Dexter Lawrence*, DT, Clemson
Height: 6-5. Weight: 340. Projected 40 Time: 5.20. Projected Round (2019): 1. 8/22/17: Lawrence was a tremendous freshman to help Clemson win the National Championship. NFL sources have already raved about Lawrence as he was impossible to ignore last year. Lawrence was an All-Freshman selection all over the nation while being the ACC Rookie of the Year. In his debut season he totaled 63 tackles with 9.5 tackles for a loss, seven sacks, and a pass batted. One national scout for a NFC team told me that they thought Lawrence was among the top two most disruptive defensive linemen in 2016 along with Alabama's Jonathan Allen. With other good talent around Lawrence, and now having a year of experience, he could dominate as a sophomore.
Ed Oliver*, DT, Houston
Height: 6-2. Weight: 290. Projected 40 Time: 5.00. Projected Round (2019): 1. 8/22/17: As a freshman Oliver dominated at the point of attack starting with his debut game against Oklahoma. All season Oliver overwhelmed offensive linemen with his quickness, athletic ability, and physicality. He totaled 66 tackles with 22.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks, three forced fumbles, and nine passes batted. Oliver is going to see a ton of double teams for the rest of his college career, but Oliver is good enough to produce even with the extra attention. Like Dexter Lawrence, Oliver look like future top-prospects in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Da'Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
Height: 6-2. Weight: 319. Projected 40 Time: 5.10. Projected Round (2019): 1-2. 8/22/17: Scouts who have looked ahead to the 2018 class have raved about Payne's potential. Coming from Alabama, it isn't a stretch that Payne could take on the lead role for the Crimson Tide with Jonathan Allen moving on to the NFL. Payne is a run plugger with a lot of potential to grow. In 2016, Payne recorded 36 tackles with 3.5 for a loss, 1.5 sacks and one pass broken up.
What the stats don't illustrate is that Payne can be physically dominant. He dominated his one-on-ones last year when he was lining up over guards. Payne causes disruption and makes his teammates better. Payne's contributions helped the sacks totals of Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson. Payne could be poised for a big junior year.
Trenton Thompson, DT, Georgia
Height: 6-4. Weight: 295. Projected 40 Time: 5.00. Projected Round (2019): 1-2. 8/22/17: Thompson really improved throughout the 2015 season and started to flash a special skill set. The sophomore totaled 56 tackles with 9.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks and a pass broken up. Thompson ended his junior year in superb fashion by dominating the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against TCU, recording three sacks.
One of the hardest things to find for a NFL defense is an interior defensive lineman capable of being a steady pass-rusher. Thompson is that rare kind of defender as he has a lot of ability to get after the quarterback. In the pass rush, he is a fast interior defender who routinely fires by guards to collapse the pocket. Thompson can bolt by guards, can use his speed to loop around the line on stunts, and can close on the quarterback in an instant. Thompson is very fast at firing his gap to create disruption in the backfield with an impressive ability to redirect to chase down quarterbacks and running backs. The speed also extends to run defense, as he can flow down the line to get in on tackles near the line of scrimmage.
Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
Height: 6-4. Weight: 310. Projected 40 Time: 5.00. Projected Round (2019): 1-2. 7/24/17: Wilkins played well for Clemson in 2016 as part of a tough defensive line that controlled the point of attack. The sophomore recorded 48 tackles with 13 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and 10 passes batted. Wilkins made 33 tackles and two sacks as a freshman in 2015. He has a nice skill set with upside.
Wilkins had to play a lot of defensive end last year because of injury. He displayed a nice ability to play there, but his NFL home is on the inside. As a pass-rusher, Wilkins was able to get after the quarterback with pressure coming around the corner. He looked the most dangerous when lining up over guards and firing past them to cause disruption in the backfield. While he played a lot of end, at his weight, Wilkins really doesn't have edge rusher speed for the NFL. He will have to rush from the inside as a pro, but that is his natural position anyway. Wilkins was a solid run defender, too. He has a strong, thick lower body to hold his ground at the point of attack.
Vita Vea, DT, Washington
Height: 6-5. Weight: 332. Projected 40 Time: 5.20. Projected Round (2019): 1-3. 8/22/17: Vea was a load at the point of attack for Washington in 2016. On the year, he totaled 39 tackles with 6.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks, one force fumble and two passes batted. Vea has a serious combination of size, length, strength, and quickness at the point of attack.
For the NFL, Vea projects as a heavy nose tackle who can be tough at the point of attack. He is a big, thick and strong. Vea can use his size and strength to eat up blockers and generally holds his gap integrity. He has a quick burst off the snap, and there are times where his size, power, and quickness overwhelm smaller interior linemen. Vea is at his best when he tries to bull his way into the backfield to cause disruption. With his upper body strength and the power in his base, Vea can push off or through blocks. He has a good motor and gives a second effort, too.
Vea needs to show improvement in the pass rush during 2017. The junior needs to develop some pass-rushing moves to go with his bull rush. He has to become more consistent in creating pressure and laying hits on the quarterback in order to be a highly in-demand draft prospect. Otherwise, he could be viewed as just a nose tackle.