The early perception of the 2019 NFL Draft class is that it’s an incredibly strong group of defensive lineman. Headlining the ACC crop are Clemson standouts Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence who are regularly pegged as first rounders in early mocks.
Beyond the Clemson products is a quality prospect from Virginia Tech and a few breakout candidates from the Sunshine State. Who are my top five ACC defensive tackles entering the season? Let’s examine.
1. Christian Wilkins, Senior, Clemson (6'4, 300)
While Wilkins (6-4, 300 pounds) doesn’t have the same mass as fellow defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, what he lacks in size he makes up for in movement skills. A two-time All-ACC and All-American, Wilkins enters his senior season as the most experienced of Clemson’s defensive lineman.
While he isn’t overly dynamic, Wilkins brings penetrating ability to the table with his blend of quickness and a hot-running motor. He excels at attacking a single gap and working into the backfield. He showcases good change of direction skills and flexibility to extend his range.
As a run defender, Wilkins has modest power at the point of attack but does well to use his hands to keep his pads clean and stay on the attack. In terms of stacking blockers at the line of scrimmage and disengaging, that simply isn’t how Wilkins finds success. He excels attacking gaps and moving around to create opportunities to penetrate.
When rushing the passer, Wilkins burst, active hands, urgency and flexibility leads to fairly consistent pressure. Showcasing a decent amount of variety to is repertoire, Wilkins also features the ability to push the pocket with an adequate bull rush.
Does Wilkins have first round potential? Absolutely but there is still another step he needs to take as both a pass rusher and run defender to cement his status as an upper-echelon prospect. The stage is set for him to put it all together as a senior in a season with lofty expectations.
2. Dexter Lawrence, Junior, Clemson (6'4, 340)
A 6-foot-4, 340 pound five-star recruit, Lawrence was the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year as a freshman before talking home First-team All-ACC honors as a sophomore. There is plenty of buzz around his draft stock as a potential high first round pick in 2019, but there is growth needed from the talented junior for that to become a reality.
There’s a lot to like about Lawrence’s size, but it’s apparent from studying his film that it comes at the expense of quickness. Lawrence is slow off the ball and lacks the ability to change directions and extend his impact radius. Combining that with a lack of flexibility and Lawrence is limited to finding success outside of short areas.
As a pass rusher, Lawrence is a load moving forward and is capable of walking back interior blockers with his power. With that said, it’s slow-moving given his lack of initial burst off the snap. While he will occasional hit a club-swim combo, his pass rushing plan lacks nuance and variety in how he generates pressure.
When defending the run, Lawrence has flashes of sound gap control but he’s inconsistent. For a 340 pound man, he is too easily moved out of his gap and he must become more stout at the point of attack. In terms of stacking and playing through blocks, Lawrence needs to develop to become more of an impact player with playmaking potential at the next level.
A lighter and more explosive version of Lawrence with added play strength and technical growth is needed for Lawrence to be regarded as the prospect he’s perceived to be.
3. Ricky Walker, Senior, Virginia Tech (6'2, 304)
The Hokies only return five defensive starters in 2018, but the leader of its defensive line is one them. Coming off a breakout junior season where he tallied 41 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, Walker is poised for a big senior year.
Offering a balanced skill set, Walker has upside as a playmaker as a run defender and pass rusher. He showcases an explosive first step, plays with low pads and does well to initiate contact to control reps. Walker plays with active hands and a variety of techniques to stack and disengage from blockers. He showcases numerous counters and executes his moves with sound timing.
While he’s not the biggest interior defensive lineman, Walker has good functional strength and is not easily moved out of his gap. He does well to control the line of scrimmage and maintain his run fits. He is also a dynamic gap-penetrator that offers considerable range.
Building off last years success could lead to Walker entering the conversation as a Day Two draft pick.
4. Demarcus Christmas, Senior, Florida State (6'4, 308)
Starting 26 games across the last two seasons, Christmas tallied 57 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three sacks. But don’t let his modest production fool you, Christmas is a quality defensive tackle that offers excellent power at the point of attack.
Entering year three as a starter for the Noles, Christmas is expected to anchor the defensive interior for the first time without Derek Nnadi. The most notable strength of Christmas’ is how stout his anchor is. Difficult to move out of his gap, Christmas offers outstanding play strength and physicality. He is aggressive with his hands to initiate first contact to control reps initially.
As evidenced by his modest production, Christmas needs to become more refined in his ability to disengage blocks. Despite stacking blocks and often resetting the line of scrimmage, shedding blocks to finish plays is an area that needs improvement.
As a pass rusher, Christmas does have the ability to convert speed to power and walk back interior blockers but he lacks the juice, hand technique and flexibility to project as an impact pass rusher in the NFL.
Christmas is ready to defend the run in the NFL, but showcasing a far more dynamic pass rushing skill set in his final year is critical to his draft stock.
5. Gerald Willis III, Senior, Miami (6'3, 295)
A highly-touted recruit, Willis originally committed to the University of Florida but multiple suspensions lead to his dismissal and transfer to Miami. A change of scenery did not initially prove helpful for Willis as he faced disciplinary issues at Miami and even took a leave of absence from the team.
All indications are that Willis is ready to be an impact defender for the Hurricanes in 2018, something it desperately needs given the loss of defensive tackles RJ McIntosh and Kendrick Norton to the NFL.
While WIllis’ impact so far has been minimal, there’s no mistaking his talent when on the field. A blend of power and athletic ability, Willis has active hands and the ability to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Slated to be Miami’s three-technique, he has the skill set to thrive in a penetrating role with a wide open window to play the vast majority of the defensive snaps.
If Willis can remain focused on football, he is capable of a monster season. Head coach Mark Richt has raved about his practice efforts on the scout team which is a strong indication of where Willis’ head is at. He may not be a household name, but Willis has immense upside if everything comes together.
Others to keep an eye on:
Ray Smith, Boston College
Arthur Williams, Florida State
GG Robinson, Louisville
Terone Prescod, NC State
Jalen Dalton, UNC
Jeremiah Clarke, UNC
Amir Watts, Pittsburgh
Chris Slayton, Syracuse