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Ranking College Football’s Top 10 Defensive Linemen

The game is won and lost in the trenches, anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Yes the Quarterbacks, Receivers and Running Backs are tasked with scoring the points but week in and week out we see what happens when they lose this battle. If the O Line cannot keep up with the Defensive Linemen then the Quarterback cannot throw, the Running Backs cannot move and the Receivers have nothing to catch. The key to all this is who wins that battle up front.

I previously looked at College Football’s Top 10 Offensive Linemen, something you can check out here. It is not time to get onto the other side of the ball and to get into the mind of the other side of the line, the Defensive Linemen. Last time out, we talked about the guys who protect the Quarterback, this time, its the guys who make his life hell on earth on every snap. We are combining Defensive Tackles and Defensive Ends here too as a blanket list of Defensive Linemen.

Image Credit – PFF

Now it is important to say that there are two major factors in how this ranking is brought forward here. Being a Defensive Lineman is all about pressure, on the Quarterback, and on the Running Backs, the more pressure you can exert, the more likely you are to affect the Offensive rhythm, especially that of opposing Quarterbacks. Now as players like Odafe Oweh have shown us this year, pressure itself does not have to mean sacks, Oweh finished his final year of college with zero sacks, however he has since been the most dominant Lineman in the draft. With that being said though, teams still want to see production, so it has to be a healthy balance.

1. Jomard Valsin (6’2 – 245lbs) – Defensive End – Northwestern State Demons – Junior

Pure production, that is what Valsin will give you. He is everywhere, he can lineup across the whole Defensive Line when required and is even happy running and tackling in space as a Linebacker. He likely projects as more of an edge rushing outside Linebacker at the next level as he is undersized for facing those giant NFL Offensive Tackles. That has not mattered to him so far, producing when required and playing as if he is a one man Defense. If the Demons make a play on Defense, Valsin was probably involved.

The biggest drawback put upon Jomard is the lack of elite level competition. Playing for Northwestern State, he faces mainly FCS teams, which is a level below the truly elite level competition. This does put question marks next to his name, however with Hall of Famers such as Kurt Warner, Jerry Rice and Michael Strahan coming from small FCS schools, your origin does not matter, it is all about how you shape your future. He will have to answer the critics, but he loves making a play and he has a great engine.

He is the no nonsense type player coaches love to have. He will have his chance in the NFL, and although he will not have the same name value come draft time, what he will have is a resume to look at and marvel at. He is the type of player every team has, how many times have you been watching Football and someone makes a play but you do not recognise their number. Then the screen flashes up and its the guy who is unheralded, is the quiet production king and it is his 10th tackle of the night and it is the end of the 1st quarter.

2. Jermayne Lole (6’2 – 305lbs) – Defensive Tackle – Arizona State Sun Devils – Senior

The Arizona State Sun Devils are the real deal this year and this is despite losing one of the best Defensive Linemen in football in August before the season even began. Lole is ranked so highly here because of what we know he can do, not for his production this year. Lole is a problem in the middle, and as if a polar opposite of Valsin before him, Lole is all about presence and not production. Not many Defensive Linemen can create pressure on the Quarterback by just being on the field.

Injuries will be the potential downfall of Lole come draft time, and although he will be taken early because his potential outweighs any injury concerns, he may go later than previously expected. His numbers will not help him either, with only 11 sacks in three years, including 1.5 last year in a shortened season, teams looking for a interior sack specialist will not be calling his name. It is easy to dismiss him based primarily on the statistics, but teams do their due diligence and when you watch the tape, Jermayne Lole is a difference maker.

Image Credit – The Athletic

Without much of an audition this year, Lole will rely on his previous tape, his pro day, the senior bowl but most importantly for the more casual onlooker the NFL Combine. He will get his opportunities to impress, however the more teams are put off by the limited production and the injuries, the better value his pick becomes. If he slides on Draft day, someone is getting a steal and someone is getting a day 1 starter.

3. Kayvon Thibodeaux (6’5 – 258lbs) – Defensive End – Oregon Ducks – Sophomore

Kayvon Thibodeaux (said Tib-uh-doe) is the consensus number 1 Defensive Linemen in 2021. Similar to his former colleague Penei Sewell in the 2020 Draft on the other side of the ball, who was himself seen as the number 1 Tackle. We have seen however that just because you have the hype on your side does not mean anything, just ask Rashawn Slater. This however does not detract from the fact that Thibodeaux, when hot, can completely take over a game. Think of players like Myles Garrett who when they get rolling can change everything.

Thibodeaux has shown he can produce with 16 total sacks and 3 forced fumble across three years. Of those 16 sacks however, 9 came in 2019 meaning over half came in one season 2 years ago. Now this may change come the end of the season as he has 4 so far but even so, it is down on his best season. He is guaranteed to go early in the draft and may end up with a similar story to Penei Sewell, he might even end up in the Detroit with him the way their season is going.

