After studying the tape, production and athletic testing for over 15 defensive tackles in the 2021 NFL Draft, here are my pre-draft rankings of the Top 10. I would have gone deeper into the class, but it is without question the worst defensive tackle class I have studied in my eight years of doing this. At some point, I had to look away.
To each interior defensive lineman’s evaluation section I’ve added their Year 1 and Year 3 outlook, not necessarily saying what I think will happen, but what is a realistic best-case scenario for each prospect as they progress in their NFL careers. Tons of factors will be at work in determining if these projections actually come true, including scheme, coaching, character, health, and more, but based on what I can know at this time, I made reasonable, high-end guesses as to where each player’s career could be headed under ideal circumstances.
My grading scale, in layman’s terms of value, is similar to how NFL teams tier their prospects. The round grade represents a value, not necessarily where I would select a player.
For example, I might only have 13 or 14 Round 1 grades in a class, but if my team is picking at 24 and all of those players are gone, it doesn’t necessarily mean I would want out of the pick. It just means that, in my evaluation anyway, the player I might select there that has a second-round grade might not have the same ceiling to be an elite player like some of the prospects drafted ahead of him. They still might be a quality player that you are thrilled to get at No. 24 overall.
Here’s my grading scale:
Special = Elite of the elite
First Round = High Quality starter
Second Round = Very good-to-good starter
Third Round = Good-solid starter
Fourth Round = Spot starter-good depth player
Fifth Round = Depth player/Special teams
Prospects Still To Watch/Complete:
Tyler Shelvin, LSU Marvin Wilson, FSU Jalen Twyman, Pitt Darius Stills, WVU Jonathan Marshall, Arkansas Tedarrell Slaton, Florida
10. Bobby Brown, Texas A&M (6-4, 321, 4.98)
Table of Contents
If you were building a defensive tackle in a lab, he would probably look and move a lot like Bobby Brown looked and moved at his pro day. Unfortunately for Brown, he’d also probably be better at football.
Bobby Brown is a DT prospect in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 9.67 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 43 out of 1292 DT from 1987 to 2021.
Brown is an impressive athlete with exceptional flexibility to bend and absorb contact without getting washed on the interior, which is pretty rare for a defensive tackle his height. But the positive qualities run out quickly when watching Brown, who never developed any semblance of a pass rush and whose technique and mental processing in the run game need a ton of work.
Basically, Brown won in college when he could out-athlete or overpower his opponents, and even then the flashes were pretty rare. When you’re as slow off the ball as Brown is, your athleticism and your power often get rendered moot, especially when your technique is barreling head/shoulders into blockers on a health percentage of snaps. Brown’s whole approach will need to be re-worked in the NFL, as he isn’t quick enough to be a gap shooter and isn’t polished enough to be a gap holder. Right now he’s a nose tackle body without the ideal traits to play nose tackle, and he’s not nearly the pass rusher teams would want at 3-technique.
There’s no obvious role for Brown until he develops, and watching his effort on the handful of snaps he played each game, amidst a healthy rotation at Texas A&M, it’s fair to wonder how great his desire is to reach that ceiling in the NFL. Brown is the raw flier teams should try to take on day 3 if the football character checks out, but any earlier than that and I think you’re unlikely to get much of a return on investment.
Year 1 Outlook: Developmental/Depth
Year 3 Outlook: Spot Starter/Depth
Grade: Late Round 4 (Depth)
9. Jay Tufele, USC (6-2, 305, 5.0)
If you’re more of a gap shooter or slashing type of defensive tackle like Tufele, you better have some high-end athleticism to make that style of play work for you in the NFL. I’m not sure Tufele’s pro day qualifies, as his agility drills were a major disappointment considering his size and play style.
Jay Tufele is a DT prospect in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 7.41 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 334 out of 1286 DT from 1987 to 2021.
Still, there are some things to like about Tufele. He plays with outstanding urgency and aggressiveness, never hesitant to cross the face of his opponent and try to worm his way into the backfield. The USC redshirt sophomore has a go-to club-swim move that he executed well in college, which gives him a chance to make a dent as a pass rusher in the NFL, even as a rotational player.
But it’s hard to see Tufele ever being an 800-snaps-a-season defensive tackle given his lack of consistent gap discipline and leverage as a run defender. Too often Tufele is run out of gaps or easily sealed off, unable to get any push because he stands straight up off the ball. It’s hard to win as a defensive tackle on a snap-to-snap basis if you don’t process blocks or have the technique to fight them off. Tufele flashes, but with no 2020 tape to go off of after he opted out, it’s really hard to know how much he can still improve in the NFL.
