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2021 NFL Draft Position Rankings: Top 10 Prospects at each Position (Defense)

Taking an in-depth look at the defensive prospects as the 2021 NFL Draft approaches.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Florida v Michigan Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NFL pre-draft process has been rather quiet thus far, but that could change in a hurry. The EXOS Combine, led in part by former Buccaneers GM and current Stadium analyst Mark Dominic, took place February 26-27. Trey Lance, Ja’Marr Chase, and Gregory Rousseau headline the list of players that participated in the event. Unfortunately, I have only been able to get the results for a few players. If anyone here has found results from the event, be sure to post them in the comment section.

Pro days will be ramping up shortly, and we will likely begin to hear more rumors when the new league year begins on March 17, which is less than three weeks away. Because of the strange pre-draft process, there has not been an overwhelming amount of movement in the rankings of most draft pundits. As they have begun to dig into more tape, there have been occasional risers and fallers, but they have not been the dramatic, mind-blowing changes that we generally begin to see around this time of year.

When it comes to the Steelers, we all love to discuss our favorite offensive lineman, quarterback, or running back, but there are a lot of positions that have not been touched on as much. Today, we are going to briefly look at the top ten prospects at each defensive position. While it may not seem as likely that the Steelers draft a defensive back or a defensive lineman in round one, one can never rule out the possibility of the Steelers drafting the best player available and foregoing the biggest needs.

Usually, the Steelers will sign cheap free agents that are borderline starting options, which prevents them from being forced into taking a certain position. Whether it is Coty Sensabaugh, Jon Bostic, or Mark Barron, the Steelers always try to have someone in place at each position of need in case the draft does not fall their way. Considering the familiarity with the team, it would not be surprising if the Steelers brought in Kelvin Beahum or even B.J. Finney if he becomes available. Pittsburgh is not loaded with money, but I expect them to find reasonable options at positions of need, making it difficult to predict where they will go with their first few draft picks.

As for the rankings, there has been a decent amount of movement since the Senior Bowl, specifically at cornerback and defensive line. There will be many things that will shake up these rankings between now and the draft, but here is how I rank them currently.

Defensive Tackles

1. Daviyon Nixon — Iowa
2. Christian Barmore — Alabama
3. Levi Onwuzurike — Washington
4. Jay Tufele — USC
5. Jaylen Twyman — Pittsburgh
6. Alim McNeill — North Carolina State
7. Darius Stills — West Virginia
8. Marvin Wilson — Florida State
9. Tommy Togai — Ohio State
10. Tyler Shelvin — LSU

Nixon was not expected to enter the draft this year, but after getting good reports back from those in the know, Nixon decided to enter. His athleticism and motor allowed him to become a better finisher this season, and he will only get better. He may be best suited as a 3-Tech defender. Barmore, on the other hand, needs to become a better finisher, but he gets good penetration as a pass rusher and maintains a solid pad level as a run-blocker.

Onwuzurike is quick off the snap and does a great job of getting leverage on opponents. Twyman needs to get stronger, but his twitchiness and hand usage make him tough to contain one-on-one. However, it is hard to tell where he will fit in the NFL. McNeill is excellent at splitting the A-Gap and getting after the quarterback on all three downs. While Wilson and Shelvin both have talent, neither lived up to the hype this season. Wilson has struggled with injuries, and Shelvin has been unable to keep his weight under control.

EDGE Rushers

1. Kwity Paye — Michigan
2. Gregory Rousseau — Miami
3. Joseph Ossai — Texas
4. Azeez Ojulari — Georgia
5. Jaelan Phillips — Miami
6. Carlos Basham — Wake Forest
7. Jayson Oweh — Penn State
8. Patrick Jones — Pittsburgh
9. Joe Tryon — Washington
10. Shaka Toney — Penn State

It is not a deep group of pass rushers, but there are several big names at the top. Paye is a top-notch run defender who will have incredible pro day numbers. Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season, but he was a sack artist in 2019. Phillips, the person who took Rousseau’s place, was highly touted coming out of high school but has struggled with concussions. He finally came into his own this season. Jones is somewhat stiff in the hips, but he looks a lot like Jadeveon Clowney or Bud Dupree athletically. I think he can play in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 scheme, but his natural fit seems to be as a 4-3 defensive end.

As for the 3-4 outside linebackers, I absolutely love the tape of both Ossai and Ojulari. Ossai has such a natural feel for getting after the quarterback, and Ojulari has incredible bend around the edge. Oweh struggles with his hand in the dirt, which is why I project him as a linebacker. His get-off is much quicker when lined up as an outside linebacker.


