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2022 NFL Draft Preview: Ben Fennell’s Top Interior Defensive Linemen

Top Interior Defensive Linemen
This is the eighth part of our 11-part positional breakdown of the April 28-30 NFL draft. Today: the interior defensive linemen.
Ben Fennell is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor and analyst across several sports and media platforms. He has been involved in the production of the last eight drafts for NFL Network and also is a producer for the NFL on CBS. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenFennell_nfl

NFL teams are not only are throwing the ball more than ever, but quarterbacks are getting it out of their hand faster than ever. That has increased the importance of defenses finding versatile interior linemen who can do more than just plug a gap or occupy blockers.

“I think there’s so much of a premium on the quick passing game in the league right now that even some of these traditional two-gap, hold-the-point teams have got to find somebody that can get penetration inside, because offenses are finding ways to somewhat neutralize what you’re doing off the edge,” said Daniel Jeremiah, the lead draft analyst for the NFL Network and a former scout with the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles.“The ball is just out. You can’t get home.”

Former Las Vegas Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said getting inside heat on the quarterback is vital to a successful pass rush. “Over the years, I’ve talked to almost every top quarterback in the league and have asked them all the same question — what bothers you the most?” Mayock said. “Almost every one of them said the same thing: immediate pressure up the middle.”

“If you have a couple of good edge rushers, [the quarterback] can step up inside the pocket if it’s sound up front. But if you’re getting push [up the middle], especially against some of these [quarterbacks] that don’t move well, that makes it difficult for them.

“It disturbs sight lines. It forces you to re-adjust your feet. We’re at the point now where people are throwing the ball so much that you have to find a way to affect it regardless. Which places more emphasis on the inside guys.”

The 2022 draft is chock full of versatile interior defensive linemen who can play up and down the line of scrimmage and affect both the pass and the run. It even has a freakishly athletic 341-pound nose tackle – Georgia’s Jordan Davis – who ran a 4.78 forty at the scouting combine last March.

In Part 7 of our series, NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell has broken down his evaluation of the interior linemen into two groups: nose tackles/1 techniques and 3/5 techniques:

Fennell’s top 5 (nose tackles/1 techniques)

1—Jordan Davis, Georgia, 6-6, 341, Rd. 1

2—Travis Jones, UConn, 6-4, 325, Rd. 1-2

3—Phidarian Mathis, Alabama, 6-4, 310, Rd. 3-4

4—Perrion Winfrey, Oklahoma, 6-3, 290, Rd. 3-4

5—Noah Elliss, Idaho, 6-4, 346, Rd. 6-7

The Best (nose tackles/1 techs)

Jordan Davis

Georgia

6-6, 341

Arms: 34 inches

40 time: 4.78 seconds

225 bench: N/A

Ben’s take: “The man’s a behemoth. He’s a one-tech nose tackle, but the more you watch him, the more you realize this isn’t just a fat-guy run-plugger who hangs out on the line of scrimmage and lets linebackers fly past him. He’s a guy who can get vertical in the backfield and disrupt blocking schemes and make plays himself.

“We need to recalibrate our mindset and our thinking as far as who Jordan Davis is. He’s very much more of an Akeem Hicks, or the way John Henderson played with the Jags back in the day. He is a guy who goes forward.

“I actually don’t even love him as a guy to plug double teams. He is so freakishly strong and big that he survived off of that. But he’s a 6-6 nose tackle. His pad level sucks. So he can get pushed off the ball even with his size.

“No, he’s a guy I want going forward at all times. I don’t really think people had that view of him initially. They thought he was this massive early-down nose tackle. But he can get after the passer. He can get up the field. He has range. He’s very light-footed. He’s a freak show. He’s a unicorn.

“He only had two sacks last year, and seven in four years at Georgia. But they kind of schemed opportunities for their linebackers there. That was the name of the defensive game at Georgia. Their linebackers were insanely fast. They were the playmakers. So, the D-linemans’ responsibility was to line up, do this when the ball is snapped and get out of the way.

“It was all about creating for other people. That’s why Devonte Wyatt, another potential first-rounder, didn’t have numbers. That’s why Travon Walker, who people are seeing as a top-5 pick, didn’t have great numbers (six sacks last year). It’s why Jermaine Johnson transferred [to Florida State]. Instead of just slanting out of the way for other people, he went somewhere where he could rush one-on-one. Davis isn’t making it out of the top 20. He might even wind up being a top 10 pick.’’

Round projection: 1

The Riser (nose tackles/1 techs)

Perrion Winfrey

Oklahoma

6-3, 290

Arms: 35 ¼ inches

40 time: 4.89 seconds

225 bench: N/A

Ben’s take: “A juco transfer, Winfrey had two strong years at OU, even though some think he played out of position at nose tackle and really is more of a 3-tech. Very quick off the ball. Plays with an excellent motor. But his numbers weren’t great there. He created opportunities for other players like Nik Bonitto, Isaiah Thomas and others.

“He has a lot of Muhammad Wilkerson to his game. He’s very quick. He’s very long. Looks like a nose tackle, but also could play on the edge on a given snap if you wanted him to. He showed up at the Senior Bowl and was one of the most exciting interior guys there. He tore through players in one-on-ones.

“In Mobile, he finally was given the green light to just go up the field and he really showed what he could do. People are excited about his upside, his pass-rush ability. He played with an excellent motor at Oklahoma. Chased plays to the sideline. Chased plays downfield consistently. But the scheme just didn’t give him a lot of opportunities.

