NFL teams are back in training camps. But they aren’t the only teams getting ready for an upcoming season. The 2021 college football season kicks off even earlier, with the first games starting August 28. That will begin the movement up and down boards for all draft-eligible prospects, which will continue up until April 28.
So before the season begins, I’m going position-by-position through the 2022 class, and previewing some names to know and be watching for throughout the college football season from a draft perspective. This is not an exhaustive rundown of every draft-eligible player, but a look at some of the more prominent and interesting names to watch this upcoming season, and where they are currently projecting for the upcoming draft. This preview continues as the focus shifts to the defensive side of the ball, starting with the defensive line. Similar to the preview of the offensive line, this will encompass multiple positions. In this case, defensive tackle and edge rushers, i.e. the players who could fill a defensive end or outside linebacker role.
Steelers’ Need: Minimal
Among pure defensive linemen, this need is close to non-existent. The team’s group runs at least two deep at every position on the line entering 2021, with multiple players to step in for any player who goes down with an injury. Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward still have years left in the tank (though Tuitt is a free agent after the 2022 season) as a high-end duo, though defensive tackle Tyson Alualu will be 35 when his deal expires after the 2022 season. The team needs to find a capable starting successor for him, and can continue that search in the later rounds of this class. Rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk has also put together a strong preseason as a depth option.
What appeared to be a more pressing need along the edge prior to OTAs, minicamp, and training camp has abated itself for the moment. T.J. Watt has one spot solidified for another half-decade. The other spot was an area of focus for the Steelers looking ahead to the 2022 class, but second-year prospect Alex Highsmith has played like the real deal as a longer-term starter opposite Watt, and the franchise brought in Melvin Ingram to assist on the edge. A high-end need won’t appear unless the former fails to develop and the latter doesn’t step up, or chooses to sign elsewhere next offseason. Depth is strong on the edge, as well, with Cassius Marsh playing well so far in camp, Jamir Jones having a phenomenal preseason, and sixth-rounder Quincy Roche looking good thus far.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon: He isn’t the favorite to go first overall because of the need for quarterbacks, but there is a consensus top prospect in college football this season, and it’s Thibodeaux, a stretched out, 6’5″ edge-bending combination of size and incredible athleticism. Recording 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks as a true freshman, Thibodeaux had 9.5 TFL and three sacks in seven games last season. He is an All-American and the best the PAC 12 has to offer at any position.
George Karlaftis, Purdue: Like Thibodeaux, Karlaftis starred immediately as a true freshman, with 17 TFL and 7.5 sacks for Purdue. A large player coming off the edge at 6’4″, 275, Karlaftis was a total blend of strength and speed who could fight through double teams and use his surprising athleticism to finish off plays. A matchup nightmare and all-star run defender with a non-stop motor. Does have to overcome missing much of the 2020 season with an injury and COVID-19.
Zach Harrison, Ohio State: Playing in an incredibly deep position group year in, year out for the Buckeyes, Harrison has had to share reps with fellow NFL draft picks. That didn’t stop him from being a Big Ten all-star last season, or securing a starting spot despite the arrival of multiple high-end prospects this season. Plays with power but has lots of speed and size (6’6″) for an end, could also handle reps at tackle. Needs to put a strong season together in biggest chance to be D-Line’s star after two years as part of deep group.
DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M: Another of the consensus highest-rated prospects in the class, regardless of position. Leal starred along the A&M D-Line last year, largely playing end but capable of eventually moving to defensive tackle. A better run-stuffer than pass rusher who wins with strength and a powerful punch, but has incredible bend coming off the edge to attack rushing plays in the backfield. A preseason All-American with 75 tackles, 12.5 TFL, and 4.5 sacks in two seasons.
Drake Jackson, USC: Jackson’s speed is high-end, and he can deliver swim and spin moves that embarrass offensive linemen. Jackson is a consensus first-rounder for the preseason, but he gets tied up too often and taken out of plays, and bites or hesitates frequently on fakes. He has to improve in those areas, but his versatility to play stand-up or in the dirt on the edge, as well as drop into coverage, is a major plus. He had 11.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks as a freshman, but dropped to 5.5 and two, respectively, in six games last season.
Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan: Some players stand out as sure bets to absolutely light up the NFL Scouting Combine. Hutchinson is one of those players. A tremendous all-around athlete who brings so much to his game he could profile as a speed or power rusher. Hutchinson has spent his career playing in a power role in the trenches for the Wolverines, but has only one big season with 10 TFL and 4.5 sacks as a sophomore. His raw traits will keep him on the radar, but more production and a big 2021 are needed to get his stock higher.
Kingsley Enagbare, South Carolina: Enagbare has lined up everywhere for the Gamecocks, spending a lot of time in the dirt as an EDGE but also getting snaps as a stand-up rusher and even as an inside linebacker. He excels at getting through the traffic and pressuring the quarterback from any alignment, and is coming off his breakout season where he had seven TFL and six sacks in eight games, making the SEC first team.
Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma: Bonitto is a stand-up edge rusher as opposed to someone who lives in the trenches, in part because of his smaller size (6’3″, 238). He is able to use his size to contort and knife through gaps in the line, and creates pressure to the interior that way and to the edge with quick rushes ahead of the tackle’s reaction time. As a plus, he also drops into coverage with speed to play there. An All-American last season, was highly productive with 10.5 TFL and eight sacks in 10 games.
Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati: A big part of the defense that helped the Bearcats climb to and spend much of last season in the AP Top 10. An All-AAC player with 10.5 TFL and seven sacks while playing all along the Cincinnati line in 2020. From either the interior or on the edge, attacks with a speed that is noticeably quicker than the rest of either line. Good on-field awareness and stays conscious of how plays are developing.
