Path to the Draft's 18 for '18 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 college coaches. Not all players listed are sure to be available in the 2019 NFL Draft, but all of them will be old enough to apply for early draft eligibility if they choose.
Consider 2017 something of a washout for Gustin, who played just four games due to a broken toe and a biceps tear. Returning for his senior year meant giving himself a chance to leave a much better impression on NFL scouts, and that starts with showing he can stay healthy. If he's right physically, the production will follow. A freakish athlete, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound outside linebacker showed much more of his potential in 2016 when he collected 13.5 tackles for loss, including 5.5 sacks. He's proven he can be disruptive as a pass rusher and a run defender, giving him the all-around game that will propel him to stardom at the next level.
A finalist for the Butkus Award and a first-team All-American last season, Edwards played the middle linebacker spot for one of college football's elite defenses. He'll be a fifth-year senior this fall, and given a healthy season, he should close his career with more than 50 career starts. He doesn't run as well as some other linebackers listed here, but he's able to more than make up for it with his ability to diagnose running plays and leverage his 250-pound frame in the hole. In his first career start as a freshman (2015), he made 12 tackles, including one for loss, against Alabama. Given his steady performance over the years, it won't be a surprise if he's a plug-and-play guy in the pros.
The Buckeyes' defensive tackle passed on an opportunity to enter the 2018 NFL Draft, returning for another season in Columbus instead. He missed some action last year with a bizarre injury in which he cut his leg, requiring stitches, during locker room horseplay. He had an outstanding spring and drew high praise from the OSU coaching staff. Primed to anchor the interior of the OSU's always-stout defensive line, Jones excels as a pass rusher, but has room for improvement as a run stopper. We're expecting him to make strides in that area, and take his already impressive game to another level.
Winovich teamed with Rashan Gary to form one of the nastiest defensive end combinations in college football last season, though at 245 pounds, he'll likely have to move off the ball at the next level. He shows a knack for penetration, whether playing off the left edge or the right (he and Gary switch back and forth based on offensive formation). The fifth-year senior piled up 18 tackles for loss last season, the second-highest total in the Big Ten, and will be a key cog in one of the nation's top defenses this fall. Winovich has an outspoken, bold personality to go with a level of performance that speaks for itself. He's come a long way since 2015, when he was a reserve tight end who contributed little more than special-teams help.
In a young Georgia secondary, Baker will be the unquestioned veteran leader. He made an interception in the national title game against Alabama, and no, he wasn't the corner who was beaten on the game-winner. According to Pro Football Focus, Baker allowed the fewest yards after the catch last year (38) of any SEC cornerback, and didn't allow a touchdown in 372 snaps. There's potential to be a shutdown NFL cornerback here.
Johnson's production has increased through each of his first three seasons at Miami, culminating with second-team All-ACC honors last year. He gave some consideration to entering the 2018 NFL Draft after leading the Hurricanes in several defensive categories, including tackles (96), interceptions (4) and forced fumbles (3). He's active in run support and nimble in coverage, as evidenced by this nifty one-handed pick against Virginia Tech last November.
How's this for consistency? Since arriving as a freshman in 2016, Quarterman has started all 26 Miami games, with virtually the same tackle production in each of two seasons (84 as a freshman, 83 as a sophomore). He plays the middle linebacker spot and takes well to the leadership the position demands. Former Hurricanes star and Carolina Panthers first-round pick Jon Beason, a middle linebacker himself, has been a mentor for Quarterman, and the star pupil has the look of a longtime enforcer for an NFL defense.
Opposite Donte Jackson, who was supposed to be LSU's top playmaker in the secondary last year, Williams took that distinction himself as a first-year starter. His six interceptions tied for fourth in the FBS and tied for first in the SEC. Williams is 6-foot-2, giving him the length NFL scouts covet at the cornerback spot, and is known to be quite chatty with opposing receivers. He'll be a redshirt sophomore this fall, and figures to be one of the SEC's top two cornerbacks along with Georgia's Deandre Baker.
