The spider web of each prospect's test results from the NFL Combine comes courtesy of MockDraftable. SPARQ composite scores are provided by Zach Whitman. All players’ ages are calculated as of September 2019.
1. Quinnen Williams (Alabama) | 6’3/303
SPARQ percentile: 83.1
Comp: A cross between Gerald McCoy and Aaron Donald
Every year, after the draft, I publish a “too-early” mock draft as well as top-15 position rankings for the next class. Last May, in the defensive rankings column, I wrote that the 2019 defensive line class would be transcendent.
And I didn’t even include the best player! Back then, Quinnen Williams wasn’t on the radar – he wasn’t a thing. All I knew about Quinnen was that he was a young, four-star rotational player, a description that fits every Alabama backup (except for the five-stars!).
Nick Saban beat out Ole Miss and Auburn for Williams’ signature in 2016 and then redshirted him. In 2017, Williams was Da’Ron Payne’s backup. One year later, he was the country’s best player. Williams won the Outland Trophy and would have been in prime contention for the Heisman Trophy in a just world.
It’s hard to contextualize just how dominant he was. But here’s a nugget for you: In Williams’ only season as a starter, he earned the highest grade Pro Football Focus has ever given to a college interior defender (96.0). Williams posted eight sacks and 19.5 TFL in 15 games.
His first step as a 300-plus pounder is just stupid. On a few plays last year, I had to rewind the DVR because I thought Quinnen had jumped offsides. Nope! He also has the chess Queen ability to move laterally as suddenly as he moves north-to-south.
Williams is one of the best prospects you’ll ever see at making offensive linemen whiff like Chris Davis in a phone booth. That, too, forced DVR rewinds in the fall. A runner would get drilled three yards behind the line because Quinnen had apparently gone unblocked.
But that wasn't the case -- the man assigned to Quinnen intended to block him. Re-watching, you’d see Quinnen slide left, get skinny with his right side while giving the air-eating linemen a shove in the back with his left, and then, once free, dart in whatever direction the ball-carrier was headed, even if that meant immediately hurtling the other way.
Quinnen’s a joystick: He has 360-degree explosion in all directions. Including, of course, north-south, explosion that quickly converts to speed: Quinnen’s 4.83 forty was the fourth-fastest for a 300-plus pound defensive linemen at the NFL Combine since 2003. When he’s got a path to the ball, Quinnen closes like a linebacker and blasts people.
He's extremely slippery, but that’s a circumstantial preference, not a defense mechanism. And Quinnen put multiple SEC offensive linemen on their butts on bull rushes when they started cheating by leaning back in their stance to afford a wider angle to deal with Quinnen’s side-to-side-then-straight-ahead Frogger-in-fast-forward routine after the snap. Quinnen just put his hands under the rocking chair and tipped it the rest of the way over.
He possesses power, and also the aptitude to absorb it without being affected. Quinnen is always on his feet – always. He’ll have tackles and sacks that end on his feet. He’s like some kind of show-off Willie Mayes Hayes who doesn’t just want to hit inside-the-park home runs, but to cross the plate with his uniform clean.
A master craftsman despite his lack of playing experience, Quinnen is famous for his arm-overs and rips. In the seconds after the snap, Quinnen’s upper body often has the look of an oversized swimmer. He’ll get tall when he has to shake a hand to enter a room like that, but, in general, he plays very low to the ground.
One other way in which Williams is extremely advanced is in play recognition. He does not get fooled. Screens, options, play-actions, sweeps, counters, draws, whatever – he isn’t buying your fakes or your misdirection, and he’ll come screaming in from the backside to blow up a play he shouldn’t have the range to be involved in.
Williams isn’t just a pass-rusher. He has one heck of an anchor in run defense, sometimes angling his body and using his leg as a sort of wedge, like how you’d try to keep the door shut when your older brother was trying to force his way in as a kid.
Quinnen does that. And then if the ballcarrier tries to sneak through one of the gaps in his vicinity, he merely springs that direction -- leaving the offensive linemen stumbling forward into an room — and jumps on the RB like a mountain lion. It’s war o’clock when Quinnen steps on the field. The kid is terrifying. I’m telling you.
