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Rating the top defensive linemen in the NFL Draft with an eye on Chiefs’ needs

Breaking down the top interior defensive linemen in the NFL Draft

Terez Paylor, The Kansas City Star's Chiefs beat writer, analyzes the crop of interior linemen available in this year's NFL Draft.
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Terez Paylor, The Kansas City Star's Chiefs beat writer, analyzes the crop of interior linemen available in this year's NFL Draft.

Included in measurables are height, weight, age they turn this year (if available) and 40-yard-dash time. Grades and rankings are based on film study (at least six games worth, whenever possible) and proprietary reporting. Quotes are harvested from conference calls, individual interviews and television broadcasts. Grades are intended to convey a general sense of the draftee’s value, and where he might be selected.

1. JONATHAN ALLEN, Alabama

Measurables: 6-3, 286, 22, 5.0

Bio: Three-year starter who had 69 tackles (16 for loss), 10  1/2 sacks, 15 hurries and two pass deflections in 15 games in 2016. Winner of the Nagurski Trophy (CFB’s most outstanding defensive player), Hendricks Award (CFB’s top defensive end) and Bednarik Award (CFB’s best defensive player). Had surgery on both his shoulders at Alabama.

Strengths: Team captain in 2016. Tremendous sack production for an interior lineman; has the second-most career sacks in Alabama history behind former Chief Derrick Thomas. Lined up as a defensive end and three-technique. Fires off the snap hard and low and explodes into blockers. Has a closing burst on quarterbacks and ball carriers. Has strong, quick hands and knows how to use them; has a great feel for separating from blockers, both vs. the run and the pass. Has an effective swim and nasty club-rip and push-pull moves. Gives good effort and is a good finisher; smells blood when he’s near the quarterback. Plays the game with his eyes and always knows where the ball is. Good at jumping in the air and knocking passes down. Projects as a five-technique in a 3-4 who can reduce down to three-technique on passing downs and make plays. Scouts love his overall skillset. “He’s William Fuller,” one scout told The Star. “He’s passionate and has great eyes.” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock loves him, too. “That Alabama kid is a great defensive player for the next ten years,” Mayock said.

Weaknesses: Average tester who lacks ideal size to be an every-down three technique and probably would be best served as a 3-4 defensive end or a 4-3 scheme with a “big” end. Can be rooted out of the hole on double teams. Probably isn’t going to turn the corner consistently in the NFL as an end. Was surrounded by a ton of talent on Alabama’s defense. Has shoulder arthritis but he says the condition won’t affect him for 15 to 20 years and draft analysts aren’t worried, either “It’s not going to hurt him. it’s not something you worry about,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, Jr., said. “With an NFL team, you worry about the next five, six, seven, eight years. He gives you that three-technique. I don’t see him dropping past Chicago at three or Jacksonville at four.”

Grade: 7.3

Games I watched before grading him: Southern California 2016, Tennessee 2016, Texas A&M 2016, Auburn 2016, Florida 2016, Washington 2016

Star beat writer Terez Paylor predicts that the Kansas City Chiefs will draft Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley in the first round.

2. MALIK McDOWELL, Michigan State

Measurables: 6-6, 295, 20, 4.85

Bio: Two-year starter who had 34 tackles (seven for loss), 1 ½ sacks, five hurries and zero pass deflections in nine games in 2016. Declared after true junior season. Dealt with an ankle injury for the second half of the season and missed the Spartans’ last three games due to it.

Strengths: Young for a prospect. Full-grown man with an outstanding combination of size, length (34 ¾-inch arms) and hand size (10 ½ inches). Similar on the hoof to Chiefs’ 2016 second-rounder Chris Jones and has all-pro talent. Can overwhelm interior offensive linemen as a pass rusher with his length, power and quickness through gaps. Quick off the snap and when looping on stunts. Has the juice to turn the corner against some tackles. As a run defender, he has the size and athleticism to lock out against linemen, find the ball, shed the lineman (often using a swim) and pursue sideline-to-sideline. Can also be tough to move on doubles and difficult to reach. Is scheme-versatile and can fit as an end or tackle in a 4-3 scheme or a 3-4 end who reduce inside to the nose on passing downs. Intimidating interior presence (when dialed in) who closes on the quarterback quickly. Draft analysts are intrigued by him. “He’s tall, long,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “I think he might be the most talented interior defensive lineman.”

