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2019 NFL Combine: DT prospects to watch for the Falcons

The NFL Combine is here, which means that we’re about to witness the top NFL Draft prospects in the 2019 class compete in the on-field workouts that we playfully refer to as the “Underwear Olympics”. It’s pretty good fun if you’re a fan of the NFL draft—although we can certainly the debate the usefulness of some of these metrics in evaluating prospects—and hopefully it will help complete the picture on some of the more polarizing players.

I’ve been breaking down each position group by giving you the top 10 players that might be of interest to the Falcons. If you’ve missed any of the previous entries, you can find them below:

Offense

Defense

Today’s report is about the DT class—which is considered one of the strongest in the 2019 NFL Draft. With the news that the Falcons view OT Ty Sambrailo as a starter and that they plan to keep Vic Beasley and his $12.8M cap hit for 2019, it seems more and more likely that Atlanta is targeting a DT early.

Below are ten of the top DT prospects that I think have a good chance of winding up in Atlanta. I’ve intentionally left off Quinnen Williams, as I think he’ll be a top-5 pick, and Jeffery Simmons—who was uninvited from the Combine based on his previous violent incident.

Demarcus Christmas, FSU

Listed Size: 6’4, 310

2018 Production: 28 tackles, 14 solo, 3.0 TFL, 2 PD

If the Falcons are looking for a Day 3 run-stuffer with upside, FSU’s Demarcus Christmas could fit the bill. Christmas is physically imposing and athletically talented, but he’s totally raw as a pass rusher. I had the Falcons selecting Christmas in my second mock draft, and here’s how I described his skillset:

The 6’4, 310 defensive tackle possesses excellent strength and excels as a plug in the middle of the defensive line. While Christmas projects mostly as a base down player, he’s got some athletic ability and could continue to develop his game with more refined hand usage. Christmas would go a long way in helping to keep the Falcons’ LBs clean in the run game.

Rashan Gary, Michigan

Listed Size: 6’4, 281

2018 Production: 38 tackles, 20 solo, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks

I’ve often described Gary as a “honeypot” prospect. What I mean by that is a prospect that has all the traits to be great, and really tempts you to take him high—but the truth is that he’s far from a finished product, and there’s a lot of uncertainty there. That’s how I view Gary. The athletic talent and prototypical frame are undeniable. Some see Gary as a potentially high-level EDGE, others think he’s best as a pass-rushing 3T DT.

The truth is that Gary is probably a lot closer to an “Adrian Clayborn” inside/outside player than he is to a pure EDGE or DT. His run defense is solid on the outside, but he’ll get blown up on the interior. Meanwhile, I’m not sure he’s got the bend to be a full-time pass rusher on the outside, but his explosiveness and power could make him a dangerous rusher at 3T. He needs to find a home in a creative scheme, as throwing him full-time into either role is going to end in disappointment. With his price tag sitting somewhere in the first round, Gary’s boom-or-bust potential is simply too risky for my tastes.

Trysten Hill, UCF

Listed Size: 6’2, 330

2018 Production: 36 tackles, 20 solo, 10.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks

UCF’s Trysten Hill has consistently been one of the most talented players on the Knights’ defensive line since first starting as a true freshman. If the Falcons are looking for a rotational DT late on Day 3 that fits the scheme and can help out against both the run and pass, Hill could be an ideal target. He’s got plenty of size at 6’2, 330, and his penetrating style would be perfect for Quinn’s defense. Hill features excellent burst off the snap, surprisingly good mobility for a player of his size, and refined technique as a rusher.

His hand usage is one of his best traits, and he’s effective at shedding blockers in the run game to create havoc in the backfield. While Hill isn’t likely to ever be an elite pass rusher from the interior, he’s got plenty of juice and a relentless style of play. Hill needs to continue building up his strength, and he’ll be best served if he’s not asked to take on double-teams consistently.