For his playing style, Tufele really needed to test like a premier athlete, capable of being a penetrating/pass rush 3-technique in the NFL. But even playing that way in college, where he had an athletic advantage over opposing offensive linemen, Tufele was just mildly productive, registering 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles-for-loss in 24 career games. It’s hard to project him to a bigger role in the NFL without any indication of a higher ceiling than he showed in two years of college ball.
Year 1 Outlook: Rotational/Depth
Year 3 Outlook: Spot Starter/Rotational
Grade: Mid-Round 4 (Spot Starter/Depth)
8. Alim McNeill, North Carolina State (6-2, 317, 5.0)
McNeill’s athletic testing suggests he can eventually be more than what we currently see, but there really aren’t even flashes on tape that would indicate a high ceiling. Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a place for run-stuffing, squatty nose tackles who rarely get knocked around in the trenches, and McNeill certainly gives you that. He’s quick off the snap and sets a strong line of scrimmage, capable of warding off doubles or handling his opponent one-on-one.
But while McNeill is consistent at locking up blockers, he’s not always able to get off blocks cleanly to make stops in his gap, nor does he make much of an impact away from his assigned space. The junior’s range and lack of length are exposed when he needs to shed contact and quickly get through a gap to chase the ball down, lowering the value he brings to a defense. There is no shortage of solid nose tackles in the NFL, so McNeill needs to bring some behind the line of scrimmage/pass rush impact in order to be more valuable than a third-fourth round pick.
That’s where McNeill loses me as an evaluator. There is almost no plan of attack or pass rush moves to threaten blockers and impact the pocket, and he doesn’t have the physical tools to be an elite power rusher either. Sure, when McNeill could push guys around against Liberty, he was in the backfield consistently. But watch him against Miami or UNC and you see a player who struggled to impact the passing game, even when offensive lines left him one-on-one.
McNeill has also never even played 500 snaps in a season, and he’s been almost exclusively an A-gap defender each of the past two years. There isn’t a lot of value in gap holder A-gap types that don’t make an impact on all three downs and don’t make many plays in the trenches. McNeill’s presence could help make the players around him a little bit better in the run game, which is nice to have if you don’t have to pay a premium for it.
Year 1 Outlook: Nose Tackle/Rotational Snap Totals
Year 3 Outlook: Starting Nose Tackle
Grade: Early Round 4 (Spot Starter/Rotational)
7. Tommy Togiai, Ohio State (6-1, 296, 4.97 40)
Undersized defensive tackles are all the rage in the NFL today, but if you’re going to be a sub-300 pound interior defensive lineman, you better be athletic and strong. Togiai’s pro day confirmed that he is both:
Tommy Togiai is a DT prospect in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 9.12 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 115 out of 1298 DT from 1987 to 2021.
His tape shows a player that knows how to play with leverage and explosive hands, yet still gets overwhelmed at times due to his lack of size and length. Togiai is such a fluid mover who plays so hard that there is almost certain to be a role for him in the NFL, it just probably isn’t a full-time one. On a team that uses a steady rotation on their defensive line, that’ll be just fine, especially if Togiai can keep growing as a pass rusher.
As a run defender, Togiai may be all that he can be right now. When he gets through a gap, look out, but he also gets washed out or stuck on blocks too often to be relied upon as a full-time player. Where Togiai can make some money in the NFL is as a pass rusher, where his size will rarely be a detriment to him if he can keep adding moves to his arsenal and learn how to set up opponents with his feet. There’s an intriguing ceiling for Togiai once he can utilize more than the bull rush on passing downs.
Right now Togiai is a relentless competitor who gets after it on every snap, but he hasn’t even played 700 college snaps of football and he’s never hit 300 plays in a season. The junior will be 22 soon, and there is upside to his game, even if the ceiling isn’t high enough to warrant early round consideration. In this defensive tackle class, Togiai might be worth the gamble in a penetrating front defense that needs some explosiveness on the interior.
Williams will enter the NFL as one of the more athletic defensive tackles in the league, and one of the smallest. His lack of weight isn’t a big concern to me however, as 284 pounds is just fine to hold up inside in today’s NFL, especially considering Williams rocked-up frame.
What is a concern is the lack of dominance in Williams’ tape given his athletic ability and try-hard style of play. If you’re one of the most athletic defensive tackles in the NFL as a rookie, you should be tearing up Conference USA offensive lines. Against BYU, by far the best offensive line Williams faced this season, the defensive tackle struggled mightily. Despite all his athletic prowess, details like snap timing, block recognition and hand usage are still the most critical aspects of playing defensive tackle, and the areas Williams’ needs considerable growth in.
When Williams remembers that God gave him hands, he can be a really effective player. Gap-shooting teams that run a ton of games up front will love Williams lateral quickness and explosiveness, especially when coupled with improved hand technique. If Williams could get better at getting off of blocks and working through contact, his upside might be limitless. But right now he’s average in his best games at working free from other offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage. In most schemes, that’s going to be tough to overcome.
