Earlier in the week we discussed some of the underrated players on the offensive side of the football. I fancy myself a defensive enthusiast, however; so itâ€™s high time we flipped our attention to the other side of the football.
The defensive class this year is fun. Loaded with gifted football players, particularly in the back seven; this yearâ€™s class is going to be easy to dig into with enthusiasm. Youâ€™ve heard plenty of Myles Garrett, Derek Barnett, Reuben Foster, Desmond King. Theyâ€™re the heavyweights of the class. But make no mistake, the class has layers of high caliber prospects; some of which are scheme specific. Regardless of their required circumstances, they bring much to the table.
Front Seven defenders
Defensive Lineman Solomon Thomas, Stanford:Â Thomas has tallied a sack in each of the last 4 contests; bringing his current season total to 7.0. His 5.5 sacks in October has raised his overall profile in the draft and college football communities, yet the numbers do not do Thomas justice as a prospect. Thomas is a heavyweight along the defensive line. His hands are physical, and he possesses the ideal amount of length to stack and shed blocks at the point of attack effectively. Thomas is what people want Michigan Stateâ€™s Malik McDowell to be: the next in line of supersized defensive lineman that have theÂ versatility to play up and down a front.
Thomas is a team captainÂ and now holdsÂ the mantle as the leader of the Cardinal defense. Draft eligible this season, Thomas is only in his second year of lettering, so there is a decent chance we do not see him this Spring. I would not fault him one bit if we do.
Middle Linebacker Butch Pauâ€™u, Brigham Young:Â Pauâ€™u is not anywhere near a household name. Unlike Thomas, I have yet to hear him generate any level of buzz. But Pauâ€™u impresses me every time I watch him in the middle of the Cougars defense. Pauâ€™u missed two games this year with an MCL sprain before returning to the lineup and upping his finish percentage even higher. Pauâ€™u has tallied 60 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 7.5 TFL and an interception in 6 games this year (with at least 2 more TFL negated by penalties). Heâ€™s a monster between the tackles and reminds me of a cheaper version of former UCLA LB Eric Kendricks. They possess a similar buildÂ and play with the same level of pursuit and intent to finish.
Pauâ€™u, as a BYU enrollee, is two years behind on his eligibility due to a mission trip; so heâ€™s currently a redshirt sophomore. If heâ€™s serious about playing NFL football, he may be making the jump.
A strong secondary group
Cornerback Damontae Kazee, San Diego State:Â Kazee is one of the previously mentioned scheme specific prospects. Kazee harkens memories of Oklahoma CB Zack Sanchez (2016 fifth round draft selection). Abit undersized, KazeeÂ is a bit of a gambler but also punches well above his weight class. Kazee can be an impact player inÂ a Cover 2 zone heavy defensive system. Heâ€™s not going to be slotted high on press man defensive boards, which is going to impact how urgently teams will press to select him. But I firmly believe Kazee can play the boundary in a Cover 2.
Kazeeâ€™s ball skills are very strong, as evidenced by his 13 career interceptions and 25 career passes defensed. Kazee has short area quickness to plant and drive on throws in front of his face and the aggression to stand his ground as a boundary run defender.
Cornerback Corn Elder, Miami (FL):Â Elder is having himself one of the best senior seasons of any defensive back in the country. Elderâ€™s success probably should not be as big of a surprise as it seems; as our friends at Pro Football Focus had him rated as the fourth best CB in the ACC in 2015. Elderâ€™s cerebral approach to the position stands out as a high-quality trait. Route recognition, spatial awareness and ball skills are all quality and frequently shown. Where can Elder play? I feel good about him in just about any defensive scheme. He has shown more this season overlapping his zones, yet he has proven to be sticky in man coverage as well.
Strong Safety Marcus Maye, Florida:Â Maye is not a name frequently discussed in draft circles. Yet. Maye has very strong tape and multiple years of it. Maye stood out to be the better of the two Safeties in 2015; his back end teammate Keanu Neal is now a first round starter for the Atlanta Falcons. Maye is a smooth athlete who takes clean angles to the football in space. His conservative nature allows him to consistently stay leveraged over top of plays and prevent big chunk gains. Maye is a strong candidate for a starting role in his rookie season thanks to his strong mental processing and commitment to fulfilling his defensive roles. A name many in draft circles would be well-served to become acquaintedÂ with.