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Published: June 21, 2017 at 01:21 p.m.

17 for '17: Defensive players who will be NFL stars

College Football 24/7's 17 for '17 series continues with a look at the future NFL stars in the college ranks on the defensive side of the ball. The list was compiled in consultation with NFL scouts and draft analysts. Not all are sure to be available in the 2018 NFL Draft, but even those who are too young to turn pro next year are already recognized as elite talents. Not surprisingly, powerhouse programs Alabama, Florida State, LSU and Clemson each have two representatives on the list. Click here to see our list of offensive players who will be NFL stars.

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  • The Buckeyes' defensive line will be across-the-board strong once again, but Hubbard figures to be its anchor. He has the frame (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) and athleticism to be a big problem for Big Ten offenses this fall, but he's still growing into his role. He was a high school safety and at one point was headed to Notre Dame to play lacrosse, so he hasn't yet captured all the nuances of playing defensive line. But NFL scouts are excited about his potential, and this fall, it looks like he'll also get a chance to show them his <a href="http://www.cleveland.com/osu/2017/04/a_change_for_sam_hubbard_could.html" target="_blank">ability to drop into coverage</a>. 17

    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    17. Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State

    The Buckeyes' defensive line will be across-the-board strong once again, but Hubbard figures to be its anchor. He has the frame (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) and athleticism to be a big problem for Big Ten offenses this fall, but he's still growing into his role. He was a high school safety and at one point was headed to Notre Dame to play lacrosse, so he hasn't yet captured all the nuances of playing defensive line. But NFL scouts are excited about his potential, and this fall, it looks like he'll also get a chance to show them his ability to drop into coverage.

  • The Longhorns have the most promising defensive player in the Big 12 in Jefferson, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound cornerstone for new coach Tom Herman's first defense at UT. He was the league's Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2015. This year, he'll move to outside linebacker, where his big-play ability should be on full display if defensive coordinator Todd Orlando brings him off the edge as a pass rusher often enough. At the same time, he'll get to show NFL scouts his versatility. 16

    Aaron M. Sprecher/Associated Press

    16. Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas

    The Longhorns have the most promising defensive player in the Big 12 in Jefferson, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound cornerstone for new coach Tom Herman's first defense at UT. He was the league's Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2015. This year, he'll move to outside linebacker, where his big-play ability should be on full display if defensive coordinator Todd Orlando brings him off the edge as a pass rusher often enough. At the same time, he'll get to show NFL scouts his versatility.

  • Marshall, a junior, has been a starter for USC since his true freshman year and gives the Trojans a tough, physical presence both in coverage and against the run with impressive size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds). NFL.com analyst Chad Reuter ranked Marshall as the <a href="http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000808056/article/top-50-college-football-players-for-2017-nos-1120" target="_self">No. 16 player in college football</a>, noting that NFL scouts see more in him as a prospect than his former teammate, 2017 first-round pick Adoree' Jackson. According to an AFC scout, he's not yet a finished product from a technique standpoint and has some room for improvement, but has the physical tools to excel at the position. 15

    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    15. Iman Marshall, CB, USC

    Marshall, a junior, has been a starter for USC since his true freshman year and gives the Trojans a tough, physical presence both in coverage and against the run with impressive size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds). NFL.com analyst Chad Reuter ranked Marshall as the No. 16 player in college football, noting that NFL scouts see more in him as a prospect than his former teammate, 2017 first-round pick Adoree' Jackson. According to an AFC scout, he's not yet a finished product from a technique standpoint and has some room for improvement, but has the physical tools to excel at the position.

  • The unquestioned leader in the UVa secondary, Blanding will be a fourth-year starter this fall who has already made more tackles (358) than any defensive back in school history. While some consider Blanding more of a box safety whose run-stopping skills are at the core of his draft value, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks was <a href="http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000725301/article/what-we-learned-from-week-8-in-college-football" target="_self">impressed with his coverage skills</a> in an evaluation of his performance against North Carolina last season. One of Blanding's two interceptions last year came against Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. 14

    Ryan M. Kelly/Associated Press

    14. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia

    The unquestioned leader in the UVa secondary, Blanding will be a fourth-year starter this fall who has already made more tackles (358) than any defensive back in school history. While some consider Blanding more of a box safety whose run-stopping skills are at the core of his draft value, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks was impressed with his coverage skills in an evaluation of his performance against North Carolina last season. One of Blanding's two interceptions last year came against Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

