The Green Bay Packers are incredibly thin up front, with B.J. Raji electing to not play in 2016, Mike Pennel getting a season-opening, four-game suspension and Datone Jones moving into a hybrid linebacker-defensive end role.
The defensive line class is terrific, with up to 10 players being first-round options. Here are our top five, with stats from STATS via Real Football and scouting opinions courtesy of longtime NFL scout and Packer Report contributor Dave-Te’ Thomas.
DeForest Buckner, Oregon
Position rank: 1
Height: 6-foot-7 1/8. Weight: 291. Bench: 21. Vertical jump: 32. Short shuttle: 4.47.
Notes: As a senior, Buckner was an All-American, the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year, a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award, which goes to the nation’s top defensive end, and the winner of the Morris Trophy, which goes to the conference’s best defensive lineman, as voted on by Pac-12 offensive linemen. Buckner was Oregon's second-leading tackler and its defensive Most Outstanding Player. Not only was he second on the team with 83 tackles, but he was No. 1 in the Pac-12 with 10.5 sacks and No. 4 with 17 tackles for losses. Other than small-school standout Javon Hargrave, Buckner led our 3-4 defensive line class in sacks, plus he was No. 1 in quarterback pressures and quarterback knockdowns. And it wasn’t even close — Buckner had seven more pressures and a whopping 11 more knockdowns. Against the run, he was fourth with 12 stuffs (defined by STATS as a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run) and tied for sixth with 33 run disruptions (defined by STATS as a play that disrupts the run concept). If you want to nitpick, he missed six tackles.
Scouting: Said Thomas, who like most scouts believes Buckner is one of the top five players in the draft. “Buckner is an excellent athlete for his size. He changes directions smoothly and moves well laterally. Teams using a 3-4 defensive scheme feel he is capable of being equally effective as a defensive end or as a right outside linebacker (elephant linebacker). Despite his size, he has learned how to play a little lower, which has made him stout vs. the run. He can hold his ground when teams run at him and he can get off blocks quickly enough to make the tackle. He’s not an elite pass rusher but he can certainly walk offensive tackles back and is good at getting his hands into passing windows. Buckner has elite first-step quickness and exceptional hand usage. The thing I like about Buckner is that he is hungry for knowledge, making him a coach’s dream. Understand, this is a kid with incredible raw talent yet hasn’t touched the tip of the iceberg on what he can accomplish. In a 3-4 alignment, he would be a perfect fit for the five-tech hole, as he can be a terror on stunts.” Another scout likened Buckner to Cardinals All-Pro Calais Campbell, who dominated the Packers during their regular-season matchup, and considered him the best player in the draft.
Personally: The native of Waianae, Hawaii, saw his life change when he was 13. His father was involved in a motorcycle accident and spent six months in a medically induced coma. One night after George Buckner emerged from his coma, father told son that it was time to become the man of the house. “It changed me a lot,” he said at the Combine. “I had to mature a lot earlier than some of my friends. At times, I had to take care of my younger brother, trying to stay on him when he was having troubles in school. Just being able to do extra things that my dad used to do around the house that I had to pick up and do to help my mom out. She was working all day, all night. She was staying with my dad at the hospital when he was in a coma. All the little things I could have done to help my mom, really. It really helped me mature into the man I am today. My extended family was a lot of help to, helping me and my family in that devastating time.”
Sheldon Rankins, Louisville
Position rank: 2
Height: 6-foot-1 1/8. Weight: 299. Bench: 28. Vertical jump: 34.5. Short shuttle: 4.59.
Notes: Rankins started during his final two seasons at Louisville. As a junior, he was third-team all-ACC with his eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for losses. He considered entering the draft but came back for his senior season and tallied six sacks and 13 TFLs to earn second-team honors. He then put together a big week at the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine. He is an impressive combination of strength and explosion.
