The interior defensive line is the forgotten position in the NFL. The casual football fan sees these guys as simple space eaters and run stuffers, but that’s not what the modern d-tackle looks like anymore. Guys like Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox have shown that big guys can be athletes and truly succeed at the NFL level. Donald is considered by many the best defensive player in the league for many reasons, but that’s not what this is about, this is about finding the next Aaron Donald, and I’m going to highlight three players in the 2018 draft that I believe could be that guy.
2018 NFL Draft Defensive Tackle Early Preview
1. Vita Vea – Washington
Vita Vea is my favorite player in the draft and it’s not even close. But as a Husky fan, I’ve had a chance to watch this 340-pound behemoth run a 4.8 40-yard dash, destroy double teams and take over games from his defensive tackle spot.
According to Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman, there is “massive buzz” around Vea and he “wouldn’t be surprised” if a team took Vea inside the top five.
Vea is athletic enough to line up at any position along the defensive line and has shown time and time again that he’s able to get pressure even when the Huskies only rush three guys. His name hasn’t been brought up much yet, but don’t be surprised if this guy is one of the biggest risers come combine season.
2. Christian Wilkins – Clemson
Wilkins is overshadowed by next year’s potential number one overall pick Dexter Lawrence, but Wilkins is essentially the same player with less freakish physical traits even though he’s 6-4 310 pounds. Wilkins knows how to play with a low pad level, and projects as a Fletcher Cox type player on the interior, who can have an impact in the run game but works much better as a pass rusher.
Wilkins is such a hard guy to scout because of playing next to Dexter Lawrence, but when he plays there is a lot of upside that a lot of NFL teams are looking for and his numbers show it. Wilkins has recorded 45 tackles so far this season to go along with 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. The biggest question that has risen with Wilkins is his arm length, which has shown this season with only two batted balls, which is down from nine last year. Other than the arm length, which is something that teams can overlook, Wilkins projects to be a mid-first round pick.
3. Da’Ron Payne – Alabama
Another Alabama D-tackle that’s probably going in the first or second round? Yes, I’m sorry, but that’s just what they do at Alabama. Payne is another product of the carousel that is elite Nick Saban defenders.
The production is there for the most part, with 45 tackles, but he only has one tackle for loss this year. Granted that TFL is a sack, but with everyone else that plays on this defense, you don’t really expect a ton of numbers from that spot. Payne will probably test well at 6’2 308 he’s a pretty big guy who can definitely be a space eater at the next level.
It’s hard to project what his comp is at the NFL level since there are so many different players at the same position i.e. Jarran Reed, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Marcell Dareus. There are a lot of different types of comparisons for Payne, but if there’s anything that Saban’s system has taught us, it’s that his players stick around for a long time and have solid careers, so I don’t expect anything less for Payne, who’s currently projected as a mid to late first rounder.