He also seemed to have issues with the new coaching staff in 2018, who refused to start him in all but one game and left him off the field almost entirely in the bowl game against LSU. He never had any off-field issues through his first two seasons, however, so I’m not sure if it’s him, or the staff causing the problem. It’ll certainly be something teams ask about at the Combine.

Dre’Mont Jones, Ohio State

Listed Size: 6’2, 295

2018 Production: 43 tackles, 26 solo, 13.0 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PD, 1 FF

If the Falcons miss out on a DT in the first round and still want to add an impact pass rusher, Ohio State’s Dre’Mont Jones is one of the best in the 2019 draft class. Jones actually projects similarly to Jack Crawford, but I’d say he’s more explosive and varied in his pass rush approach but not quite as powerful. As a pass rushing specialist, Jones has 6-8 sack upside from the interior.

The catch is that Jones lacks an ideal frame for the position and simply doesn’t have the strength to hold up against the run full time. His movement skills and advanced hand technique do give him an opportunity to succeed in a 1-gap scheme—like Quinn’s—and make plays by shooting gaps and taking down RBs in the backfield. Still, Jones’ best fit is almost certainly as a rotational third down specialist. In that role, he could be a huge asset playing next to someone like Grady Jarrett. Jones’ price tag is currently hovering in the early-Day 2 range.

Dexter Lawrence, Clemson

Listed Size: 6’4, 340

2018 Production: 36 tackles, 15 solo, 7.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 PD

It’s easy to see why Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence is a favorite among Falcons fans. At 6’4, 340, Lawrence might be the biggest defensive lineman in the 2019 draft class. He’s also arguably the best run defender, with prototypical size for a NT and phenomenal power. Lawrence can take on double-teams with ease, and he’s dominant at the point of attack. He’s got a little more juice to him than you’d expect for a player of that size, giving him a little bit of upside as a pass rusher.

Unfortunately, “a little bit of upside” is basically Lawrence’s ceiling as a pass rusher. He can bull rush weaker offensive linemen and push the pocket decently, but the sack production will be mediocre at best. Lawrence can be an immediate starter on base downs, and he’ll likely have a long, successful NFL career as an elite run stuffer. But those players simply aren’t all that valuable in a league that continues to shift more and more towards passing. Lawrence has been getting some first round buzz, but he’s most likely to go in the early second to a true 3-4 team.

Daylon Mack, Texas A&M

Listed Size: 6’0, 320

2018 Production: 32 tackles, 17 solo, 10.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 1 PD

One of my favorite early-Day 3 prospects, Texas A&M’s Daylon Mack is an undersized NT that plays with phenomenal leverage and burst off the line. He’s dangerous at the point of attack and surprisingly nimble, but also very difficult to move in run defense. I mocked Mack to the Falcons in my fourth mock draft, and here’s what I had to say about his talents:

At 6’0, 320, Mack has plenty of bulk to take up space in the center of the DL. What makes Mack stand out, however, is his incredible burst and movement skills for a player of his weight. He is explosive at 320 pounds, and it’s really a sight to see. Technically, Mack is still pretty raw, but he’s made significant strides over the past season. Mack is probably best suited to an early-down run stuffing role—he’s very limited as a pass rusher—but his athletic traits make him a perfect fit at NT in a one-gap scheme like Dan Quinn’s.

Ed Oliver, Houston

Listed Size: 6’2, 290

2018 Production: 54 tackles, 29 solo, 14.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 2 PD, 1 FF

My absolute favorite prospect in the 2019 class for the Falcons—and the player I believe has the best chance to end up in Atlanta at pick 14—Ed Oliver is an elite athlete at DT that is falling down draft boards because of a lack of ideal size. That was the same argument used against Aaron Donald and Grady Jarrett, if you remember. Size is overrated at DT, particularly if you’re strong and understand leverage. Oliver possesses both of those traits, and a whole lot more. I’ve written a full scouting report on Oliver, which you can find here, but here’s an excerpt summarizing his skillset:

Ed Oliver is an elite DT prospect at the NFL level. He’s an ideal fit at 3T in a 4-3 defense, though he’s got the potential to be moved around—particularly in a scheme like the Falcons use. His movement skills, deep understanding of leverage, and impressive strength make him a 3-down player that can excel against both the run and pass—despite concerns about him being “undersized”. It’s not often that you find a player of this size with Oliver’s level of lateral mobility. He’s an elite athlete in every sense of the word—explosive off the snap, incredibly quick with his feet, and downright dominant with his physicality.

Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame

Listed Size: 6’5, 306

2018 Production: 28 tackles, 17 solo, 8.5 TFL, 7.0 sacks, 2 FF

One of the most infuriating watches of the 2019 DT class, Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery combines awesome flashes of brilliance with a maddening tendency to disappear for long periods. At 6’5, 306, Tillery certainly looks the part of a 3-down defensive tackle. His best trait is his power, and he’s got plenty of it. Tillery is capable of driving back weaker offensive linemen and bull rushing his way straight to the QB.

He’s got some athleticism to his game, with solid mobility and impressive burst off the line. Tillery has the traits to be a successful run defender and pass rusher, but his overall technique is pretty unrefined at this point. He’s basically a one-trick pony with his power rush, and doesn’t have much of a plan if that fails. His motor—when he’s on—is fantastic, and he wins a lot of plays through pure effort. Tillery was more consistent in 2018, but was otherwise a perennial underachiever. He’s got considerable upside if he can put it all together, but I’m not sure he fits Quinn’s “competitive thresholds”—particularly with his early-Day 2 price tag.

Christian Wilkins, Clemson

Listed Size: 6’4, 300

2018 Production: 51 tackles, 25 solo, 14.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 2 PD, 1 FF

If the Falcons miss out on Ed Oliver but still want to go after a defensive tackle in the first round—which now seems even more likely with the team bringing back Beasley and calling Sambrailo “a starter”—Christian Wilkins is probably the next man on their board. Wilkins is a versatile, well-rounded prospect with good size, power, and athleticism. There aren’t many weaknesses to his game—he just isn’t quite the elite athlete that Ed Oliver or Quinnen Williams are.

But to me, going with a surefire instant starter in Wilkins would be a solid plan at pick 14. He can win with his burst or with his power and he’ll be an asset on all three downs. Wilkins has shown he can move up and down the line too, even playing some reps on the edge for Clemson. His football IQ and character are off the charts, and he’s a refined technician in both phases. Really, the only knock on him is that he doesn’t have the crazy All Pro ceiling of the top two guys in the class. I’d be perfectly happy with that if Oliver is off the board.

Daniel Wise, Kansas

Listed Size: 6’3, 290

2018 Production: 34 tackles, 27 solo, 12.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks

A big riser this offseason, Kansas’ Daniel Wise put on a show at the East-West Shrine Game. He dominated the competition throughout the week, showing just how dangerous he was as an interior pass rusher in 1-on-1 situations. Kansas used Wise all over the place, which limited his production. But after seeing him embarrass basically every OL at the Shrine Game, it’s clear that his NFL home is at 3T.

At 6’3, 290, Wise isn’t going to blow you away with size or power. Where he excels is in a penetrating role—using his speed, athleticism, and technique to explode into the backfield and disrupt plays. He’s got a great understanding of leverage and uses his hands well, making him a dangerous pass rusher. Wise isn’t going to be a force against the run, but he can carve out a role for himself as a pass-rushing specialist. In a penetrating 4-3 scheme like Quinn’s, Wise is a perfect fit. We’ll see how high his stock rises after the Combine, but he’d be a great value early on Day 3.


What are your thoughts on this DT class? Any players that you’re focusing on for the Falcons? When do you think Atlanta might target a DT in the 2019 NFL Draft?

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