Best of the front seven on Sunday display

The defensive linemen and linebackers are up Sunday at the NFL Scouting Combine. Who are the top candidates to watch?

Saturday was the Mr. America pageant at the annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis as the top quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers took center stage and staked their claims to be the top picks in April’s draft. NFL Combine Coverage
Get the latest Combine news, video and rumors from the team!

But, for defensive-minded coaches like Mike Zimmer, Sunday will be the trip to the candy store as defensive linemen and linebackers are under the spotlight.

Increasingly, there has become a new element added to player evaluation – the evolution of the edge rusher. They can be defensive ends. They can be outside linebackers. What they share in common is that they provide the heat on the quarterback.

Last year, Anthony Barr was viewed as a better fit to a lot of draft analysts as an edge rusher in a 3-4 scheme, not a pure 4-3 outside linebacker. But Zimmer saw something that fit his scheme, which is the key to determining where a player is going to get drafted. Coaches know what type of players fit their scheme and draft accordingly. Barr was a perfect example of that last year.

With that in mind, here are 10 linemen and linebackers to keep an eye on Sunday because most, if not all of them, are going to be viewed as first-round talents by a lot of teams and they likely won’t last long when names start coming off the board on opening night of the draft.

Leonard Williams, USCA rare combination of size, strength and functional quickness, he was able to slide across the D-line to take advantage of mismatches at both the defensive end and defensive tackle positions. His love of the game sets him apart. His only real flaw is that he is tall and will get in leverage issues with solid blocking offensive linemen. He will likely be the first defensive player to come off the board.

Shane Ray, MissouriHe is a physical specimen who runs a blazing 40 time, has a 40-inch vertical jump and can bench press in excess of 400 pounds. He has an explosive first step off the snap, but the biggest concern is that he has relied heavily on his pure athleticism and will need time to develop an assortment of pass-rush moves. He may be a one-trick pony right now, but it’s a great trick.

Randy Gregory, NebraskaA player with rare burst that has drawn comparisons to the skill set that Aldon Smith brought to the 49ers. He has excellent balance to avoid getting his legs chopped out. He played a 4-3 end in college, but may be better suited for a 3-4 edge rusher because he doesn’t have ideal anchor strength. He could well come off the board in the first 10 picks, if not sooner (Washington at No. 5 looks like a good fit).

Danny Shelton, Washington – A true middle D-lineman at 6-2, 340, he has ideal anchor strength to occupy two offensive linemen to clog running lanes. He has excellent footwork and good closing speed for a man his size. He doesn’t have a great pass rush, although he posted solid sack numbers and keeping his weight down may become an issue.

Malcom Brown, TexasAnother big defensive tackle, despite weighing in the 320-pound range, he has very good quickness and ball awareness. He’ll need to work on his hand technique because O-linemen tend to get into his body too easily. He doesn’t bring much in the way of pass rush moves, rather relying on his athleticism and core strength to get penetration, which is never easy in the NFL.

Dante Fowler, FloridaFowler did everything for the Gators, playing three defensive line positions and outside linebacker. He projects as a 3-4 OLB and his stock is on the rise. He needs to add to his upper-body strength to disengage from blockers, but he has drawn comparisons to Terrell Suggs, which is pretty high praise. He won’t last long on draft day.

Vic Beasley, ClemsonHe explodes off the snap and is consistently beyond the line of scrimmage before contacted. He has excellent footwork and can slide around blockers, but at 246 pounds he’s undersized for a defensive end, so ideally is suited to play a 3-4 OLB in the mold of Von Miller, who is very similarly built. He doesn’t have great field awareness and will need to have a strong coaching staff willing to bring him along.

Alvin "Bud" Dupree, KentuckyHe had excellent production in the SEC with a variety of rush moves, good balance and flexibility and elite field awareness. The biggest problem is that he doesn’t project as a defensive end pass rusher at the next level because he doesn’t have good functional football strength and struggles to get loose when contacted. He will thrive best as an edge rusher in a 3-4 defense.

Shaq Thompson, Washington – He is extremely explosive off the snap and had outstanding production. He has a rare nose for the ball and works his way through traffic to the ball carrier. But at 6-0, 226, he looks more like a safety than a linebacker and he doesn’t have the body type that lends itself to adding muscle mass. He is a ’tweener in the bad sense of the word, but it’s hard to deny his production.

Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi StateThe best inside linebacker in the 2015 class, he is raw but has extraordinary physicality and makes plays. While he is a great athlete, he isn’t the prototype MLB glass-eater type and doesn’t always play with a mean streak. He might not go on Day 1, but in the right system he could be a difference-maker.


Prospects by: OVERALL RANK | Position | College | Home State | Name

Viking Update Top Stories