For the NFL, 2018 was all about revved-up offenses.
Defenses will get a chance to catch up, at least a little bit, on draft night.
The speculation during the buildup to the 2019 NFL draft has focused, as is the case in most years, on the quarterbacks. Will Kyler Murray, the dynamic but undersized Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma, go first overall to the Arizona Cardinals? Where will Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Duke’s Daniel Jones land?
But even if the Cardinals do select Murray with the No. 1 choice, the opening round is likely to progress into a parade of defensive players walking across the draft-night stage. The expectation is that close to two-thirds of the first-round picks will be used on defensive players, with pass rushers expected to come off the board early and often, with and defensive tackles trailing close behind.
Asked at the NFL scouting combine to assess the strengths of this draft, Cleveland Browns General Manager John Dorsey said: “It’s defensive line. I mean, we all know that. . . . I think that overall this draft class is a pretty good draft class. I think the defensive line really helps it.”
The off-the-edge pass rushers are the stars of this defensive draft class. Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Kentucky’s Josh Allen are regarded as likely top-five selections. Other potential first-rounders include Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Michigan’s Rashan Gary, Florida State’s Brian Burns and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell.
“I think there’s more defensive linemen than normal,” said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans. “You don’t normally see this. The front defensive guys, the pass rushers, there’s more of them.”
Outside pass rushers, whether they’re placed at outside linebacker in a three-linemen, four-linebackers defensive scheme or at defensive end in a 4-3 setup, have become ever more valuable as passing numbers have increased and rules have changed. With defensive backs barred from clutching-and-grabbing tactics in the secondary and mindful of the safety-related officiating emphasis on illegal hits on receivers, defensive tacticians often have come to the conclusion that getting to the quarterback is the most effective way to defend the pass.
That was complicated early last season by an upswing in roughing-the-passer penalties. But as the season progressed, fewer flags were thrown, and quarterback-chasing defenders such as the Chicago Bears’ Khalil Mack and the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald made their mark even in a season in which quarterbacks threw the most touchdown passes in history and teams scored the second-most points ever.
The defensive tackles in this draft also are highly regarded. Alabama’s Quinnen Williams and Houston’s Ed Oliver could join Bosa and Allen as top-five choices. Clemson’s Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence and Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery are potential first-rounders. Mississippi State’s Jeffery Simmons was a possible top-10 pick until suffering a torn ACL in his left knee while training for the draft.
Bosa and Williams will be the standouts among this defensive draft class, in Casserly’s view.
“Bosa is,” he said. “He’s the best. Quinnen Williams is a difference-maker, too.”
A half-dozen or so defensive players at other positions, including linebackers Devin White of LSU and Devin Bush of Michigan and LSU cornerback Greedy Williams, also could be first-round choices. But as NFL defenses do what they can to close the competitive gap, their draft-night prizes will be the defensive linemen.
“There’s depth among a lot of positions,” Dorsey said at the combine. “It just so happens this year that the defensive line really sticks out over all the other positions.”
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