Williams is a classic three-technique prospect, one of the best we’ve seen the past decade. But he has more experiential miles on the odometer than you might think because Alabama realized what they had early and went to work gleefully unleashing Quinnen from a variety of different looks. Quinnen actually got 188 (of 647) snaps at nose guard last year – over center, cocked, and shaded.
SB Nation’s Stephen White made a compelling argument that Quinnen’s NFL team should consider using him situationally as a nose guard: “Imagine,” White wrote, “having a dude you could line up in the A gaps or head up on the center on first and second down, who was good enough to be the anchor of your run defense, but who could also get quick pressure against early-down passes.”
So there's that, too. Any weakness I propose feels nit-picky, but I’ll give it the ol’ college try. Quinnen started only year and thus lacks experience. You can sometimes – if you time it just right -- take advantage of his gap-slicing aggression by pushing him upfield and out of the play.
That’s about all I got. Quinnen Williams, who only recently turned 21, is not only the singular best player in the class – the guy I’d pick first if we were playing a one-off game tomorrow – but he also has ceiling left to reach. Just how high that is I cannot tell you.
Several areas of his game are already elite, so Quinnen can now turn his attention to adding even more moves, to improving his play strength, to watching even more film. He could clown whoever he wanted in college with lateral agility, upfield explosion and a few slick moves.
In camp, let’s install a few counter moves for when (if?) NFL linemen get their hands on him. The kid won’t be 22 until late in the season. He’s already playing symphonies from memory after hearing the song once. Keep teaching this kid and watch what happens. Don’t overthink it. Quinnen Williams, the late-blooming virtuoso, is the No. 1 prospect in the class.
2. Ed Oliver (Houston) | 6’2/287
SPARQ percentile: 99.5
Comp: John Randle (Oliver's high school coach Ed Blum)
When you think of Twitch, don’t think of gamers, think of Ed Oliver.
I always thought twitch was an odd way to describe freak movement, as its synonyms – jerk, convulse, quiver, shudder, spasm, tremble – more describe what the offensive coordinator is doing as Ed Oliver is closing in on his quarterback than the gesticulations Oliver used to get there.
So let’s reframe with the gamer motif. You remember Sonic the Hedgehog? Always low to the ground, barreling forward at high speeds without a care in the world? That’s Ed Oliver. Only Ed Oliver uses his arms, and he runs through walls, not up them.
Oliver’s speed, agility and get-off all may be tops in this class. He’s fast enough as to make the linebacker talk feasible if he lost 30 pounds (you could, Ed, but don’t), he changes directions like a running back, and he shares Quinnen’s skill of first-step quicks so fast that he sometimes fools you into thinking he jumped early.
And while Quinnen's football intelligence is widely lauded, Oliver's football IQ hasn't gotten as much pub. An opposing offensive assistant college coach who facEd Oliver each of the past two seasons told SB Nation: “Our guys are telling us he kinda knows this, he’s calling out this. He doesn’t get enough credit for his overall knowledge of the game. People think a D tackle is just running hard. No, he’s a smart kid.”
A top-five overall recruit, Oliver became the highest-ranked prospect to ever sign with a Group of 5 school when he chose his hometown Houston Cougarsl. He wanted to play near home with his brother, an offensive lineman on the team, under HC Tom Herman. Herman left for Texas after Oliver’s freshman year and the Cougars hired former Longhorns QB Major Applewhite to replace him.
And while Oliver was a menace very early on in college, he dominated not by sacking the quarterback, but by blowing up runs. Oliver had 22 TFL and a top-notch 88.0 PFF run grade as a true freshman in 2016 and then upped the ante with a sublime 91.4 grade and 16.5 TFL in 2017. He did this despite his play-weight dipping near 280 pounds at times, and despite constant attention from opposing offenses.
