the box as a thumper for a 3-4 scheme. He’s not what most teams are looking for in today’s game from an athleticism standpoint, but his production will likely be enough to get him drafted sometime in the later rounds.

Best Pro Comparison

Comparing draft prospects to NFL players is tough, but here’s a player with the easiest picture to paint when looking at his NFL future through my eyes.

Defensive End: Hercules Mata’afa (Washington State)

The junior defensive lineman from Washington State is a tough one to project moving to the NFL. In their one-gap 3-4 scheme, Mata’afa spent most of his time with the Cougars lined up inside despite weighing under 260 pounds, which is obviously not going to fly on a full-time basis at the next level. Watching him, he reminded me a lot of Vikings veteran defensive end Brian Robison, who is a technician at the position and better with his hands, obviously, than Mata’afa is, but very similar physically. Robison, ironically, is also used often on the inside in Minnesota’s scheme at this stage of his career, and I do think Mata’afa will be able to do that in subpackages at the next level.

Defensive Tackle: Taven Bryan (Florida)

They’re slightly different in terms of "how they win" at the college level, but a player who popped into my mind almost immediately when watching Taven Bryan was former Georgia Tech defensive tackle and former second-round pick Adam Gotsis, who posted 28 tackles and two sacks in his first real season of action this year in Denver. Bryan has a very quick first step and anticipates the snap extremely well. There are questions about his ability to defend the run, though I think he’s better at the point of attack than he’s given credit for, and his production is not what it should be for a player with his skills. I think he’ll be drafted in the first two rounds like Gotsis was just two seasons ago.

Linebacker: Skai Moore (South Carolina)

I watched Moore as a true junior back in 2015, and he was very impressive in coverage. In a game against North Carolina, specifically, I remember he made plays in underneath zone coverage where he jumped routes and came away with big interceptions in the red zone. He’s a skinny linebacker who may not be ready for playing at the point of attack right away, but I think he has a future as a three-down player at the next level. Moore has a very similar style to former Temple linebacker Tahir Whitehead (who I saw up close throughout most of his career with the Owls). Whitehead happened to be drafted by Jim Schwartz in Detroit and has been a long-time starter for the Lions.

Small-School Standout

This is the player at each position who comes from a lower level of competition but still has a very bright future in the NFL.

Defensive End: Marcus Davenport (Texas-San Antonio)

Davenport has received plenty of buzz as a potential top-15 selection, and he may very well go that high because of his size, natural power, and heavy hands. He’s not a polished player right now with his hands, some analysts are worried about his ability to play with his hand in the dirt. He stood up in UTSA's 3-4 scheme throughout his career, and there are mixed reviews about his performance in January’s Senior Bowl. Is he a true "blue chip" prospect? Probably not. Is he a really intriguing player with flaws, but still worthy of being in the first-round discussion? Absolutely.

Defensive Tackle: Nathan Shepherd (Fort Hays State)

A Canadian high school linebacker who made the transition to the defensive line at his first collegiate stop with Simon Fraser, Shepherd is an athletic disruptor with a quick first step and the ability to live on the other side of the line of scrimmage. The three-year starter at Fort Hays State helped himself in a big way with a great performance of the first day of Senior Bowl practices before an injury forced him to bow out of the event. Shepherd should test well this weekend and will likely be a mid-round selection in April.

Linebacker: Darius Leonard (South Carolina State)

Leonard could be the best linebacker in the country who no one is talking about. At 6-2, 234 pounds with a pterodactyl wingspan and the ability to play sideline to sideline, Leonard plays with a high motor and the physicality to be a downhill player at the next level once he adds some more bulk to his frame. Keep an eye on the four-year starter as the process continues - some I have spoken with have compared him to 2017 first-round pick Haason Reddick.

Philly Connection

This is the player at each position with a special tie to the City of Brotherly Love or to the Eagles that you should keep a close eye on.

Defensive End: Marquis Haynes (Ole MIss)

Marquis Haynes grew up in Jacksonville, Florida (the same hometown as Eagles legends Harold Carmichael and Brian Dawkins), prepped at Fork Union Military Academy (the same prep school attended by former Eagles great Mike Quick and current wideout Mack Hollins), but he didn’t play with any current Eagles and didn’t play for any former Eagles coaches. So what’s the direct tie-in with the current Eagles team? Haynes recorded 32 sacks in his career in the SEC, tying the conference record set by 2017 first-round pick Derek Barnett. Haynes is undersized but has an explosive first step and has produced all four years during his time with the Rebels. Ten different scouts may have 10 different projections for Haynes and his role, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t go off the board by the end of the fifth round in April.

Defensive Tackle: Da’Shawn Hand (Alabama)

Another former five-star recruit for Nick Saban, Hand never really reached his full potential for the Crimson Tide but did step into the lineup as a first-time starter for Alabama during its National Championship run in 2017. At 6-3, 297 pounds, some analysts think he could play inside or outside at the next level, but I see his athletic ability helping him most on the inside working against guards at his size. Hand was born in Philadelphia before going to high school in Woodbridge, Virginia.

Linebacker: Nick DeLuca (North Dakota State)

The connection here is pretty obvious, as DeLuca was a star linebacker and 15-game starter for the Bison in Carson Wentz’s final season in college back in 2015. The 6-2, 251-pound senior has built on his career since that point, and while I’m unsure if he’s athletic enough to be a true three-down player at the next level, I think he has what it takes to be a longtime player thanks to his size, instincts, toughness, and special teams experience. I’m a fan of the way DeLuca plays the game.

Mr. Average

We get to read all about the measurements for all these players over the next few weeks ... but wouldn’t it be nice to have some context? What is considered a "good" 40-yard dash time for any given position? What about arm length? The broad jump? Here’s what the average player drafted at each position has looked like over the last decade (by my records).

Mr. Average - Defensive Ends
Category Measurement
Height 6-3
Weight 257 Pounds
Hand Size 9 3/4 Inches
Arm Length 33 3/8 Inches
Wingspan 80 Inches
Unofficial 40-Yard Dash 4.71 Seconds
Official 40-Yard Dash 4.75 Seconds
10-Yard Split 1.63 Seconds
3-Cone Drill 7.18 Seconds
Short Shuttle 4.38 Seconds
Broad Jump 118 Inches
Vertical Jump 34.5 Inches

Mr. Average - Defensive Tackles
Category Measurement
Height 6-3
Weight 303 Pounds
Hand Size 10 Inches
Arm Length 33 1/4 Inches
Wingspan 79 3/4 Inches
Unofficial 40-Yard Dash 5.0 Seconds
Official 40-Yard Dash 5.06 Seconds
10-Yard Split 1.73 Seconds
3-Cone Drill 7.57 Seconds
Short Shuttle 4.62 Seconds
Broad Jump 107 Inches
Vertical Jump 30 Inches

Mr. Average - Linebackers
Category Measurement
Height 6-1
Weight 239 Pounds
Hand Size 9 5/8 Inches
Arm Length 32 3/8 Inches
Wingspan 77 1/2 Inches
Unofficial 40-Yard Dash 4.66 Seconds
Official 40-Yard Dash 4.7 Seconds
10-Yard Split 1.61 Seconds
3-Cone Drill 7.08 Seconds
Short Shuttle 4.29 Seconds
Broad Jump 118 Inches
Vertical Jump 34.5 Inches

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