Defensive players have proven to be consistently good value in the NFL draft. While Dion Jordan (#3 overall, 2013) proved to be a bust and Dante Fowler Jr. (#3 overall, 2015) has been limited by injury, the first defensive player off the board generally turns into a hyper-elite talent. Joey Bosa (#3 overall, 2016) and Jadeveon Clowney (#1 overall, 2014) have All Pro potential, while Myles Garrett (#1 overall, 2017) is primed to be an absolute game-wrecker for the Browns, if the NFL preseason is to be at all believed.
The first overall pick in 2018 is likely to be a quarterback, but that’s not because there’s a lack of defensive talent in this class. Having already look at the the top running backs, and of course, the top quarterbacks, below we run through the top defensive players in college football and set the odds that they’ll follow in the footsteps of Bosa and Clowney.
Arden Key, DE, LSU
Arden Key is the best defensive player on one of the best defenses in the country. He recorded a noteworthy 56 tackles in 2016, including 14.5 tackles-for-loss (TFL) and an LSU record 12 sacks. Physically, he’s a prototypical edge rusher: LSU lists him at 6’6 and 238 pounds, although he’s saying that he’s now 255. He’s also blessed with long arms and an explosive first step. He can bend, he has the conditioning to play snap-to-whistle for an entire game, and he can take on two blockers and still pressure the quarterback. His movement isn’t the best, and his strength isn’t quite elite yet, but this is a player who finished high school somewhere between 200 and 230 pounds and is not yet finished developing physically. LSU has never failed to bulk up its players (there must be something in the gumbo) so by growing into his frame and continuing to play well, Key can cement himself as the top defensive player in this draft.
Some draftniks even have Key going #1 overall, but given the dire need for quarterbacks at the bottom of the league, that’s not likely.
He’s recovering from a shoulder injury, one that he had surgery for earlier this year, and if he can prove to NFL scouts that his shoulder is solid and ready to perform at the next level, he’ll easily be one of the top players in the draft.
Odds Arden Key is the first defensive player taken in the 2018 NFL Draft: 4/1
Derwin James, S, Florida State
Florida State’s Derwin James was hailed as college football’s best player before being sidelined by a season-ending injury last year. The 6’3, 211-pound safety fills a do-everything defensive back role: he covers a lot of bases and allows Florida State’s other defensive players to be aggressive, make mistakes, and get messy. He paired well with cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who sings his praises from the NFL, and invites comparisons to Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. It’s not a question so much of what Derwin James can do, as much as it’s one of finding something he can’t.
The knee is the big question mark. Sometimes a knee injury can limit the speed and burst of an athlete even after they’ve recovered. James is aware of that issue, and is on instagram doing everything he can to prove that his knee is fine, thank you very much.
Odds Derwin James is the first defensive player taken in the 2018 NFL Draft: 4/1
Minkah Fitzpatrick, S/CB, Alabama
Facing off against James in the season opener is Minkah Fitzpatrick, who filled the “star” position on Alabama’s defense last year, a fancy name for a nickel defender in a nickel-based system. He was all over the field, recording 66 tackles, six interceptions, and a 100-yard pick-six. Three of those interceptions came against Arkansas, maybe his best game of the season, and it’s worth watching his play that day.
Fitzpatrick is one of the few players in the country experienced in playing the nickel in its new form, and at an elite level. NFL teams are adopting the nickel more and more, so Fitzpatrick could be uniquely valuable. Even if you want to use him in a more traditional position, you can do that. He’s a ball-hawking safety who closes on the ball with furious speed and can cover pretty much anyone you point him at. Nick Saban is effusive about Fitzpatrick’s work ethic and playing ability. There’s a lot here for GM’s to like, and with another season like 2016, he’ll be nothing short of coveted.
Odds Minkah Fitzpatrick is the first defensive player taken in the 2018 NFL Draft:5/1
Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
If you’re drafting for physical tools, look no further than Alabama defensive linemen. Jonathan Allen was flying all over the field last year despite weighing as much as a small motorcycle. This year, Da’Ron Payne is doing the Crimson Tide proud in that department. He’s listed at 6’2 and 308 pounds, having lost ten pounds in the offseason, runs a sub-five-second 40-yard dash, and bench presses 550 pounds. It’s that combination of strength, size, and speed that’s encouraging Alabama’s coaching staff to use him on three downs in 2017. He was a little limited last year, recording only 36 tackles and 1.5 sacks, but with some conditioning and a bigger role, Payne could prove to be one of the most valuable defensive players in the NFL Draft.
Odds Da’Ron Payne is the first defensive player taken in the 2018 NFL Draft: 6/1
Harold Landry, DE, Boston College
Say what you want about Boston College, they can field a defense. Harold Landry had a monster season last year, producing 16.5 sacks, an interception, and seven forced fumbles. He doesn’t have the long frame of Arden Key, standing at only 6’3 and 250 pounds, but his movement is a lot better and he finds a way to the passer more often. Like Key, he’s not huge on strength: NFL teams are definitely going to ask for more power out of the speedy Landry, but hopefully that will come with another year of training and development.
Landry performed well against some of the best offensive linemen in the country, with solid outings against Clemson and Florida State. He’s ready to play at the next level — recording more than a sack a game is enough proof of that — but where he slots in with the other defensive players in this draft will come down to his continued development this fall.
Odds Harold Landry is the first defensive player taken in the 2018 NFL Draft: 8/1