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A way-too-early look at the 2021 NFL Draft: Interior Defensive Line

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Which linemen could be donning the black and gold next year? Let’s look at the top defensive linemen Steeler fans should be watching this college football season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Boise State v Florida State Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

From the second the 2020 draft came to a close, speculation had already started up for the 2021 class. So, in this spirit, here we are with an article series highlighting prospects who look to be this upcoming draft’s biggest stars.

And the season hasn’t even started yet.

Admittedly, “way too early” draft predictions are exactly what they’re titled: Way too early— and as a result, are very rarely, or perhaps never, accurate at all.

In this draft primer series, we won’t be mocking players to any teams, but rather looking at the top players at each position who could get drafted by the Steelers with their first few picks in 2021. Prospects such as Trevor Lawrence, Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Fields, and Penei Sewell, who are all expected to be gone long before the Steelers are projeced to pick in the first round, will not be included.

The goal? Not to make any “hot take” predictions, but rather to look at some players that Steeler fans might want to watch a little closer than usual this college season.

Seventh in this series will be a position that clogs up running lanes and pressures the quarterback: interior defensive linemen. They are ranked in no particular order.


Marvin Wilson, DT #21, Florida State

2019 stats: 44 total tackes, 19 solo tackles, 5 sacks, 1 forced fumble.

Height/Weight: 6’5”, 311 lbs.

Wilson is considered by most to be the top interior defensive lineman in this year’s class, and rightfully so. He is a powerful, sturdily-built interior force who is very athletic for his size. At 311 pounds, Wilson is incredibly mobile and is quite the pass-rusher. Five sacks doesn’t seem like a lot, but at the interior line position it’s quite the feat. Wilson is a strong run defender as well, with a nose for the football. In fact, he had four pass deflections last year.

Like most college linemen, both offensive and defensive, Wilson still needs to clean up his technique at times. The Draft Network described him as being more “powerful than explosive”, despite his strong athleticism. Wilson is a great prospect, but there’s always room for improvement.

Wilson decided to forgo the 2020 NFL Draft and return to school, which was a big surprise for many. He is at the top of his positional rankings by a long shot right now, and looks to continue improving this season.

Some notable articles about Marvin Wilson:

Marvin Wilson Draft Profile - The Draft Network

Florida State football, recruiting news: Does FSU have the best defensive lineman in football? - Tomahawk Nation


Jay Tufele, DT #78, USC

2019 stats: 42 total tackes, 22 solo tackles, 4.5 sacks, 0 forced fumbles.

Height/Weight: 6’3”, 305 lbs.

The rugby player turned defensive lineman enjoyed a great year as a member of the Trojans in 2019 with 4.5 sacks and a disruptive play style. Tufele is incredibly explosive off of the snap with a great first step. His strength and quickness makes a lethal combination. Like Marvin Wilson, he’s incredibly athletic for 300-plus pounds, even though he isn’t quite as powerful.

As part of an underrated defense entering the 2020 season, Tufele has a chance to really break out. He’s already considered to be a first-round pick by many draft pundits, with potential to move into the top 10 or 15 picks.

Some notable article about Jay Tufele:

Mel Kiper ranks USC DT Jay Tufele No. 22 in 2021 draft class - Trojans Wire

Tyler Vaughns, Jay Tufele say they’re returning to USC for 2020 season - LA Times


LaBryan Ray, DE #89, Alabama

2019 stats: 9 total tackes, 4 solo tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble.

Height/Weight: 6’5”, 292 lbs.

Ray will be a massive risk to whatever team selects him next year, but if he pans out he could be a major steal. Ray is talented, versatile lineman who was highly recruited coming out of high school. He was supposed to redshirt as a freshman, but injuries forced him to start in a few games in which he played fairly well.

He enjoyed a much better year as a sophomore, with 39 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, and showing great potential. However, his season was cut short as a junior due to injuries which limited his production and playing time. He was arrested for public intoxication as well, and was disciplined though the school.

Returning to Alabama as a senior was a wise choice for Ray, who looks to end his time in college both healthy and productive. A consistent, above-average showing should catapult the talented lineman into the first few rounds of the draft.

Some notable articles about LaBryan Ray:

Bama DL Ray out at least 6 weeks after surgery - ESPN

Alabama Football: Player profiles 2019 – LaBryan Ray - Bama Hammer


Darius Stills, DT #56, West Virginia

2019 stats: 46 total tackes, 31 solo tackles, 7 sacks, 1 forced fumble.

Height/Weight: 6’1”, 282 lbs.

Darius Stills may not have elite size for the defensive tackle position, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the best interior linemen in the nation. Stills has drawn some comparisons to Aaron Donald on some draft sites due to his production and athleticism as a smaller lineman. That isn't to say Stills is anywhere close to Aaron Donald’s level yet, but rather the similarity in their styles of play.

Stills has well-developed technique for a college defender with a nice arsenal of pass rush moves. He’s also athletic and explosive with above-average power. Despite primarily playing nose tackle last year in West Virginia’s 3-4 defense, he accumulated 7 sacks, which is incredible production for the position.

Size could be an issue when taking his game to the pros, but if you simply focus on production, Stills is one of the best defensive linemen in this year’s class.

Some notable articles about David Stills:

2021 NFL Draft: Darius Stills a name to watch in the Big 12 - Pro Football Network

Is Darius Stills Headed to the NFL? - Mountaineer Maven


Some other names to look out for this season include Purdue’s Lorenzo Neal, Colorado’s Mustafa Johnson, LSU’s Tyler Shelvin, UCLA’s Osa Odighizuwa, and Michigan State’s Naquan Jones.

Poll

Which defensive lineman would you most like to see as a Pittsburgh Steeler next year?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    Marvin Wilson
    (80 votes)
  • 14%
    Jay Tufele
    (22 votes)
  • 5%
    LaBryan Ray
    (9 votes)
  • 16%
    Darius Stills
    (26 votes)
  • 11%
    Other
    (17 votes)
154 votes total Vote Now

Should the Steelers have any interest in the defensive line class in next year’s draft?

Currently, the team has strong, veteran starters and depth, comprised of names such as Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, and Chris Wormley. Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis are two young and unproven depth pieces who could possibly enjoy larger roles in the future. Henry Mondeaux was on the practice squad in 2019, but is a sleeper to make the team for the 2020 season.

Interior defensive line is a strength of the Steeler defense, and it doesn't look as if that will change in the next few seasons. However, Stephon Tuitt has an extensive injury history, Cam Heyward is near the end of his contract, and Tyson Alualu may not be playing for much longer— meaning that the continuity Pittsburgh has enjoyed at the front of their defense may no longer be a guarantee. Thankfully, it looks unlikely that the Steelers are planning to change up this part of their defense anytime soon.

Unless the Steelers move on from multiple pieces of their defensive line, it looks as if they will be set at the position for years to come.