Wilson overcame a late-season foot injury last to make a big impact in the College Football Playoff, delivering an interception against Clemson in the semifinal, then a team-high 12 tackles against Georgia in the title game. Before that injury, he'd already emerged as a promising presence at inside linebacker for the Crimson Tide. His hard-hitting style -- he was a vicious special-teams tackler as a freshman -- and sideline-to-sideline speed remind a NFC scout of former UA LB Reuben Foster.
The son of the former Florida State star and Atlanta Falcons first-round pick of the same name, Bush enjoyed a breakout season as a sophomore last year with a team-high 100 tackles. He was a deserving finalist for the Butkus Award, displaying impressive range as a tackler and becoming the Wolverines' unquestioned defensive leader. He's also a versatile option on third down, with the ability to either blitz or play effectively in coverage. His eight pass breakups last season ranked second on the team.
Ferrell is a big-play presence on the edge for the Tigers, typically working against the opposing left tackle with a quickness most can't match. After two seasons as a starter, he's recorded more tackles for loss (30.5) than games played (29). Oddly enough, his signature game last year came in Clemson's only regular-season loss, with 3.5 sacks against Syracuse.
Like the aforementioned Devin Bush, White's career took a major freshman-to-sophomore step forward last season. His 133 tackles ranked ninth in the FBS and second only to Georgia's Roquan Smith in the SEC. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, he's stoutly built to defend power rushing attacks, but has the speed (LSU has clocked him in the 4.5-second range in the 40-yard dash) to make plays outside the box. He's also a true student of the game -- after home games, White's been known to beat the LSU coaching staff to the football building on Sunday mornings to watch film.
The Crimson Tide junior enjoyed a breakout season in 2017 with a team-high 8.5 sacks, but really stamped his name with a crucial interception against Georgia in the national title game. Scouts who have come through Tuscaloosa marvel at his combination of size and athleticism -- he's 6-foot-7, 305 pounds, and at the waist, he's as lean as a linebacker. He also plays with a mean streak that makes for an intimidating package.
To the delight of Tigers fans, and the chagrin of offensive line coaches throughout the ACC, Wilkins will be back in orange this fall. After three years as a starter playing at an All-ACC level, there isn't anything left to prove for Wilkins. But there is a tight bond with his star-studded cast of fellow D-linemen, and the lure of a third straight CFP. Count him among the uncommon defensive tackles athletic enough to stay on the field on third down.
At 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds, Gary is a bigger end who has all the size and strength to hold the point of attack against the run, but along with that, he can move like a linebacker. Another credit to Gary is that he played his best game last year in his team's biggest game, against rival Ohio State, collecting season-highs in tackles (7), tackles for loss (2.5) and sacks (2). His production took a big leap from his freshman year in 2016 to last year, and another step forward will put him squarely in contention for national awards.
At a weight that's been known to roam between 335 and 350 or more, Lawrence is one of the college game's biggest and most fearsome defenders, all belied by a teddy-bear demeanor off the field. Double teams find him immovable, which allows Clemson linebackers to attack inside run plays with greater ease. But unlike most space-eating DTs, Lawrence is also a playmaker. He's made a whopping 118 tackles in just 23 career starts over two seasons, with 9.5 sacks.
The best reason for anticipation about Bosa's 2018 season is that we should get to see him play on more of a full-time basis. You'd think the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year would've never come off the field, but OSU rotated four talented defensive ends through both end positions -- Bosa and three 2018 draft picks ( Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes, Tyquan Lewis). Bosa's advanced technique and explosive quickness make comparisons to his older brother, Los Angeles Chargers star Joey, very easy.
Oliver is the top player on my list for the second straight year. He can play anywhere on the line, and has rare sideline-to-sideline range for a 300-pound interior player. He's a difference maker who should garner Heisman consideration in 2018, but probably won't get his proper dueWith the quickness to put blockers at an immediate disadvantage, and the strength to overpower them, Oliver rises from No. 8 on last year's list to No. 1 this season. In 2017, he became the first sophomore to win the Outland Trophy (nation's top interior lineman) in the award's 72-year history. In two seasons with the Cougars, he's racked up 39.5 tackles for loss. For an interior player who is the weekly focus of opposing offensive line coaches, that's the definition of dominance. Oliver has already announced he intends to enter the 2019 NFL Draft.. Oliver has already stated that he intends to apply for early entry in the 2019 NFL Draft.