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NFL Draft 2021 Player Position Rankings: Defense

Micah Parsons, Penn State

 Defensive Line

1. Kwity Paye, Michigan -- In a fairly weak defensive line class, Kwity Paye takes the cake as the top at his position. Paye is an inspirational story; he was born in a refugee camp in Guinea before making the trek to the United States and Michigan, where he developed into one of college football's most disruptive pass rushers. Paye has always been an elite athlete, with incredible quickness off the line and a constant motor that never ceases to amaze. However, he is still developing some of the fundamental parts of being a defensive linemen, refining his pass rushing moves and technique. He's made progress in that regard since arriving in Ann Arbor, but any NFL team will still need to help him take that next step. If he lands in the right spot to unleash his potential, there's no question he has superstar-level upside.

Projected Range: Mid-first round to early second round

2. Jaelan Phillips, Miami (FL) -- Jaelan Phillips has had a fascinating career arc so far, and that's even before he reaches the NFL. He was the top overall recruit in the country when he arrived at UCLA, but was never able to reach that pedestal with the Bruins as he slogged through injuries. He eventually transferred to Miami and after sitting out 2019, exploded onto the scene this past fall, with eight sacks in a shortened season. I'm a much bigger fan of Phillips than his Hurricane counterpart, Gregory Rousseau, as he has battled through adversity and proven can be a productive piece on a well-known, Power Five program. Phillips also is much faster than Rousseau, as his 40 time checks in at 4.6 compared to Rousseau's 4.8. He's also just a much smoother and fluid athlete, with the potential to develop into either a true defensive end or standup outside linebacker in the pros. Injury concerns could threaten to drop him slightly, but he's still likely a first-round lock.

Projected Range: Mid-first round to early second round

3. Jayson Oweh, Penn State -- Jayson Oweh is a classic example of why it's so difficult to project college players to the NFL. Based solely on his physique and freakish athleticism, Oweh should be a Day One lock. However, his production while at Penn State was very underwhelming, especially in 2020, as he finished the campaign with zero sacks. He still proved he could be an asset in run support and create some disruption, but so much of his game is very raw at this point. If he lands in the right system that is willing to be patient, he can absolutely be a star pass rusher and perhaps the top D-Linemen in this cycle. Oweh may end up being the most significant boom-or-bust prospect in the later first round. I think his chances to boom are there but again, patience will be key.

Projected Range: Late first round to mid-second round

4. Christian Barmore, Alabama -- Following the theme of talented, but relatively raw, defensive linemen is Alabama's Christian Barmore. Barmore follows a host of former Tide interior linemen that have gone onto the NFL, including Marcel Dareus, Da'Ron Payne, and Quinnen Williams. He has a lot of traits NFL scouts adore, as a natural fit in a 4-3 defense with impressive athleticism and a proven track record. However, NFL personnel believe that he has to become a lot better as a run defender to be worthy of a first-round selection and there are some character concerns here. It's never easy to know whether those concerns are valid and will impact his career, or simply nitpicking the closer we get to the Draft. I was really impressed with Barmore while at Alabama and I felt like he had his moments where he absolutely shined, even on a defense loaded with future NFL guys. His range is tough to call right now, as he could go anywhere from Top 15 to out of the second round.

Projected Range: Late first round to late second round

5. Gregory Rousseau, Miami (FL) -- As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Gregory Rousseau emerged as one of college football's premier pass rushers, totaling 15.5 sacks and 19.5 TFL. He looked well on his way to establishing himself as a household name, but instead chose to opt-out of the 2020 campaign. Rousseau still looks he will end up somewhere in the first-round, and at 6'7", 265 pounds, he already looks like an NFL vet. I'm not as high on Rousseau as others for a couple reasons; for one, he is somewhat of a one-hit wonder for me. I would've liked to see a full body of work beyond just one incredible season to really be convinced. If you watch his tape, you'll notice that Rousseau gets most of his sacks from pure craftiness, as well as broken plays. Rarely will you see him overpower opposing offensive linemen with his athleticism or quickness off the edge. He still has potential to continue to develop because he is fairly young, but he pales in comparison to some of the other names near the top of this cycle.

Projected Range: Mid-first round to early second round

Sleeper: Jonathon Cooper, Ohio State

Since 2016, Ohio State has done better than any other school in the country in producing highly drafted defensive linemen, from the Bosa brothers to Chase Young. They likely won't have a first-rounder from the D-Line in this cycle, but Jonathon Cooper's a name to keep an eye on come Day Two or Three. Cooper waited his turn in Columbus before earning a starting spot in 2018, and he went for 6.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks. Bigger things were hoped for in 2019 for the veteran but he dealt with injuries, before a farewell 2020 campaign. Cooper's numbers were never extremely impressive and as a prospect, he doesn't jump off the page. However, he proved he could be a quality, productive player with the ability to play at several different spots on the D-Line and make an impact. To be a starter on Ohio State's defensive line you have to be an effective player and even through injuries, Cooper proved to be. I like him in the later rounds as a developmental piece without much risk attached to him.

