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2021 NFL Draft: All-sleeper defensive team

After breaking the underrated offensive prospects in the upcoming draft, Lead Draft Analyst Jacob Infante returns with his sleepers on the defensive side of the ball.

Iowa v Northwestern Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Whether or not the Bears make it into the playoffs this year, the 2021 NFL Draft will be an important one for them.

They are on track to have a first-round pick for the first time since 2018, and they currently have their own picks in the first three rounds for the first time since 2016. For a roster that’s built to win now, they have more older prospects in their prime than top-notch young prospects in their organization. Finally having access to top draft capital should be a welcomed addition for them.

On Wednesday, I broke down some of my top offensive sleepers in the 2021 draft, so it’s only logical to do the same for the other side of the ball. Here are some of my favorite underrated defensive prospects in this year’s draft class.

Defensive line: Daviyon Nixon, Iowa

Out of every player on this list, Daviyon Nixon is the most likely to not only be an early-round pick, but a first-round pick, at that. However, he’s still highly underrated in the grand scheme of things.

In 8 games this season, Nixon has had 13.5 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks, proving to be a disruptive force for Iowa’s defensive line. He is an athletic interior defender whose first-step quickness is impressive and whose agility in space gives him significant value as a run defender in pursuit. He changes direction well for a defensive lineman, and his agility makes him a dangerous defender to try and stop on twists to the outside. Nixon showcases flexible hips on tape, getting his pads low at the point of attack and turning the corner well in pursuit. He also has quick hands and possesses a diverse arsenal of pass-rushing moves in his game.

Nixon is a bit on the smaller side for an interior defender—he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds—so Combine measurements will be crucial for him if he declares. He can stand to add a little bit more anchor strength so he can improve in run support. In a weak class at his position, though, Nixon is my top interior defensive lineman, and while a couple of other draft analysts have caught onto him in recent weeks, it’s just a matter of time before everyone else does, too.

Defensive line: Khyiris Tonga, BYU

If you’re a fan of big-bodied, gap-eating nose tackles who dominate against the run, Khyiris Tonga might just be your guy.

Tonga is a bonafide thicc boi at 6-foot-4 and 322 pounds who possesses a frame with good length for the interior and plenty of well-proportioned bulk. He has the anchor strength needed to hold up blocks at the point of attack and eat up gaps in run support. He has seen his fair share of double-team blocks when performing in a nose tackle role for BYU, and his frame and raw power naturally garners a lot of attention from blockers. He’s a good athlete for his size, too, as he accelerates well off the snap and has a quick first step for such a big man.

Having gone on a two-year mission trip with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prior to coming to BYU, Tonga is older than your typical college senior. He is a bit stiff in his hips, which can prevent him from generating ideal leverage at the point of attack and moving laterally in space. He has never really had top-notch production at the collegiate level, either. While unlikely he’ll go any higher than Day 3, he could be a really good nose tackle option to go after in the later rounds.

Defensive line: Payton Turner, Houston

Defensive coordinators have a lot of fun working with versatile defensive linemen, which should make Payton Turner a fun prospects for coaches to utilize at the NFL level.

Turner has taken reps as a 3-technique defensive tackle, a 5-technique defensive end, or as a stand-up edge rusher, though he likely projects best as a 5-tech at the next level. He carries fantastic length in his 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame and has very long arms that allow him to control the momentum of his blocks by preventing offensive linemen from entering the inside of his frame. He is a very good athlete with great first-step quickness for his size who can also change direction well in space when pursuing the quarterback or a ball-carrier. Turner has quick and active hands, allowing him to beat offensive linemen off the snap with finesse moves like his swim move, which stood out on tape. His high motor allows him to get the most out of his quickness off the snap and his activity in his hands.

The problem with projecting Turner is his tweener size: he is too skinny to be a full-time interior defender, yet too big to be a full-time edge rusher. He will likely end up having to add weight to play inside, which could help iron out his issues with his anchor strength that are also caused by his high pad level at the point of attack. He’s raw in terms of generating leverage when engaged with a blocker, but from a pure perspective of physical upside, he’s as good as you can get on Day 3 of the 2021 draft.

Edge rusher: Jordan Smith, UAB

Day 3 of the draft can be the perfect time to take a chance on raw, yet physically gifted prospects on either side of the ball. Jordan Smith fits the bill at the edge rusher position in this class.

