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NFL draft: Top defensive players on the board

The value of defensive players in the NFL is determined by how effective they can be against the pass.

That’s why in years when quarterbacks don’t go No. 1 overall, pass rushers often do. And why teams can’t seem to get enough cornerbacks.

The NFL draft kicks off Thursday night in Kansas City, Missouri.

This draft class is deep at both edge rusher and corner, though the top tier at those two positions might be a little light on star prospects — outside of Alabama’s Will Anderson.

The rarest commodity in the NFL is an elite defensive tackle who can be a dominant pass rusher. This class potentially has one of those in Georgia’s Jalen Carter, but he comes with some questions off the field.



Position overview: Another good year for edge rusher depth. A few appealing prospects are likely to slip out of the first round.

Will Anderson Jr.-x, 6-foot-3, 253 pounds, Alabama

Scouting report: Quick first step with an array and moves and power, and ability to dominate a game. Can quibble with his tackling and ability to finish against the run, but he’s probably the best prospect regardless of position.

Fact: Racked up 34 1/2 sacks and 62 tackles for loss in 41 games at Alabama.

Gone by: The first team that doesn’t take a quarterback probably takes Anderson.

Tyree Wilson, 6-5, 271, Texas Tech

Scouting report: Ideal frame with long arms and room to add more pounds. Improved technique and footwork could unlock an even more fierce pass rusher.

Fact: His final season was cut short by a right foot injury in November that kept him from doing more than lifting at the combine and pro day.

Gone by: Maybe he gets out of the top 10.

Lukas Van Ness-x, 6-5, 270, Iowa

Scouting report: Powerful player who has been used both inside and outside on the defensive line, but still relatively raw and inconsistently productive player.

Fact: Nicknamed “Hercules,” Van Ness was focused on hockey before high school and didn’t take off as a football prospect until junior year.

Gone by: Nos. 10-20 range.

Nolan Smith, 6-2, 238, Georgia

Scouting report: Fast (4.39-second in the 40 at the combine) and agile athlete who scores high marks as a team leader. The production never really matched the traits.

Fact: Former No. 1 overall high school recruit stayed at Georgia for his senior year, but a torn pectoral muscle cut his final season in October.

Gone by: Could slip to early second round if teams see more of a linebacker more than an edge rusher.

Keion White, 6-5, 285, Georgia Tech

Scouting report: Big, high-energy end who has not fully tapped into his pass-rushing potential.

Fact: Started his career as a tight end at Old Dominion in 2017 before moving to defense in 2019 and then transferring into the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2021.

Gone by: Top 40.

Myles Murphy, 6-4, 268, Clemson

Scouting report: Size, speed, build and athleticism are all top-notch and he was used up and down the defensive line. Pass rush moves and technique are work in progress.

Fact: A top-10 national recruit when he signed with Clemson, rated ahead of fellow Georgian Will Anderson.

Gone by: Early second.

Others to watch: Will McDonald IV, Iowa State; Felix Anudike-Uzomah; Tuli Tuipulotu; Southern California; B.J. Ojulari, LSU.


Position overview: Only one sure-fire first-rounder, a few more who could get consideration, and then a drop off.

Jalen Carter-x, 6-3, 313, Georgia

Scouting report: A game-wrecking package of power and quickness who collapses pockets and splits double-teams. Only questions appear to be about maturity and make-up.

Fact: Pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors (reckless driving and racing) and was sentenced to a year of probation and community service in March on charges related to an automobile accident that killed a Georgia teammate and football staffer.

Gone by: On talent alone, Carter is a candidate to be the first non-quarterback drafted.

Bryan Bresee-x, 6-5, 298, Clemson

Scouting report: Stout and powerful with good burst. Injuries, illness and a family tragedy (his younger sister died of cancer during last season) made for a challenging college career. The best could be yet to come.

Fact: A knee injury cut his sophomore season to four games and a kidney infection was part of what held him to 10 games last year.

Gone by: End of the first.

Calijah Kancey, 6-1, 281, Pittsburgh

Scouting report: Undersized, but active and quick interior lineman. He’s no Aaron Donald, who came out of Pitt with a similar scouting report, but he’s disruptive.

Fact: Led major college football defensive tackles with 14 tackles for loss last season.

Gone by: Late first round.

Mazi Smith, 6-3, 323, Michigan

Scouting report: Crazy strong and athletic for his size, but it hasn’t translated to pass rushing skills.

Fact: Pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun possession charge last year for failing to register a weapon he had legally purchased.

Gone by: Middle of the second.

Others to watch: Adetomiwa Adebawore, Northwestern; Gervon Dexter, Florida; Siaki Ika, Baylor; Jaquelin Roy, LSU.