But there was a lingering mystery. Why did Ed Oliver only have 10.5 career sacks after his sophomore season? And why were his pass-rush grades -- in the high-60s each of his first two years — lagging far behind his run defense grades? This was the twitched-up spiritual animal of John Randle in the Group of 5 for cripes sakes! We wanted to see blood!
In the AAC, Oliver was sort of like The Beatles. Everyone wanted to see him up close. Opposing coaches devoted ludicrous amounts of resources to keeping him out of the backfield. Oliver was like if The Beatles had been managed by Murray from Flight of the Concords.
Major Applewhite was a bumbling, overmatched coach who was fired immediately after the season despite making bowls in his two seasons. He misused Ed Oliver as a 3-4 nose tackle, but that’s the least of his crimes. Applewhite and crew leached off Oliver’s God Mode penetration ability by jerry-rigging a defensive strategy to consistently flood coverage zones with eight defenders -- in essence, he asked Ed Oliver to single-handedly provide the heat while at a numbers disadvantage.
Opposing offenses had five-on-three or six-on-three blocking advantage numbers when they dropped back, and what do you think they did with the extra blockers? That’s right! They played a little game called free-guys-mug-Ed!
Oliver rushed the passer from directly over the center (0-technique) on 548 snaps the past three years – the next-highest total of a draft-eligible DT in this class was Chris Nelson’s 402. Other names in the top-10: Boogie Roberts, Myquon Stout, Javier Edwards, Ulaiasi Tuaalo.
Per PFF, Oliver rushed from 0-technique more times than from all other DL positions combined. Like, that's just what he was. A 3-4 NT on a team that didn't blitz. This was how the John Randle of our generation spent his college career!
So now you know why Oliver posted only 13.5 career sacks and 26 total pressures in the G5. And know this, too: Oliver’s pass-rush grade spiked all the way to No. 7 in this class when he wasn’t lined up as a nose tackle (as he was far less susceptible to gang-block tactics). It's just that Houston refused to use him that way.
And I guess this brings us to Applewhite’s turn as Napoleon-Complex Dynamite on the sidelines against Tulane in November. The story is almost too stupid to repeat – and lord knows it’s received its quota and back of ink already – but here goes.
Sitting out with the knee, Oliver was a cheering bystander. It was a cold night, and he put on one of the thousands of oversized jackets with Houston's logo stamped on them lying around the bench.
But per Major Grapplefight's wishes, those jackets were for active players only! And as we all know Major Grapplefight runs a tight ship! This fearless leader decided, in that moment, to make his stand on national television off the field against the child prodigy he’d long shackled on it.
You want to talk about character? Every team in the country wanted Ed Oliver, and he signed with a Group of 5 team to stay home and play with his brother. And then when his coach booked it to Austin, Oliver stuck around to play for a guy so inept that he managed to scheme a defense with John Randle 2.0 and Isaiah Johnson in the Group of 5 into a sub-100 S&P+ defense (it’s true! I swear to you! It happened!).
And not only that – and this is never brought up when JacketGate is discussed – but Oliver rehabbed his butt off to return for the regular season finale against Memphis. That’s right! After JacketGate, as a lost season was winding down, this top-10 overall NFL Draft prospect wanted to get back onto the field with a compromised knee to play against the Memphis Tigers! Character concerns? Please.
The real takeaway from last season: When Oliver played, he was even better than he’d been before. He posted an elite 94.6 PFF grade against the run in 2018, a career-best, and also managed to scorch through double-teams to post a contextually-insane 90.8 PFF pass-rush grade in 2018.
Get Oliver a real coach and get out of his way. What kind of coach? Just ask the kid. He’s not screwing around. He wants JK Simmons from WHIPLASH. In October, Oliver told ESPN an anecdote about how his high school coach asked him if he wanted to be treated like a regular guy or the number one prospect in the nation.
“I told him treat me like the number one guy in the nation,” Oliver said. “And coming out of high school I was number four (ranked nationally), but I felt like I should have been number one. Now, I feel like I should be number one now. So that's the only thing that really just drives me, is you say somebody is better than me, I know, in my heart, I don't think anybody is better than me.”
