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NFL Draft 2020: Defensive Position Rankings

Defensive Line
Xavier McKinney, No. 3 DB
1. Chase Young, Ohio State: If not for missing two regular season games and facing constant double and triple teams, Chase Young might've earned himself a spot in New York as a Heisman Finalist. He certainly was deserving of all the love he received, as an absolute freak of nature off the edge who tallied 16.5 sacks his junior year. Young can also impact games in other ways than just sacking the QB, as he had six forced fumbles and three pass deflections in 2019, using his length to get in passing lanes. He truly is the type of impact defender that can change the complexion of a defense the moment he joins it. Young is my No. 1 overall prospect in this Draft and a better prospect at this stage than the last two great Ohio State pass rushers, Nick & Joey Bosa. In fact, if I was Cincinnati, Young would be my pick No. 1 overall and not Burrow.
Projected Range: Early first round
2. Javon Kinlaw, South Carolina: I'm a big fan of Derrick Brown, who is likely to be the first interior D-Linemen off the board, which should tell you what I think of Javon Kinlaw rated one spot higher. Kinlaw was an imposing force these last couple seasons at South Carolina, but while Brown was aided by the presence of two other likely NFL players (Marlon Davidson & Nick Coe) Kinlaw faced constant double teams. He still had six sacks in 12 games, earning him All-SEC honors and attracting the attention of NFL scouts. Kinlaw has only helped himself in the pre-Draft process, posting good numbers at the Combine and having a terrific Senior Bowl. In fact, multiple scouts have stated that he was the best overall player at the Senior Bowl, regardless of position. I think Brown probably has a higher floor than Kinlaw, but the former Gamecock is oozing with potential.
Projected Range: Early first round to mid-first round
3. Derrick Brown, Auburn: Derrick Brown surprised a lot of people by opting to return to Auburn for his senior season, but he didn't disappoint. He was a factor on every down, and finished off the year with 55 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss. Brown is a good pass rusher for his position but really makes his presence felt on run support, where he can eat gaps inside and control the line of scrimmage. He projects favorably going into the NFL, as he has the size and physique to immediately be a contributor. He looks like a Top 10 lock in this Draft, and that seems about right for the long-time contributor.
Projected Range: Early first round to mid-first round
4. A.J. Epenesa, Iowa: Any NFL team looking for a pure edge rusher has to have their eye on A.J. Epenesa after what he did the last few years at Iowa. In 2018 he was a reserve on a veteran D-Line and still made his presence felt, collecting 10.5 sacks, which led the Big Ten. Finally a starter in 2019, he continued to rack up the sacks, finishing with 11.5 on the year. At 6'5", 275 pounds, Epenesa has the versatility to line up in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive scheme, and he should be able to produce in a wide variety of roles. He might struggle a little bit initially because he relied so much on his strength in college, but it's hard to imagine a talent like this not finding a way to contribute reliably on Sundays.
Projected Range: Mid-first round to late first round
5. Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State: Gross-Matos has a lot of similarities to Epenesa in terms of fit in an NFL defense and production, but he ran a significantly faster 40 time at the Combine. It will be interesting to see how exactly teams choose to use this guy. He's a much more natural 3-4 end, where he posted 9.5 sacks in 2018 but Penn State chose to play him inside a lot in 2019. He certainly can still contribute on the interior, but at 265 pounds, he doesn't seem big enough to play that position in the pros. On the outside, he projects favorably as a powerful, quick edge rusher who still has to polish off areas of his game, but should still play right away. I'm not sure if he has quite the upside of others in this Draft, but he's more proven than a lot of other prospects, making him worthy of a first-round selection.
Projected Range: Mid-first round to early second round

Mid-Round Sleeper: James Lynch, Baylor
One of the keys to Baylor's Big 12 Title contention was the league's Defensive Player of the Year, James Lynch. Lynch had a breakout season for the Bears, racking up 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss on the conference's best defense. He decided to make the expected jump to the NFL despite retaining one year of eligibility, and his range seems somewhere anywhere Rounds 3-6. He can play either inside or out on an NFL defense, but his thick frame suggests somebody who fits the defensive tackle spot. That frame helps him create a lot of power, but he doesn't have the top-tier athleticism of other D-Linemen in this Draft. He's also hurt by the quality of the offensive lines he played against in the Big 12; it's obviously still Power Five talent, but he didn't face the opponents of the SEC or Big Ten.

Late Round Sleeper: Oluwole Betiku, Illinois
Oluwole Betiku has had an interesting career path so far through the college ranks. He came out of high school as a five-star prospect who was supposed to be a central piece of USC's defense for years to come. He never really fit in with the Trojans and instead made the surprising jump to the Midwest, where he was a one-year wonder for Lovie Smith and Illinois. He's the type of player that probably could've used one more season to further develop, but he instead decided to go pro. He's a little bit undersized at 250 pounds and likely ends up being an outside linebacker in the pros. He can certainly get after the QB, but needs to develop other areas of his game. With his talent, I wouldn't be shocked at all if somebody takes a flier on him in the later rounds just to see what he can do.

