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Senior Bowl Preview: 10 players to watch on defense

The week of Senior Bowl practices down in Mobile, Alabama kicks off on Tuesday, and while this event is one of the biggest on the pre-NFL Draft calendar, this year's may be the most important ever. Why? Because with no NFL Combine or private workouts this spring due to COVID-19 concerns, these prospects are getting a unique opportunity to work up close with NFL teams. Outside of the Senior Bowl, the only chance they'll get is at their respective Pro Days in the coming months.

Who are the most intriguing players to watch? I'll break it down – 10 on offense, 10 on defense. In this piece, we'll focus on the defensive side of the football, position by position.

DT Levi Onwuzurike, Washington

There is a trio of defensive tackles from the PAC-12 who I feel are going to be really fun to watch in this game – and Onwuzurike may be my favorite of the group going into the week. Onwuzurike didn't play a down this year after opting out due to COVID-19 concerns, but he's a versatile interior lineman with extremely violent hands, disruptive ability thanks to quickness and power, and a motor that never quits. He was on the smaller side at Washington, but he played like his hair was on fire. I can't wait to see what he looks like with a full year off when he laces them up in Mobile.

DT Osa Odighizuwa, UCLA

The second of the West Coast tackles is Odighizuwa, who's older brother Owamagbe was a third-round pick of the New York Giants back in 2015. Like his brother, Osa has heavy hands, is technically sound against the run game, and is a very impressive athlete with his combination of balance, core strength, and quickness. A three-time state champion wrestler in high school, Odighizuwa brings that skill set to the gridiron, where his all-around game as both a run defender and a pass rusher made him an important part of former Eagles coach Chip Kelly's Bruins team.

DT Marlon Tuipulotu, USC

The third PAC-12 defensive tackle is Tuipulotu, a three-year starter for the Trojans who, like both Onwuzurike and Odighizuwa, has disruptive ability inside with the talent to win in multiple ways. Tuipulotu has meat hooks for hands, jarring blockers on contact to change the line of scrimmage. His motor is impressive and he has the range to make plays from sideline to sideline. Like Odighizuwa, he was also a state wrestling champ in high school, and that athleticism does show up on film. All three players are really intriguing in their own right and stand to really help themselves with a strong week of practice.

DE Carlos Basham, Wake Forest

Arguably the best pass rusher in the senior class, Basham is a big, strong, powerful human being with the ability to collapse the pocket, defend the run, and make plays all over the field due to his physical tools and play personality. His effort, in particular, is what first put him on my radar. I talked with former Wake Forest left tackle Justin Herron a year ago at the Senior Bowl and he couldn't stop raving about how hard his teammate worked every day in practice. Listed at 6-3, 280 pounds, Basham has the size to be a force off the edge while also being a presence inside on passing downs as well.

DE Rashad Weaver, Pitt

At 6-5, 270 pounds, Weaver was a force to be reckoned with from his defensive end spot for the Pitt defense. A year removed from a knee injury that cost him all of 2019, Weaver bounced back as a senior as a first-team All-American, racking up 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss in just nine games despite playing alongside another All-American with his teammate Patrick Jones (who will also be in Mobile and is a formidable player in his own right). Weaver is stout as a run defender, but he's also a smart, powerful pass rusher who is wired into the snap count. I was pleased to be joined by his head coach, Pat Narduzzi, on the Journey to the Draft Podcast, an interview you can listen to right now wherever podcasts can be found!

S/LB JaCoby Stevens, LSU

A two-year starter for the Tigers, Stevens has been used all over the field. Watching him during their championship season of 2019, I saw him lined up deep pulling in interceptions, matched up man-to-man against tight ends in the slot, patrolling the middle of the field in zone coverage, and down in the box as an extra linebacker in subpackages defending the run. It's in that last role that I am most intrigued by Stevens, who I foresee as a potential linebacker convert in the NFL (which I do not mean as a knock). Stevens has excellent comfort in traffic, the ability to key and diagnose things quickly, and his coverage chops will serve him well moving forward. I'm very interested to see how he's used in Mobile.

LB Chazz Surratt, North Carolina

Speaking of versatility at linebacker, Surratt brings that in spades. A former big-time basketball player in high school who was the Gatorade Player of the Year in North Carolina, Surratt was actually the team's leading passer as a seven-game starter at quarterback in 2017 as a freshman. He missed the majority of the 2018 season, and during that time he made the switch to defense. What happened next? Just two straight first-team All-ACC seasons while stuffing the stat sheet with tackles, TFLs, sacks, and plays in coverage. Surratt is a rangy, athletic linebacker who is still figuring it out, but for teams that like to utilize their linebackers as blitzers he will be seen as extremely valuable.

CB Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse

Another prospect entering the family business! If the last name Melifonwu sounds familiar, that's because Ifeatu's older brother Obi was a second-round pick of the Oakland Raiders back in 2017 after a career at UConn. With Obi, I personally had questions about what his position fit was in the NFL and worried that it would take some time to adapt mentally to the pro game. With Ifeatu ... that's not the case. This is one of the best players in Mobile as a long, athletic, instinctive corner with shutdown ability and a competitive spirit to match. There are not a lot of 6-3, 213-pound kids who move the way he does, certainly not on defense. Melifonwu will almost certainly be one of the buzzworthy players by the end of the week.

CB Aaron Robinson, Central Florida

Like Melifonwu, I fully expect Robinson to be one of the players people are talking about the most at the end of the week. At 6-1, 193 pounds, Robinson is a fluid athlete with the versatility to play outside corner and in the slot, where he played for most of this season with the Golden Knights. A fearless player who is aggressive in coverage and against the run, Robinson's size/speed combination will not go unnoticed. I bet he's involved in more mock drafts as the process continues to unfold. I'll be talking with Robinson's position coach, Willie Martinez, this week over on the podcast as well.

S Hamsah Nasirildeen, Florida State

There were not many players in the senior class who I felt had a higher upside in terms of their NFL future than Nasirildeen if we're going based solely on what he put on film back in 2019. However, late in that season, the freaky safety tore his ACL, an injury that cost him all but two games this year as he fought through rehab (a process that I talked about with his defensive coordinator in an interview that will run this week on the podcast). On film? Nasirildeen is a heat-seeking missile in the alley with the ability to obliterate ball carriers while being a matchup player in coverage. He can play from depth, down in the box, or in the slot. He's a fascinating player, but how will he look after the knee injury? That will be one of the storylines to watch this week.

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