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Johnathan Hankins, Star Lotulelei head college defensive tackles

Football season is right around the corner! Not only in the NFL, but at the college level, too. As a resident guru of the Saturday standouts, Chad Reuter provides the top draft-eligible college players at each position in a 10-part series. Today's group is the defensive tackles.

Even among their peers, defensive tackles struggle to get respect.

Following the regular season, the NFL Network asked players across the league to produce their own list of the top 100 players for 2012. Among the defensive linemen included in this elite group were 10 defensive ends -- and just three tackles.

The inclusions of Haloti Ngata, Ndamukong Suh and Vince Wilfork made perfect sense, but leaving off Pro Bowlers B.J. Raji, Richard Seymour, Jay Ratliff and Kevin Williams leads one to believe the work of interior defensive linemen is still underappreciated, even by those within the league.

Yet league scouts and general managers seem to place higher value on the big-bodied disruptors. In each of the past three drafts, at least one 300-pound defensive lineman was picked before any defensive end heard his name called in Radio City Music Hall.

Dontari Poe was the top defensive lineman selected last April due to the rare combination of size and agility he showed on the field for Memphis and at the NFL Scouting Combine. The top defenders below are expected to have excellent 2012 seasons after showing promise earlier in their careers.

* Denotes underclassmen.

1. Johnathan Hankins, 6-foot-4, 317 pounds, Ohio State
Hankins is a huge interior presence who compiled 68 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2011. While he possesses the strength and motor to dominate inside on an every-play basis, this Ohio State beast often lines up outside for the Buckeyes due to the exceptional athleticism that will make him an All-Big Ten pick in 2012 and a highly valued prospect by NFL scouts.
NFL comparison:* Kris Jenkins

2. Star Lotulelei, 6-4, 320, Utah
This active wide-body struggled with his weight and passion for the game while in junior college, but Lotulelei (pronounced lo-too-leh-lay) has worked hard over the past couple seasons to become the Pac-12's best defensive lineman (9.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks in 2011) and a probable first-round selection at nose tackle.
NFL comparison:Ryan Pickett

3. Sharrif Floyd, 6-3, 295, Florida
A rough childhood did not prevent Floyd from earning national accolades for his play in high school, as he was named the 2009 Maxwell Football Club's National Player of the Year. And by the end of his sophomore season at Florida -- he racked up 1.5 sacks against Ohio State in the team's Gator Bowl win -- he began showing scouts the athleticism, strength and motor they look for in a top tackle prospect.
NFL comparison:* Travis Johnson

4. John Jenkins, 6-3, 351, Georgia
Jenkins is a massive junior college transfer with great upside as a run stuffer. However, he is not limited to a 3-4 scheme because he boasts light feet that allow him to stay alive within the box and make plays in the backfield when opportunities arise (six tackles for loss, three sacks in 2011).
NFL comparison: Phil Taylor

5. Kawann Short, 6-3, 310, Purdue
Purdue's two-time team captain earned All-Big Ten recognition in 2011 (17 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) using his NFL size and surprising athleticism. If he can learn to control his weight and improve his consistency, Short looks like a potential starter in any system (4-3 or 3-4) at the next level.
NFL comparison:Randy Starks

6. Jesse Williams, 6-4, 320, Alabama
This Australia native came through the junior college ranks before starting all 13 games for the 2011 BCS champions at five-technique. He excels by incorporating his size, hustle and supreme toughness. Williams' best NFL position might be as a movement nose tackle, but he has enough athleticism to slide outside at times for a 3-4 team.
NFL comparison: Sione Pouha

7. Sylvester Williams, 6-3, 320, North Carolina
Williams quit the game after high school, but missed it enough to try again as a junior college enrollee. He should project as a starting NFL nose tackle, even if he is rotated out regularly against more pass-heavy offenses, using his hustle to chase ball carriers (seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks in 2011) and strong anchor to hold the line.
NFL comparison:Terrance Knighton

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter

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