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2020 NFL Draft Season Preview: Defense

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A down year for defense? Perhaps.

With Week 1 of the 2019 college football season set to premiere on Saturday, it’s the perfect time to look ahead to the 2020 NFL Draft and explore which position groups might be the deepest and which players are worth watching. Today, we’ll look at the defensive side of the ball.

It was common knowledge that last year’s draft was a strong one for defensive talent. Seven of the top ten picks of the draft played on the defensive side of the ball. Despite sporting a few elite defenders, that may not be the case in 2020. There’s still time, of course, and there are at least a handful of positions that still look far from settled at this time.


Defensive Tackle

After a dominant season which saw six tackles taken in the first round, it’s only natural that a down year would follow. Auburn’s Derrick Brown could have come out last year, but chose to stay in school. Brown is a huge, potentially dominant run blocker—but there are questions about his pass-rush utility. Similar questions continue to dog Raekwon Davis from Alabama. Both players are probably first-round selections, but after them the talent is a bit shakier. Rashard Lawrence’s arrow is pointing up, after finishing last season at LSU with five sacks. He looks like a starting-caliber 3-tech. South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw has a massive 6’6” frame, but he needs to prove he can be more impactful on a game-by-game basis. If you’re looking for a riser, Colorado’s Mustafa Johnson is a hybrid DT/DE at 290 lbs with quickness reminiscent of Ed Oliver or Geno Atkins.

Edge Rusher

A solid group overall, there are a couple high-end players and then a large, undifferentiated mass of prospects in the middle. If a handful of those players improve, it could be a great year at the position. Ohio State’s Chase Young and Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa are among the best prospects in the nation. Both have the frames to be effective against the run and the pass, and both had very 2018’s. K’Lavon Chaisson’s athletic gifts have gotten a ton of hype over at LSU, but he needs to stay healthy if he wants to take advantage of them. After those three, players like Kenny Willekes at Michigan State, Julian Okwara of Notre Dame and Yetur Gross-Matos of Penn State are all second-round prospects looking to make a jump into the first. Syracuse’s Alton Robinson might come down with double-digit sacks, but his ability to truly bend around the edge looks questionable on tape.

Linebacker

More players could always emerge, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see only one or two 2020 linebacker prospects drafted in the first round. Those players will likely be Alabama’s Dylan Moses and linebacker/safety hybrid Isaiah Simmons from Clemson. Both fit the new NFL mold as high-end athletes who can run, cover and chase. Oregon’s Troy Dye can as well, but his lack of instincts and size will prevent him from playing inside. Miami’s Shaquille Quarterman and Northwestern’s Paddy Fisher have the size to play in the middle, but both need to answer questions about their speed.

Safety

Everyone talks about LSU’s Grant Delpit and they should. At 6’2” and 201 lbs with speed to burn, there’s nothing that the kid can’t do on the back end of a defense. He’s a top-fifteen lock. Xavier McKinney from Alabama looks like a Minkah Fitzpatrick clone, even if he doesn’t really excel in any one area. Notre Dame’s Alohi Gilman has decent call skills but he doesn’t have the speed to be able to handle a single-high alignment. Virginia Tech has become known for its transcendent athletes and Reggie Floyd looks like another in a long line. Maryland’s Antoine Brooks Jr. looks like a versatile chess piece, but you’d like to see more production from him.

Cornerback

Not very top heavy, but deep, the cornerback position could emerge as the most fruitful defensive group of the draft. LSU has been anointed as “DB-U”, and Kristian Fulton (along with Grant Delpit) is why. Fulton has the size and speed of a lock-down man-cover corner. The Seattle Seahawks would be smart to target Florida’s CJ Henderson. His length and gnarly arm length would fit their scheme well. Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, brother of Stefon, is yet another tall, elite runner, but his physicality leaves a bit to be desired. Virgina’s Bryce Hall is one of the few players who looks like a better fit for off-man or zone, as he has usually strong ball skills. Then there’s Jeffrey Okudah from Ohio State. He was recently compared to Jalen Ramsey.