NFL draft: Top defensive players on the board

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Florida State's Ontaria Wilson (80) catches a pass in front of North Carolina State's Aydan White during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

NFL teams in need of immediate help on defense will have a tricky time finding it in the first round or two of this year’s draft.

As usual, edge rushers and cornerbacks will be the most highly valued defensive players. But the best of those groups don’t quite stack up to their peers in recent drafts. Highly rated front seven players will be especially hard to find.

The result could be teams in need of defense trading down with teams looking to grab one of the many high-end receivers and offensive tackles.

x-denotes underclassman.

EDGE RUSHERS

Overview: NFL teams are always looking for pass rushers. It’s not a deep draft class, but three to five could go in the first round because NFL teams are always looking for pass rushers.

Dallas Turner, 6-2, 247 pounds, Alabama

Scouting report: Long and twitchy athlete who bursts off the edge. Wiry frame is unlikely to hold much more bulk.

Fact: Stepped into Will Anderson Jr.’s position with Alabama last season and became an All-American, too.

Gone by: Best bet to be first defensive player selected, but that still might be outside the top 10.

Jared Verse, 6-3, 254, Florida State

Scouting report: Nonstop in pass rush and run pursuit, but could use to refine his technique and tackling.

Fact: Started his career at UAlbany in upstate New York and transferred to Florida State after three seasons.

Gone by: Top 20.

Laiatu Latu, 6-4, 259, UCLA

Scouting report: Skilled and technically proficient pass rusher with good size. Neither his burst nor power are elite, but the whole package works.

Fact: A neck injury forced him to medically retire in 2020 after two seasons at Washington. He transferred to UCLA, was medically cleared, and had 23 1/2 sacks in two seasons.

Gone by: Top 20 talent, but the medical history could knock him out of the first round.

Chop Robinson, 6-2, 254, Penn State

Scouting report: Freaky quickness off the line, but was more disruptive than dominant as he failed to finish plays.

Fact: Was a rotational player his first two seasons and injuries cut into his playing time last year, but had only 11 1/2 sacks and 60 total tackles in three years.

Gone by: End of the first round.

Darius Robinson, 6-5, 285, Missouri

Scouting report: Powerful player who is stout against the run but might project as a ‘tweener in the NFL, not quite big enough to play inside and not quite quick enough for the edge.

Fact: Played mostly inside his first four seasons before breaking out as a defensive end last year.

Gone by: Early second round.

Others to watch: Chris Braswell, Alabama; Bralen Trice, Washington; Marshawn Kneeland, Western Michigan; Adisa Isaac, Penn State.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES

Overview: One consensus first-rounder and a few potential late first/early second-rounders among a group with less-than-ideal size but good production.

Byron Murphy II-x, 6-0, 297, Texas

Scouting report: Plays low and explosive and often ends up in the backfield, but needs to finish more plays when he gets there.

Fact: Second-team All-American who was a little overshadowed nationally by teammate T’Vondre Sweat last season.

Gone by: Mid-teens.

Jer’Zhan Newton, 6-1, 304, Illinois

Scouting report: Moves well laterally, fires through gaps, but can get caught up on blocks with his short arms.

Fact: Big Ten defensive player of the year in 2023.

Gone by: Could slip into Day 2.

Braden Fiske, 6-3, 292, Florida State

Scouting report: Another relentless and disruptive player whose size could limit how he is used in the NFL.

Fact: Spent five years at Western Michigan before transferring to Florida State last year and becoming a force in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Gone by: Middle of round two.

Others to watch: Kris Jenkins, Michigan; Mike Hall Jr., Ohio State; T’Vondre Sweat, Texas; Ruke Orhorhoro, Clemson; Maason Smith, LSU.

LINEBACKERS

Overview: Can you be on the field for three downs? If so, you have a chance to be a first-rounder as a linebacker. Not many can.

Edgerrin Cooper-x, 6-2, 231, Texas A&M

Scouting report: Good instincts against the run, comfortable in pass coverage and quick as a blitzer. Needs to be more consistent tackler.

