Saddle up, because this year’s group of draft-eligible defensive tackles has the pure talent to be one of the more legendary positional classes in recent memory. Featuring three or four players with legitimate early round ability, the class is led by Houston product Ed Oliver – who already announced he will enter the 2019 NFL Draft after this season. The positional grouping’s top talents primarily occupy the interior/defensive tackle space for their respective teams, but all have the skill-set to provide versatile coverage as base 3-4 five-techniques. This a particularly outstanding group, especially because the modern NFL seeks diversity in matchup profiles along the defensive front in all setups.
1. Ed Oliver, Houston (6’3″ 290lbs.)
• A truly special talent. We haven’t seen a defensive tackle prospect of Oliver’s caliber since Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy entered the league in 2010 – and the former five-star recruit compares favorably to the latter. In two seasons, Oliver has amassed a colossal line of 139 tackles, 39.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. As an ideal 3-technique profile, most-suitable for a 4-3 base, Oliver possesses a mouthwatering blend of explosion and power, largely attributable to his tremendous understanding of leverage. His performances only improved despite commanding more attention in 2017. It’d take a catastrophic collapse to knock him off his perch as the top eligible interior defender.
2. Raekwon Davis, Alabama (6’7″ 306lbs.)
• The Tide’s mammoth lineman is as physically imposing as he is athletic. After spending a Freshman season buried on the depth chart, Davis exploded onto the scene as a Sophomore in 2017. That season he accumulated 69 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, and added an interception for good measure. He possesses the tantalizing physical skill-set to project as an interior 4-3 defender, but also as a 5-technique in a base 3-4, both of which would maximize his freakish dimension and length. While he enters his Junior campaign as something of a one-year wonder, Davis is firmly on the radar and his size + speed ratio combined with his production are impossible to dismiss.
3. Rashan Gary, Michigan (6’5″ 281lbs.)
• Remember, the modern NFL is about creating mismatches along the defensive line through diversity in speed and length. The in-out defender is ‘in’ at the moment, and Gary will stand as one of the more versatile front seven defenders available when he jumps to the pros. Gary is a power-player with explosion and length, who has had pro caliber coaching over the past two seasons. An all-encompassing talent, he’s one complete season away from entrenching himself as a first-round selection (if he isn’t already).
4. Christian Wilkins, Clemson (6’4″ 300lbs.)
• It caught many by surprise when Wilkins elected to return for his Senior campaign this offseason in search of another national title. He’s a bigger, beefier 3-technique with a skill-set that could appeal to teams seeking a 5-technique as well. A fixture on Clemson’s historically talented defensive line, Wilkins’ ability to disrupt and pocket-push has markedly improved with every passing season. Coming out, some will inevitably ask the unfair, but necessary question: How much of any Clemson defender’s success boils down to an elite supporting cast?
5. Derrick Brown, Auburn (6’5″ 325lbs.)
• One of the most influential pieces of Auburn’s sharp defense in 2017, particularly in the front seven. Brown possesses a huge frame, but exhibits ‘plus’ movements skills and range, as well as deceptive athleticism. On numerous occasions, he was able to collapse a pocket, but also absorb double-team attention and create space for teammates. If he can replicate or improve upon his Sophomore campaign he could easily slide up this ranking. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s an honor roll student with an academic pedigree.
Honorable Mention: Olive Sagapolu, Wisconsin (6’2″ 346lbs.)
• The role of the out-and-out, two-down nose tackle has largely been diminished at the pro level and it’s translated to the college game as well, but players like Olive Sagapolu will always have a place. His role within the Badgers’ defensive front is the primary space-eater and thus his statistical production is quite limited. Sagapolu still notched three sacks as a Junior last year in his only full season of game experience. Former Washington Husky nose tackle Danny Shelton did not produce quality numbers until his Senior campaign in 2014, subsequently being selected in the first-round. While I’m not suggesting this situation will play out as such, be prepared to hear more about the Badgers’ backflipping nose tackle in 2018.