In order to build a great defense, you need a defensive line that can get to the quarterback. While 2021 didn’t have premier pass rush talent, the 2022 draft will.
1. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon
It’s going to be very hard for me to remove Thibodeaux out of this slot. In fact, at this moment, he is my top overall prospect and it’s unlikely that he’ll ever drop below number two. Thibodeaux is a Jadveon Clowney or Myles Garrett-type prospect who is in the running for the first overall pick. He’s the complete package and has looked the part of a future NFL star from the moment he’s stepped on Oregon’s campus. While his 2020 season stats won’t overly impress you, he turned in an incredible performance against USC and Alijah Vera-Tucker in the Pac-12 Championship game.
2. Drake Jackson, USC
Once Jackson finds his position and can develop, he can become a high-level player. He has demonstrated the versatility to play both 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker which will improve his stock. As a freshman, he played exclusively with his hand in the dirt and had flashes of brilliance. Then as a sophomore, he lost weight to play standing up where he looked more comfortable as the season progressed. At the moment, he’s a great athlete that is still trying to find his footing as a player. With an entire offseason to work on technique and his pass-rush moves, I expect Jackson to play like an All-American.
3. DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M
Leal is a player that checks all the boxes. Blessed with great size, speed, and versatility, he has the makings of a high draft pick. At 6’5″ and 290 pounds, Leal can play at any spot across the defensive line and doesn’t look out of place. He gets off the line quickly and uses his speed to beat offensive linemen. Despite all of this, he has yet to show the consistency you’d like to see for someone with his talent. He needs to work on counter moves and finishing plays. I’d like to see him take the next step in 2021 by turning pressures into sacks and playing up to his potential.
4. Zach Harrison, Ohio State
Ohio State seems to keep developing pass rushers who become high draft picks. From the Bosa brothers to Chase Young, the Buckeyes can produce special edge players. Harrison was a very highly touted recruit out of high school and was expected to take that role as the next star of the Ohio State defense. It’s been an up and down two years, but the potential is there. There have been plenty of flashes in his film, but he seems to be missing something.
5. George Karlaftis, Purdue
Who’s the best defender that you’ve probably never heard of? It’s got to be George Karlaftis, the pass rush demon from Purdue. While he’s not a great athlete, Karlaftis is a technician who is very polished for his age. He exploded onto the scene as a freshman in 2020 with 7.5 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss. His body is well-built and he should be able to play early as a pro. I do worry that he may have already peaked as a player due to his lack of athleticism and overall pass rush refinement. Even if this is the case, Karlaftis is a guy who should play in the NFL for a long, long time.
6. Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan
Most people thought Hutchison wasn’t coming back for his senior year and most people also think Hutchison is one of the premier edge rushers in college football for 2021. While I think the potential is there, he leaves a lot to be desired. What I see is a fundamentally sound player who does all the little things well, but struggles to pop off the screen with big plays. I think overall he’ll be somewhat limited as a second best edge rusher on a team that will never scare opposing defenses. He will be a guy that you want on your team due to his high floor and ability to play well against the run and pass. Just don’t expect him to become a star.
7. Jordan Davis, Georgia
The largest man on this list also happens to be the best run defender. Davis was getting some late buzz towards the end of the 2020 season, but wanted to go back to Athens and make one last push for a National Championship. Davis can play in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense and is at his best when taking up two blockers in the run game as a nose or 1-tech. His goal for the 2021 season should be to develop as a pass rusher. Davis has great athleticism for his size, but is unable to win on third downs. He could be limited as a two-down player, but he can become one of the elite run defenders in the league as long as he keeps his conditioning in check.
8. Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati
One of the best defenses in 2020 was Cincinnati. While they lacked one true blue-chip talent, Sanders was one of the more impactful players on that unit. He led the Bearcats in sacks with seven while also playing admirably against the run. His first step is quick and violent and he also does an excellent job of using his hands to disengage from offensive linemen. I wouldn’t call him a great athlete, but he has enough quickness to get the job done. The reason he’s not higher up on his list is how he projects as a pro because he doesn’t do one thing exceptionally well. Rather, he’s just a solid player all the way around. He’ll be a solid either as a complementary pass rusher or first guy off the bench.
9. Brenton Cox, Florida
A Georgia transfer, Cox looked good in his first season as a starter. His quickness off the edge gives the hope that he can turn into a strong pass rusher in the future. While 4.5 sacks doesn’t seem like much, he led the team with 18 pressures. Pressures aren’t obviously as valuable as sacks, but it can effect a quarterback into making a bad decision. I would expect another strong year from Cox to solidify him as a first or second-round pick. As a run defender, Cox does an adequate job of setting the edge but could show more power against bigger tackles. Another year in the weight room will make him a better all-around player.
10. Tyreke Smith, Ohio State
Another Ohio State edge rusher who was highly touted as a high schooler. Smith has gotten off to a slow start in his Buckeye career, but did look better last season. He only played in four games, but he had two sacks and a forced fumble. If he can continue to progress and show improvement, he will rise up this list. As it stands now, you are projecting the type of player Smith can be rather than the one he currently is. He has the size to be a three-down player on the edge, but needs to become more physical at the point of attack. With better technique and use of his legs to generate power, Smith should become an All-Conference player.
Nik Bonitto (Oklahoma), Scott Patchan (Colorado State), Xavier Thomas (Clemson), Haskell Garrett (Ohio State), Perrion Winfrey (Oklahoma), Phidarian Mathis (Alabama), Thomas Booker (Stanford)