Projected Range: Early fifth round to undrafted


1. Micah Parsons, Penn State -- Yet another player who opted out of the 2020 college football season, Micah Parsons enters this Draft a little bit underrated, at least in how I view him. The talented defender joins a long list of former Penn State linebackers who have made the jump to the NFL, but it's rare to see a prospect with his ability to impact games on the defensive end. While at Penn State, Parsons was able to play defensive end, inside linebacker, or on the outside. He proved that he could be a major factor in run support or pass coverage, while also impacting the game as a pass rusher. If you want to see just how tremendous he can be, go back and watch the 2019-20 Cotton Bowl, where he essentially clinched a victory for PSU against Memphis with his play down the stretch. I consider Parsons a Top 5 prospect in this class and I'm fairly surprised at how little attention he is receiving. If he drops anywhere outside the Top 10, he's the steal of this Draft.

Projected Range: Early to mid-first round

2. Zaven Collins, Tulsa -- It's not too often we see first-round talents at Tulsa, but Zaven Collins is not your typical Golden Hurricane defender. A former quarterback in high school, Collins has been an instrumental piece of the Tulsa defense the last several seasons, capped off with a massive 2020. He took home the Bednarik Award as the nation's best defender, posting a statline of 54 tackles, four interceptions, and four sacks. It's not just his college statline that makes me a fan of Collins, but his combination of speed and size, as well as his versatility. He can line up just about anywhere in the front seven and make an impact and he also played some safety in high school. It's rare we see a player with his production still have the potential to get even better, but Collins is a rare case.

Projected Range: Mid-first round to early second round

3. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame -- Speaking of accomplished defenders, Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is coming off a 2020 season in which he won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. The rangy linebacker can help out defenses in a variety of different ways. He probably won't rush the quarterback too much, but his real strength is out in coverage. While at ND, he proved that he could cover running backs, receivers, and tight ends extremely well. In an NFL that is utilizing tight ends more and more, having a strong coverage linebacker like Owusu-Koramoah is a major advantage. I'm not sure he has the upside of others in this cycle, but he still has the tools to be a really productive NFL player.

Projected Range: Mid-first round to mid-second round

4. Azeez Ojulari, Georgia -- Even in a Georgia front seven loaded with former four and five-star prospects, Azeez Ojulari emerged as one of their most reliable pieces. In 2019 and 2020, he recorded the same 5.5 sack total, although he played a higher percentage of snaps this past fall. Ojulari is more limited as a linebacker than others in the class, operating more as a pure pass rusher than anything else. However, he did show an improved ability in the 2020 season as an important piece in rush defense, showcasing solid instincts and closing speed. As a pass rusher, he's not the most explosive athlete but is still able to get by with his power and toughness. Although slightly more limited, Ojulari is worthy of a flier in the late first or early second.

Projected Range: Mid-first round to late second round

5. Jabril Cox, LSU -- Jabril Cox is a great case of betting on yourself, and it working out. Cox was a former FCS All-American during a stellar career at North Dakota State but decided to head south and join up with the defending National Champion LSU Tigers. Although LSU had a frustrating season, especially defensively, Cox proved to be a complete defender with great sideline-to-sideline speed and range. He can help out in coverage if necessary and is a dangerous blitzer in certain packages. The instincts and natural feel for the game that Cox possesses are difficult to teach, and he's already very accomplished for his age. I don't think he will end up going on Day One, but should be a quality pickup somewhere in Rounds 2-3.

Projected Range: Early second round to late third round

Sleeper: Hamilcar Rashad Jr., Oregon State

Prior to the 2020 season, Hamilcar Rashad Jr. was drawing some buzz as a potential first or second round prospect if he was able to build on a 2019 season where he had plenty of impressive moments. The shortened and chaotic 2020 Pac-12 season presented a real challenge to the Beaver defender, who was unable to record a sack on the "season". Rashad Jr. still showed he could be a positive asset as a run defender, with decent coverage abilities. A poor showing in the Senior Bowl combined with the quiet 2020 contributed to Rashad's descent to likely mid-round selection, but I still like some of his tools. Although he needs to bulk up to play outside linebacker at the next level, he has impressive length and an extremely high motor. If the Pac-12 had a normal 2020 season and Rashad played through it all, I think he'd be discussed as a fringe first or second-round prospect. Instead, some team could get a potential steal later on.