“I think he’s going to be a 1-tech at the next level that you’re going to be able to kick out to 3 at times. The 2020 season was a perfect example. He had like 30 quarterback pressures but no sacks. He did this weird thing at OU. He would line up in a 4-point stance and at the snap, he would just leap into centers. Sometimes it would catch centers off-guard and sometimes, because he was jumping, he’d be high and get pushed back. In his interviews at the combine he was quite vocal in saying that he felt he was played out of position.’’

Round projection: 3-4

The Sleeper (nose tackles/1 techs)

Travis Jones

UConn

6-4, 325

Arms: 34 ¼ inches

40 time: 4.92 seconds

225 bench: N/A

Ben’s take: “Jones is another freak-show athlete. He absolutely tore up the combine with his speed and his jumps. UConn didn’t play in 2020 because of COVID. But he had a lot of really good tape last season, particularly their game against Clemson. He was on the freak list last summer for all sorts of workout stuff. Really fast in a straight line. Good change of direction. Explosive. Country-strong type of player. Good run-pass mix. Almost too country-strong sometimes. He tends to rely on heavy hands and plays with poor pad level at times. Comes off the field on third down.

“At the Senior Bowl, he was one of the more unblockable interior linemen along with Devonte Wyatt and Perrion Winfrey. He’s a guy whose best football may still be ahead of him. Reminds me a lot of Jordan Phillips who came out of Oklahoma a few years ago.’’

Round projection: 1-2

Fennell’s top 5 (3/5 techs)

1—Travon Walker, Georgia, 6-5, 272, Rd. 1

2—Devonte Wyatt, Georgia, 6-3, 304, Rd. 1

3—DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M, 6-4, 283, Rd. 2

4—Logan Hall, Houston, 6-6, 283, Rd. 2

5—Zachary Carter, Florida, 6-4, 282, Rd. 3-4

The Best (3/5 techs)

Travon Walker

Georgia

6-5, 272

Arms: 35 ½ inches

40 time: 4.51 seconds

225 bench: N/A

Ben’s take: “This guy has played his way into the top 10 conversation, maybe even the top 5. He’s an incredible height-weight-speed player. Played up and down the line at Georgia like a lot of their d-linemen. Played off the edge. Played 3-tech. Played zero in some sub packages. Even dropped and played in the curl in some zone drops as well, playing in space. He made a lot of plays as a quarterback spy. Adept at getting in the passing lane. Tested outstanding at the combine.

“A perfect visual for Travon Walker is the Saints’ Cam Jordan. When you’re sitting there trying to figure out what you call Walker, well, what do you call Cam Jordan? Jordan is just a very good defensive lineman. You go to a multi-front team, nobody gives a crap about what to call you. Let him play wherever the hell he wants to play. Same with the Steelers’ Cam Heyward. Heyward is an edge one play, a nose tackle another play. Heyward’s a little more of a bowling ball type and people initially couldn’t figure out where to play him. If Walker goes to a multi-front team, they’re not going to worry about that.

“The way he tested at the combine was incredible. He’s another guy without a lot of production, like many of the Georgia d-linemen. But I promise, everything he’s done testing wise is on tape. That incredible 40 time we saw, that’s on tape. The guy runs down kickoffs at 280. You can watch him in space in a linear fashion. You can watch him run down that play 40 yards against Alabama in the title game. Now, why doesn’t he have the sacks? The same scheme explanation that we talked about with Jordan Davis. They schemed for their linebackers to make the plays, not their d-linemen.”

Round projection: 1

The Riser

Devonte Wyatt

Georgia

6-3, 304

Arms: 32 5/8 inches

40 time: 4.77 seconds

225 bench: N/A

Ben’s take: “He and Walker could’ve been interchanged. I think they’ve both been risers through the [pre-draft] process. No. 1, because of Georgia’s prolific season. As they got to the bigger stage, their names and attention became that much more notable. And secondly, because of what they’ve done since the season ended.

“Wyatt went to the Senior Bowl and performed well and they both obviously dominated the combine. A good comp for Wyatt is Jurrell Casey who came out of USC and was drafted in the third round by the Titans and played nearly 10 years for them. Wyatt’s another guy who can play up and down the line. I think Devonte is more of a true 3-tech. Walker is more of a 5-tech edge that you can kick inside.

“At the Senior Bowl, he showed that ability to get vertical and what he can do rushing the passer, which he didn’t really get to show at Georgia. He tested really well. Excellent run defender. Positionally versatile. And if you have a defensive lineman with one-step explosion that has the ability to get up the field after the quarterback, that’s tremendous value.’’

Round projection: 1

The Sleeper

Alex Wright

UAB

6-5, 271

Arms: 34 inches

40 time: N/A

225 bench: 15

Ben’s take: “He was the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. Had 51 quarterback pressures last year, but only five sacks. So, he’s another guy who was really impacting the game in a lot of ways that didn’t show up on the stat sheet.

“He’s a massive standup outside linebacker that’ll line up inside in some sub-fronts. He’s long, he’s violent, he’s sudden. He has the three-way go. Can bull-rush you and win inside and outside. Tons of rips and swims. Plays off contact really well.

“He really reminds me of a Marcus Davenport coming out of UTSA. The Saints traded up in the first round a couple of years ago to get Davenport. He’s that same kind of freak of an athlete. His tape is outstanding.’’

Round projection: 3-4