The 2018 interior defensive line class looks loaded, and three of the top five prospects at the position could hail from the SEC. After studying tape of a plethora of the conference’s finest, I put together the five players I believe are the best defensive line prospects in the SEC.
1. Raekwon Davis, Alabama
Physically, they just don’t make them like Davis very often. Legit 6-6 and over 300 pounds, Davis has an exceptional frame with tree limbs for arms. Despite his height, he plays incredibly low and leveraged, bench-pressing offensive linemen off his frame to control gaps and wreak havoc in the run game.
Davis can stack-and-shed and dominate the trenches to such a degree that he would be an immediate starter in the NFL. But despite having 8.5 sacks last season, his first step needs to develop significantly. He’s too often the last man off the ball, and isn’t as disruptive behind the line of scrimmage as some of the top defensive tackles in recent seasons.
Davis is much more of a point-of-attack force than an interior penetrator, so the question going into his junior year is whether he is an explosive athlete or not. Alabama’s contain-heavy defense has left many of their interior d-line prospects underdeveloped in their get-off, but Davis will need to be more of a threat off the ball if he hopes to become a great pass rusher in the NFL.
2. Jeffery Simmons, Mississippi State
Simmons is a better pass rusher than Davis, capable of working to the edge of his opponent in an instant and flashing powerful mitts to displace blockers. Sporting a tremendous frame, impressive athleticism and terrific range for a defensive tackle, Simmons has first round talent, but is still a little inconsistent snap-to-snap.
The big defensive tackle’s mental processing will need to improve entering his junior year, and his stance is something that NFL coaches will definitely want to tweak. After playing heavy snaps as a nose tackle at Mississippi State, Simmons could be a better fit at 3-technique at the next level, perhaps in a more attacking role.
3. Rashard Lawrence, LSU
Could Lawrence be the big breakout candidate amongst interior defensive line prospects this season? He flashes exceptional movement skills and hand usage, showing pass-rush traits that could eventually be worthy of first round consideration.
But Lawrence often played hurt last season, which undoubtedly contributed to him running out of steam at times. He wasn’t capable of maintaining his flashes on a consistent basis, and it was sometimes hard to tell if he lacked athleticism or was simply slowed due to not being 100 percent.
The production isn’t there yet for Lawrence, nor is the snap-to-snap consistency. But his coaches rave about his toughness and effort, and he’s just now going into his junior year (second as a starter). If Lawrence breaks out this season and shows the potential I believe he has, he could solidify himself as a top 50 pick.
4. Isaiah Buggs, Alabama
Buggs is a powerful interior defender with the pop in his hands to create movement up front. Unlike many college pass rushers, Buggs has legit moves and knows how to work a plan of attack. The downside is that he just isn’t very athletic, and he won’t threaten anyone off the snap.
There probably isn’t much upside with Buggs, but I think he can be a difference maker inside if his technique and hand placement at the line of scrimmage continue to improve. Right now he looks like a mid-round prospect who will at least factor into a rotation, at most be a decent starter. We’ll see if his impact picks up with Alabama losing a lot of talent up front last season.
5. Daylon Mack, Texas A&M
I actually think Mack’s teammate Kingsley Keke is better than his counterpart right now, but Mack clearly has the superior upside. He is an incredibly fluid mover at 320 pounds, and has one of the more explosive first steps in the class. Mack’s range is eye-popping for a man his size, but his production hasn’t really caught up to his traits yet.
The most frustrating parts of Mack’s game are the things that haven’t improved yet. His pad level can be a mess despite his ideal height, and he doesn’t use his hands consistently at all. As a senior, he should not need to be coached up on hand usage to the degree that he does. Far too often Mack is stuck on blocks, both because of a failure to control his gap and a failure to recognize schemes early on in the rep.
What Mack needs to do is find consistency in his performance, or he’ll run the risk of being labeled a liability. His game is like a see-saw right now, with some high points that will wow you, but too many low points that cause you to shake your head. He is going to be a polarizing prospect even if he develops, but if his production doesn’t start to catch up with his traits, teams will lose interest.
Also on the SEC watch list: Derrick Brown, Auburn. Dontavius Russell, Auburn. Andrew Williams, Auburn. Kingsley Keke, Texas A&M. Terry Beckner, Missouri. McTelvin Agim, Arkansas. Breiden Fehoko, LSU. Quinnen Williams, Alabama. Tyler Clark, Georgia. Benito Jones, Ole Miss.