Thor's Interior DL Rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: April 21, 2020, 3:18 pm ET

My previous entries in this scouting series examined the quarterbackrunning backwide receivertight endtackle and interior OL classes. Spiderweb graphs sourced from mockdraftable.com, SPARQ scores from Three Sigma Athlete, adjusted SPARQ from Rotoworld's Hayden Winks and RAS from Kent Lee Platte

1. Javon Kinlaw (South Carolina) | 6'5/324


SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: N/A


Comp: Richard Seymour

When Javon Kinlaw was a kid, the roof of one of the houses he and his mom were staying at caved in. He at various times lived without electricity or running water. When there was no home at all, and there wasn’t for some time, he would crash in friends’ basements. A prodigious football talent with offers from Alabama, USC, Clemson, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Florida, and a host of others, Kinlaw first had to enroll in the JUCO ranks to get his grades up. He arrived at 280 pounds. When he realized the food was free, after a life of poverty, “I started going crazy," Kinlaw said.

Kinlaw ultimately honored his original commitment to South Carolina as one of the top JUCO recruits in the country, but showed up on campus a year later, in the lead-up to the 2017 season, weighing 347 pounds. That year, he got his humbling, playing only part-time snaps despite his prodigious talent level while coaches challenged him to get in shape and dedicate himself. The message sunk in, and Kinlaw showed up in 2018 with a remade body, almost 40 pounds lighter, and as a different player. He was a self-actualized monster.

The improvement has been rapid ever since. Between 2017-2019, his PFF grades jumped from 74.1 to 85.0 to 89.4. He’s a freight train off the snap, ridiculously quick with strong anticipation. Despite his massive, rangy frame, Kinlaw fires in low, giving his man a jolt in the shoulder pads with those bear paws while his hips explode through contact. He consistently moves offensive linemen backwards. Kinlaw’s bull rush is the stuff of legend. Like Aroldis Chapman’s fastball in his prime, Kinlaw’s bull rush is so vaunted that offensive linemen are constantly on their heels preparing for it, which sets up his counters.

Kinlaw is more than a one-trick pony, with the agility to beat his man with his feet and a slick club game that keeps opponents guessing and deprives them of their balance. Kinlaw uses his length to create distance and his power and athleticism as the getaway car. Interior penetration wrecks game plans, and few prospects come into the league with the skillset to consistently get it like Kinlaw. He was borderline unblockable the past few years, posting absurd PFF pass-rushing grades of 88.7 and 90.7, respectively, in 2018 and 2019. Last year, he finished No. 2 in the country in PFF’s pass-rush win rate stat among interior defensive linemen. And that was with South Carolina playing him out of position at nose tackle for about one-third of his snaps in 2019!

The rapid developmental progression he’s shown over the past few years ought to have NFL teams thinking long and hard about exactly where the ceiling ends. Kinlaw’s weaknesses – he needs to play with a bit more discipline, he could stand to add more pass-rushing moves, he sometimes plays too high, he could use his hands more effectively – are all fixable and assuredly next up on his hit list. With a few technical tweaks, he’s going to be a scary, scary dude to deal with at the next level.

2. Derrick Brown (Auburn) | 6'4/326


SPARQ percentile: 32.9

Adjusted SPARQ: .45

RAS: 6.09

Comp: Kris Jenkins (Lance Zierlein)

Brown signed with Auburn as a ballyhooed consensus top-10 overall recruit in the class of 2016, choosing the Tigers over Alabama and Georgia. He was a starter by his sophomore year, and an unmitigated star by his junior campaign. Honestly, I thought I was going to be writing this capsule this time last year. Instead, Brown, a likely 2019 late first-round pick, stunned the NFL by returning to campus for his senior year.

After a monstrous senior year which included 12.5 TFL and finalist shoutouts from the Bednarik and Outland awards, he’s likely now headed for the top-10. A pocket-collapsing, game plan-wrecking menace of a player, Brown told ESPN’s Trey Wingo that he studies and patterns his game after Ndamukong Suh, Chris Jones and Fletcher Cox.

A rangy tackle with huge power, Brown gobbles up interior linemen for breakfast, mucking up the middle and freeing up his friends on the second level to party. He gets on top of linemen in a snap off the ball, dictating terms by getting his strong mitts into their shoulder pads as though they were a steering wheel. Not just a facilitator, Brown’s upper-body power, hand-strength and lower-body agility allow for shedding and dropping the ball-carrier.

He’s going to be a fabulous NFL run stuffer. The translation of Brown’s pass-rushing is a more interesting topic. Brown did not test well at the NFL Combine – out of all defensive linemen in attendance, he finished No. 34 in the 40-yard dash, tied for No. 29 in the vertical, No. 24 in the broad jump, dead last in the three-cone and No. 20 in the 20-yard shuttle. His game isn’t built around athleticism. In fact, he has a sort of marauder style, playing high, knocking heads, clubbing fools.

At the highest level of college, he was an extremely disruptive pass-rusher, posting a sterling PFF pass-rushing grade of 85.0-plus in each of the past two years with 37 hurries. But Brown’s elite quickness and power were simply overwhelming for collegiate interior linemen – will the pillaging style play as well in the NFL in this phase when Brown isn’t winning a half-step head start on every play along with an enormous strength advantage? If he’s an elite bull-rusher with a few slick counter moves, he’ll still absolutely disrupt, just perhaps not enough to justify his current hype level.

