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NFL Draft Notebook: Defensive Big Board



The 2021 NFL Draft is next week, and the Buffalo Bills will be looking for pieces that can push them over the top and into the Super Bowl next season. For the past several weeks, we’ve been taking a deep dive into a certain defensive position group and exploring players that the Bills could target throughout the draft. Today, we’re going to take a look at my final defensive player rankings leading up to next week’s draft. 

The first round is set to be dominated by offensive players. Five quarterbacks will almost certainly go in the first round. At least four or five wide receivers will be selected. A deep class of offensive linemen should see at least a half dozen players taken in the first round. This means we’re likely to see some high end defensive talent available a few picks later than it should be. 

Here are my top 20 defensive players for the 2021 NFL Draft.

1. LB Micah Parsons, Penn State

Simply put, Parsons is the best defensive player in the draft, and it’s not close. Coming into the 2020 season, Parsons seemed like a sure-fire, top-five pick. Parsons, as many others chose to do, opted out of his junior season to prepare for the draft. Inexplicably, he’s fallen down draft boards and is being mocked in the 10-15 range in many drafts. A fast (4.39 forty), instinctive linebacker, Parsons might be the best non-QB talent in this entire draft. 

2. CB Patrick Surtain Jr., Alabama

Corner is the strongest defensive position in this draft, and Surtain is the best of the bunch. He’s a big corner with elite athleticism and good speed. Surtain displays excellent coverage ability and plays with the aggressiveness you’d expect from a Crimson Tide player. He’s a future All Pro. 

3. CB Jaycee Horn, South Carolina

Horn has been one of the biggest risers of the offseason. Some teams were reportedly a little worried about his speed, but he settled those concerns when he ran a 4.39 forty at his pro day. Unlike most, Horn more than held his own against Florida’s group of speedy receivers. He’s a fluid athlete with good instincts and often runs the route for the receivers. Pass catchers have a very difficult time getting separation against Horn at the college level. 

4. DE Kwity Paye, Michigan

This year’s defensive end class is thinner at the top than most. There is no Chase Young this time around. Paye is the best all-around DE in this class. He’s been an effective, not dominant, pass rusher in Ann Arbor. Paye will need to develop some go-to moves as a pass rusher, but he’s shown a good power rush and is relentless in his pursuit. What sets Paye apart from the other defensive ends is his run defense. He sheds blocks quickly and gets down the line of scrimmage better than anyone else in this class.

5. CB Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech

Prior to some back issues, Farley was the clear cut #1 cornerback in this class. The injury certainly makes him more of a risk, but the most recent reports have been very positive about his recovery. Farley should be healthy and ready for the start of the season. He likely won’t get picked until the back half of the first round, but if he is in fact 100% healthy, he’s going to be the biggest steal of this draft. If healthy, he’s an All-Pro.

6. DE Jaelan Phillips, Miami

Phillips is another guy with some major injury red flags to go along with fantastic production. His ceiling is higher than Paye’s, particularly as a pass rusher. Phillips has an elite combination of size, speed, and athleticism. He was the most disruptive force off the edge in college football last season. Phillips is still relatively inexperienced, and he might struggle as a run defender early in his career. 

7. CB Greg Newsome II, Northwestern

Newsome might be the most technically sound corner in the draft. He just doesn’t get beat. In my cornerbacks preview, I predicted that if he ran well in his workouts, he’d cement himself as a first-round pick. Newsome blazed a 4.38 forty and put to rest any concerns about his speed and athleticism. The main concern with Newsome is his struggle with injuries while at Northwestern.  He’ll likely be taken in the 20s and will make some CB-needy team really happy.

8. LB Jamin Davis, Kentucky

Not that long ago, Davis was an intriguing prospect with plenty of upside. After destroying his pro day, he’s now got a legitimate chance to be a first round pick (and could be in play for the Bills at 30). Davis had a strong 2020 season at Kentucky. He’s a tackling machine that closes incredibly fast, as evidenced by his 4.4 speed. He’s still inexperienced, with only 11 starts under his belt, but he has rare athleticism and unlimited upside. 

9. LB Zaven Collins, Tulsa

Collins is a huge linebacker (6-4, 260) with good speed and special instincts. He doesn’t have the elite speed Parsons and Davis showed, but a 4.65 forty at nearly 260 pounds is impressive. Collins makes plays all over the field. He’s stout against the run, looks natural in pass coverage, and can rush the passer effectively. He has the size to play in the middle and the speed to play on the outside. 

10. S Trevor Moehrig, TCU

The top safety on the board, Moehrig is a centerfield ballhawk. He has a knack for finding the ball and can get the ball back for his team in a hurry. Moehrig is a good run defender, though not elite. If you need a safety who can make plays on the ball and can effectively cover slot receivers, Moehrig is your man. 

11. LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame

Owusu-Koramoah is an enticing prospect. As an outside linebacker, he brings an exciting mix of speed and athleticism to the position. He’s one of the best pass coverage linebackers we’ve seen in the past few years. He’s also a terror off the edge when blitzing. The obvious knock on Owusu-Koramoah is his size. It was nice to see him weigh over 220 pounds at his pro day, but he’s still a bit undersized. As the game continues to evolve into pass happy offenses, having a linebacker with Owusu-Koramoah’s skill set is a big advantage. 

12. CB Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State

In a draft full of big, fast highly rated cornerbacks, Samuel stands out as an undersized guy. But don’t let the size fool you. He’s an absolute blanket in coverage, and receivers were consistently unable to separate from him. Samuel has a very smooth, natural feel to his game, and just like Surtain Jr., you can tell he was raised by a Pro Bowl defensive back father. Despite being on the smaller side, Samuel is a good run defender. He seems like a better fit for a man-heavy scheme. 

13. DE Carlos Basham, Wake Forest

“Boogie” is one of the safest picks in this draft. He’s unlikely to ever become a perennial All-Pro, but he’s also highly unlikely to bust. Basham is a strong, plug-and-play defensive end. He’s a thick-cut end that can produce some pressure on the quarterback and also stop the run. Basham also has the size to move inside on passing downs. He’s probably a little closer to his ceiling than some of the other ends, but I think he’s a guy who’s being undervalued in this draft. 

14. DT Christian Barmore, Alabama

Barmore is an incredibly disruptive force in the middle when he wants to be. He’s the latest in a long line of Crimson Tide defensive tackles with first-round talent. Anyone who watched Alabama beat Ohio State in the national title game no doubt witnessed Barmore embarrassing future pros on the Buckeyes offensive line. He was simply unblockable. The downside for Barmore is his motor runs hot and cold, and he disappears for stretches. He’s a guy who could have used one more year in school to hone his skills and become a top 10 pick. 

15. DT Daviyon Nixon, Iowa

I’m more bullish on Nixon than most, but he’s a guy who is going to be the steal of the draft for someone in the late 2nd/early 3rd. He’s absolutely a first-round talent. Nixon rose from a junior college player to an All American in 2020 and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He’s just slightly bigger than Barmore and had a better 40 time. In the NFL, Nixon will be a solid run defender who uses his quickness to consistently get into the opponent’s backfield. He doesn’t have Barmore’s natural ability, but he has a better motor, he’s more consistent, and plays with a chip on his shoulder every play. 

16. OLB/DE Azeez Ojulari, Georgia

Ojulari is a speedy, dangerous edge rusher with a higher pass rush grade than anyone else in the 2021 draft (per PFF). He’s probably too small to play defensive end and may be limited to being a 3-4 outside rush linebacker. He’s probably a year or two away from having any impact on the field, but for a team that can afford to be patient with him, the payoff could be huge.

17. CB Tyson Campbell, Georgia

Campbell’s CB teammate, Eric Stokes, is getting more hype because of his blazing fast 4.25 forty, but Campbell is the better corner. He’s tall and lean with really good cover skills. He’s not exactly slow either, running in the 4.3s twice at his Georgia pro day. While Campbell covers well, his ball skills could use improvement.

18. CB Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse

Melifonwu is another guy I’m higher on than most. He absolutely has the talent, tape, and measurables of a first-round corner. At over 6’2″, Melifonwu ran a 4.48 forty and had a ridiculous 41.5” vertical jump. He also showed consistently in 2020 that he can cover and attack the ball in the air. He also played well at the Senior Bowl. Melifonwu is a player who should be on the rise, and if he’s available in the second round (or later), it’d be a gift. 

19. DT Levi Onwuzurike, Washington

Onwuzurike is another guy that probably dropped his stock a bit after sitting out the 2020 season. He’s got an extremely quick first step and can knife into the backfield with regularity. He’s a consistently disruptive force and a solid run defender. Onwuzurike is about 20 pounds lighter than Barmore and Nixon, and he may need to add some weight to hold up consistently against NFL linemen. 

20. DE Gregory Rousseau, Miami

Rousseau is a guy that would scare me a little bit if I’m a GM. He had one season with amazing production at Miami. However, his pro day left scouts with some question marks. His 4.69 forty time was okay. But his vertical jump of only 30 inches was pretty disappointing and opens up some questions about his explosiveness. FitzMagic had a better vertical jump coming out of college. Just saying. Rousseau absolutely hurt himself by opting out of the 2020 season when he needed to refine his technique. Still, despite the red flags, there’s no denying the production in 2019 when he was neck and neck with Chase Young for the nation’s lead in sacks. In the second round, the reward outweighs the risk. 

There you have it, #BillsMafia, my final 2021 defensive big board. Don’t worry. I sent Brandon Beane his own personal copy. What players are ranked too high or too low? Who did I leave off the big board that you think should be in the top 20? Leave a comment!