This is not a list previewing the 2017 NFL Draft but a look at the interior defensive linemen that are either generating interest from NFL scouts and/or are expected to post big seasons for their teams. Here are 10 to watch in 2016.
1. Jonathan Allen, Alabama
Allen will be categorized as a defensive end and as an interior lineman given his versatility, but the bottom line is that he's a good player no matter where he lines up. Allen's stock is already very high given his skill level, football intelligence and ability to rush the passer. He has spent his time on a truly talented defensive front (and that will continue this season), but he has been the most diverse of the Alabama group and could become the most productive pro from that front. Allen uses a varied approach as a pass rusher and is technically sound against the run. His "tweener" size (6-foot-3, 294 pounds, according to school measurements) will be discussed in scouting circles.
2. Malik McDowell, Michigan State
An NFC scout recently told me that every time he watched McDowell, he felt like he was watching an Oregon game thanks to his similarity to former Duck defenders like Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner. McDowell has very similar size (6-6, 280, according to school measurements) to the aforementioned first-round selections, but he might have even more ability as a potential disruptive force. McDowell plays on the interior for MSU but could easily play base end in a 4-3 scheme or defensive end in a 3-4. He's long and slippery with an ability to flip his hips and get over the top of blockers. He has the foot quickness to beat blockers to the spot as well as pursue quarterbacks and runners. Look for a huge step up in pass-rush production from the talented junior.
3. Taco Charlton, Michigan
There might not be much mention of Charlton in the preseason considering he has started just four games headed into his senior season, but film doesn't lie, and NFL scouts have Charlton pegged squarely on their radar. At 6-6, 285 with long arms and a muscular build, Charlton has the perfect frame to play as a 3-4 defensive end. However, he could also serve as a 4-3 base end with the ability to bump inside on rushing downs in the NFL. Charlton had 33 pressures and 5.5 sacks despite playing just 43 percent of the Wolverines' defense snaps and those numbers are getting ready to make another jump. Charlton has freaky athletic traits and functional power to go with them.
4. Carlos Watkins, Clemson
Watkins is a redshirt senior with 15 starts under his belt. There is nothing overwhelming about his size (6-3, 300, per school measurements), but what separates him from some of the other defensive linemen is his athleticism. Clemson used him as a standing rusher on the interior and he has the ability to be an effective twister in an active defensive front. Watkins isn't going to be a premier interior pass rusher, but he did improve in that area last season. If Watkins does a better job of using his hands to control the point of attack, he'll see his run defense take the next step.
5. Da'Shawn Hand, Alabama
There is plenty of talent along the defensive front for Nick Saban and my best guess is that Hand will be one of the next big things coming from that defense. Unlike some of the defensive ends we've seen at Alabama, Hand has length and plus get-off after the snap. He managed three sacks last year despite playing in just 18 percent of the defensive snaps. Hand has said he's bench-pressed 42 reps at 225 pounds (no one had more than 34 reps at this year's NFL Scouting Combine), so don't think that he doesn't also have that trademark Alabama power. With speedsters like Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans lining up outside on passing downs, we could see Hand and Jonathan Allen wreck shop along the interior as rushers.
6. Chris Wormley, Michigan
Wormley Has the frame and athleticism to be considered as either an interior lineman or defensive end in a 4-3 or at defensive end for an odd front. Wormley is powerful and can plow through the edges of blockers. While some rushers are content to try and whip the man in front of them, Wormley is able to dart left and right to create doubt and uncertainty for blockers. He combines his strength and foot quickness to generate a pass rush that is very translatable on the next level. Wormley is generating a good deal of buzz in the scouting community and that buzz will get much louder this year.
7. Charles Walker, Oklahoma
Walker's tape can be a little uneven at times from a consistency standpoint, but when he's flashing, it is quite impressive. With good first-step quickness off the snap and an ability to attack blockers with heavy hands and nimble feet, Walker was able to disrupt and produce 10 tackles for loss and six sacks despite playing in just 40 percent of the Sooners' defensive snaps. Walker's agility and athleticism once he's forced to move laterally is one of his most impressive features, as he was able to chase down running backs and mobile quarterbacks. Walker, a junior, has said he would like to be in the NFL a year from now to support his daughter.
8. Jaleel Johnson, Iowa
Johnson has a compact, sturdy frame and can play with low-man leverage that allows him to play under the blocker's pad after the snap. Johnson showed an ability to scrap it out against Indiana guard Dan Feeney, who was at the top of my interior offensive lineman list. Johnson has explosive pop in his upper body and can create a violent bull rush when he gets an early advantage. He will need to play with a bit more anticipation against the run in order to become more disruptive, but the arrow is pointed up for Johnson.
9. Davon Godchaux, LSU
Godchaux is a little undersized and can be engulfed by size and power at times, but his consistency and growth from his freshman to sophomore season has scouts paying attention to him. Godchaux has a compact frame and plays with good body control and balance at the point of attack. With a bump in snap count came a bump in productivity jumping from 1.5 tackles for loss to 7 last season and from no sacks to four sacks. LSU has a talented defensive front, so Godchaux should get plenty of one-on-one opportunities during the 2016 season.
10. Isaac Rochell, Notre Dame
Rochell doesn't quite have the height that 3-4 defenses covet for their 5-technique position, but he has the type of power at the point of attack that should be appealing to teams running that front. Rochell plays with a good pad level, which helps him win the leverage battle at the point of attack and he's proven to be a tough out against the double-team block. Rochell has shown an ability to control the neutral zone and stymie the running game. What could limit his draft stock is his inability to consistently get after the quarterback. Rochell has just 3.5 sacks over the last two years.