The 2021 NFL Draft will feature a number of intriguing prospects along the defensive line. While this year’s class might not have a generational talent like Chase Young, the class is well-rounded and teams could find tremendous value in players with starter potential in the middle to later rounds.
Here are some of the most pressing questions surrounding the defensive linemen in the 2021 draft class and who ranks among the top players at the position.
Who is the best pass rusher in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Kwity Paye is the consensus top edge prospect in the 2021 draft class. The 6-foot-2, 260 pounder had a strong three-year career at Michigan that impressed draft experts and his game film demonstrates a level of explosiveness that will entice many teams looking for a dominant pass rusher to bolster their defense. In a league where getting to the quarterback is essential to success, Paye fits the mold of a prototypical pass-rusher and starter on any 4-3 defensive front.
Who is the top-rated interior defensive lineman in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Many experts believe that Christian Barmore is the top interior defensive prospect in this year’s draft. Barmore was a four-star recruit from Saints John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School in Philadelphia before committing to Alabama in 2018. After redshirting his first year in Tuscaloosa, Barmore played in 12 games in 2019, logging 26 tackles, six tackles for loss and two pass deflections, being named to the Freshman All-SEC team.
Barmore’s breakout season came in 2020, when he led the Crimson Tide in sacks (9.5) and forced fumbles (3). In two seasons at Alabama, Barmore had 34 solo tackles, 29 assisted tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, five pass deflections and three forced fumbles. He had the most total pressures of any defensive tackle in the 2021 draft class with 39.
How do the top 10 defensive linemen in the 2021 class rank?
1. Kwity Paye, Michigan
Michigan’s Kwity Paye is a physical specimen who can blow up any incoming lineman. He makes quick decisions in the run game and has the tools to also be a versatile pass-rusher.
Paye had 50 tackles, 12 for loss, with 6.5 sacks in 12 games in 2019. As a captain in 2020, he missed two of Michigan’s games and had a modest year statistically with 16 tackles (four for loss) and two sacks.
2. Jaelan Phillips, Miami
Phillips almost retired from playing football after suffering multiple injuries during his freshman year at UCLA in 2018. But the 6-foot-6, 260 pound lineman became a star when he returned to field in 2020 for the Hurricanes. Phillips made 45 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, four pass deflections and an interception last season, earning second-team All-ACC and AP All American honors.
He has elite traits for an edge defender with his long frame and wingspan and the speed get around the edge. Phillps boasts tremendous upside as an eventual starter in the NFL.
3. Christian Barmore, Alabama
Barmore possesses the frame (6-foot-4, 310 pounds), strong hands (10 inches) and talent to take control at the line of scrimmage. He has an explosive first step that makes him an ideal three-down defensive tackle. With the versatility to play multiple positions up front, Barmore has a chance to be an impactful rookie. He earned first-team All-SEC honors and was named to the AP All-American third team in his redshirt sophomore season at Alabama.
While he might not be as polished as former Tide defensive tackles in past drafts, Barmore projects as a first-round pick and the best interior prospect in the class.
4. Azeez Ojulari, Georgia
Ojulari could be the best pure pass-rushing defender in the draft. During his redshirt freshman season in Athens, Ojulari won the Most Improved Defensive Player Award, leading the team in sacks (5.5) and tallying 36 tackles in 14 games. In 2020, as a redshirt sophomore, he earned second-team All-SEC honors after making 31 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss. He ranked eighth in the country in sacks (8.5) and second in forced fumbles (4).
Ojulari fits the mold of a prototypical 3-4 linebacker at the next level with the strength and explosiveness to become a premier run stopper. He still has work to do to reach his full potential, but his character and athleticism make him a late first round prospect in this year’s draft.
5. Jayson Oweh, Penn State
Oweh hasn’t played football for long, but his build and explosiveness make him one of the most exciting prospects in this year’s draft class. Oweh only played in four games as a true freshman in 2018, recording four tackles and two sacks, before redshirting the rest of the year. In 2019, Oweh had five sacks and two forced fumbles in 13 games for the Nittany Lions. He failed to get a sack during his redshirt sophomore season last year, but his 38 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss were good enough to earn him first-team Big Ten All-Conference honors.
6. Gregory Rousseau, Miami
Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season but had more than enough production during 2019 to garner attention as a potential first-round pick in this year’s draft class. He lined up everywhere along the defensive line during his junior season, but most of his success came when he lined up on the inside. Rousseau totaled 51 tackles and 15.5 sacks and forced two fumbles in 13 games with the ‘Canes. He was named first-team All-ACC and the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
7. Joe Tryon, Washington
Joe Tryon has the traits to be a high riser on draft boards come April 29. The 6-foot-5, 259-pounder opted out of the 2020 season but played 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2018, registering 20 tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack. Tryon earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2019, playing 13 games and posting 41 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
With his long athletic frame and flashy hand skills, Tryon projects as a second-round rotational project while he works on polishing up his game.
8. Levi Onwuzurike, Washington
Onwuzurike is another prospect who opted out of playing during the 2020 season, but he earned All-Pac 12 honors as a junior, tallying 45 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks and a blocked kick in 13 games with the Huskies.
Onwuzurike displays great athleticism and body control as a pass rusher. He’s able to generate leverage that commands double teams. Onwuzurike has the potential to become an ideal starting interior defensive lineman in the NFL.
9. Ronnie Perkins, Oklahoma
Perkins had a stellar collegiate career as a three-year starter for the Sooners. In 2018, he made 37 tackles, eight tackles for loss, five sacks and one pass defended in 14 games as a true freshman. He returned in 2019 and started 13 games, collecting 38 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and one forced fumble, earning All-Big 12 honors in the process. Last season Perkins only played in six games, after being suspended for a drug test, but still earned a second-team All-Big 12 mention with a 24-tackle, 5.5-sack campaign.
The 6-foot-3, 253-pound edge rusher knows how to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. With 22.5 TFLs in his last 15 games, Perkins’ ability to utilize his speed makes him effective on different stunts. Perkins has the potential to excel as a starter right away in the league.
10. Quincy Roche, Miami
Roche is among the most experienced prospects in the class. He had a dominant four-year collegiate career playing for the Temple Owls for three years before transferring to Miami last season. Roche broke out during his redshirt freshman season at Temple in 2018. He made 57 tackles, six sacks and forced two fumbles. In 2019, Roche amassed 13 sacks and 19 tackles for loss earning an All-ACC first team nod in the process. Roche could have declared for the 2020 NFL Draft but was determined to prove he could excel against elite level competition. In his lone season with the Hurricanes, he played 10 games andhad 4.5 sacks,14.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles earning third-team All-ACC honors.
Roche is a tough, front-seven lineman who shows fluidity and technique getting off blocks. Most importantly, his discipline and high football IQ allow him to overcome his lack of size and speed. He will be an intriguing name to watch in the middle rounds of this year’s draft.