Position overview: Linebackers are becoming the running backs of defense, with draft value in decline.

Drew Sanders-x, 6-4, 235, Arkansas.

Scouting report: Disruptive pass rusher and rangy player, who tended to shoot gaps and was an inconsistent tackler.

Fact: Former five-star recruit signed with Alabama before transferring to Arkansas where for one season he was one of the most productive defensive players in the country (103 tackles, 9 1/2 sacks and three forced fumbles).

Gone by: Pick No. 50.

Jack Campbell, 6-4, 249, Iowa.

Scouting report: Big and active run stuffer who will have to show more in coverage or as a pass rusher to become a three-down player in the NFL. There is potential for that.

Fact: Butkus Award winner as top linebacker in the nation in 2022.

Gone by: Middle of the second.

Trenton Simpson-x, 6-2, 235, Clemson

Scouting report: His 4.43-speed allowed Clemson to use him like another defensive back at times, but not an instinctive run defender.

Fact: More productive as a sophomore with 12 tackles for loss and six sacks compared to four and two as a junior, but usage plays a part in that.

Gone by: Middle of the second.

Others to watch: Daiyan Henley, Washington State; Nick Herbig, Wisconsin.


Position overview: Pencil in three sure first-rounders and a few others who could jump into the back end of Day 1.

Devon Witherspoon, 5-11, 181, Illinois.

Scouting report: Aggressive, disruptive and physical defensive back, who took a huge leap as a senior to become one of the best defensive players in the country. Maybe a little too aggressive, especially at that size.

Fact: Didn’t play high school football until his junior year and spent a season at junior college before going to Illinois.

Gone by: Favorite to be first cornerback off the board, but no lock.

Christian Gonzalez-x, 6-1, 197, Oregon

Scouting report: Long and fast (4.38 in the 40) cornerback who became more of a playmaker last season with four interceptions and 11 passes defended.

Fact: Former four-star recruit transferred from Colorado to Oregon after the 2021 season.

Gone by: Size-speed package could make him a top-10 pick.

Joey Porter Jr., 6-2, 192, Penn State

Scouting report: Big, strong and physical corner with long arms. His style draws some flags and he needs work supporting the run.

Fact: His father, Joey Sr., played 13 seasons in the NFL at outside linebacker.

Gone: Middle of the first round.

Deonte Banks, 6-0, 197, Maryland

Scouting report: Another physical corner who likes to mix it up and get involved against the run, but a little finesse might help him in coverage.

Fact: Missed 11 games in 2021 with a shoulder injury.

Gone: End of the first round.

Emmanuel Forbes-x, 6-1, 166, Mississippi State

Scouting report: Elite ball skills in long and very slender frame.

Fact: Set a major college football record with six career interceptions returned for touchdowns.

Gone by: The size makes Forbes a wildcard in the first two rounds.

D.J. Turner, 5-11, 178, Michigan

Scouting report: Maybe the fastest player in the draft, but needs to play stronger.

Fact: Ran the fastest 40 at the combine, clocking in at 4.26.

Gone by. That speed probably won’t get out of the second round.

Kelee Ringo-x, 6-2, 207, Georgia

Scouting report: Great size and speed combination didn’t always translate into sound play.

Fact: Former five-star recruit started 30 games over two national championship seasons for Georgia in 2021 and ’22.

Gone by: Middle of the second.

Clark Phillips III-x, 5-9, 184, Utah

Scouting report: The measurements don’t stand out, but he’s a tenacious competitor who makes a lot of plays.

Fact: All-American in his final season, with six interceptions.

Gone by: Could be third-round steal.

Others to watch: Cam Smith, South Carolina; Julius Brents, Kansas State; Tyrique Stevenson, Miami.


Position overview: Solid chance no safeties are selected in the first round.

Brian Branch-x, 5-11, 190, Alabama

Scouting report: Versatile defensive back with coverage skills that could make him a valuable slot cornerback and size that might limit his effectiveness in run support.

Fact: All-American filled the same role at Alabama that NFL star Minkah Fitzpatrick once played.

Gone by: End of the first round.

Others to watch: Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M; Ji’Ayir Brown, Penn State; Jordan Battle, Alabama.


Position overview: The few kickers and punters that will be drafted likely won’t come until Day 3 (rounds 4-7).

Jake Moody, K, 6-0, 210, Michigan; Chad Ryland, K, 5-11, 190, Maryland; Bryce Baringer, P, 6-1, 220, Michigan State; Adam Korsak, P, 6-0, 190, Rutgers.


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Ralph D. Russo, The Associated Press