You want to have no problems with Ed Oliver? Have greatness as high on your priority list as he does.
3. Jerry Tillery (Notre Dame) | 6’6/293
SPARQ percentile: 84.2
Comp: DeForest Buckner
Tillery was complicit in that early in his career, to be fair. Widely known to have a maturity issue, Tillery’s ego reached its nadir during a meltdown against USC in 2016 when he consciously stepped through the head of concussed Trojans RB Aca’Cedric Ware* and then stepped on Zach Banner’s ankle while he was downed in what appeared to be a conscious effort to twist it.**
*(this incident has been widely described as kicking a defenseless concussed player; it was an ugly moment, to be clear, but a kick requires a windup or the mustering of extra force, and what Tillery did, if you watch the tape, is not that – it was a chicken-bleep show of teenage machismo at the expense of an injured player, embarrassing enough on its own right, but not an attempt to inflict more pain)
**(I had more of an issue with what he did to Banner than Ware, if you’re asking me to rank the worst moments of Jerry Tillery’s life)
I DM’d a Notre Dame beat writer for his assessment of Tillery’s early days. “He was just, let's say petulant,” he replied. Tillery was a ballyhooed four-star offensive tackle coming out of high school. In another reality, perhaps he’s Andre Dillard. In this one, coaches quickly decided they could weaponize his movement more effectively on the other side of the trenches.
So Tillery became a defensive lineman and ended up starting three games as true freshman before Notre Dame’s first public crackdown on his immaturity, a suspension for the bowl game. The next year was more of the same, brief flashes of on-field brilliance interspersed with long stretches of ineffectiveness and trips into Brian Kelly’s doghouse.
Kelly issued Tillery a list of several requirements after the completion of his sophomore season, which included anger management counseling and community service. But listen: Tillery isn’t a bad kid. In fact, he’s sort of the opposite.
He’s probably a future politician. He’s a prolific reader who studied institutionalized racism in South Africa and has visited 18 countries, mostly by leveraging study abroad opportunities. "He's the quintessential renaissance man," Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said.
Less calculating and cruel, and more impetuous and free-spirted, Tillery was nicknamed Terry Jillery – something you could only call a good-natured nerd – by teammate Sheldon Day as a freshman. "I want to be a doctor, I want to be the president, I want to be an NFL superstar, I want to be it all,” Tillery said as a freshman, apparently with a straight face.
One thing was clear from the on-field flashes we saw those first two years: Jerry Tillery was a born interior penetrator, with a rangy frame, big-time athleticism, and the flexibility to wedge through tourists on the first floor or swat drones from the sky on roof.
But it’s just that Kelly refused to use him like that. And Tillery didn’t love that, the 0-technique stuff, the Ed Oliver special. Tillery was asked to occupy blockers. He showed up as a junior in 2017 with increased dedication and took a big developmental step forward, with 4.5 sacks and nine TFL as a nose tackle.
The Notre Dame beat writer had an interesting explanation for the whole playing-Tillery-out-of-position thing: “As much as playing him out of position, I think they played him at a spot where taking a play off would be less costly, because that was the concern.”
Jerry Tillery and Brian Kelly were both complicit for why you don’t consider Jerry Tillery a top-15 prospect right now. Fortunately for all parties, they got on the same page in 2018 about the three-technique stuff, and Tillery started giving effort on all plays. Naturally, Jerry Tillery went off.
Per PFF’s metrics, Tillery tied Quinnen Williams for the highest pass-rushing grade of interior defenders in college football last season. Tillery finished with seven sacks and 8.5 TFL – hardly elite numbers – but he was so much better than that, and it’s so much more complicated than that.
The reason Tillery graded so high is because he created 48 total pressures, third among all interior defenders, but also 32 pass-rushing wins that didn’t result in a pressure, the most in college football. Tillery won on nearly one-fifth of his pass-rushing snaps last year! Interior penetration in the NFL is gold, the color of Tillery’s collegiate helmet, and that’s this kid’s calling card.