1. Isaiah Simmons, Clemson: There is not a more versatile player in this Draft than Isaiah Simmons, period. Simmons began his career with the Tigers mainly playing safety but transitioned into outside linebacker, where he'll likely spend most of his time in the NFL. He has the ability to cover tight ends, receivers and running backs, and he can be moved around in any modern defense. There's no question about his production or talent either; he was the heart and soul of a Clemson defense that ranked No. 1 in the country this year in defensive efficiency and he dominated at the Combine. His workouts often dwarfed just not other linebackers, but players at skill positions. Simmons actually ranks No. 2 on my board (behind Young, ahead of Burrow) simply because of how many different roles he can play, and play well.
Projected Range: Early first round
2. K'Lavon Chaisson, LSU: K'Lavon Chaisson played the DE/OLB hybrid role this past season for LSU, but he'll likely operate as an outside 'backer in the pros. There is no question how disruptive of a force he can be off the perimeter, as he has an explosive first step and twitchy instincts. At 6'4", 250 pounds he has good size but should continue to add bulk as he matures as a player. There are still areas of his game that need to grow as a linebacker, but the upside and potential are already there for him. One of the bigger concerns with the former LSU Tiger is his injury history; he missed pretty all of 2018 with a torn ACL. He obviously showed he could recover from it but for a prospect that relies so much on quickness and explosiveness, it's something to monitor.
Projected Range: Mid-first round to early second round
3. Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma: Murray played the "janitor" role in the Oklahoma defense these last few seasons, cleaning up play after play with excellent closing speed and the athleticism to cover sideline to sideline. He had 155 tackles in 2018, and while his production dipped slightly in '19, he proved to be a guy that could do more things than just tackle. There's upside as a possible pass rusher or coverage 'backer in the future, and Murray is a very proven playmaker. He does still struggle at times diagnosing opposing offenses, and can be mistake prone. He didn't learn the best habits early on his OU career, although he looked more natural as a leader this past fall under the teaching of coordinator Alex Grinch. I don't see him quite having the upside of others at the linebacker position, but he's one of those high floor prospects that should have a lengthy career.
Projected Range: Mid-first round to late first round
4. Patrick Queen, LSU: With all the talent that LSU had on both sides of the ball in 2019, it's not a surprise that Patrick Queen took a backseat at times. However, this guy is a legit NFL talent who seems to be rising up draft boards as of recently. He has exceptional closing speed for his position, and a hard hitter in the heart of the defense. He's a little bit less proven that fellow 'backer Kenneth Murray, but the way he ended 2019 has me confident he actually has a higher ceiling than the former Sooner. It appears that Queen has worked his way into being a first-round lock, but he has a wide range of where he could actually end up.
Projected Range: Mid-first round to early second round
5. Josh Uche, Michigan: Another player that appears to be rising up the boards late in the process is Josh Uche from Michigan. Uche spent most of his time in Ann Arbor as a reserve, used mainly in special pass rushing schemes under coordinator Don Brown. He finally earned a starting spot as a senior, and he proved he could be an every-down contributor. In addition to his 8.5 sacks he showed the ability to be a factor in run support. He's viewed mainly as a pure edge rusher at the next level, but there is some hope that he can still contribute in a 4-3 defensive scheme. He doesn't seem to have Pro Bowl upside but if he were to land in the right system, you get the feeling he can be a reliable contributor.
Projected Range: Late first round to early third round

Mid-Round Sleeper: Michael Divinity Jr., LSU
Michael Divinity played in the shadow of Devin White during the beginning stages of his career, but with White off to the NFL, it looked like it was going to be his time in 2019. Unfortunately, Divinity had a host of issues on the season. He served multiple suspensions, including a two-game one to start the year and a six-game sentence for failing a drug test. Even when he wasn't suspended, Divinity struggled with his health and really didn't make the impact he was hoping to. Those off-the-field question marks appear significant enough to drop Divinity to the middle rounds, even if he has top-tier talent. He's a really intelligent player on the field, and has proven that he can do a lot of different things for a defense. LSU is also a school that is regularly producing talent at the position including White, Kwon Alexander and likely three Draft selections in 2019. That should allow general managers to feel a little bit more comfortable about him, based on his similarities to other former Tigers.

Late Round Sleeper: Dante Olson, Montana
If Dante Olson played at a bigger school that FCS Montana, he would be one of the brightest stars in college football. After racking up 151 tackles in 2018, he became even more productive as a senior, totaling 179 this past season. He's excellent at play recognition, and he has natural instincts for the position. He doesn't have the athleticism of others in this Draft nor the upside, but he's an old-school player that could certainly translate to the NFL. It's unlikely Olson will go anywhere before the fifth round, but it's hard to imagine this productive of a college player not at finding himself on some roster for next fall.