Weaknesses: Had middling production in 2016 and was more productive in 2015, when he had 4 ½ sacks and 13 tackles for loss. Has balance issues and was on the ground too much for someone with his combination of size and athleticism. Bull-rusher with a consistently effective swim move who needs to continue to develop his hand fighting and refine some additional pitches in his arsenal. Needs to be more aware on trap blocks and dig in to keep his feet. Got after it pretty good on the tape I watched up until the BYU game, when he was on the ground entirely too much. Has 7.2 talent (easy) but his grade takes a knock because draft analysts and scouts have questions about his passion for football. “There’s some questions about the work ethic and consistency,” McShay said. “But from a skills standpoint, he can be a highly-disruptive player.” There’s also a belief amongst some that whoever drafts him will to have to figure out what makes him tick. “I think you’re trying to guess on which Malik McDowell you’re going to go to get,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “Do you get the guy I watched against Notre Dame that was explosive, was making plays all over the field, was playing hard, showed active hands? He was impressive. You see the quickness, the explosiveness, the want-to. Then you watch some other games, it’s like he didn’t want to be out on the field.”

Grade: 6.9

Games I watched before grading him: Iowa 2015, Furman 2016, Notre Dame 2016, Wisconsin 2016, Indiana 2016, Brigham Young 2016

3. CHRIS WORMLEY, Michigan

Measurables: 6-5, 298, 23, 4.86

Bio: Three-year starter who had 40 tackles (nine for loss), six sacks, five hurries and zero pass deflections in 13 games in 2016. Did not work out at the Combine due to a lingering hamstring injury.

Strengths: Team captain. Excellent size and length (34 ⅛-inch arms) to keep offensive linemen off his body. Great tester who show entice teams (like the Chiefs) who are into that sort of thing. Good burst off the snap as an interior lineman. Super-quick and powerful looping on stunts and would best be served going to a team that does a lot of that. Does a solid job locating the football in the running game and flashes the ability to separate with a swim move. Sets the edge consistently and generally doesn’t allow cutbacks. Has an effective rip move. Has the look of an NFL five- or three-technique.

Weaknesses: Was more productive in 2015, when he had 6 ½ sacks and 14 ½ tackle for loss. Get stuck on block too long as a pass rusher; needs to add more moves to his repertoire and learn to use his heavy hands better. Not going to turn the corner consistently as a pass-rushing end. “Not a great pass rusher but he’s probably going to end up being a three- or a five-technique,” McShay said. Plays hard but doesn’t always chase to the whistle in pursuit.

Grade: 6.7

Games I watched before I grading him: Florida 2015, Penn State 2016, Wisconsin 2016, Illinois 2016, Ohio State 2016, Florida State 2016

4. CALEB BRANTLEY, Florida

Measurables: 6-3, 307, 21, 5.14

Bio: Two-year starter who had 31 tackles (2 ½ for loss), 2 ½ sacks, three hurries and zero pass deflections in 13 games in 2016. Declared after redshirt junior season.

Strengths: Compact, stout, classic one-gap penetrator who moves pretty well for his size and explodes off the snap to consistently win solo and defeat doubles. Was more disruptive than his stats indicate. Flashes quick feet, strong hands and effective swim, spin, rip and push-pull moves. Reminds me some of Jaye Howard; an excitable upfield three-tech who can can make plays when he’s into it. “Very disruptive as a pass rusher,” McShay said. “Not the best finisher … and strong vs. the run. Could play 4-3 nose tackle or three-technique.”