  • Jackson steps into the role of LSU's No. 1 cornerback this year, and all signs point to his readiness for the challenge. He's proven to be highly effective in man coverage, and he stepped his game up even more for spring practice; an LSU source told us Jackson was an absolute menace for LSU quarterbacks during team drills. Speed is certainly no question, as he's been <a href="http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000811077/article/17-for-17-fastest-players-in-college-football" target="_self">clocked at 4.24 seconds</a> in the 40-yard dash and is a standout performer on the LSU track team. Jackson's speed might also bring some two-way excitement to the Tigers offense this fall, <a href="http://www.nola.com/lsu/index.ssf/2017/04/cornerback_donte_jackson_works.html" target="_blank">if spring practice was any indication</a>. 13

    Aaron M. Sprecher/Associated Press

    13. Donte Jackson, CB, LSU

    Jackson steps into the role of LSU's No. 1 cornerback this year, and all signs point to his readiness for the challenge. He's proven to be highly effective in man coverage, and he stepped his game up even more for spring practice; an LSU source told us Jackson was an absolute menace for LSU quarterbacks during team drills. Speed is certainly no question, as he's been clocked at 4.24 seconds in the 40-yard dash and is a standout performer on the LSU track team. Jackson's speed might also bring some two-way excitement to the Tigers offense this fall, if spring practice was any indication.

  • The Wolfpack's top pass rusher figures to go toe-to-toe with Boston College's Harold Landry for the ACC sacks lead this fall. The comparisons between Chubb and former N.C. State defensive end Mario Williams, the No. 1 pick of the 2006 draft, are already afoot in Raleigh. He wears Williams' old jersey number (9), and his 22 tackles for loss last season were second only to you-know-who in school history. He also has leadership qualities scouts will appreciate. <a href="http://www.newsobserver.com/sports/college/acc/nc-state/article124495519.html" target="_blank">Said NCST coach Dave Doren</a>: "On the field, he is a special player, a game changer and a difference maker. Off the field he's a great leader and a great teammate." 12

    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    12. Bradley Chubb, DE, N.C. State

    The Wolfpack's top pass rusher figures to go toe-to-toe with Boston College's Harold Landry for the ACC sacks lead this fall. The comparisons between Chubb and former N.C. State defensive end Mario Williams, the No. 1 pick of the 2006 draft, are already afoot in Raleigh. He wears Williams' old jersey number (9), and his 22 tackles for loss last season were second only to you-know-who in school history. He also has leadership qualities scouts will appreciate. Said NCST coach Dave Doren: "On the field, he is a special player, a game changer and a difference maker. Off the field he's a great leader and a great teammate."

  • Two years into Wilkins' college career, he's already given NFL scouts plenty of film to watch at both defensive tackle and defensive end. He's been effective in both roles at 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, earning Freshman All-America honors in 2015 as a tackle, then posting 13.5 tackles for loss as an end on the Tigers' national championship team last season. He'll be a key performer as a junior this fall on what will again be one of the nation's best defensive lines. 11

    Ric Tapia/NFL

    11. Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson

    Two years into Wilkins' college career, he's already given NFL scouts plenty of film to watch at both defensive tackle and defensive end. He's been effective in both roles at 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, earning Freshman All-America honors in 2015 as a tackle, then posting 13.5 tackles for loss as an end on the Tigers' national championship team last season. He'll be a key performer as a junior this fall on what will again be one of the nation's best defensive lines.

  • There isn't much left for Landry to prove as a pass rusher after notching a school-record and FBS-high 16.5 sacks last year, but the senior is back to harass ACC quarterbacks for one more season. He also plays with awareness on screens and misdirection plays. NFL scouts will try to ascertain this fall whether he'll be best-suited as an outside linebacker at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, or if he projects more as a defensive end who could add some size. 10

    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    10. Harold Landry, DE, Boston College

    There isn't much left for Landry to prove as a pass rusher after notching a school-record and FBS-high 16.5 sacks last year, but the senior is back to harass ACC quarterbacks for one more season. He also plays with awareness on screens and misdirection plays. NFL scouts will try to ascertain this fall whether he'll be best-suited as an outside linebacker at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, or if he projects more as a defensive end who could add some size.