1. Micah Parsons — Penn State
2. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah — Notre Dame
3. Zaven Collins — Tulsa
4. Jabril Cox — LSU
5. Nick Bolton — Missouri
6. Chazz Surratt — North Carolina
7. Dylan Moses — Alabama
8. Cameron McGrone — Michigan
9. Jamin Davis — Kentucky
10. Baron Browning — Ohio State

Parsons could slide after being accused of punching a teammate, but he is a top 5-7 player in this draft going strictly off of talent. Owusu-Koramoah is almost a poor-man’s Isaiah Simmons. He can cover receivers, blanket tight ends, and rush the passer all at high levels. Collins’ fluidity in coverage and instincts against the run stood out when watching him, but he has shown very little in terms of rushing the quarterback in college. It will be interesting to see where he fits in the NFL.

Cox is a transfer from North Dakota State who has sideline-to-sideline speed and the fluidity to play in many different coverages. Surratt is new to the position but has picked it up well and become one of the best coverage linebackers in the class. Although Moses struggled after coming back from a 2019 injury, he may have been playing out of position. He is best suited as a 4-3 oustide linebacker in the NFL.


1. Caleb Farley — Virginia Tech
2. Patrick Surtain II — Alabama
3. Jaycee Horn — South Carolina
4. Aaron Robinson — UCF
5. Kelvin Jospeh — Kentucky
6. Shaun Wade — Ohio State
7. Greg Newsome — Northwestern
8. Asante Samuel, Jr. — Florida State
9. Tyson Campbell — Georgia
10. Eric Stokes — Georgia

Farley needs to become a more willing tackler, but he was phenomenal as a cover corner in 2019. While Surtain does not have the ceiling of Farley or Horn, he is experienced and fundmentally sound. Horn is a sticky press-man corner who could actually be in play for the Steelers at 24 if they decide to cut or trade either Joe Haden or Steven Nelson. Robinson is a transfer from Alabama who has the versatility to line up in the slot or on the outside.

The biggest riser has been Kelvin Joseph, who I think could be a top 50 pick. He played a lot of zone at Kentucky, but he has decent size and good speed, which should allow him to play man coverage at a high level as well. Wade has fallen off the map after a lousy 2020 season, but he was forced to play on the outside. When he lined up in the slot, he was perfectly fine. He may be limited to the slot in the NFL, but if he can play in the slot as well as he did at Ohio State, he is deserving of a day two pick.


1. Trevon Moehrig — TCU
2. Richie Grant — UCF
3. Jevon Holland — Oregon
4. Paris Ford — Pittsburgh
5. Talanoa Hufanga — USC
6. Tariq Thompson — San Diego State
7. Hamsah Nasirildeen — Florida State
8. Andre Cisco — Syracuse
9. James Wiggins — Cincinnatti
10. Ar’Darius Washington — TCU

Moehrig has separated himself from the rest of the class and could potentially be a first round pick. His ball skills and instincts could make him a really good free safety for years to come. Grant is a versatile defender who is a threat to pick the ball off no matter where he is lined up. Although Holland is not elite at any one thing, he is very good at a lot of things. His communication skills and versatility will allow him to start immediately in the NFL. Ford did not play the entire 2020 season, but he is a physical safety who is best suited for zone concepts.

When it comes to Hufanga, I cannot take credit for him. Two members of BTSC encouraged me to watch his tape, and it did not disappoint. He has explosiveness off the snap, excellent field awareness, and outstanding ball skills. He can blitz, cover, and play the run all at high levels. I realize that he is still a little raw, but he has traits in his game that will remind you of Troy Polomalu. Tariq Thompson is another favorite of mine. He flies to the ball and isn’t afraid to hit you. Nasirildeen’s 40 time at the Florida State pro day will be crucial for him, but he has the size (6’4”, 220) to play either as a safety or as a sub-package linebacker. Washington is a good tackler a strong run defender, but his lack of size will be an issue for some teams.

I understand that the vast majority of us are either hoping for an offensive lineman, quarterback, or running back early on, but it is good to get away from those positions for a while and take a look at other positions that have not been discussed as much. The draft is stronger on the offensive side of the ball, but let’s not dismiss the fact that there are still some talented prospects on the defensive side.

So which players were you glad to see ranked? Were there players snubbed from these rankings that you thought were deserving of making the list? Be sure to light up the comment section with your thoughts on these rankings!