Now the biggest bonus for teams looking at Thibodeaux is that he has proven himself as a big game player. In the two conference championship games he has played in, he has combined for 18 Quarterback pressures, 10 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Oregon won both of those games over number 5 ranked Utah in 2019 and number 13 ranked USC in 2020. Both of those teams were ranked higher than the Ducks and both we were beaten. That sounds like pretty good statistics right? Well add game MVP for 2020 for him too, as he won this last year. He is likely the first Defensive Linemen off the board in the 2022 NFL Draft, but does the impact meet the hype.

4. Keenan Stewart (6’2 – 305lbs) – Defensive Tackle – UTEP Miners – Sophomore

In only 1 year starting on an FBS team, if Stewart can do anything it is pressure the Quarterback. Stewart does not have the flashy numbers and it is unlikely that he ever will have them. He has 2 sacks this year, but he is consistently in the face of the opposing players. A Quarterback’s nightmare, he is a space eating Defensive Tackle, which is great for what his purpose is on the UTEP Defense.

With his space eating ways, Stewart is very likely to become a system player. This gives him my first real boom or bust title on this list. I am high on his ability to get in the way and make a nuisance of himself. If he is drafted by a team who want their Defensive Tackles to take up space, he will have a lot of early success. If he is asked to break through the line, chase down the Quarterback and produce sacks on a regular basis, he may struggle to find his feet.

Now Stewart does not have much tape against truly elite players, having one full season in an FBS programme under his belt. This should not matter, because his talent will absolutely outweigh these concerns. He is an acquired taste at his position, and he fills a very specific role, that role he will find at the next level.

5. Myjai Sanders (6’5 – 255lbs) – Defensive End – Cincinnati Bearcats – Senior

The Bearcats are here, they are accounted for and they are ready to tear up the rule book. For years it seemed that the same teams were the only ones who would ever compete for a title, but now the Bearcats are the number 2 seed and they absolutely deserve to be there. In 2020 they showed their hand, and Sanders was leading that charge, they led the nation in rush defense, scoring defense, and total defense. College football should not be shocked that Myjai Sanders is one of the best Defensive Linemen in the league.

Image Credit – Cincinnati Athletics

Sanders has been playing at an elite level and is currently starting for the number 2 ranked team in nation, which in itself feels like it may well be a drawback. When the whole team is playing well, players do get brought along and sometimes become a little vaunted in the praise they receive. Sanders seems to be that this season. Last year he had 7 sacks, and 5 pass defenses alongside the excellent Defense he played on. This year however he zero sacks and is playing at a much lower level than last year. This could be due to being more focused by the Offensive Line or it could be a natural production drop, only time will tell.

The team who do draft Sanders is getting a player who knows what it is to be elite, and if the Bearcats continue playing how they have all year, he may even arrive with a national championship. They are ranked second for a reason. He gives you a player who can get after the Quarterback, combining pace and power to do so. Although his production has dipped, his presence on the field has not, and he may be the most NFL ready on this list.

6. DeMarvin Leal (6’4 – 290lbs) – Defensive End – Texas A&M Aggies – Junior

DeMarvin Leal is getting better with every year that he plays football. He is showing up and showing out and his ceiling feels like it may well be the highest of everyone’s. We still have four games remaining in the season and Leal has matched all his previous season targets as well as smashing his previous sack record. Some people grow through college and then blossom at the next level into the next dominant force. DeMarvin Leal feels like he has this vibe.

For a player known as a Quarterback rusher, this is his first real difference making season in terms of sack totals. This is somewhat concerning for the next level, that this might be a flash in the pan season. At the next level he will need to consistently beat the Offensive Linemen who are all elite players. Every year the narrative begins about the College National Champion beating the worse NFL team. What people forget is every player on the pitch for the NFL team made it, whereas in the strongest of years the top teams send 15 players onto NFL rosters. Watching Leal make one solo tackle against at the time number 1 ranked Alabama concerns me.

In order for DeMarvin Leal to truly be successful in the NFL, he just needs to keep improving. He has shown with this season that he is becoming more productive, and is likely to break all his own records that he has in College this year. He will do well at the next level as a complementary piece, however if he has to be the focal point too early, I think he gets lost in the shuffle.

7. Haskell Garrett (6’2 – 300lbs) – Defensive Tackle – Ohio State Buckeyes – Senior

Going down as what the College media are referring to as a ‘Super Senior’ this is the 5th College season for quite a few Buckeyes, but excluding Thayer Munford, Garrett has played the most games with 41 under his belt. This means he has an excellent amount of experience in those games. Playing for Ohio State as well means he has to be consistently good. He is a presence on the line and is ready to disrupt when asked.

Normally the biggest drawback would be the tread on the tires, with this being Garrett’s 5th year at an elite programme, even practice is hard every single day. I am less worried in this case, because Garrett has only been a starter for 2 years based on his statistics. My bigger concern with Garrett would be his production. I know producing class Defensive Linemen statistics like sacks and forced fumbles is not the be all and end all, however the production just does not seem to be there with Garrett. If we remove his 3 sack game against a underwhelming Akron then he would have only managed 3.5 sacks in 5 years, it just will not cut it in the NFL.

Haskell Garrett has a wealth of experience, more than most College players which means he has spent more time than any other player perfecting his role. He will enter the draft process with a clearly defined set of skills which he will know he can demonstrate. This is fine, if you end up in the right system, however if he goes to the wrong organisation, I think he will be found out quicker than any of the others in my top 10.

