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2023 NFL Draft: Ranking the top DTs in this year’s class

Defensive tackle remains one of the Detroit Lions top needs and we take a look at the top 14 in this draft class.

Texas Christian Horned Frogs v Georgia Bulldogs Photo by Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images

It’s been a busy free agency period for Brad Holmes and the Detroit Lions. One thing that we’ve learned about Holmes is that when he’s presented with a major need, he loves to invest a ton of resources and attack that need with full force, which is exactly what it did at the cornerback position this offseason.

One area that still has a little shoring up to do is the defensive tackle position. After re-signing Isaiah Buggs, the Lions got their starting nose tackle back, but they could still use some depth there. They could also use plenty of pass rushing help from the interior—an area where they’ve struggled. One way to do that is through the draft.

Here is a list of my favorite fits for the Lions at defensive tackle in this year’s class:

Tier 1 — The Jalen Carter Tier

Jalen Carter (Georgia), 6-foot-3, 314 pounds

On the field, Jalen Carter checks all the boxes. He is arguably the best player in the entire draft from a pure talent standpoint, but positional value and character concerns could see him slide out of the top-5—possibly even further.

Carter is a game-changing talent and would instantly fit in any scheme and improve any team that is looking for an interior defensive lineman. As a pass rusher, he is as explosive as they come and displays violent hands to shed blocks and get to the quarterback in the blink of an eye. He was also one of the best run defenders in college football last year and has shown a knack for tackling ball carriers in the backfield.

To find any issues with Carter on the field, you would have to be nitpicking. There really aren’t any real negatives to his game, though there may be some questions about his stamina, since he was used sparingly, and has never played over 400 snaps in a year at Georgia.

I don’t have much to say about Carter from a character standpoint and I’m not going to pretend like I know the ins and outs of his legal problems. What I do know is that the Lions brass will do their homework, whether they decide Carter is a good fit or not. That being said, reports out of the pro day process did not seem to paint Carter in a good light.

How he fits: Will fit just about anywhere, but to maximize his worth, best to put him at 3T.

Round grade: Top-5 pick

Tier 2 — First round buzz, possible options at 18

Calijah Kancey (Pittsburgh), 6-foot-1, 281 pounds

Kancey is a tough prospect to project into the NFL due to his lack of size and length. He is in the second and fourth percentile in height and weight, respectively. His 30 5⁄8 inch arms also put him in the one percentile. He is comparable in size to Demetrius Taylor, who the Lions brought in as a UDFA in 2022, so it wouldn’t be unheard of for this regime to look at someone this size—though Kancey’s arms are nearly two full inches shorter. But quite frankly, it’s a bit too early to know exactly what they want in a DT. Holmes has selected just two defensive tackles in the draft in his tenure here so far, and they have two entirely different body types, so it’s unfair to rule Kancey out.

If you look past the size concerns you will find one of the most disruptive pass rushers we’ve seen in the past several years. His 92.4 pass-rushing grade via Pro Football Focus led all interior defenders in 2022. In a way, Kancey’s lack of height is a big reason why he is such a successful pass rusher. It allows him to consistently be the low man and win leverage battles.

How he fits: 3/5-tech; pass-rushing specialist and part-time run defender.

Round grade: First round

Bryan Bresee (Clemson), 6-foot-5, 298 pounds

Bresee is more of an unfinished product than guys like Kancey and Carter, but he does have the size and tools that will warrant a high selection in the draft.

When watching Bresee’s 2022 tape, you’ll see him sitting on blocks often and being pretty inactive as a pass rusher, but you really get to see his potential when you throw on his film versus North Carolina where he dominated throughout.

During the 2022 season, the Bresee family was struck with awful news when Bresee’s younger sister, Ella Bresee, passed away at only 15 years old from brain cancer. He would miss the Louisiana Tech game to be with his family, and then later missed some more time due to a kidney infection.

How he fits: Versatile and used all over Clemson’s defensive front. Can play anywhere from the 5-technique in, but will be at his best as a 3- or 4i/5-tech in Detroit.

Round grade: First round

Tier 3 — Early Day 2 guys

Adetomiwa Adebawore (Northwestern), 6-foot-2, 282 pounds

One of the biggest winners at the NFL Combine was Adebawore, who ran a sub-4.50 40-yard dash for a defensive lineman, along with elite explosion numbers. He added to his already high RAS score with some elite agility numbers at his pro day.

Though Adebawore played most of his snaps on the edge in college, most project him to be better suited on the interior, especially as a 3-tech, where he can use his elite burst and quickness to his advantage. Having that experience on the edge is nice to fall back on, and teams are going to love his ability to line up virtually anywhere on the line, but he does lack the length and flexibility you’d like to see from a typical edge rusher.

If the Lions deem that Carter is not a fit for their culture, and they miss out on Bresee and Kancey, Adebawore is a fantastic consolation prize if they are looking for a more explosive pass rusher from the interior. The Lions also met with Adebawore at his pro day on March 15th.

How he fits: Projects best as a 3-tech but can line up further outside if needed.

Round grade: Second round

Mazi Smith (Michigan), 6-foot-3, 323 pounds

Re-signing Isaiah Buggs was a big move for the Lions. He was a big-time contributor and earned a full-time role once they moved McNeill to more of a 3-technique role. The Lions could alleviate some of the pressure on Buggs by adding a talented reserve NT, though, and there are plenty to choose from—one being Michigan DT, Mazi Smith.