Scouting: He’s not the prototypical 3-4-scheme defensive end but most teams don’t line up in their base defense on more than one-third of the snaps. Regardless, winning football games means pressuring the quarterback. Rankins is a tremendous pass rusher — and no slouch vs. the run. He’s arguably the best all-around package in a loaded defensive line class. “We keep talking about what a pass-first league this is, and it certainly has become that,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “So anybody that can create immediate interior pressure has got higher value than he did five years ago. Rankins is one of those kind of guys. Regardless whether you're a 3-4 or 4-3 team you've got to get guys who can get to the quarterback quicker. Rankins to me is intriguing.” Thomas compared him to the Bengals’ Geno Atkins, who slipped into the fourth round of the 2010 draft because of height concerns. “His flexibility and balance allow him to flow with the play while working down the line. You can see on film that he is a quick-twitch player with natural movement ability. There may not be a better player to coach. Rankins does all that is asked and is not a showboat — he just comes to play — and is a respected leader. Coming off the snap, Rankins shows excellent quickness to get into the offensive lineman. Rankins understands leverage and has very active hands, constantly keeping them inside his frame. Blockers have little to no success rooting him out, as he never leaves his chest exposed. As a pass rusher, Rankins can beat you with either his speed or his power. He is an instinctive pass rusher who utilizes his wide array of moves to split double teams. Few down linemen in this draft show Rankins’ discipline, desire and field smarts.”
Personally: Rankins learned some critical footwork while playing basketball. “The spin move kind of came from basketball. I was always kind of the bigger guy on the court, so people always tried to take charges, get me in foul trouble, so going around them wasn't always the easiest. So, the spin move kind of came in handy because nobody really expected it, so it just kind of happened on the football field one day and I was like, ‘I'm going to keep using it.’ And once I got to college, coaches were able to hone that in and actually make it into a real move I could use and be productive with it.”
A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama
Position rank: 3
Height: 6-foot-3 5/8. Weight: 307. Bench: 22. Vertical jump: 26. Short shuttle: 4.74.
Notes: Robinson was a Freshman All-American in 2013 and a consensus All-American in 2015. During his final season, Robinson was a finalist for the Outland Trophy (top interior lineman) as he posted 45 tackles, including three sacks and 8.5 stuffs. While not regarded as a premier pass rusher, Robinson had 22 quarterback pressures — twice as many as teammate Jarran Reed and on par with several touted defensive linemen who didn’t make our Elite 5 (Vernon Butler had 27, Jonathan Bullard had 23 and Kenny Clark had 18).
Scouting: “A’Shawn is a bit of a genetic freak,” said Phil Savage, the former NFL general manager who serves as executive director of the Senior Bowl and analyst on Alabama’s radio broadcasts. “He’s 6-3 1/2, 310. He looks like he’s 30 years old in the face but then you realize that he’s 20. He’s 20 years old, he’s very powerful, he’s explosive in his lower body. I think he probably has the bigger upside (than Reed). He’s got the potential to make the more splash plays than Jarran Reed. To me, right away, Jarran Reed might be the better player. A year from now, Robinson may pass him up.” There’s a chance Robinson could fall to No. 27 — pushed down because of the overall strength of the defensive tackle class. Savage didn’t think that was likely, which was the majority opinion but hardly unanimous. “Robinson is a heck of a run-stopper but can he rush the passer enough to play more than 20 snaps a game? That’s the question.”
Personally: He got his first taste of tackle football when he was 4. Even at that age, he was big enough to compete with the 7- and 8-year-olds. He didn’t like being hit, though, so he quit. But not for long. “Grew up watching lot of football ever since I was little. My uncle go me into it when I was very young,” he said at the Combine. “When I was 5 year old I was playing with 8- or 9-year-olds, so playing with those guys — playing up and stuff — made me a better player, it made me a lot tougher than what I was as a little kid.”
