The 84th NFL Draft is finally here, and the 49ers are in serious need of a talent injection on the defensive side of the football. In my previous article, I shared with you my ten favorite offensive players in this draft. Today I present you with my dozen favorite defensive players available this weekend.
This draft is clearly defined by the incredible number of impact defensive front seven stars that are in it. Quinnen Williams, Nick Bosa, Ed Oliver, Josh Allen, Devin White, Devin Bush, Montez Sweat, Brian Burns, and Christian Wilkins are all impact talents that could be off the board by the middle of round one and should become Pro Bowlers over time. This draft is loaded with talent and here are a dozen defenders, outside of that elite group, to watch for this weekend.
L.J. Collier – TCU
L.J. Collier of TCU is a rugged defensive end who possesses the power to play the run at the point of attack and effectively sets the edge in the run game. Collier, a first team All-Big-12 performer, also has a non-stop motor and can rush with power. He busted out this year and his best football is clearly ahead of him. He has long arms, big hands, plays with leverage and plays faster than he times. Likely to be a day two pick, Collier should have a lengthy and productive NFL career. Collier’s relentless nature is on full display in this highlight reel.
Jaylon Ferguson – Louisiana Tech
When your nickname is “sack daddy” and you set a Division I record with 45 career sacks, you have my full attention. Jaylon Ferguson of Louisiana Tech knows how to sack opposing quarterbacks. He did it 17.5 times in 2018 alone. Ferguson lives in the backfield and nearly 30 percent of his career tackles were in the offensive backfield. He is an ordinary athlete, but he has a pass rush knack and wins with power. He will need to develop some more advance pass rush moves, but his instincts are extraordinary. He has second round production and fourth round athleticism, so expect him to come off the board in round three.
Derick Roberson – Sam Houston State
Derick Roberson was originally a Texas recruit who transferred to Sam Houston State and began to fulfill his vast potential. Roberson is 6-4 and 250 lbs and busted out this year with 15 sacks and five forced fumbles. He has a knack as a pass rusher and could be a preseason surprise.
Khalen Saunders – Western Illinois
Khalen Saunders, the Western Illinois nose guard is a monstrous talent. Known as the “Aaron Donald of the FCS,” Saunders is a freak athlete who can do back flips at 6-0 and 324 lbs. He was a dominant interior rusher in college with 34.5 tackles for loss and 18 sacks over his career. He reminds me of Carolina’s Kawann Short. Saunders will be a day two selection and will outperform his draft position. He’d be an ideal nose guard to play opposite DeForest Buckner.
Te’Von Coney – Notre Dame
Te’Von Coney has been one of Notre Dame’s defensive leaders and could be on the board for the 49ers in the early fourth round. Coney (6-0 and 234 lbs) led the Irish with 107 tackles and had 17 tackles in the 2018 Citrus Bowl. Notre Dame players often achieve to their talent level or beyond and I’d expect Coney to emerge as a starting ILB who can excel in any scheme. He has compiled 239 tackles over the last two seasons and was a top recruit coming out of high school in Florida.
Sione Takitaki – Western Michigan
Sione Takitaki had an unbelievable Potato Bowl versus Western Michigan as he totaled 19 tackles. Takitaki is an undersized linebacker who is simply a tackling machine. He’s a day three prospect who should immediately contribute as a special teams ace on the 49ers’ coverage units. Takitaki is 6-1 240 lbs and ran 4.63 with a 37 inch vertical jump, but it’s his instincts and his motor that separate him. He made some immature decisions early in his career at BYU, but he got married and became BYU’s team captain. Takitaki is instinctive and he plays with incredible energy and urgency. He should be an effective backup at multiple spots and a Pro Bowl caliber special teamer from day one.
Gary Johnson – Texas
The more I watch Texas’ linebacker Gary Johnson, the more I love his game. He’s a 6-0 230 lbs hyperactive inside linebacker who’s simply a tackling machine. He attacks the line of scrimmage with his 4.43 speed and looks to seek and destroy as a hitter. He could play either of the two stack linebacker positions in Saleh’s defense. Johnson led the Longhorns with 90 tackles and his twitter handle is “I hate QBs and RBs”.
Sean Bunting – Central Michigan
Sean Bunting of Central Michigan is a terrific cornerback prospect and could be a great find in the third or fourth round. Bunting is 6-0 and 195 lbs, ran 4.42 in the 40-yard-dash and registered a 41.5 inch vertical jump. He began his career at wide receiver and safety, but transitioned to cornerback over the last two seasons and in 2018 Bunting was named the MAC Conference’s DPOY. Bunting is exactly the kind of physical, man-to-man press corner who the 49ers are seeking. He could be a plug and play third-round cornerback.
Jamal Peters – Mississippi State
Rashad Fenton – South Carolina
Stephen Denmark – Valdosta State
Day three of the draft is usually a crapshoot. This year I see value in the day three cornerback prospects and three to watch for are Mississippi State’s Jamal Peters, South Carolina’s Rashad Fenton and Valdosta State’s Stephen Denmark. Peters has rare size and strength at 6-1 and 214 lbs for a corner and was a 4-star recruit out of high school. He lacks long speed, but plays with confidence and physicality as a press man corner and can be an intimidating force underneath.
Fenton is a strong and physical press man corner who excelled in the SEC. He has decent size (5-11) and speed (4.52) and could be an excellent pick late on day three or as an undrafted free agent. Fenton is an underrated athlete and could contend for a roster spot in camp.
Stephen Denmark of Division II Valdosta State could be this draft’s ultimate defensive sleeper. Denmark, a former track athlete and a wide receiver, has limited cornerback experience but his Pro Day workout was simply spectacular. The 49ers were one of the teams to attend Denmark’s pro day and he really put on a show. Denmark, at 6-3 and 220 lbs, ran 4.4 in the 40-yard dash and registered a 43.5 inch vertical jump. He’s only played cornerback for one year, but he has dominant physical traits and could emerge as a major playmaker.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson – Florida
NFL teams played in some sort of sub package defense on 74 percent of the snaps in 2018. That fact has put a premium on versatile secondary players that can run, hit and cover. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson of the Florida Gators would be an excellent day two selection by John Lynch. Gardner-Johnson was MVP of the 2017 Outback Bowl after he came down with two interceptions. He followed that up with another productive 2018 season (71 tackles, 4 INTs) that he capped off by being named the Defensive MVP of the 2018 Peach Bowl. He is versatile and can excel as a slot cornerback or as an Earl Thomas-like free safety in Robert Saleh’s single high/Cover 3 heavy scheme.