Smith is a force to be reckoned with and I really like what he brings to the table. His strength is unmatched by anyone in this DT class and his film has shades of Dontari Poe. His hands have some serious pop, and he can beat you with a variety of moves. Smith’s role in the NFL will be a true nose tackle, but he appears to be a little more dynamic of a pass rusher than a lot of other nose tackle prospects out there.

How he fits: 0/1-technique; nose tackle.

Round grade: Second round

Tier 4 — Late Day 2/Early Day 3

Keeanu Benton (Wisconsin), 6-foot-4, 309 pounds

Playing mostly as a nose tackle for Wisconsin, Benton projects to play a similar role in the NFL, where he can use his size to plug running lanes and push the pocket. He has impressive power and offers more than you’d expect as a pass rusher. Benton can play in odd or even fronts and could eventually develop into an NFL starter down the road.

How he fits: 0/1-tech; nose tackle.

Round grade: Third round

Siaki Ika (Baylor), 6-foot-3, 335 pounds

At Baylor, Ika had been listed close to 360 pounds, so weighing in at 335 is a positive sign and a lot more sustainable. As a run defender, Ika does well to clog up running lanes and is essentially an immovable object at the line of scrimmage. Projecting him to the NFL is quite easy. He’s a nose tackle through and through, so if you’re looking for a massive space eater, then Ika is your guy.

How he fits: 0/1-tech; nose tackle.

Round grade: Third-fourth round

Karl Brooks (Bowling Green), 6-foot-3, 303 pounds

Brooks is a fascinating prospect that lined up almost exclusively on the edge for Bowling Green. They even had him operating out of a two-point stance, which for a 300-pounder, is pretty wild to see. And yet, Brooks dominated lesser competition no matter how he was used. According to PFF, he was the No. 1 graded EDGE in the entire country.

Brooks was invited to the Senior Bowl where he was given a look as a 3-tech—a role he should feel more comfortable with—and proved that he can hang with “Power 5” competition. As an interior pass rusher, Brooks will thrive leaning on his impressive burst, quickness, and violent hands.

At his Pro Day, Brooks put up some pedestrian numbers that could hurt his draft stock a bit. He should hear his name called somewhere late on Day 2 or on Day 3. The Lions have brought in Brooks as one of their top 30 visits.

How he fits: Can line up anywhere from nose to 5-tech in a pinch, but should be a 3-tech with his skillset.

Round grade: Third-fourth round

Zacch Pickens (South Carolina), 6-foot-4, 291 pounds

Pickens has long arms and massive hands for a DT and uses them well. Though he tested well at the combine, I’d like to see some of that explosiveness and athleticism a little bit more on the field. In the run game, he has a habit of getting too high in his stance and is susceptible to getting driven up the field and out of the play. He shows the same pad-level issues in the passing game if his initial move stalls out, too. With some time and development, Pickens can turn into a consistent contributor, because he has the tools to make it work.

How he fits: 3-tech/4i in Detroit’s scheme.

Round grade: Fourth round

Moro Ojomo (Texas), 6-foot-3, 293 pounds

As a pass rusher, Ojomo is explosive with an impressive first step and times the snap well. He could definitely improve on finishing plays or developing some pass-rush moves as he tends to rely solely on his speed to power and his bull rush. Ojomo is surprisingly effective as a run defender at his size. He’s very disruptive in the backfield and does a nice job of stacking and shedding blocks to get to the ball carrier.

How he fits: Can play 3T and/or 4i/5T in Detroit’s scheme.

Round grade: Fourth round

Gervon Dexter Sr. (Florida), 6-foot-6, 310 pounds

At the combine, Dexter Sr. performed extremely well in all areas, which makes this one of the most interesting case studies I’ve found because he is often very slow off the snap, so I don’t know if his burst is going to be a true strength of his. The production simply wasn’t there in college, but if some team can come in and fix his snap timing, Dexter Sr. has great physical tools to work with.

How he fits: Elite burst and quickness, so many will consider him a 3-tech. Might be better suited as a nose if he can’t figure out how to time the snap better.

Round grade: Fourth round

Byron Young (Alabama), 6-foot-3, 294 pounds

Young has elite length and massive hands for his size which allows him to often be the first to engage and dictate the action. He is not very explosive, but he wins with his active hands and does a nice job of shedding blocks in a timely manner, especially as a run defender. He is a high-floor option that should step in as a plus-run stopper with limited pass rush potential.

How he fits: Could fill in as a closed end, or anywhere on the interior for the Lions, but fits best in a 3-4 scheme as a two-gapping 5-tech that will be asked to read and react.

Round grade: Fourth-fifth round

Jaquelin Roy (LSU), 6-foot-3, 305 pounds

Declaring for the draft as a redshirt sophomore may prove to be a poor decision for Roy. He possesses great raw strength and decent burst for a DT, but the tape is very inconsistent and he’s likely to hear his name called in the Day 3 range. Roy could use some serious refinement on his hand technique and needs to do a better job finishing plays.

How he fits: 3-tech in a 4-3 scheme, but has some scheme versatility and experience playing as a nose, too.

Round grade: Fourth-fifth round

Keondre Coburn (Texas), 6-foot-2, 332 pounds

Coburn looks every bit of his listed weight and uses it well to take up space and clog running lanes. He’s a prototypical nose tackle with not much pass-rush potential that will likely not see the field much on third down. If you’re looking for just a run-stuffing nose tackle, Coburn’s your guy.

How he fits: 0-1 tech; nose tackle. Two-down lineman.

Round grade: Fifth round

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