Jarran Reed, Alabama
Position rank: 4
Height: 6-foot-2 7/8. Weight: 307. Bench: DNP. Vertical jump: 31. Short shuttle: 4.75.
Notes: After two years of junior-college ball, Reed was an instant starter during his two seasons at Alabama. He earned all-SEC accolades both seasons, including second-team honors as a senior, when he recorded 53 tackles, including one sack and 4.5 tackles for losses. Among our top 10 defensive linemen, Reed’s 10 pressures were the fewest by eight and his two quarterback hits were the fewest by seven. He did boast 29 run disruptions, 11 stuffs and no missed tackles.
Scouting: Thomas called Reed the driving force of Alabama’s mighty run defense. “Reed has a thick, squat frame with a good bubble, wide hips, very thick thighs and calves, good arm length and large hands. He possesses a big back, broad shoulders and despite his thick frame, he has surprisingly quick change of direction agility. He seems bigger than his frame indicates and he knows how to grab and jerk offensive tackles with his large hands. He is really more of a small-area type of player due to issues with his limited long speed, but he does a very good job of taking on and occupying multiple blockers. He is a very physical and powerful athlete with good lower-body flexibility for a player of his size. Reed is an excellent in-line run stuffer. It is nearly impossible for blockers to move him off the line and he does an excellent job of creating a pile and splitting double teams. Very few runners have had any sort of success running inside on him (only four times has an opponent registered a first down rushing vs. Reed). When he fires off the line, he can instantly ride the center back into the pocket. He just needs to stop standing up in his stance, as it gives the opponent a chance to wash him down the line via down blocks. With his ability to handle multiple blockers, it’s like having two defensive linemen wrapped into one with Reed in the middle of the line. Against the pass, Reed is more of a bull rusher. His job is basically to collapse the pocket by pushing multiple blockers into the backfield. He will need to develop some sort of pass rush moves if he wants to play in obvious passing situations.”
Personally: Reed plays with smarts and vision, perhaps stemming from his high school days. “I was at a different position in high school, though. I was a linebacker. The ability to get sideline-to-sideline, bring down quarterbacks, make plays outside the tackle box. It definitely shows versatility and athleticism, from my standpoint, and I try to really showcase that a lot.”
Andrew Billings, Baylor
Position rank: 5
Height: 6-foot 5/8. Weight: 311. Bench: 31. Vertical jump: 27.5. Short shuttle: 4.82.
Notes: Billings was first-team all-Big 12 during his final two seasons at Baylor, including second-team All-American in 2015. The impact-play production is what stands out. While he had only 40 tackles — tied for the fewest in our Top 10 and less than half of Buckner’s total — he led the entire defensive tackle class with 56 run disruptions and six forced penalties and was third with 13.5 stuffs.
Scouting: “He's somebody he's a little more athletic than I gave him credit for,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout, said. “I know he can really, really shock people at the point of attack with his hands and his ability to hold up against the run. But I thought watching him move around at the Combine, his movement skills were better than I gave him credit for. And he did have a handful of sacks last year.” Noted Mayock: “Billings is probably the best pure nose tackle in this draft from Baylor, strong as can be, probably more of a two-down guy, though.” A scout didn’t buy that, though. “I thought his pressure was fine. You can go all speed guys or you can have the big, tough guy to push back the pocket. I think he can play all three downs.”
Personally: He’s strong: At Waco (Texas) High School, he broke a 22-year-old state record with a combined 2,010 pounds in the squad, bench press and dead lift. The former record holder? Mark Henry, a two-time Olympian and WWE wrestler whose nickname is “The Strongest Man That Ever Lived.” Billings was 9 pounds, 14 ounces at birth. Billings turned 21 in March so has room to grow physically and as a pro. “I envision myself with double the knowledge, really, and really playing the game smarter, not harder,” he said of his game as he gains experience. “I want to be able to get all the tricks the defensive linemen have right now and really use them against offensive linemen who have been playing for 12 years in the league.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.