8. Nik Bonitto (6’3 – 238lbs) – Defensive End – Oklahoma Sooners – Junior

The first of my list to project primarily as a Linebacker, Bonitto can play with his hand in the dirt, however if he wants to do this at the NFL level, some bulk might be required. Bonitto loves spending his time during games in the backfield, with 17 sacks to his name over his College career. He has a nose for the football with 2 fumble recoveries to add to his sacks and his 2019 interception. Bonitto has shown he can do it all, but he ranks lower here because his fit as a Defensive End is awkward at best. He will clearly make his living at the next level, he will work as a Defensive End in a 4-3 scheme, however in a 3-4 he will likely get blown off the ball at his current size.

Image Credit – Sooners Sports

Size is the key for Bonitto, he needs to add some volume to his body mass if he wants to excel in the pass rush. He is fine to chase down the Quarterback, however he has some gigantic men in front of him stopping his progress. If a team plays him out of position, he could easily be labelled a bust before his career begins, but play to his strengths and he is incredibly dangerous. If he decides to move to Linebacker for the draft process, he will fly up all the lists, because he is an elite pass rusher.

Projecting the Oklahoma Sooner at the next level is tough because it will have to be a specific situation for him to thrive as an NFL Defensive Linemen, that is if he decides to play on the line. Early in his career he projects as a situational pass rusher which will really work for him, however the role lacks job security. Getting yourself a three down role is difficult, therefore while early in his career he projects at Linebacker, to truly thrive he should think about get his hand in the dirt and running around some Tackles.

9. Aidan Hutchinson (6’6 – 265lbs) – Defensive End – Michigan Wolverines – Senior

Is it time yet to say that the Michigan Wolverines are back? They are currently sat at 7-0, ranked 6th overall in College Football and if they can win vs Michigan State this week who are also unbeaten then all of a sudden they have playoff aspirations. They may not be in this position with the likes of Aidan Hutchinson. The disruptive Hutchinson is great at getting after the Quarterback with 5 sacks and a forced fumble already this year. Michigan play ranked teams in 3 of their final 5 weeks and if they win out, not only are they playoff bound, but Hutchinson shoots up draft boards leading the charge for that Defense.

The thing that could potentially propel Hutchinson into the top 10 of the 2022 NFL Draft is also what can see him fall away if he is not careful. His performances in which he has brought down the Quarterback have been against teams with mostly losing records. In the four games he has recorded at least half a sack, 3 out of 4 of those teams currently sit with losing records. Hutchinson has a few prove it games coming up, and if he cannot be the difference, he could see his stock fall come draft time.

The man who currently shares the sack lead on his team will be very excited about his prospects over the next few weeks. Without a doubt this season could end in a very special way for the Wolverines and Hutchinson knows that he is one of the supports that this season rests on. In the eyes of the analysts, he is currently lagging behind Thibodeaux, however if he turns it on for the stretch we could have a scenario where the best Defensive Linemen in this draft is not the first one taken.

10. Demetrius Taylor (6’1 – 290lbs) – Defensive Tackle – Appalachian State Mountaineers – Senior

Here is another player playing his 5th season of College Football known as a super senior and if you want a player who is just pure production, look no further than Demetrius Taylor. He has the numbers everyone wants to see, and uniquely once he is in an NFL weight room, he pushes himself past 300lbs and works the interior at the next level. For me he projects at Defensive Tackle in a 4-3 style Defense at the next level and he brings something a lot of Tackles do not bring, the ability to sack the Quarterback. The proof is in the numbers too, in the space of 5 seasons, with this one still to be completed he has 23 sacks, and never less than 3 on the year, Taylor is hungry for the backfield.

His biggest issue coming out of College will be an issue a lot of players face when it comes to playing at the next level, how good was the competition. Teams are very aware of this when picking players in the NFL Draft, especially when the concern is that if a player has never played elite Offensive Lines in College, he will be non-existent in the trenches of the NFL. The production speaks for itself, but when you play in the Sun Belt conference, these questions do not go away.

For Taylor he has the numbers, he is clearly a gamer and he will be drafted, even if it is lower than his production deserves. He will make an impact almost instantly, especially if used as a situational pass rusher and he could easily be one of the top 5 Defensive Linemen out of this draft within his first three years in the league. If he can harness his pass rushing capabilities and transition them to the NFL, then he will be a nightmare for anyone tasked to oppose him.

Honourable Mentions

Will McDonald IV – Iowa State Cyclones
Jordan Davis – Georgia Bulldogs
Bryan Bresee – Clemson Tigers
George Karlaftis – Purdue Boilermakers
Drake Johnson – USC Trojans

Rankings those players was rough, because it can quite easily change from week to week. Players ebb and flow in their production, ability and overall effect on the game so much that rankings them is extremely hard to do. As always it is a totally subjective rankings and it is based on what I want in my Defensive Linemen. All 15 names mentioned in this article will find a home if they enter the 2022 NFL Draft, and in our midst we could find the next Aaron Donald, thank me later when these rankings prove that point.

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