The first thing about Smith that shows up on film is his frame. At 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, he has insane length for the edge rusher position and has incredibly long limbs. That length is complemented by good overall build in his upper body. Smith has tallied 23.5 tackles for a loss and 14.5 sacks in the 21 games he has played at the collegiate level, meaning he meets the criteria for having good production as a Group of 5 prospect. His athleticism is apparent on tape, too; he accelerates well off the snap and has the speed to serve as a dangerous backside defender who can also beat offensive tackles on the outside on the speed rush. He can convert speed to power pretty well at the point of attack and has loose hips.

Smith is still a work in progress, as his ankles are stiff and he struggles with moving laterally. He will need to add some more strength to his lower half to improve his ability to set the edge in run support, and his plan as a pass-rushing can be sharpened a bit. Despite those concerns, a player with his physical attributes should be on many an NFL radar this offseason.

Inside linebacker: Kuony Deng, California

The Pac-12 playing a shortened schedule could cause some of their top players to fall under the radar, and that includes a 6-foot-6, 250-pound linebacker with sideline-to-sideline range like Kuony Deng.

Deng was only able to play in four games this season, but over the course of his 17 games with Cal’s football program since transferring there from community college, he has had 152 total tackles. He has tremendous length for the linebacker position and has done a good job of bulking up and adding muscle to his skinny frame over the past two years. His long arms give him wicked range as a tackler, and his commendable lateral quickness makes him a sideline-to-sideline threat in run support. Deng has fluid hips in space, and his combination of direction-changing skills and length give him a very high ceiling in coverage. Though developing in his processing quickness, he has shown some promise of being able to execute his run fits and execute pursuit angles with a calculated tempo.

A lack of experience can be easily observed from Deng’s game tape, as he plays with more of a reactive style than an instinctive style. His football IQ is still pretty raw, and he often relies more on his physical gifts to make plays than he does with his intelligence. He still isn’t incredibly physical despite packing on more weight, as well, as he can struggle with disengaging with blockers near the line of scrimmage. Deng probably won’t be a Day 1 starter in the NFL, but his high ceiling could see him break out a couple of years into his career if put in the right situation.

Inside linebacker: Grant Stuard, Houston

In today’s pass-first NFL, it is paramount for linebackers to be able to drop back in coverage and offer value on passing downs. Grant Stuard does exactly that.

A former safety who converted to the linebacker position in 2020, Stuard managed to keep his athleticism while adding some more bulk to his frame to play in the box. He has good functional agility and can move around efficiently in space. He has very good straight-line speed that is apparent when he closes in on a ball-carrier, kicking it into high gear and colliding with plenty of momentum. Stuard’s athleticism gives him plenty of value in coverage, and he has the route recognition abilities to make plays on the ball and close in on a pass-catcher. He takes precise angles in run support and does a good job of varying his tempo in pursuit.

Stuard is a bit undersized at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, and that provided for some issues in shedding blocks and executing run fits in the box. He doesn’t have bad tackling form, but he can stand to add a little bit more strength into his frame. Even though he does have valid concerns as a prospect, he offers athleticism and value on passing downs. The league is trending towards targeting more agile linebackers, and Stuard fits that bill.

Edge rusher: Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Notre Dame

Were it not for his breakout year coming in a shortened season, there would be a legitimate chance more people would be talking about Adetokunbo Ogundeji as a late Day 2 target.

The 6-foot-4, 252-pound edge rusher has come into his own this season in an expanded role on Notre Dame’s defense. He has good height for his position, but the more intriguing part of his frame is his long arms. Ogundeji accelerates well off the snap and is quick to get out of a three-point stance. He does a good job of converting speed to power and churning his legs when engaged with blockers at the point of attack. For a one-year starter, he also shows good polish in his hands, combining power, quickness, and a diverse array of pass-rushing techniques to shed blocks.

A notable issue with Ogundeji is a lack of notable production. Prior to grabbing 5.5 sacks in nine games, he had just 4.5 sacks in his previous two seasons and saw little to no playing time the year before that. He also has fairly high pad level when he engages with defenders and is a bit stiff in the ankles when moving around in space. Those concerning could see him limited to a rotational role with few reps in coverage early in his career, but with some tweaks to his game, Ogundeji can be a quality pass-rusher in the NFL.

Cornerback: Greg Newsome II, Northwestern

There are several local talents from the Chicago area in the 2021 draft, and arguably the most underrated is Northwestern’s Greg Newsome II.