Other Names To Know
Xavier Thomas, Clemson: Thomas looked like a future early pick after 35 tackles, 10.5 TFL, and 3.5 sacks as a freshman. He hasn’t improved any of those numbers since, and only had four TFL in seven games last year (he did have 3.5 sacks). But Thomas has elite speed for an end and at his best is an incredibly smooth player off the edge. He retains huge breakout potential.
Tyreke Smith, Ohio State: Just like Harrison, Smith has spent his entire career fighting for reps with fellow NFL picks. Smith will face the same battle to retain his job while entering the year as the veteran and projected starter. He plays with power and a well-rounded game, and has picked up five sacks and seven TFL as a depth player the last two seasons.
Haskell Garrett, Ohio State: There may be some competition among ends for the Buckeyes. There is no question who is the number one in the middle of the line. A returning All-American, Garrett is a fifth-year player coming off a career-best 20 tackles, four TFL, and two sacks in a season where he recovered from a gunshot wound to the face to get back on the field. Has a great first step and some moves to break through the line, but needs to more consistently affect plays early.
Perrion Winfrey, Oklahoma: Winfrey became a Big 12 all-star in his first season at Oklahoma after spending his early career in JUCO, with 19 tackles and six for a loss. He isn’t an enormous space eater, but can play multiple gaps from the middle of the line and moves very well for a defensive tackle. Another year building on his 2020 production across a full season will help his stock.
Jordan Davis, Georgia: A preseason All-American, Davis finishes his Georgia career this year as a senior after three prior years as a massive nose tackle, going 6’6″, 340 pounds. He has only five sacks and seven tackles for loss during those three seasons, but does his job clogging the middle of the line. His size works for and against him: He has the muscle to out-match and drive linemen or occupy multiple blocks, but sometimes gets too tall off the snap and lets linemen drive upward and stall him out quickly.
D.J. Dale, Alabama: Starting along the defensive line for the Crimson Tide is almost a sure ticket to getting drafted, and Dale has spent two seasons doing it after fighting his way to the job as a freshman in 2019. He has 39 tackles, four for a loss, and one sack in those seasons. Dale is a definite interior lineman in the NFL, and packs a good initial punch, but has to improve his ability to penetrate the line and get more aggressive to disrupt plays quicker.
Tyler Davis, Clemson: Davis was an instant superstar and an incredibly productive defensive tackle as a freshman, with 43 tackles, nine for a loss, and 5.5 sacks. But his rise was slowed by injury in 2020, deflating his excellent stats down to just a pair of sacks and 13 tackles (he did have five for a loss) in half as many games. When healthy, Davis is a high-motor player who just steadily works his way into the pocket, and can move to stay in front of rushing plays to the inside. A high ceiling that can be reached with a rebound year at full health.
Adam Anderson, Georgia: Anderson is an unfair player to have on the edge for the Bulldogs. Instant off the line and with incredible speed and athleticism for an edge rusher, Anderson can simply corner tackles and hit the QB before linemen can react, and he has the speed to avoid contact entirely along his arc. The production finally arrived for him last season, with 6.5 sacks and tackles for a loss along with a pair of forced fumbles. His speed, athleticism, and the massive strides he takes to gain ground all exceed what is required in the NFL, the only question is whether his size (230 pounds) will become a problem for him facing larger blockers.
Brenton Cox Jr., Florida: Originally a high-profile commit to Georgia, Cox was dismissed from the Bulldogs but stayed in the SEC by transferring to Florida, where he was a conference all-star in his first season there with 41 tackles, 9.5 for a loss, and four sacks. Cox offers versatility to play on the line or stand-up off the edge, as well as drop into coverage. When he can dodge substantial contact, he closes on the QB well. He needs another strong season and to improve his ability to shed tackles when he gets caught in a one-on-one.
Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Washington: ZTF was one of the biggest breakouts of the shortened 2020 collegiate season. Previously with only 10 tackles in his two-year career, Zion recorded seven sacks and tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and 13 total tackles in just four games, earning All-America status. An absolute handful on the edge who could mix speed and power in his toolbox, ZTF has a high ceiling, but may not declare for the 2022 class. A ruptured Achilles will cost him almost the entirety of the 2021 season.
Who I’m Watching
It is a strong class top to bottom for players along the defensive line and on the edge, and it begins up top with a large group of potential first-rounders that will change and potentially grow by a few names throughout this season. Thibodeaux is the obvious household name, but Karlaftis is a future fan favorite with his relentless motor and determination every snap.
The class also features a lot of top-end athletes, ranging from projected first-rounders like Jackson, to potential first-rounders like Hutchinson, to players like Anderson who could boost their stock significantly. All have high ceilings based on that, and Anderson joins Karlaftis as two of my personal favorites at any line position in this class.
Few players in this class are finished products, and most have some clear weaknesses that need fixed to elevate or retain their high stock. That ranges from elite prospects like Leal all the way down through potential first-rounders like Jackson and Enagbare, down to players like Cox who have to fight to get their names in the discussion more often. Names and big boards at the position could fluctuate wildly throughout this season, more so than at most other positions.
For the Steelers specifically, the high-end market is not required given the team’s vast accumulation of wealth on the line and edge. There are plenty of names to pick up after the first round, though, including a potential replacement for Alualu on the line in a player like Garrett or Tyler Davis, the latter of whom has an incredibly high ceiling and could form an even better trio with Tuitt and Heyward. Whether Highsmith develops to keep the edge opposite T.J. Watt locked down or not, never rule out Pittsburgh taking a flier on an athletic rusher there, either, and a player like Anderson or Tupuola-Fetui (if he declares) brings high upside to the position. Once the first round ends, any player left on the board along the line is on the team’s radar.