If Williams can find an aggressive defensive coordinator who is going to slant him all day and let him play pretty loose, he might be able to crack the starting lineup. The key is the development of his pass rush, which right now is mostly a bunch of unsuccessful bull rushes. Against North Texas, Williams unlocked some hand work to go with that twitchy lateral quickness and elite bend he has, but through most of the games in his career, pass rush skill barely showed up at all.
If an NFL coaching staff can develop Williams ability to think and attack as a pass rusher, there is pretty exciting interior rush potential that could pay off down the road. Right now, Williams is so far from where he needs to be technically and mentally as a processor, that’s it’s difficult to see a full-time early impact in the NFL. He needs to learn how to finish more of what he starts in all aspects of his game, so that he can get on the field without being a liability in the trenches.
Year 1 Outlook: Depth/Developmental
Year 3 Outlook: Solid Starter/Specialized Interior Pass Rusher
Grade: Late 3rd (Solid Starter)
5. Osa Odighizuwa, UCLA (6-1, 282, N/A)
If you’re playing interior defensive line in the 280s, you better be elite when it comes to leverage, and that’s where Odighizuwa scores some serious points. He might be listed at 282 pounds, but you never watch him on tape and see size as a significant issue. The dude’s legs have to be made out of titanium, as you almost never see Odighizuwa vertically displaced off the line of scrimmage. He can anchor and slash, which is an interesting combination in a weak interior defensive line class.
Watching Odighizuwa is almost humorous, as he constantly shifted alignments before the snap and played every where from edge rusher to zero technique over the center. Regardless of where he aligns, Odighizuwa’s play style doesn’t change: get off the ball quickly and try to ram through an offensive lineman by any means necessary. Unfortunately, those means don’t always include using your hands or length to stack and shed, as Odighizuwa ends up body-to-body with opponents on a regular basis.
Try as he might and strong as he is, Odighizuwa just can’t consistently clear contact and fully shed blocks. It feels like he is always stuck to opponents when trying to get through gaps or hold the point of attack. For a guy with over 34-inch arms, Odighizuwa barely utilizes his length on tape. He wins with leg drive and low pad level, but he could toss guys and control space brilliantly if he used his length and his hands better. It’s a curious issue that kept Odighizuwa from making more impact plays in his college career.
I think the NFL will want to improve Odighizuwa’s pre-snap stance to make him more consistently explosive, and he’ll need a lot more tools in his toolbox as a rusher. Even at almost 23 years old, there’s reason to believe Odighizuwa can improve some at the next level, and he’s still playable in the meantime as there are very few disaster reps on his tape. The redshirt senior has the ability to be a 3-down player in the NFL eventually, but the lack of any dominance in his college tape suggests the ceiling isn’t particularly high even if he gets there.
Year 1 Outlook: Rotational/Depth
Year 3 Outlook: Solid Starter
Grade: Late 3rd Round (Solid Starter)
4. Marlon Tuipulotu, USC (6-2, 308, N/A)
In one of the greatest transformations of the past year, Tuipulotu went from looking like an undrafted free agent in 2019 to a legitimate day 2 prospect in 2020. The key components of his evolution of a player were:
1. Changing his jersey number from #51 to #93 in 2020
2. Improving his aesthetic by wearing gloves and tape in 2020
3. Shedding his power gut and chiseling up from his dumpy 2019 frame
Admittedly there may have also been some football improvement, especially in Tuipulotu’s hand usage. After getting bodied far too often in 2019, Tuipulotu looked like a completely different player this past season, stunning blockers with his hands and consistently stacking-and-shedding in the trenches. When he uses his length and power, combined with his natural leverage, Tuipulotu is a force in the run game, with enough athleticism to make some plays away from his gap too.
Tuipulotu’s biggest jump in 2020 came as a pass rusher, where he suddenly blossomed thanks to his improved hand work, mixing in long arms, push-pulls and club-rips into his arsenal. He’s not explosive enough to ever be a premier interior rusher in the NFL, but he’s no dud in the pass game either. Tuipulotu can give you a legitimate 3-down defensive tackle and play a variety of spots up front. That’s a nice player to have around if you can get him for the right value.
Considering where some of the defensive tackles in this class are projected to go compared to where Tuipulotu is projected, he might end up being the best interior defensive line value pick of the draft in the mid-rounds. His character and work ethic get rave reviews, and his growth from 2019 to 2020 is a testament to both qualities. One of the few safe picks at the position in this class, Tuipulotu will be at least a strong rotational defensive tackle who can play in the A or B-gaps at the next level, with the upside to be a regular starter, even if his ceiling is never near an elite level.
