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2018 NFL Draft Rankings: Top 5 Defensive Tackles

Da'Ron Payne

Da'Ron Payne

The 2018 NFL Draft is set for April 26-28, so you still have time to get ready with the Athlon Sports 2018 Draft Guide. With 526 players ranked and needs outlined for every NFL team, it has everything you need.

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Here's a sneak peek at our top five defensive tackles in this year's NFL Draft: 

1. Vita Vea

COLLEGE: Washington

CLASS: R-Jr. HEIGHT: 6’4” WEIGHT: 345

STRONG POINTS: “Physical freak” is a term that gets overused, especially at the NFL Combine. But there’s not really any other way to describe Vea (above, right), who might have the most impressive size/athleticism combination to come into the league since Dontari Poe in 2012. Vea moves like a sub-300 pounder, capable of penetrating into the backfield, whereas most players his size merely occupy blockers. His game is the power that comes with those movement skills, as Vea has the pure upper-body strength — with long arms and heavy hands — as well as thick legs to simply shed and steamroll blockers on his way to the backfield. His bull rush can be borderline unstoppable, and he’s still improving as far as technique and hand movement. He can be overwhelming as a run stuffer, an agile mover who locates the ball quickly and closes fast.


WEAK POINTS: He needs to be more consistent on a play-to-play basis. He seems to wear down often, and too many times as a pass rusher he will go in without a plan, make no use of his hands and just try to plow through a blocker (it worked on the college level, but won’t work often in the NFL). Overall, he spends too much time on the ground when working as a pass rusher.


SUMMARY: Vea has scheme diversity and could fit anywhere from zero-technique to five-technique in the NFL, and he is still pretty rough around the edges — he should only get better. Stamina and down-to-down productivity are both concerns; he has the skill set to play the run or the pass but might have to come off the field more often than you’d like. Still, he has Pro Bowl potential if the right coaching takes.


FINAL GRADE: 1st round

2. Da’Ron Payne

COLLEGE: Alabama
CLASS: Jr. HEIGHT: 6’2” WEIGHT: 315

STRONG POINTS: Payne slimmed down from the mid-350s to the low 300s over his time at Alabama, and it’s allowed him to become one of the most impressive defensive line prospects in this draft. He’s an athletic mover and overwhelmingly strong. He has some of the strongest hands in this draft class, and he is active and violent in shedding blocks. He shows good get-off at the snap and has the pure athleticism to push the pocket even when he doesn’t get a clean win against blockers, and he closes quickly once he’s into the backfield. His greatest strength is in the run game, where he consistently occupies multiple blockers. He’s nearly impossible to move, allowing him to keep linebackers clean. But he can also make an impact as a one-gap penetrator at times, showing enough quickness and power to get into the backfield. He locates the ball quickly, and he shows impressive speed when chasing in pursuit. He has a relentless motor and was considered a team leader in Nick Saban’s program. He put together back-to-back dominant performances in the College Football Playoff this past January.


WEAK POINTS: Payne is a better run defender than pass rusher at this point and is still very much a work in progress in the pass rush. He lacks a variety of moves, going almost exclusively with the bull rush. He never made a consistent impact as a pass rusher.


SUMMARY: Payne is an immediate impact player on early downs, a high-floor prospect with the potential to be dominant against the run. The question is whether his raw tools will translate to pass-rushing value at the next level. If he’s coached up and develops as a pass rusher, he has a chance to be a star.


FINAL GRADE: 1st round

3. Taven Bryan

COLLEGE: Florida
CLASS: R-Jr. HEIGHT: 6’4” WEIGHT: 290


STRONG POINTS: Bryan (right) has the tools that would fit a number of schemes. He’s big, long and wide, and has outstanding natural strength. He explodes off the line and can shoot gaps, and has the active, powerful hands to manhandle blockers when fighting in a phone booth. He has the raw strength and power to avoid being slowed by blockers who aren’t in position to square him up. He’s a high-motor player who was recognized for having great football character at Florida.

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WEAK POINTS: Bryan is fairly raw when playing the run. He has the raw tools, but he often fails to locate the ball and is more interested in gambling by crashing upfield and taking himself out of a play.


SUMMARY: He’s still a work in progress, and he has a skill set that will appeal to one-gapping schemes, with the ability to play five-technique in a 3-4 or three-technique in an even front. He’ll be disruptive as a pass rusher, and a potential star once an NFL position coach takes some of the rough edges off his technique. 


FINAL GRADE: 1st/2nd round

4. Maurice Hurst

COLLEGE: Michigan
CLASS: R-Sr. HEIGHT: 6’1” WEIGHT: 285

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STRONG POINTS:

Hurst’s game is built on elite quickness. He fires off the snap and can shoot gaps before blockers can react, making himself small and using quick, strong hands to keep offensive linemen from getting into his pads. His low center of gravity plays in his favor, as Hurst plays with very good balance and natural leverage. He’s a high-effort player, and he shows good pursuit speed for an interior lineman. He had a reputation as a high-character leader at Michigan.


WEAK POINTS: He’s small and plays to his size. If he doesn’t win early in the down, he tends to get swallowed up by blockers, and he struggles to shed once an offensive lineman sinks his hands into him. He was a rotational player for most of his career in Ann Arbor, and it remains to be seen what kind of workload he can handle at the next level. He also was red-flagged at the Scouting Combine for a heart condition that prevented from taking part in the drills in Indianapolis. However, he has since been medically cleared and was able to be a full participant for Michigan's Pro Day on March 23.


SUMMARY: A disruptive three-technique, Hurst has a chance to thrive in an aggressive, one-gapping scheme. His floor would be as an effective pass-rush specialist.


FINAL GRADE: 1st/2nd round

5. Tim Settle

COLLEGE: Virginia Tech
CLASS: R-So. HEIGHT: 6’2” WEIGHT: 330


STRONG POINTS: A mammoth nose tackle with impressive athleticism for his size, Settle is one of the higher-upside linemen in this draft class. He flashes dominance, capable of pushing double teams into the backfield with raw power. He typically shows good get-off at the snap and flashes an impressive swim move when working as a pass rusher. He’s surprisingly nimble, especially when working angles, and even shows the ability to run down plays in pursuit.


WEAK POINTS: Settle will try to work gaps, but he often struggles to disengage from a blocker if he can’t simply steamroll him (or, as happened on a handful of his sacks and pressures in college, he benefits from a missed blocking assignment). Awareness can be a problem for him, too; he’ll too often lose track of the ball as a run defender, barreling upfield and just hoping for the best.


SUMMARY: There’s a lot to like with Settle, who has the kind of size and athleticism combo that can’t be taught. He needs to be coached up, but he could be molded into a two-gap run-stuffer or further developed as an upfield attacker.


FINAL GRADE: 2nd/3rd round

Other defensive tackles that could be drafted: Harrison Phillips, Stanford; Trenton Thompson, Georgia; Derrick Nnadi, Florida State; Breeland Speaks, Ole Miss; P.J. Hall, Sam Houston State; RJ McIntosh, Miami; Nathan Shepherd, Fort Hays State; Andrew Brown, Virginia; Kendrick Norton, Miami; Folorunso Fatukasi, Connecticut; Lowell Lotulelei, Utah; B.J. Hill, NC State; Poona Ford, Texas; Justin Jones, NC State