Projected Range: Mid-third round to early sixth round


1. Patrick Surtain, Alabama -- The son of a former NFL Pro Bowl corner, Patrick Surtain has had lofty expectations on the football field his entire career. He played immediately at Alabama in 2018 and evolved into the team's top cover corner during his time in Tuscaloosca. That proven experience should be a major benefit for the former Tide defensive back, and he has a bunch of other attributes NFL teams like. For one, he has an ideal build for a professional corner, at 6'2", 205 pounds and yet still moves extremely well. Surtain consistently went up against other team's best receivers in the loaded SEC and still consistently put up good numbers. He might not have the ceiling of past No. 1 corners, but has the experience and physique to be an effective defensive back. 

Projected Range: Early to late first round

2. Trevon Moehrig, TCU -- Playing on an average TCU team the last few seasons, Trevon Moehrig didn't receive the recognition he deserved. He established himself as not just one of the best safeties in the nation, but one of the best pure defenders. As we inch closer to the Draft, you'll see most mocks feature Moehrig somewhere in the late first round, or even into the second. For me, he's one of the more underrated players in the Draft, no matter the position. Also standing 6'2" with long arms, he's a consistent presence in passing situations, with the ball skills to turn into a real interception machine at the next level. He's not as rangy as other safeties in the class, but makes up for it with solid instincts and the ability to line up just about anywhere. Additionally, he's one of the hardest hitters in the class, with a few pops that should be featured on highlight reels. Safeties rarely go very high so it's unsurprising to see Moehrig floating near the bottom of the first, but he has the talent to be much better than that selection would imply.

Projected Range: Mid-first round to late second round

3. Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech -- Caleb Farley was the first major college football player to opt out of the 2020 season, beginning an exodus that includes a host of future first-round selections. That shouldn't be considered a negative against him, but there are some who wonder if he would have benefitted a lot from having more game tape, especially considering how inconsistent he was during his college career. There's still a ton to like about him, with good size and impressive athleticism. He's probably the fastest pure runner in this corner class and his closing speed is particularly excellent. However, the concerns surrounding Farley are just as notable. For one, he had two serious injuries in college, a torn ACL back in 2017 and back problems in 2019. While he's at 100 percent now, those questions are going to be monitored. The inconsistency is also worrisome, as he had moments where he was a dominant, All-ACC player, but just as many moments where he disappeared on the field. I still like Farley enough to view him as a first-rounder, but I have him rated lower than others I've seen.

Projected Range: Mid-first round to mid-second round

4. Jaycee Horn, South Carolina -- Jaycee Horn is another one of the cornerbacks in this class with famous bloodlines as his dad, Joe, was a star receiver for the Saints for a number of years. Jaycee entered 2020 as a fringe first-round prospect but has worked his way into top cornerback range, even with South Carolina struggling mightily. Scouts love Horn's natural, fluid athleticism and his feel for the game that you can tell he learned from his father. He's a solid all-around athlete who improved each season he played for the Gamecocks, which is not always the case for young corners in the SEC. He isn't as fast as a Farley may be, but is still able to keep up with pro-level receivers and can play in a variety of different defenses. I'm not quite as high on Horn as others, as I've seen him rated as the top defensive back in the class. He's got a nice skill set, but never popped out on film or in games when you were watching South Carolina. I would've liked to see a little more in 2020 and while it's somewhat understandable why he opted out following the firing of Will Muschamp, it didn't help his NFL case.

Projected Range: Early to late first round

5. Jevon Holland, Oregon -- A bunch of corners could lay claim to this No. 5 spot, including Gregg Newsome, Tyson Campbell, or Eric Stokes, but I'm a huge fan of Oregon safety Jevon Holland. Holland arrived in Eugene and immediately made his presence felt, totaling 44 tackles and becoming one of the nation's leaders with five interceptions. His sophomore season he continued to make an impact picking off passes, with four, but he also improved as an all-around defender, improving in tackles and pass breakups. I truly believe he would have been a Jim Thorpe Award favorite for 2020 but opted out prior to the Pac-12's eventual return. He rates as a Day Two or Three prospect by most scouts, but I think he's a first-round talent. It's not everyday you see a player with his type of instincts and awareness, who also passes the test as a great athlete. On the field Holland looks small for some reason, but he measures in at 6'1", 195 pounds and should have the chance to bulk up once he's in the league. Only adding to his value is his potential as a playmaker on special teams, although it's unclear how much that will factor in at the next level.

Projected Range: Mid-second round to late third round

Sleeper: Paris Ford, Pittsburgh

Although this safety class is considered somewhat weak at the top, it's incredibly deep, which means there will be great value in the later rounds. That should be a big win for an NFL team looking to add a piece like Pittsburgh's Paris Ford, who is a human highlight reel. Ford had a huge 2019 campaign for the Panthers, leading the team in tackles and gaining a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the nation. He was well on his way to another big season in 2020, but opted out with four games remaining in the season. His production and closing speed should earn him some credit from NFL personnel, but some wonder if he has the necessary size to survive in the pros. He definitely will need to bulk up, but Ford has never been shy of contact or playing physical. 

Projected Range: Early fourth to late sixth round

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