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Published: July 17, 2017 at 03:12 p.m.

Top 11 college football defensive linemen to watch in 2017

» Top players to watch at each position

Editor's note: NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein will reveal the top CFB players to watch in 2017 at each position, continuing today with defensive linemen.

NFL scouts are always looking to the CFB ranks to find next-level talent. While we won't speculate about where these potential future NFL stars will go in the draft one day, it's not too soon to take a peek at their game tape and start to stack them as the top players to watch.

Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done in evaluating each player during and after this season. Of the defensive linemen I've studied, here are the top 10 to watch. Note: This list includes interior D-linemen and defensive ends who have the size and length to be considered as an end in 3-4 defenses.

11 Photos Total

  • Athletic nose tackle who should be able to play in odd or even fronts on the next level. Nnadi carries a low center of gravity that allows him to strike with "low-man" pad level when he punches, providing him a good starting point at the point of attack when playing the run. His motor and plus awareness allow him to make more tackles than the average nose, and his six sacks last season are indicative of his willingness to play through the whistle. 11

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    11. Derrick Nnadi, Florida State

    Athletic nose tackle who should be able to play in odd or even fronts on the next level. Nnadi carries a low center of gravity that allows him to strike with "low-man" pad level when he punches, providing him a good starting point at the point of attack when playing the run. His motor and plus awareness allow him to make more tackles than the average nose, and his six sacks last season are indicative of his willingness to play through the whistle.

  • The first thing that stands out about Jones is his closing burst. He has a noticeable second gear that allows him to close out any plodding running backs who aren't hitting the hole with some juice. Jones was able to split double teams or spin out of them to find his way into tackles. He's extremely active, but his lack of a single sack was a little surprising based on how hard he works. His production in that area will likely improve this year. He's a little lean in his lower body and will need to continue to add mass to help him hold up against the power he'll see on the inside, but his future is very bright. 10

    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    10. Dre'Mont Jones, Ohio State

    The first thing that stands out about Jones is his closing burst. He has a noticeable second gear that allows him to close out any plodding running backs who aren't hitting the hole with some juice. Jones was able to split double teams or spin out of them to find his way into tackles. He's extremely active, but his lack of a single sack was a little surprising based on how hard he works. His production in that area will likely improve this year. He's a little lean in his lower body and will need to continue to add mass to help him hold up against the power he'll see on the inside, but his future is very bright.

  • Lawrence is not the athlete that fellow true sophomore Ed Oliver (Houston) is, but he's also much bigger and much stronger. He can be disruptive with power over quickness. Lawrence is a massive force in the middle who moves better than most 340-pound nose guards. He needs to improve his hand work to unleash his optimal power at the point of attack and stack quick wins in the battles against blockers across from him. His powerful, thick lower body allows him to drive and reestablish the line of scrimmage against the run and push the pocket against the pass. He has to keep his weight in check, but Lawrence should just keep getting better. 9

    Ric Tapia/Associated Press

    9. Dexter Lawrence, Clemson

    Lawrence is not the athlete that fellow true sophomore Ed Oliver (Houston) is, but he's also much bigger and much stronger. He can be disruptive with power over quickness. Lawrence is a massive force in the middle who moves better than most 340-pound nose guards. He needs to improve his hand work to unleash his optimal power at the point of attack and stack quick wins in the battles against blockers across from him. His powerful, thick lower body allows him to drive and reestablish the line of scrimmage against the run and push the pocket against the pass. He has to keep his weight in check, but Lawrence should just keep getting better.

  • Watching Looney on tape can be a lot of fun. He seems to know the direction of the play ahead of time and moves laterally in unison with interior linemen. Instincts and reaction time are the tools of Looney's trade and those also help him to find the blocker's edge so frequently against the run or pass. He's a disruptive defender with an ability to sneak through the gaps. Looney is lacking in the desired size and length that NFL teams usually like, which might limit his scheme fits. His size could hold him back a little, but his effort level and production won't. 8

    Jennifer Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

    8. James Looney, Cal

    Watching Looney on tape can be a lot of fun. He seems to know the direction of the play ahead of time and moves laterally in unison with interior linemen. Instincts and reaction time are the tools of Looney's trade and those also help him to find the blocker's edge so frequently against the run or pass. He's a disruptive defender with an ability to sneak through the gaps. Looney is lacking in the desired size and length that NFL teams usually like, which might limit his scheme fits. His size could hold him back a little, but his effort level and production won't.

  • Hand was at No. 5 on this list last summer, but he didn't find the snap count needed to post enough production to stand out along Alabama's talented defensive front in 2016. As a senior, Hand is in a position where he should see plenty of playing time. He needs to produce against both the run and the pass so that teams view him as an every-snap talent and not just a physical specimen. Hand is long with good core strength and some flashy potential at the point of attack as a run defender. He should be an NFL consideration for both 4-3 and 3-4 teams at the defensive end spot with an ability to rush from the inside. 7

    Ric Tapia/Associated Press

    7. Da'Shawn Hand, Alabama

    Hand was at No. 5 on this list last summer, but he didn't find the snap count needed to post enough production to stand out along Alabama's talented defensive front in 2016. As a senior, Hand is in a position where he should see plenty of playing time. He needs to produce against both the run and the pass so that teams view him as an every-snap talent and not just a physical specimen. Hand is long with good core strength and some flashy potential at the point of attack as a run defender. He should be an NFL consideration for both 4-3 and 3-4 teams at the defensive end spot with an ability to rush from the inside.