Weaknesses: Length isn’t ideal (32-inch arms); Bama tape showed that he can get driven back when he doesn’t win with his initial get off. Gets lost in the wash at times as a run defender. Needs to improve his eyes; plays like a rabid dog in a meat market. Sometimes loses the ball and is fooled by fakes. Misses tackles in isolation more than you’d like. Despite his variety of pass-rush moves, the sack production is simply not there and not all draft analysts are sold on the pass-rush ability. “I like him,” Kiper said. “I understand that he’s not a guy that week-to-week showed great pass-rush ability, but he can stop the run, he showed pretty good quickness in a couple games I noticed … you just didn’t see it week-in and week-out. I think Caleb Brantley goes in round two.” Doesn’t pursue the ball hard once it’s out of his playmaking radius.

Grade: 6.7

Games I watched before grading him: South Carolina 2015, Michigan 2015, Tennessee 2016, Vanderbilt 2016, Florida State 2016, Alabama 2016

5. LARRY OGUNJOBI, Charlotte

Measurables: 6-3, 305, 22, 4.97

Bio: Four-year starter who had 65 tackles (13 ½ for loss), three sacks, 10 hurries and two pass deflections in 12 games in 2016.

Strengths: Experienced and productive. Good athlete for the position; good tester with explosion. Powerful one-gap penetrator at nose who is very quick out of his stance and flashes the ability to find the ball, lock out and shed. Aware player who sniffs out screens and is good at finding the ball. Plays with natural leverage, enjoys contact and has a nasty demeanor. Plays hard. “I think Larry Ogunjobi from Charlotte, a name that not many people know about, I think he’s really a talented guy,” Mayock said. “He’s probably a second-round pick. He’s got some real quick one-gap-and-go possibilities. He’s also a tough guy. At Charlotte, he’s got a two-gap. He’s got run game potential, and I think he’s got upside as a pass-game guy.”

Weaknesses: Can be rooted out of the hole on doubles. Needs to work on his pass-rush sophistication. Sometimes has trouble shedding guards when they get into his body. Playmaking range is somewhat limited — is juked easily in space.

Grade: 6.6

Games I watched before I grading him: Georgia State 2015, Louisville 2016

OTHERS TO WATCH

Montravius Adams, Auburn; Jaleel Johnson, Iowa; D.J. Jones, Mississippi; Dalvin Tomlinson, Alabama; Carlos Watkins, Clemson.

GRADING SCALE

7.5-7.1: Top 10 pick

7.0: picks 11-20

6.9: 21-32

6.8: Top half of the second round

6.7: Bottom half of the second

6.6: Top half of the third

6.5: Bottom half of the third

6.4: Fourth-round pick

6.3: Fifth-round pick

6.2: Sixth-round pick

6.1: Seventh-round pick

6.0: Priority free agent

5.9: Non-prospect

Terez A. Paylor and Sam Mellinger were live on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, to recap the Chiefs’ season and preview offseason moves on The Star's Facebook page.

2017 NFL DRAFT PREVIEW: INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

Chiefs’ need at this position: High. The Chiefs have a strong five-man rotation set with Allen Bailey, Chris Jones, Jaye Howard, Bennie Logan and Rakeem Nunez-Roches. But the Chiefs like to plan a year ahead, and Logan and Howard are scheduled to be free agents in 2018, while Bailey – who is, like Howard, coming off a season-ending injury – will be a free agent in 2019. You can never have enough big fellas who can get after the quarterback, and the Chiefs would be wise to again invest at least one of their 10 draft picks on an interior pass rusher they can develop.

QB: With no consensus on draft’s top QB, Chiefs could have plenty to choose from | rankings

RB: Chiefs could draft big-play threat from loaded crop of running backs | rankings

FB: Chiefs try Lindenwood’s Connor Harris at fullback during local pro day | rankings

WR: Curtis Samuel showed he can be more than a receiver at Ohio State | rankings

TE: Mizzou’s Sean Culkin eager to prove he can do more in the pros | rankings

OL: Story | rankings, to come

DL: Former Park Hill star Ondre Pipkins hoping for NFL shot | rankings

EDGE: Story | rankings, to come

ILB: Story | rankings, to come

CB: Story | rankings, to come

S: Story | rankings, to come

The Terez A. Paylor All-Juice Team: 2017 (to come) | 2016 | 2015

Terez A. Paylor, tpaylor@kcstar.com

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