Fact: All-American last season.

Gone by: Could end up as a great Day 2 value.

Junior Colson-x, 6-3, 238, Michigan

Scouting report: Ideally built linebacker who was a dependable leader in a defensive scheme that mimicked one used a lot in the NFL. Pass coverage needs improvement.

Fact: Played most of last season with a cast on his broken left hand.

Gone by: Early second.

Payton Wilson, 6-3, 233, North Carolina State

Scouting report: Super productive, fast and instinctive, but best moving around and away from blockers than taking them on.

Fact: Six-year college career included shoulder and knee injuries.

Gone by: The injury history could drop him out of the second round.

Others to watch: Trevin Wallace, Kentucky; Cedric Gray, North Carolina; Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Clemson.

CORNERBACKS

Overview: The most drafted position the past three years has been cornerback. NFL teams can never have enough. This class might not have a top-10 pick, but probably has four to six who will be taken Day 1.

Terrion Arnold-x, 5-11, 189, Alabama

Scouting report: Sound and aggressive cover corner who has a less than top-end speed. He ran a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash at the combine.

Fact: Huge production last season with five interceptions and 17 passes defended.

Gone by: The top corner is always a candidate to be the first defensive player off the board.

Quinyon Mitchell, 6-0, 195, Toledo

Scouting report: The best size, strength, speed combo among the cornerback class, but how much was he tested in the MAC? He looked just fine at the Senior Bowl, though.

Fact: Third-team All-American in 2022 and second-team in 2023.

Gone by: Middle of the first, with a chance to be CB1.

Cooper DeJean, 6-0, 202, Iowa

Scouting report: Versatile playmaker (outside, slot, maybe safety at times) and elite athlete, who also returned punts. Could be more fluid in coverage.

Fact: Last season was cut short by a broken right leg in November.

Gone by: The injury probably pushed him into the back half of the first round.

Kool-Aid McKinstry, 5-11, 196, Alabama

Scouting report: Good ball skills and athleticism, but could use to be more aggressive and play more physically.

Fact: Given name is Ga’Quincy, but his grandmother nicknamed him “Kool-Aid” for his smile.

Gone by: Early second round.

Nate Wiggins-x, 6-1, 173, Clemson

Scouting report: Long and very fast, but also thin and not much of a presence against the run

Fact: Despite missing some time with injuries the past two years, had 25 passes defended in 23 games.

Gone by: Early second round.

Mike Sainristil, 5-9, 182, Michigan

Scouting report: Undersized, which might relegate him to slot corner, but his playmaking, toughness and leadership are top-notch.

Fact: Picked off six passes last season and returned them for 232 yards, second most in the nation.

Gone by: Profiles as a second or even third-rounder, but Sainristil is the type of player that a team could fall in love with at the end of the first round.

Ennis Rakestraw, 5-11, 188, Missouri

Scouting report: Good footwork and plays with confidence, but top-end speed is lacking.

Fact: Only one interception in 36 career games (32 starts).

Gone by: Mid-second round.

Kamari Lassiter-x, 5-11, 187, Georgia

Scouting report: As sound fundamentally as any cornerback in the class and plays with toughness. That 4.6 speed could be hard to overcome, though.

Fact: Had no interceptions in his final two seasons, starting 29 games.

Gone by: Early third round.

Others to watch: T.J. Tampa, Iowa State; DJ James, Auburn; Max Melton, Rutgers; Andru Phillips, Kentucky.

SAFETIES

Overview: Only three safeties have been drafted in the first rounds of the past four drafts, all in 2022. This is likely to be another safety-less Day 1, with several going off the board Day 2.

Tyler Nubin, 6-1, 199, Minnesota

Scouting report: Good length and instincts, but inconsistent in run support.

Fact: Second-team All-American last season who had nine interceptions in his final two years in college.

Gone by: Middle of the second round.

Some to watch: Calen Bullock, USC; Jaden Hicks, Washington State; Javon Bullard, Georgia; Cole Bishop, Utah.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com

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RALPH D. RUSSO