In his last 12 games played at the collegiate level, Newsome has tallied an insane 24 pass deflections. Though he only played in four games in 2020 due to the shortened Big Ten season and issues with his groin, but he notched nine break-ups and an interception in the time he saw for the Wildcats. He brings very good length as a field-side cornerback at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, giving him the physical attributes needed to match up with bigger receivers, including an extensive catch radius. He has a high football IQ and is quick to diagnose route concepts, which combined with his downhill acceleration coming out of his backpedal, allows him to jump routes on a consistent basis. Newsome is an above-average athlete who has good hip fluidity and can change direction easily, and he’s also a willing tackler with good physicality at the point of attack.

Durability is the issue with Newsome. He has played in just 19 games over the course of his three seasons, having missed time due to injuries every season he’s played at Northwestern. He can stand to be more physical through defending a receiver’s stems, and his deep speed is fairly average, but his injury history is the biggest concern in his profile as a draft prospect. That may cause him to fall down boards a little bit, but if he can manage to stay healthy, he can be a steal around that Round 3-4 range.

Safety: Jaquan Brisker, Penn State

An underrated strong safety from Penn State who can dish out hits and cover well in zone coverage? Bears fans might have seen a player like this before.

Though he only has one season of FBS starting experience to his name, Jaquan Brisker does bring a handful of similarities to former Bear and current Packers safety Adrian Amos. Brisker is a well-built safety at 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds whose size allows him to pack a powerful pop in his pads as a tackler. He plays with good form as a tackler, keeping his pads low and his weight underneath him when charging downhill, and his willingness to keep physical is of great benefit to his playing style. Brisker isn’t just a stereotypical box safety, though: he is a very fluid athlete who changes direction well and is able to cover a significant chunk of the field in two-high shells. He plays with a high motor in both coverage and run support, and that effort he shows allows him to make big plays.

Brisker’s inexperience can still show up on tape, as his instincts in coverage can see him diagnose a play a split second too late and get tricked on misdirections or play-action calls. His performance at the Senior Bowl will be paramount to his draft stock, but if he performs well, don’t be surprised if his impressive 2020 tape comes into the national spotlight soon after.

Safety: Reed Blankenship, Middle Tennessee State

Last year’s draft saw two small-school safeties drafted early in Kyle Dugger and Jeremy Chinn. Though he probably won’t be drafted as early as the aforementioned two, Reed Blankenship still has the potential to make an impact at the NFL level.

Though his production fell off a bit in 2020, Blankenship was plenty productive in his first three seasons at Middle Tennessee State, tallying 8 interceptions over that span. He brings a lengthy, 6-foot-1 and 200-pound frame that has some nice power packed into it. He plays with a high motor, charging downhill at high speed with precise pursuit angles to make tackles. That high motor is complemented by his quick processing ability, as he does a good job of reading a quarterback’s eyes and making a jump on a route in zone coverage. Though not a perfect form tackler, Blankenship shows willingness and physicality once engaged with a ball-carrier.

When watching Blankenship’s tape, it’s fairly clear he won’t be able to make as many plays as he does in college due to a lack of incredibly fluid hips and his occasional struggles in man coverage. Durability is a minor concern, having broken his leg in 2019 and having offseason surgery prior to that season, and he can get better at breaking down in space as a tackler. He might not confuse you for an early-round draft pick, but he’s a well-rounded safety who should have value for an NFL team.

Cornerback: Shakur Brown, Michigan State

Very few cornerbacks in the 2021 draft class are as much of a threat to convert turnovers into big plays as Shakur Brown is.

Brown was incredible in the seven games he played for the Spartans this year, tallying five interceptions and four pass deflections in that timeframe. Once he gets the ball in his hands, he is a consistent threat to break free for a big gain, as he has averaged 26.6 yards per interception return in his seven collegiate interceptions over three years. That is aided greatly by his athletic ability, which shows up when he drops back in coverage. He accelerates well upfield coming out of his breaks, and he is able to change direction easily to counteract sharp-breaking routes. Brown is good at anticipating route concepts and staying patient through an opposing receiver’s stems, and he brings good ball-tracking skills when the ball is in the air. All accounts say he is a hard worker and a model teammate, as well.

Though Brown doesn’t bring fantastic size at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, nor does he have ideal physicality for an outside cornerback, his athleticism and instincts make him a good enough fit as a field-side corner. He has starting potential at the next level, even though he hasn’t been hyped up nearly as much as he should be.