One last thing, that, to me, speaks both to his growth as a person and also makes what he did last season as a player even more amazing. After starting out 2018 like gangbusters, Tillery’s play dropped off a bit in the second half of the season (relatively speaking! – the guy was Quinnen Williams' equal as an interior pass-rusher, after all).
And we found out why after the season: He tore his right labrum in early October and played the final eight games of the season without a complaint. He wasn’t giving up three-technique that easily, not after waiting for years to move in. The injury wasn’t discovered until before the playoff game against Clemson, when Tillery was home for a brief vacation and his mom, a nurse, noticed him wincing. She sent him in for an MRI, which revealed the tear.
His mom – again, a registered nurse – told Jerry he had to sit out the game for health reasons. She didn’t say for NFL reasons, but that would have been perfectly justifiable as well. Tillery flat refused. He claimed that the game – a rare playoff appearance for Notre Dame -- was bigger than he or his injury.
He played. But then, of course, Jerry would sit out the pre-draft process to finally get some rest and rehab in. Only he didn’t. Tillery went through a full battery of tests in Indianapolis and tested as an elite athlete despite the torn labrum. Character concerns? Not from this seat.
He showed up to college a child and he got his humbling, got it on national television as Brian Kelly went thermo-nuclear after the antics against USC. He spent an offseason working on himself and returned as a junior a different person. The maturity question thing is a vestige of a past scouting report.
Jerry Tillery matured. And now the NFL has to deal with him.
4. Jeffery Simmons (Mississippi State) | 6’4/301
SPARQ percentile: N/A
Comp: Fletcher Cox (Daniel Jeremiah)
*Was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine due to past off-field incident
Simmons would have been a top-10 overall player for me had he not torn his ACL.
The most polarizing and fascinating draft cases this side of Kyler Murray, Simmons is a prime-time player whose evaluation is muddied by one grotesque off-field issue in his past and one torn ACL in his present.
Let’s address the off-field issue first. In 2016, when Simmons was a high school senior, a fight broke out in the streets of Simmons’ hometown of Macon, Mississippi between his sister, Ashley Bradley, and a woman named Sophia Taylor. Grainy footage of the fight shows a large handful of spectators around, in the street.
The Taylor and Simmons families had had a Hatfield-McCoy thing going on in Macon (described in a 247Sports report as “toxic”) that dated back well before the incident in question. Per that story, the fight started when insults were traded between Simmons’ sister and Taylor’s daughter, some of which were reportedly about dead members of Simmons’ family.
Apparently, Simmons’ sister confronted Taylor, and the fight began from there. In the video, Simmons can be seen attempting to pull the women apart in its early stages. He was unsuccessful.
The women continued grappling on the pavement. Simmons is not in the frame. One woman gets on top and lands a punch. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of commotion. A large man in red – not Simmons -- shoves the puncher, hard. She falls, but gets back on top. Simmons re-emerges into the frame at this point.
He stands over the pile for a moment, watching. The commotion picks up. The man in red reaches into the scrum. The view is obstructed, but the confrontation has seemingly escalated. This is the moment Jeffery Simmons reaches in and grabs the woman who has been landing the punches, perhaps to yank her off the woman who has been getting decked. But when Simmons lets go, the woman is still clinging onto her combatant. And that’s when Simmons loses his cool and throws three punches on a downed woman.
Simmons posted a Facebook message in the aftermath of the incident that was later deleted: “I take full responsibility for my actions that occurred on Thursday evening. My apology goes out to the Taylor family and especially to Sophia Taylor. What was I thinking? Honestly, I wasn’t thinking. All I could think was this is my family, and I am supposed to defend my family.”
Mississippi State drew fire but ultimately honored its scholarship offer to the five-star defensive linemen. Simmons showed up to campus infamous. The video had been circulated. People expected another outburst, a flameout.
They got something else entirely. Jeffery Simmons was an honor roll student. He represented the university at the Black Student-Athlete Summit. He gave motivational speeches during the offseason. On his school bio, Mississippi State refers to Simmons as its team leader in community service. Last year, he won the team's Newsom Award, which in part recognizes work in the classroom and community. His teammates and coaches rave about him.