  • Along with being one of the <a href="http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000811077/article/17-for-17-fastest-players-in-college-football" target="_self">fastest players in college football</a>, Alexander is also one of its best defenders. He emerged as a full-time starter last year and was a second-team All-ACC pick behind another player listed here, FSU's Tarvarus McFadden, and Miami Dolphins third-round pick Cordrea Tankersley. Alexander picked off five passes on the season, including two that came off the arm of Deshaun Watson. He's also averaged nearly nine yards on punt returns over two years in the role. 9

    Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    9. Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville

    Along with being one of the fastest players in college football, Alexander is also one of its best defenders. He emerged as a full-time starter last year and was a second-team All-ACC pick behind another player listed here, FSU's Tarvarus McFadden, and Miami Dolphins third-round pick Cordrea Tankersley. Alexander picked off five passes on the season, including two that came off the arm of Deshaun Watson. He's also averaged nearly nine yards on punt returns over two years in the role.

  • He'll only be a true sophomore this fall, and thus ineligible for the NFL draft until 2019 or 2020, but Oliver only needed a freshman season to establish himself as one of the college game's elite defenders. He came to UH as a five-star recruit and played like one right away, making 66 tackles (23 for losses) with five sacks and nine pass breakups. NFL.com analyst Chad Reuter ranks the 6-foot-2, 290-pounder as the <a href="http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000808316/article/top-150-college-football-players-for-2017-nos-110" target="_self">best player in all of college football</a> entering 2017. 8

    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    8. Ed Oliver, DT, Houston

    He'll only be a true sophomore this fall, and thus ineligible for the NFL draft until 2019 or 2020, but Oliver only needed a freshman season to establish himself as one of the college game's elite defenders. He came to UH as a five-star recruit and played like one right away, making 66 tackles (23 for losses) with five sacks and nine pass breakups. NFL.com analyst Chad Reuter ranks the 6-foot-2, 290-pounder as the best player in all of college football entering 2017.

  • Payne has combined brutish size and strength with advanced technique to emerge as one of the SEC's most imposing interior defensive linemen. He holds his ground against double-teaming and sheds single blocks quickly enough to cause major problems for the opposing rushing attacks. Up next in his development is to advance as a pass rusher; he showed flashes last year but wasn't always on the field on third downs. This fall, he's expected to be a full-time presence. 7

    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    7. Da'Ron Payne, DT, Alabama

    Payne has combined brutish size and strength with advanced technique to emerge as one of the SEC's most imposing interior defensive linemen. He holds his ground against double-teaming and sheds single blocks quickly enough to cause major problems for the opposing rushing attacks. Up next in his development is to advance as a pass rusher; he showed flashes last year but wasn't always on the field on third downs. This fall, he's expected to be a full-time presence.

  • The Seminoles' top cornerback had a breakout season in 2016, making an FBS-high eight interceptions with the kind of size and length, at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, that NFL scouts crave at the position. Three of those picks came against quarterbacks who were 2017 draft picks (Deshaun Watson, Brad Kaaya, Chad Kelly), and another came against Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. McFadden missed spring practice due to shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, but will be back this fall as one of the nation's elite cover men. 6

    John Raoux/Associated Press

    6. Tarvarus McFadden, CB, FSU

    The Seminoles' top cornerback had a breakout season in 2016, making an FBS-high eight interceptions with the kind of size and length, at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, that NFL scouts crave at the position. Three of those picks came against quarterbacks who were 2017 draft picks (Deshaun Watson, Brad Kaaya, Chad Kelly), and another came against Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. McFadden missed spring practice due to shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, but will be back this fall as one of the nation's elite cover men.

  • The Huskies' massive defensive tackle (6-foot-5, 332 pounds) was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection last year.  He <a href="http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000812310/article/17-for-17-top-players-who-bypassed-2017-nfl-draft" target="_self">strongly considered</a> entering the 2017 NFL Draft, but returned in hopes of developing into a first-round selection. He has remarkable lateral quickness for a player his size; an NFC scout told College Football 24/7 that he'll be the most heavily scouted defensive player in the Pac-12 this year. 5

    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    5. Vita Vea, DT, Washington

    The Huskies' massive defensive tackle (6-foot-5, 332 pounds) was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection last year. He strongly considered entering the 2017 NFL Draft, but returned in hopes of developing into a first-round selection. He has remarkable lateral quickness for a player his size; an NFC scout told College Football 24/7 that he'll be the most heavily scouted defensive player in the Pac-12 this year.