Defensive Backs
1. Jeffrey Okudah, Ohio State: I was shocked when Jeffrey Okudah did not win the Jim Thorpe Award for nation's best defensive back in 2019. He consistently took on the best the Big Ten (and later Clemson) had to offer and looked the part. He's already an elite cover corner, with a good lengthy frame and excellent footwork. Okudah isn't going to lead the league in interceptions unless he unleashes some other part of his game, but he is a guy who can succeed on an island in man coverage. He is the latest in a lengthy list of Ohio State defensive backs taken high in the Draft, but I think he's head and shoulders above what other former Buckeyes were at this point in his career.
Projected Range: Early first round to mid-first round
2. C.J. Henderson, Florida: Everything that I've heard about the cornerback makeup in this class is that it's Okudah and C.J. Henderson 1-2, and that seems about right. I have a little bit more concerns with Henderson than Okudah, but still think he is worthy of a mid-first sound selection. He's certainly an excellent cover corner himself, and is excellent at limiting separation. Henderson also has superb makeup speed if needed, perhaps even better than Okudah's. And, the stats show that he can make an impact, as he batted down 11 passes for the Gators in 2019. With that being said, he's still working on his consistency every game. He had some moments where he definitely struggled for UF this past fall, and he isn't a very good tackler. Perhaps that won't matter much in the league if he's able to enough else, but it's a valid concern.
Projected Range: Mid-first round to late first round
3. Xavier McKinney, Alabama: Xavier McKinney is my top safety in the 2019 Draft Class. He was the best defender on the field this season for the Crimson Tide, and he proved he could make an impact in a variety of ways. He's accomplished playing free safety, lining up in the slot, and 'Bama also used him in run support often as well. He's a very good tackler for his position, and he has the feel for the game and position you look for at his age. I actually think he could be a little bit underrated at this point in the cycle, as teams have become falling in love with the potential of other guys. But, McKinney is the type of reliable, intelligent defensive back that shouldn't have any troubles making the transition to the league.
Projected Range: Mid-first round to early second round
4. Trevon Diggs, Alabama: The younger brother of former Minnesota Viking and current Buffalo Bill Stefon, Trevon Diggs started his career playing wide receiver like his sibling. He eventually moved to the defensive side of the ball, where he showed elite-level upside at corner. There's a lot to love about his pure athleticism and ball skills, which helped him reel in three interceptions during the 2019 campaign. However, Diggs does have a relatively lengthy medical history, and he's still learning some of the finer parts of playing the corner spot. If he lands in the right scheme it wouldn't be shocking to see him really take off, but there's certainly some risk there. I will say, I think an underrated part of his game could end up being special teams. He played some returner at Alabama, and looked like he could make an impact in that aspect of the game.
Projected Range: Late first round to mid-second round
5. Grant Delpit, LSU: Prior to this season, I was convinced that Grant Delpit was the best defender in college football, and a likely Top 5 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The safety didn't have a bad 2019 by any means, totaling 65 tackles, two interceptions, and seven pass deflections while winning the Thorpe. Yet, it was still a year that left you wanting more from the LSU defender after being so dominant in so many different areas during 2018. To be fair to Delpit, he wasn't 100 percent for much of the year and it really showed at times. He didn't have the same type of fearlessness or impact-play ability as a junior, which limited all the different things he could do. He doesn't have any long-term injury concerns so that shouldn't be used against him, and I do think he has the makeup to be a really good pro. At 6'3", size is of no concern for him, and he really plays downhill, finding ways to make an impact. It wouldn't shock me at all if he lands somewhere in the middle of the first, and Dallas seems like a good fit for him.
Projected Range: Mid-first round to late first round

Mid-Round Sleeper: Bryce Hall, Virginia
Going into 2019, Bryce Hall was under serious consideration to be labeled the best cornerback in the country. He really set the tone on the back-end of a really good Virginia defense, finishing his 2018 season with 24 pass deflections and 62 tackles. Unfortunately for Hall, he missed most of '19 with injury, and even when he did play he didn't live up some of the hype. He really struggled against some of the faster wide outs he played against, and NFL teams have expressed doubts about his athleticism when compared to what he'll see in the pros. Hall didn't completely answer those concerns with a so-so Combine performance, so he looks like a guy who will end up going somewhere between the late second round and early fourth round. I'll say that I still really like Hall as a prospect; he could be really effective in a press-man defense, or lining up to defend the slot. He's also proven that he can be a productive contributor, even if this past season didn't go as planned.

Late Round Sleeper: Tanner Muse, Clemson
Even though he was an important piece on a Clemson defense that won two National Championships, Tanner Muse has never been viewed as an NFL guy. He wasn't a very highly touted recruit as a player with average athleticism and questionable closing speed. Muse answered those concerns by surprising with a 4.41 40 yard dash at the Combine, showing that he does talent. With his size, that talent would probably be put to better use at linebacker in the next level, which could actually make him pretty interesting. With his coverage skills, he would immediately be an important coverage linebacker who could work against tight ends that would've been mismatches previously. There's a good chance Muse doesn't even get drafted but I think he's the type of player that could find a niche in the NFL.

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