  • Despite logging just four starts over his first three seasons at Michigan, Hurst's talent and potential are obvious. He has a slippery, unorthodox style that creates problems for offensive linemen, and his active hands are able to not only keep him from blockers, but also open the door to make plays. He comes off the snap with great quickness and pad level. He's a top-flight option as a twisting pass rusher. The biggest concern for Hurst is his overall mass and how he will hold up against NFL size and power. 6

    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    6. Maurice Hurst, Michigan

    Despite logging just four starts over his first three seasons at Michigan, Hurst's talent and potential are obvious. He has a slippery, unorthodox style that creates problems for offensive linemen, and his active hands are able to not only keep him from blockers, but also open the door to make plays. He comes off the snap with great quickness and pad level. He's a top-flight option as a twisting pass rusher. The biggest concern for Hurst is his overall mass and how he will hold up against NFL size and power.

  • NFL-caliber wide-body with the ability to grow roots and own the grass under him against the run. Vea isn't just some heavy footed big man who is there to eat up space. He's a player with plus movement skills and pursuit quickness for his size. He can stack-and-shed blockers at the point of attack or chase down the line of scrimmage to make the play. He's more capable as a run stuffer than pass rusher. If he can improve as a pass rusher, that will boost his standing with NFL scouts. 5

    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    5. Vita Vea, Washington

    NFL-caliber wide-body with the ability to grow roots and own the grass under him against the run. Vea isn't just some heavy footed big man who is there to eat up space. He's a player with plus movement skills and pursuit quickness for his size. He can stack-and-shed blockers at the point of attack or chase down the line of scrimmage to make the play. He's more capable as a run stuffer than pass rusher. If he can improve as a pass rusher, that will boost his standing with NFL scouts.

  • Gary's combination of size and speed is extremely rare. He's been clocked at a 4.57-second 40 despite being listed at 6-foot-5, 287 pounds. When studying tape of Gary, it's hard to believe he's 287 pounds considering his explosive quickness and change-of-direction ability. Despite a limited snap count last season along a deep defensive line, Gary's ability to shed defenders at the point of attack and range across the field to make tackles popped off the tape. 4

    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    4. Rashan Gary, Michigan

    Gary's combination of size and speed is extremely rare. He's been clocked at a 4.57-second 40 despite being listed at 6-foot-5, 287 pounds. When studying tape of Gary, it's hard to believe he's 287 pounds considering his explosive quickness and change-of-direction ability. Despite a limited snap count last season along a deep defensive line, Gary's ability to shed defenders at the point of attack and range across the field to make tackles popped off the tape.

  • Same script, new actor. Payne proved more than capable of filling the void left by A'Shawn Robinson last season. Payne is a block of granite with great lean muscle mass as well as exceptional body control and contact balance. He is an elite run stuffer with heavy hands and is only on the ground when he's finishing a tackle. His textbook approach to handling double teams is classic Crimson Tide and he should be an easy fit in a nose spot for either 3-4 or 4-3 teams on the next level. He's not a total stiff as a pass rusher, but he still needs to improve in that area. 3

    Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

    3. Da'Ron Payne, Alabama

    Same script, new actor. Payne proved more than capable of filling the void left by A'Shawn Robinson last season. Payne is a block of granite with great lean muscle mass as well as exceptional body control and contact balance. He is an elite run stuffer with heavy hands and is only on the ground when he's finishing a tackle. His textbook approach to handling double teams is classic Crimson Tide and he should be an easy fit in a nose spot for either 3-4 or 4-3 teams on the next level. He's not a total stiff as a pass rusher, but he still needs to improve in that area.

  • For two straight seasons, Wilkins has proven that he can rise to the occasion against some of the toughest competition in college football. He played defensive end last season in Clemson's base 4-3 package, but he'll be a better fit as a 3-technique in even fronts at the next level. Wilkins was a four-year basketball letterman in high school, which isn't a surprise given his agility, quickness and footwork. He has the initial quickness and low pad level to be disruptive off the snap and he has the range to pursue the ball all over the field. He needs to improve with his hands and play strength to handle the interior rigors that are to come. 2

    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    2. Christian Wilkins, Clemson

    For two straight seasons, Wilkins has proven that he can rise to the occasion against some of the toughest competition in college football. He played defensive end last season in Clemson's base 4-3 package, but he'll be a better fit as a 3-technique in even fronts at the next level. Wilkins was a four-year basketball letterman in high school, which isn't a surprise given his agility, quickness and footwork. He has the initial quickness and low pad level to be disruptive off the snap and he has the range to pursue the ball all over the field. He needs to improve with his hands and play strength to handle the interior rigors that are to come.

  • As a true freshman, Oliver was a dominant presence in the middle of the Houston defensive line with 22 tackles for loss and 5 sacks. The sack total could have easily been closer to nine if he had done a better job of finishing would-be sacks. Oliver still has growing to do. He has to get stronger in order to improve how he handles downhill rushing attacks. With that said, he's cat quick off the snap and an absolute gap monster who was able to disrupt rushing attacks throughout the season. With the athletic ability of a big defensive end and rare pursuit speed, Oliver's sophomore season will likely leave NFL scouts salivating. 1

    Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

    1. Ed Oliver, Houston

    As a true freshman, Oliver was a dominant presence in the middle of the Houston defensive line with 22 tackles for loss and 5 sacks. The sack total could have easily been closer to nine if he had done a better job of finishing would-be sacks. Oliver still has growing to do. He has to get stronger in order to improve how he handles downhill rushing attacks. With that said, he's cat quick off the snap and an absolute gap monster who was able to disrupt rushing attacks throughout the season. With the athletic ability of a big defensive end and rare pursuit speed, Oliver's sophomore season will likely leave NFL scouts salivating.