Top prospects of '13 Draft: Defense
Sylvester Williams and Akeem Spence headline a deep class of defensive linemen
LB-DE Barkevious Mingo is a dominant pass rusher and will likely be a top-5 pick
Despite being kicked off LSU, Tyrann Mathieu remains a top cornerback prospect
NFL decision-makers will have big smiles on their faces next April, thanks to the star quality available at defensive tackle and linebacker in the 2013 NFL Draft. The tackles offer excellent versatility in the trenches, while the linebacker class is full of three-down defenders. Cornerback is a relatively strong position, but does not offer any great prospects, while safeties will struggle at the back of the class. (* Denotes underclassman)
Sylvester Williams, DT-NT, North Carolina: Williams made an immediate impact for the Tar Heels last season after transferring from Coffeyville College. He's an explosive tackle who holds his ground and easily controls the line of scrimmage. The ability to be placed at a conventional tackle position or on the nose enhances the value of this first-round prospect.
Akeem Spence*, DT, Illinois: Spence has been a force for Illinois since his freshman season and a playmaker in every sense. He combines quickness, athleticism and speed to rush the passer or pursue the run. Illinois has placed a pair of defensive linemen in the first round during each of the past two draft's and Spence is poised to extend the streak.
Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Short received first round consideration from a number of scouts at the end of last season, yet chose to return to Purdue for his senior campaign. He's a quick interior lineman who's tough to stop from the snap of the ball. Short offers possibilities at several defensive line spots for a variety of NFL systems.
Johnathan Hankins*, DT-NT, Ohio State: Hankins presents himself as a dominant force and looks like a man amongst boys on any given Saturday. His combination of size and strength is complimented by uncanny movement skills and athleticism. The sky is the limit for Hankins, who must round out his game and play hard on every down to reach the potential NFL scouts believe he possesses.
Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: Lotulelei is an enormous talent who reminds many of Haloti Ngata. He's a big-bodied tackle who overwhelms opponents in the middle of the field while also showing the ability to easily pursue the action down the line of scrimmage. Lotulelei needs technical work on his game, but a big senior campaign could push him into the upper half of round one.
Jackson Jeffcoat*, DE, Texas: Jeffcoat is the first defensive end on our list, and some believe he'll be best as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. He's a forceful athlete who demolishes blocks and disrupts plays behind the line of scrimmage. His 21 tackles for loss and 71 overall tackles last season are a testament to Jeffcoat's ability to make plays all over the field.
Sleeper: Abry Jones, DL, Georgia: Jones could be the most understated defensive lineman in the nation. He's a terrific athlete with NFL size and the ability to line up at defensive tackle or as a two-gap end. Jones beats blockers off the snap of the ball and makes plays up the field or in backside pursuit. Opponents constantly focus on Jones in an effort to slow him down, which affords teammates the opportunity to make plays on the ball. He's very much the complete package and a three-down defender.
Barkevious Mingo*, LB-DE, LSU: Mingo is one of the most dominant defenders in the nation and could well be a top-5 pick next April. He's a ferocious pass rusher who also efficiently makes plays in space. Mingo is impossible to block and pursues the action with speed from every direction. He offers potential at a variety of front seven positions and will continue to rise up draft boards as he improves his game.
Manti Te'o, MLB, Notre Dame: Te'o was considered a first-round talent last April but publically stated a desire to continue his college experience when announcing his return to Notre Dame. He's a forceful run stopper who plays with great instincts and competes hard. Te'o will certainly end up in the draft's first 20 selections, considering his talent and the lack of depth at middle linebacker.
Jarvis Jones*, OLB, Georgia: Jones made an immediate impact for the Bulldogs after transferring from USC and was one of the nation's most feared pass rushers in 2011. He's incredibly athletic and much more than just a pass rusher. Jones displays skill pursuing the action or covering backs and tight ends down field. He's a terrific outside linebacker prospect with potential for a number of defensive systems at the next level.
Devon Kennard*, OLB, USC: Kennard was overshadowed by former teammate and first-round pick Nick Perry last season, but the fact is he's a better football player. Kennard is very athletic, but at the same time plays with good instincts and discipline. He offers potential at outside linebacker in a conventional scheme or a 3-4 alignment. Kennard carries a first-round grade, but his upcoming season may be in jeopardy due to a recent pectoral injury.
Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State: Brown has been dominant for Kansas State and is a three-down defender with a complete game. He sells out defending the run, shows great skill pursuing the action sideline-to-sideline and easily runs with backs or tight ends in coverage. Slightly undersized, he reminds many of Ray Lewis in style and substance.
Sleeper: Hayes Pullard*, LB, USC: Hayes is another Trojan linebacker with great potential for the next level. He's incredibly athletic, fast and quickly moves sideline-to-sideline pursuing the action or covering the pass. Pullard lacks classic size, but has all the tools necessary to start at weakside linebacker in the NFL.
Terry Hawthorne, CB, Illinois: Hawthorne may be the surprise choice at the top of the secondary list, but he's a shutdown cornerback with the ability to quickly start in the NFL. He offers size, speed and plays smart football. Hawthorne displayed tremendous improvement each of the past two years and he's a polished cornerback with a large upside.
T.J. McDonald, S, USC: McDonald is a game-impacting defensive back when running on all cylinders. He's a forceful run defender who possesses next-level ball skills and the ability to play sideline-to-sideline. McDonald seemingly plays half speed at times, which has raised red flags. If the light goes on in 2012, McDonald could be an early first-round pick next April.
Sanders Commings, CB, Georgia: Commings was overshadowed by Brandon Boykin at Georgia last year, but will end up being selected earlier in the draft than his former teammate (Boykin was a fourth-round pick, 123rd overall). Commings offers next-level ball skills and has the size NFL scouts want in an NFL starter.
Tyrann Mathieu*, CB, ex-LSU: Mathieu has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently, but on the field there's no denying his ability. He refuses to back down to a challenge and possesses top cover skills along with the ability to impact games as a return specialist. Recent off-the-field issues coupled with size concerns will assuredly knock Mathieu down draft boards.
David Amerson*, CB, North Carolina State: Amerson's statistics are eye-popping; an ACC-leading 13 interceptions last season after just a single pass break-up in 2010. He's an opportunistic ballhawk in the secondary who consistently puts himself in a position to make plays on the pass. Amerson is also a cornerback who needs to improve his fundamentals if he wants to be a first-round choice in the near future.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB, UConn: Wreh-Wilson struggled with a knee injury in 2011 and saw his season reduced to just eight games. When fully healthy, he was dominant throughout his sophomore campaign of 2010. He's an aggressive cornerback who physically beats down opponents and possesses top ball skills. Wreh-Wilson will vault up draft boards if he gets his game back on track and proves his health this season.
Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State: Banks is well thought of by league scouts, who like his size and smarts. He lacks elite playing speed, but can be a productive nickel back or potential starter in the right system.
Sleeper: D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina: Swearinger is not rated as the top defensive back on the South Carolina squad, but his game stands out on film. He's a complete safety who makes plays against the pass in deep centerfield while also forcefully defending the run up the field. Swearinger lacks classic safety size but gets the most from his ability.