A super athletic nose tackle. A one gap penetration dynamo. A hidden gem and a second generation pro prospect. All are represented in this list of the top five draft eligible Big Ten interior defensive linemen. Yet none can claim the top spot, as there’s a household name whose future may be best served on the interior.
With a full season left to play, plenty can (and will) change for these Big Ten interior defensive linemen and their resumes for the next level. Some may not even enter the 2019 NFL Draft prospect pool, as several have more than one remaining year of eligibility. But as things stand entering the season, here are the five best draft eligible Big Ten interior defensive linemen.
1. Rashan Gary, Michigan
Wait, seriously? Yep. The 6-foot-5 Gary was listed in the mid-280s as recently as July. Regardless of where he plays this season, I’ve seen enough of his film to think that Gary can play inside. As a matter of fact, he may project more favorably there, where his short area quickness can truly shine.
Regardless of what position Gary is drafted to play, it’s likely semantics. It’s hard to envision such a great athlete being given reps all along the defensive line, given his athletic gifts and high motor. But as it currently stands, those are Gary’s best traits. Too often Gary is ran past the peak of the pocket when trying to turn the corner as a pass rusher, his ability to get the outside foot to catch turf is something that will need improvement if he hopes to play EDGE on a full time basis.
As an interior rusher, Gary’s quickness would be unstoppable. It would also put him in a more direct pathway to the football.
Needs to improve: Secondary pass rush counters
2. Olive Sagapolu, Wisconsin
Aside of having a terrific name, Sagapolu is also the Badger nose tackle capable of doing a standing backflip at 338 pounds. Yeah, you read that correctly.
Sagapolu excels at doing exactly what you’d expect to get in a nose tackle: eating up blocks and allowing his linebackers to flow freely in pursuit of the football. Sagapolu was a big reason why Badger LBs Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards made a lot of noise last year.
Alas, Sagapolu isn’t just a thankless dirty work player, he’s got some lateral mobility to his game as well. I was notably impressed seeing him press runs to the hashes in pursuit. That’s a little something extra that should add value to his assessment come NFL Draft time.
For improvement, it’s simple. Become more diverse with hand usage and protect leverage. Sagapolu was caught too many times with high pads and gave up a step or two along the line of scrimmage, things that can’t happen for such a physically explosive and powerful nose tackle.
Needs to improve: Leverage with pads/hands
3. Robert Landers, Ohio State
This probably isn’t the Ohio State defensive tackle you expected to find highest on this list, is it? That’s okay. Robert Landers will have every opportunity to prove his worth in 2018. Landers was a victim of the defensive line depth at Ohio State last year, the Buckeyes often opted to play their “NASCAR” package with Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes and Nick Bosa on passing downs.
That left Landers as an odd-man out, but you don’t have to look any further than Ohio State’s most recent game, the 2017 Cotton Bowl, to see what Landers is capable of.
He dominated the USC offensive front and was a thorn in the backfield’s side all game long. Landers is a bowling ball who plays with a great anchor, something that his teammate Dre’Mont Jones currently lacks.
Needs to improve: Production
4. Dre’Mont Jones, Ohio State
Speaking of Dre’Mont, Jones is a player with some impressive gifts. Those gifts come at a cost, as Jones’ tape is erratic and doesn’t possess the ideal consistency needed for a top selection.
2018 will be a big year for Jones, who pondered leaving for the 2018 NFL Draft before making a (wise) decision to come back and develop his game further. Jones’ first step is excellent. His change of direction skills? Pretty rare.
But his anchor ability? Non-existent. His block-shedding abilities? A work in progress. Jones has a high ceiling and with more physicality as a point of attack defender, Jones could easily surpass two of the names ahead of him on this list. He just isn’t there…yet.
Needs to improve: Anchor ability and block shedding
5. Lorenzo Neal Jr, Purdue
Neal is son to Lorenzo Neal, the bulldozer fullback who played sixteen years in the NFL, most recently in 2009 for the Oakland Raiders. The younger Lorenzo is bigger than his old man, tipping the scales at a listed 315 pounds. But like his dad, Neal offers impressive mobility for a big guy as evidenced by some of Neal’s gap control play during his 2017 season with Purdue.
Neal has some of those stereotypical “dancing bear” qualities, to borrow the term from veteran draft analyst Mike Mayock. Nimble in short spaces, Neal slips through gaps with surprising grace before flattening to get into the pathway of ball carriers.
As things currently stand, Neal has promise, but needs to harness his size more effectively. Neal was pushed around in some instances, something that a priority target on the defensive interior can’t allow.
Needs to improve: Anchor at the point of attack