Year 1 Outlook: Solid Starter/Rotational
Year 3 Outlook: Solid Starter
Grade: Mid-Round 3
3. Daviyon Nixon, Iowa (6-3, 313, 4.9)
Like Onwuzurike, evaluating Nixon tested my patience. His high points on tape are among the best in the class, and if he can ever channel that on a consistent basis, Nixon could definitely become the best defensive tackle in the draft (low bar, I know). That’s the kind of balance, power, leverage and quickness that he plays with when the tape is right.
But while Nixon’s highs are as high as Onwuzurike’s, his lows are a lot lower. His performances against Minnesota and Michigan State were as miserable and head-scratching as his performances against Penn State and Northwestern were dominant and exciting. It’s hard to understand how Nixon could win with quickness and power so often at certain points on his tape, and then look overwhelmed in other instances.
His biggest issues are consistent hand usage and implementing a pass rush plan, which work hand-in-hand on passing downs. Nixon has high-level athletic ability for the defensive tackle position, yet rarely pairs that movement ability with skill. There is a lightness to his footwork that suggest Nixon could become at least a dangerous interior pass rusher/gap shooter, but work is needed to get him on the field for all three downs. Inquiring NFL teams will need to know how much Nixon loves the game and how clean he is off-the-field if they plan to use a high selection on him, as the Iowa 22-year old has boom-or-bust written all over him.
Year 1 Outlook: Rotational/Developing Starter
Year 3 Outlook: Solid Starter
Grade: Mid-Round 3 (Solid Starter)
2. Levi Onwuzurike, Washington (6-3, 290, 4.88)
I wanted to like Onwuzurike so much, even after his lone practice at the Senior Bowl went awry. But I’m a firm believer that to earn a high draft grade you have to be dominant for some stretch of your college tape. I just never saw that with Onwuzurike.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of defensive tackles with Onwuzurike’s quickness and physical makeup, as he flashes the ability to stack-and-shed, explode through gaps and even work pass rush moves when he’s left one-on-one. Washington’s deployment of the talented defensive tackle definitely didn’t help, as Onwuzurike was an undersized nose tackle on about a third of his snaps in 2019, the last time we saw him on the field. Thanks to the Pac-12’s unyielding commitment to 3-man rushes, Onwuzurike was often doubled and erased on long-and-late downs.
But consistency is such a big issue on Onwuzurike’s tape despite his non-stop effort. He’ll chuck a blocker on one rep as a pass rusher, then get bodied for the next few. Onwuzurike will read a lineman’s release and fight off a reach block for a big-time stop, then get erased for the rest of the possession. Leverage, hand placement, block recognition, first step off the ball, pass rush plan…none of it is consistent, and we didn’t get any 2020 tape to see if Onwuzurike could get there.
All we have to go off of is an average Senior Bowl practice, where Onwuzurike didn’t look like the clear top defensive tackle at the event. It’s difficult to put a ton of stock in a 23-year old who will be two years removed from his last game and in desperate need of further development when he reaches the NFL. Onwuzurike has plenty of talent, but defensive tackle is a high-floor position at the pro level, and there aren’t many every-down starters as inconsistent as the Huskies’ redshirt senior.
Year 1 Outlook: Rotational/Developing Starter
Year 3 Outlook: Solid-Good Starter
Grade: Early Round 3 (Solid-Good Starter)
1. Christian Barmore, Alabama (6-4, 310, 4.93)
In many ways, Barmore is the inverse of most recently-drafted Alabama defensive tackles. The consistent run defense and sound technique is lacking, but the upside and pass rush ability could be greater than many of Barmore’s former Crimson Tide colleagues. And remember, pass rush matters more than everything else, no matter what NFL teams tell you.
The problem is that, for Barmore, “everything else” can be kind of a mess right now. He plays with very little block recognition, leverage or technique against the run, just relying on tools to stay afloat on early downs. Barmore gets knocked around by solo blocks and double teams, relying heavily on quickness and strength over technique. That’s not always going to be the case in the NFL, so Barmore must find a higher floor to his play if he’s going to see the field consistently at the next level.
Having said that, Barmore’s ability to work to the edge of blockers is unique for a collegiate interior defensive lineman. He’s quick enough to cross the face of his opponent and work legitimate pass rush moves to give himself angles to the pocket. Barmore is a linear mover, so I question what his ceiling is as a rusher when he faces guards that are better with their hands. Despite his rigid movements, there’s no denying his pass rush impact over the second half of the 2020 season.
There are plenty of moments on tape where I question Barmore’s ability to focus and execute, whether it’s jumping offsides or dramatically falling for fakes. Right now consistency is his biggest issue, and it mainly stems from technique and mental processing. Barmore might not have the ceiling to be elite in the NFL, but he can be a quality starter if he’s able to evolve into a more reliable 3-down player.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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