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WCG Confidence Boards: Top Defensive Prospects

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The Bears have an offensive head coach and a new quarterback to help out. Of course, it the other team scores fewer points, that helps an offense out a lot. Here are some guys who might help in that quest.

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Is he the best safety in the draft or the best corner?
Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

Earlier, we looked at ten draft boards, including five Top 100 “Big Boards” as well as five boards that ranked NFL prospects by positions. That time, we focused on offensive prospects. Now it’s time for the defense. Just to quickly review the methodology, all boards are treated equally and prospects receive a score based on where they place. Almost all of the boards and lists have been updated since January, but there are still a couple of older boards lurking. A perfect score reflects that the player is considered the top candidate by position and overall. Anything over a 75% is pretty remarkable.

So, gurus rank and divide defensive players differently. For example, some group all defensive linemen together, some divide them into as many as four different categories, and often the same player is listed multiple times. Some gurus have a single catchall category for linebackers, while others distinguish among types. When in doubt, I gave a prospect the privilege of his “best” rank, and I tried to default in terms of where a player was grouped most often. Note that as a consequence, sometimes a player’s rank or score reflects where he would be placed in his “ideal” system, not how he would grade out if intended for Chicago.

Edge Rusher

Bradley Chubb is the fourth overall prospect (with a 96.7% score), the second-ranked defensive prospect, and the consensus top Edge on the position boards. While some seem to prefer him as a 4-3 DE, it really doesn’t matter because everyone agrees on the fact that he’s an elite talent whether or not he starts with a hand in the dirt. Arden Key actually comes in second (85.2% overall and 86% position scores), but there is less enthusiasm there. Matt Miller has him as the fifth-best Edge rushing prospect, and WCG’s Jacob Infante lists him outside of the top 32 prospects.

This is one of two groups that took a big hit when Clemson’s defensive starts decided to hang on for one more year. In this case, it meant that Clelin Ferrell wasn’t around to challenge Key for second-place, and it also meant that more marginal propositions (like Harold Landry and Sam Hubbard) became more valued. It also took Austin Bryant out of the running for a spoiler role. The result is that while there are notable Edge rushers in this class, there is currently little agreement that more than a couple of them are elite.

Defensive Line

This is the second group that lost out to Clemson’s continued fortune, as Christian Wilkins was very popular on boards for quite some time, and with him gone the position boards are a little depleted. He basically occupied one of the top two spots for most gurus, and until they reset, the field has taken a hit.

In this context, the scores of Vita Vea and Maurice Hurst make more sense. Vea (77.9% overall) is an almost-universal Top 32 player on the big boards, but he’s an also-ran on some of the position boards, nabbing only an 86% position score. Hurst (72.5% overall) is a similar story, as is Da’Ron Payne (70.8%). It’s worth pointing out here that these are different types of players, but when added together with the tepid Edge rusher class, this is a group that is waiting for someone to step up on tape or at the NFL Draft Combine.

Linebacker

Well, this gets awkward in a hurry. Some linebackers are cross-referenced as edge rushers or OLBs, some are listed only is ILBs, and a few just have a catchall “linebacker” category. What’s interesting is that even giving each player the advantage of his best score, there is not a lot of enthusiasm out there for more than a few players. Roquan Smith (74.9% overall, 80% by position) is the leader, but even there he is only the seventh-ranked defensive prospect (18th overall). Meanwhile, Malik Jefferson (69.4%) is the second-ranking linebacker.

Minkah Fitzpatrick

The best Minkah Fitzpatrick in the draft is, by common agreement, Minkah Fitzpatrick (97.4% overall, the highest scaled score for a defensive player). However, that’s where the agreement on him ends. Some boards have him listed as a corner, while others place him at a safety. In some cases he is cross-listed, while in a majority of cases he is stubbornly called a “just” one or the other. It might not even matter. Not only is he a Top 10 prospect on every board, he is a Top 5 prospect on every board but CBS Sports (where he is 6th); Saquon Barkley is the only other player to command that degree of respect across the big boards.

Regardless of his position, he earns top honors there from everyone except Walter Football, where he takes second to Derwin James at safety and Josh Jackson at corner. He still comes in with a 98% position score, whatever that position happens to be.

Safety

Gurus think that Derwin James is really good. His 93.6% scale score places him in the top five overall, and he trails only Fitzpatrick and Chubb on defense. His 94% position score is really just a testament to Fitzpatrick, and Ronnie Harrison is a distant second place for the dedicated safety rankings (62.3%, 30th overall prospect). The falloff from James to Harrison is dramatic in terms of overall rank, position rank, and board consensus. This sort of dip might even out, and might be an artifact of ranks “stolen” by Fitzpatrick, but the fact is that even leaving aside position rank, Harrison isn’t a Top 32 for anyone. That suggests that this year has one really promising safety, James, but that he might be a real star.

Cornerback

If Fitzpatrick is set aside, the clear favorite among the corners is Denzel Ward (81.8% overall, 88% position score). He’s even in the Top 32 on all five big boards. Add in that he plays a “value” position, and it seems likely that Ward will go on the first night of the draft.

Josh Jackson is second, but he dips below the 75% threshold by a notable degree (66.5% scaled score, 70% position score). In Jackson’s case, he suffers from a pair of truly poor scores. Our Lads (1-3) doesn’t even place him among the Top 10 corners, and NFL Draft Days (12-28) do not put him in the Top 100. The fact that he is able to place as a Top 25 pick overall and the 12th-best defensive prospect despite those two scores is remarkable, helped in no small part by the pair of first-place finishes he has on more recent position boards. It will be interesting to see if he moves up before the combine or not.

On defense, then, each position group so far has a front-runner, a consolation prize, and the rest. It will be interesting to see if these divisions hold true as the draft nears.

Top Defensive Prospects

Defensive Rank Player Position Scaled Score Position Score
Defensive Rank Player Position Scaled Score Position Score
1 Fitzpatrick, Minkah S/CB 97.40% 98.00%
2 Chubb, Bradley EDGE 96.60% 100.00%
3 James, Derwin S 93.60% 94.00%
4 Key, Arden EDGE 85.20% 86.00%
5 Ward, Denzel CB 81.80% 88.00%
6 Vea, Vita DL 77.90% 86.00%
7 Smith, Roquan LB 74.90% 80.00%
8 Hurst, Maurice DL 72.50% 76.00%
9 Landry, Harold EDGE 72.30% 76.00%
10 Payne, Da'Ron DL 70.80% 78.00%
11 Jefferson, Malik LB 69.40% 78.00%
12 Jackson, Josh CB 66.50% 70.00%
13 Evans, Rashaan LB 65.10% 82.00%
14 Alexander, Jaire CB 64.40% 60.00%
15 Harrison, Ronnie S 62.30% 78.00%
16 Oliver, Isaiah CB 53.40% 48.00%
17 Hubbard, Sam EDGE 50.70% 66.00%