Simmons was already set to be a polarizing evaluation before he tore his ACL during a February workout. That injury will cost him either part or all of his rookie season, the second major demerit on his eval.
On the field, he doesn't offer many more. Simmons has perennial Pro Bowl talent. He’s quick, athletic and powerful, a speed-to-power guy who’s a load against the run and disruptive as a pass rusher with first step quickness and jarring power.
Simmons is long and muscled-up, so he’s equally as adept keeping you outside his body and shedding as he is grappling and anchoring in a phone booth. He’s smooth in movement and violent in application, and he’s very difficult to jar off his path.
With elite 90.0-plus grades against the run and pass, Simmons was the No. 4-graded interior defender by PFF last fall, behind only Quinnen, Christian Wilkins and Ed Oliver. He could stand to add more moves to his pass-rushing arsenal, and he could stand to play a little more under control, but that’s about all I have – the Ndamukong Suh comps fit.
I believe Simmons learned from his mistake and remade himself into a new person, a person who, like Ryan Leaf, teaches others from his mistakes. I think he’s hungry to prove to the country that not only is he not the kid you see in that video, but he’s a man who intends to make the world a better place.
I also believe he’s an obscenely gifted football player. I knocked him below Tillery because of the ACL, but I’ll go no lower than this. Simmons is a top-15 overall prospect. He'll be back in November. It's fine.
5. Christian Wilkins (Clemson) | 6’3/311
SPARQ percentile: 44.4
Comp: Kawaan Short
Wilkins was a unanimous First-Team All-American on last year's title team, ranking as PFF’s No. 2 overall interior defender, with top-three rankings in both run defense and pass rush. He also won the William V. Campbell Trophy (the “Academic Heisman”) last season.
But he's not a nerd (like Tillery! -- I kid, Jerry! I kid!). Wilkins was the good-natured spirit animal of two title-winning Clemson teams, the guy who did the splits after Clemson’s 2017 victory and gave HC Dabo Swinney a wet willy during his TV interview following the upset of Alabama in January. That’s good stuff.
Wilkins doesn’t have the elite athleticism to dominate in the NFL, but he’s no slouch. His game is built on quickness, angles, flexibility, hand use, smarts and effort. He attacks you with girth and force from peripheral-vision looks, slanting down so that you have to deal with the force of his size and speed while not quite squared up.
Wilkins has experience playing everywhere on the line after spending a little time at defensive end earlier in his career on Clemson teams that had Carlos Watkins and DJ Reader inside (and Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd outside -- they tend to recruit the position well, don't they?). He settled in at three-technique next to Dexter Lawrence and that’s what he’ll be in the NFL as well.
What he’s bad at is anchoring in the run game. He’s not a power player – isn’t much of a bull-rusher, either. Playing next to Lawrence – one of college football’s best run defenders and most powerful interior presences – really helped him.
The plays Wilkins makes against the run are the plays he penetrates immediately and buries a dude. He either hits the three-pointer or strikes out. Thing is, Lawrence rebounded everything and either dunked it himself or kicked it to Tre Lamar for a jumper.
Wilkins could feel free to do his gap-crashing thing without leaving Clemson exposed. There was no way Lawrence was getting moved out of the middle, so the Tigers could afford Wilkins to be out of position every now and again.
And as a pass rusher, Wilkins never had to deal with the double-teams that were thrown at Ed Oliver and Jerry Tillery (and later, Quinnen). College teams couldn’t consistently double-team any one player on Clemson’s line, with Wilkins and Lawrence inside (spelled by a Day 3 prospect by the name of Huggins discussed in further detail below) and fellow NFL prospects Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant outside (spelled by a pair of true freshman five-star recruits, who we’ll be talking about in two years).
I hate to have to rank Christian Wilkins this low. I’m a big fan. And I know that the ranking itself is going to feel like a potshot. But I swear it’s not – I just couldn’t with a clean conscience rank him over Tillery or Simmons, both of whom have astronomically high ceilings.