NFL draft position series: Defensive line

Photo Credit: Annie Rice/Avalanche-Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

NFL draft position series: Defensive line

Three of the top 10 talents in the 2023 NFL Draft are defensive linemen, and when the post-mortem review of this class takes place in four or five years, that number might be exceedingly higher.

Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. and Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson are pro-ready pass rushers at defensive end who could move to outside linebacker in the perfect scheme fit.

Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter was once in the conversation to be drafted No. 1 overall. Grading on talent alone, he remains worthy of that consideration. But while Anderson and Wilson could be the poster boys for their position, Carter’s complete draft profile is more of a puzzle or riddle.

Here’s a look at the top defensive linemen available in the 2023 draft:

1. Will Anderson Jr., DE, Alabama
Selected third overall by the Houston Texans

Only Chiefs’ great Derrick Thomas had more sacks at Alabama than Anderson’s 34½, a number the third-year junior reached despite entering the draft in 2023. His production was anything but ordinary as a player offenses schemed for and regularly double-teamed to lock Anderson out of the backfield. He can get washed out against massive blockers with power and length when he doesn’t get low or make first contact. A strong upper body, powerful hands, long arms — nearly 34 inches — and the ability to anchor to play with heavy legs in short-yardage point a top-5 grade.

2. Jalen Carter, DT, Georgia
Selected ninth overall by the Philadelphia Eagles

Carter comes with some risk. Maturity and accountability questions persist, amplified by his alleged involvement in a fatal drag-racing incident. Zoom in to reduce the periphery to the player on the field, and Carter elicits gold-standard scouting adjectives with rare talent, size, and potential to get even better. He has ballerina footwork and sudden explosiveness, paired with the balance of a running back. Carter’s power is a tremendous asset in the trenches, and he can annihilate double-team blocking when motivated. Zoom back out, and there are ample questions about drive, professionalism, and decision-making that every team must answer before making the draft investment.

3. Tyree Wilson, DE, Texas Tech
Selected seventh overall by the Las Vegas Raiders

Wingspan. It’s the first term scouts spit out when the conversation shifts to Wilson. With a reach of 84½ inches (7 feet), Wilson can close a gap in a blink at 270 pounds and has the jolt in his hands to rock blockers out of their footprints. Wilson was a top recruit by Texas A&M but left for Lubbock after a redshirt year and not starting in 11 games in 2019 with the Aggies. His production stacks up as modest (17 career sacks compared to 17½ sacks for Anderson in 2022), but Wilson faced triple-team blocking on occasion and is a bit raw overall. He has very good speed and agility for his size, and if he sinks his pads to limit a strike zone, blocking him could become a two-man job in the NFL.

4. Nolan Smith, DE, Georgia
Selected 30th overall by the Philadelphia Eagles

A high school running back with 11½ career sacks in college, Smith might not rate as highly for teams that demand peak production in college. That would be overlooking the vital context in Smith’s scouting report, including a sizzling 4.38 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. He’s lean, all muscle, but light for a true defensive end role (240 pounds), Smith’s arm length and instant speed when the light goes green indicate a player with high-impact ability in the right defense. He’d be ideal in the “wide 9″ alignment popularized by Jim Schwartz (current Browns defensive coordinator) or as a specialist in a 3-4 defense who can also turn and cover. And an inventive coordinator who recalls GMs shrugging at Penn State LB Micah Parsons playing at 240 shouldn’t rule out Smith being suited for a hybrid-type role.

5. Lukas Van Ness, DE, Iowa
Selected 13th overall by the Green Bay Packers

A blend of skills and experience at defensive end and defensive tackle and off-the-charts testing numbers — 7.02 three-cone drill — open a world of possibilities for teams to consider with Van Ness. He’s polished as a pass rusher outside and relentlessly competes when he slides over the guard as a defensive tackle.

Best of the rest defensive tackle prospects:

1. Bryan Bresee, Clemson: Recovered from a 2021 torn ACL and family tragedy, don’t be surprised if a team picks Bresee in the top 15 because of his broad frame, quickness, and power as a 3-technique.

Selected 29th overall by the New Orleans Saints

2. Mazi Smith, Michigan: Weight-room wonder and a physical force who refuses to be blocked one-on-one.

Selected 26th overall by the Dallas Cowboys

3. Keeanu Benton, Wisconsin: Wrecking ball who plays like a true nose tackle despite his 300-pound frame.

Best of the rest defensive end prospects:
1. Myles Murphy, Clemson: With 17½ career sacks and natural talent and speed, Murphy could turn into one of the draft’s true steals.

Selected 28th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals

2. BJ Ojulari, LSU: A rush specialist for now, Ojulari’s ceiling is significantly high because of his raw tools and speed.

3. Will McDonald IV, Iowa State: He posted 34 career sacks (five seasons) for the Cyclones and was a constant menace in the backfield despite a relatively small frame.

Selected 15th overall by the New York Jets

–Field Level Media contributed to this story

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