Is Illinois back as a legitimate factory for NFL talent?
The Fighting Illini had three players selected in the first two days of the 2023 NFL Draft, which was their most in that span as a program since 2012. They had their first top-10 pick since 1996 when cornerback Devon Witherspoon when No. 5 to the Seahawks. Now, Illinois has the chance to finish with top-10 picks in back-to-back years for the first time since 1965 and 1966 when defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton enters the draft.
What exactly does Newton do well, though? Where does he compare on the Jalen Carter and Quinnen Williams scale of interior defensive prospects? Let’s explore this by breaking down the consensus top defensive tackle in the 2024 NFL Draft.
Games scouted: Wisconsin, 2022; @ Michigan, 2022; vs. Penn State, 2023; @ Kansas, 2023
- Explosive 3-technique defensive tackle with a quick first step
- Has elite athleticism and flexibility out in the open field
- Closing speed as a pursuit defender is very good for his position
- Dynamic stunt rusher whose speed and lateral quickness make him tough to stop whether he’s bouncing inside or outside
- Has a diverse arsenal of hand techniques needed to shed blocks against both the pass and the run
- Utilizes push-pull moves to stack and shed blocks and redirect offensive linemen at the point of attack against the run
- Knows when to free up his hands to make tackles in the run game
- Offers a deep disposal of pass-rushing moves like swims, swipes and forklift rushes
- Has a fantastic motor, whether it’s stringing together moves at the point of attack or chasing down ball-carriers in space
- Will be a three-year starter in the Big Ten by the time the 2023 season comes to an end
- Stout frame gives him natural leverage, and he’s does a good job of lowering his center of gravity at the point of attack
- Pad level and bend in his lower half has improved over the years
- Quickness off the ball allows him to generate initial penetration better than most defensive linemen
- Doesn’t have tremendous length, which can limit how well he locks offensive linemen out from his frame
- A bit undersized for an NFL defensive tackle at 6-foot-2 and 295 pounds
- Lack of length can hurt him a bit against the run
- Has very good gap awareness but doesn’t have a strong enough anchor to avoid getting washed out of some run plays
- Struggles occasionally against wide-zone runs, as it allows offensive linemen to pick up momentum, which combined with the size advantage they’ll probably have over him, makes it tougher for him to eat up gaps
- Doesn’t convert speed to power insanely well yet
Newton has the athleticism and red-hot motor you crave when you’re looking for a pass-rushing specialist out of the 3-technique defensive tackle alignment.
He’s an elite athlete at his position, and that raw speed and acceleration shows up often on tape. His hand activity is impressive in both his effort and his knowledge of how to shed blocks. Newton’s natural leverage advantage aids him at the line of scrimmage, and he’s an intelligent defender with good gap awareness against the run.
Though a bit undersized and lacking in length, Newton has the ability to take over a game and possesses three-down impact potential at the NFL level. There’s a legitimate argument for him being the best defender in the 2024 NFL Draft, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him selected within the first 10 selections.