The NFL loves drafting defensive tackles in the first round. Over the last 20 drafts, 67 have been first-round selections, which is an average of 3.4 per year. The trend hasn’t slowed down in recent years as 11 have gone in the opening round of the last three drafts. With that said, it’s early, but the 2021 crop of defensive tackles is shaping up to be an anomaly and come well below the statistical norms for the position.
As early preparations began in scouting the rising defensive tackle class, there were a few names that popped as potential first-rounders, but they haven’t done anything to improve or solidify their status as top talents.
Florida State’s Marvin Wilson looked terrific in 2019, but a hand injury ended that campaign in early November. Wilson returned to full strength in 2020 but his play was stagnant and after six games, announced his playing days were over for the Seminoles. He suffered a minor knee injury and the next exposure NFL decision-makers will have to his game is at the 2021 Senior Bowl. The more information that has come out on Wilson indicates a clear discrepancy between media hype and where the NFL values his talent.
Pittsburgh’s Jalen Twyman had momentum on the heels of a 2019 season where he logged 12 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks, but further study into his film revealed a player that needed to flesh out his pass-rushing repertoire in addition to showing that he can hold up better against the run. Twyman opted out of the 2020 season, declared for the draft, and those questions remain, leaving much doubt about his skill set not to mention that his frame is considerably underdeveloped.
After exciting flashes in limited snaps last season, we thought Alabama’s Christian Barmore was primed for a major breakout campaign in 2020, but he hasn’t taken that next step as he’s battled a knee injury this year. He hasn’t taken the necessary steps to elevate himself into a surefire first-round prospect.
While the 2021 defensive tackle class involves far more prospects than just the aforementioned players, the rising crop looks thin. A player who should not be overlooked is NC State’s Alim McNeill, who isn’t quite in that first-round conversation but has truly performed at a high level, elevating his draft stock along the way.
McNeill caught my eye during summer scouting when studying the Wolfpack defense. What first stands out is the enthusiasm, urgency, and effort he plays with on every snap. For a 320-pound defensive lineman, he showcases terrific quickness, lateral mobility, and pursuit effort. NC State plays him primarily at nose tackle but he’s given opportunities to shoot gaps, penetrate the line of scrimmage, and work into the backfield where he is slippery through gaps and can be disruptive.
McNeill is extremely powerful and stout at the point of attack. He’s tough for offensive lineman to move out of his alignment and he’s shown the ability to defend multiple gaps.
Earning a spot on Bruce Feldman’s 2020 college football freaks list, McNeill’s power is evidenced in the weight room. According to Feldman, McNeill benches 445 pounds, squats 640, and has a vertical leap of 32 inches. Feldman also projects McNeill to clock a 40-yard dash in the 4.90-second range at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Considering McNeill has only played on the defensive line for three seasons, it’s exciting to forecast the growth that is still yet to come for him. In high school, McNeill was an inside linebacker and short-yardage running back that produced 40 career touchdowns. There is still some rawness to his game when it comes to processing blocks and technique which should continue to improve as he develops more familiarity in the trenches.
McNeill’s film resume, physical traits, and versatility make him an appealing prospect in any draft, and the underwhelming crop of defensive tackles in the 2021 NFL Draft could help push him up the board. McNeill has been a bright spot and he deserves more attention as the scouting process continues to unfold.