  • Fitzpatrick is the Swiss Army knife of the Alabama secondary, delivering quality snaps whether they're needed at cornerback, nickelback or safety. He's done all three at one point or another over his first two college seasons, and it's not yet altogether clear where he'll be needed most in 2017. What is clear is that he's putting the kind of versatility on film that NFL scouts will love. Last year, he was a first-team All-American and led the Crimson Tide with six interceptions while playing sterling run-defense. 4

    Ric Tapia/NFL

    4. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama

    Fitzpatrick is the Swiss Army knife of the Alabama secondary, delivering quality snaps whether they're needed at cornerback, nickelback or safety. He's done all three at one point or another over his first two college seasons, and it's not yet altogether clear where he'll be needed most in 2017. What is clear is that he's putting the kind of versatility on film that NFL scouts will love. Last year, he was a first-team All-American and led the Crimson Tide with six interceptions while playing sterling run-defense.

  • The Tigers' top pass rusher recorded a school-record 12 sacks last season despite playing in only 11 games (LSU lost a game due to weather rescheduling, and Key was suspended for another). All but one of those sacks came against Power Five conference competition. Earlier this month, former NFL DE Chuck Smith, who has worked with Key, <a href="http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000815097/article/former-nfl-de-myles-garrett-not-on-same-level-with-arden-key" target="_self">suggested he's a better prospect</a> than 2017 No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett. NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah scouted Key recently and <a href="http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000815392/article/first-look-scouting-lsu-lb-arden-key">likened him to Pro Football Hall of Famer Jason Taylor</a>. Key has a lightning-quick first step with which to beat offensive tackles around the edge, and per coach Ed Orgeron, the 6-foot-6 defensive end has bulked up to 255 pounds. 3

    Aaron M. Sprecher/Associated Press

    3. Arden Key, DE, LSU

    The Tigers' top pass rusher recorded a school-record 12 sacks last season despite playing in only 11 games (LSU lost a game due to weather rescheduling, and Key was suspended for another). All but one of those sacks came against Power Five conference competition. Earlier this month, former NFL DE Chuck Smith, who has worked with Key, suggested he's a better prospect than 2017 No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett. NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah scouted Key recently and likened him to Pro Football Hall of Famer Jason Taylor. Key has a lightning-quick first step with which to beat offensive tackles around the edge, and per coach Ed Orgeron, the 6-foot-6 defensive end has bulked up to 255 pounds.

  • On what was one of the nation's most outstanding defensive lines last year, it was a true freshman, Lawrence, who was arguably its top performer. At 6-foot-5 and 350 pounds, he chewed up double teams and anchored the Tigers front with rare play-making skills for a player of his size: 78 tackles, seven sacks, and 23 quarterback pressures. He was the ACC's Defensive Rookie of the Year, and by the time he's done at Clemson, that figures to be the least of his honors. 2

    Ric Tapia/NFL

    2. Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson

    On what was one of the nation's most outstanding defensive lines last year, it was a true freshman, Lawrence, who was arguably its top performer. At 6-foot-5 and 350 pounds, he chewed up double teams and anchored the Tigers front with rare play-making skills for a player of his size: 78 tackles, seven sacks, and 23 quarterback pressures. He was the ACC's Defensive Rookie of the Year, and by the time he's done at Clemson, that figures to be the least of his honors.

  • After a fabulous freshman season in 2015, James finished third in the ACC Rookie of the Year voting. He played multiple roles in the Seminoles' defense, playing effectively both in coverage and as an occasional blitzer. Last season, he made his first career interception against Ole Miss in FSU's season opener, but a Week 2 injury to his left knee put James out for the season. He returns this fall as a redshirt sophomore with understandably high expectations. NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah <a href="http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000813963/article/first-look-scouting-florida-state-safety-derwin-james" target="_self">compared him favorably</a> to Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. 1

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    1. Derwin James, S, FSU

    After a fabulous freshman season in 2015, James finished third in the ACC Rookie of the Year voting. He played multiple roles in the Seminoles' defense, playing effectively both in coverage and as an occasional blitzer. Last season, he made his first career interception against Ole Miss in FSU's season opener, but a Week 2 injury to his left knee put James out for the season. He returns this fall as a redshirt sophomore with understandably high expectations. NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah compared him favorably to Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor.

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