3. Justin Madubuike (Texas A&M) | 6'2/293


SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: .84

RAS: 9.18

Comp: Kenny Clark (Lindy’s)

The Aggies beat out Alabama, Auburn, Texas and Baylor among other suitors to sign Madubuike, a top-75 overall recruit. He redshirted in 2016 and worked as a rotational piece in 2017 before becoming a full-time starter in 2018. It took a few years for him to find consistent playing time, but Madubuike ultimately played up to his hype. He recorded 11 sacks and 22 TFL between 2018-2019.

Madubuike is an undersized, twitched-up three-tech with boxer’s hands and a ransack mindset. He was more dominant against the run in college than he had any business being at his size, with PFF run-defense grades of 80.0, 90.2 and 87.7 in his three years on the field. He flies out of the chute low and quick and comes at you with violent, active hands.

When offensive linemen sit dead-red on his power, Madubuike can slip them with a counter – he has slick feet, and they don’t stop moving even when he gets rocked. Madubuike is also a notorious and clever gap slicer who has some Mortal Kombat-violent finishes on tape.

While Javon Kinlaw was unable to test in Indy due to injury and Derrick Brown disappointed, Madubuike put on a show in the tests he participated in, submitting upper-echelon 40-yard dash (4.83) and 3-cone (7.37) performances. The athleticism is apparent on the field. Madubuike is a bullet of the snap and a bloodhound on the chase, with the agility, footwork and balance to navigate the in-between. Importantly, he plays with huge effort.

Madubuike is short, but with long arms – he has nearly the same wingspan as Derrick Brown. That deceiving length helps him as a pass-rusher, where Madubuike gets those nasty hands on you lickity-split and prefers to bull rush you and counter off that. Per PFF, he was a top-10 graded iDL pass-rusher over the past two years, and finished No. 9 nationally last year in pass-rush win rate. Keep in mind that A&M moved Madubuike around the line a little bit situationally. In the NFL, installed at his natural 3-tech position full-time, this area of Madubuike’s game could take the next step. Underrated prospect.

4. Neville Gallimore (Oklahoma) | 6'2/304


SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: .69

RAS: 5.72

Comp: Timmy Jernigan (Benjamin Solak)

An Ottawa native, Gallimore would become the first Canadian selected in Round 1 since Danny Watkins in 2011 if he’s a surprise Thursday night pick later this month. He’s overcome longer odds. Gallimore was the first player from north of the border to ever play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He participated in that game in 2015, prior to signing with Oklahoma over some 30-plus offers.

Following a freshman redshirt, Gallimore's PFF grades jumped from 66.3 to 69.5 to 82.5 to 88.0 in 2019. After struggling with weight and consistency earlier in his career, things started to click. Particularly after Alex Grinch arrived to run Oklahoma’s defense, Gallimore was unleashed to attack. Gallimore has a killer first step and he’s extremely competitive. Every play is his stand against the coronavirus for the rest of mankind. He’s a very slick athlete, a former Bruce Feldman top-5 Freak Lister who went out and proved it in Indy with a 4.79-second forty and 1.71 10-yard split.

But Gallimore is still extremely raw. He plays needlessly high, consistently losing the leverage game and sapping him of power. Because he plays with a poor base, Gallimore got knocked to the ground more than he ought to have in college, considering his physical advantages. He also needs to work on his hand usage. Gallimore plays too much patty-cake, which steals his length from him on the rush and makes him easier to control.

Gallimore possesses all the tools to star in the NFL but not yet the consistency he’ll need to dominate on a play-in, play-out basis. Still, Gallimore’s consistent ascension up the developmental ladder gives me hope that NFL coaching will further accelerate the raw youngster’s development. And “Big Canada” also has the frame to support more weight if needed – earlier in his career, he was a 330-pound nose tackle.

5. Jordan Elliott (Missouri) | 6'4/302


SPARQ percentile: 22.0

Adjusted SPARQ: 0.65

RAS: 7.25

Comp: Kawann Short (Zierlein)

Elliott took a little while to find a settle in at the college level, committing to Michigan before flipping to Texas in the 2016 cycle, then splitting on the Longhorns after an injury-shortened freshman year with a transfer to Missouri. He redshirted in 2017 before performing admirably in rotational duty the following year. In 2019, he really took off, earning second-team All-American honors. More impressively, he was the No. 1 graded interior defensive lineman in all of college football by PFF (92.4), besting every player on this list while posting elite 90.0+ grades against both the run and the pass.

Elliott is not a flash player. Almost the opposite. Off the snap, his initial movements can feel lackadaisical and sluggish. Fall asleep for a moment, though, and you’re in trouble. Elliott throws with wicked power, and his thick lower half comes with plenty of horsepower. Elliott ramps it up at contact. He does play high, but with very good balance and core strength, and he tends to get the better of power-on-power firefights, keeping his base while his man momentarily loses his druthers.

He shows flexibility, creativity and where-did-that-come-from-burst in these moments, spinning, dipping, clubbing, swimming and crossing his way to freedom. What Elliott lacks in snarling twitch -- his adjusted SPARQ score, which Hayden Winks calculates by position-weighting tests that have shown to bear out NFL success is plenty respectable, it should be noted -- he makes up for in his metronomic steadiness.

Elliott’s upside as a pass-rusher is exciting. While he managed just 5.5 sacks in college, Elliott’s pass-rush win rate of 18.7% last season was No. 1 nationally among interior linemen. He won’t be facing consistent double-teams off the bat in the pros and as he continues to develop his arsenal of moves, allowing him to build on what’s already a rock-solid base. He’s a high-floor prospect with room to improve, but the lack of Monster Energy athleticism lowers the ceiling a bit.

6. Marlon Davidson (Auburn) | 6'3/303


SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: .33

RAS: 3.97

Comp: Breeland Speaks (Joe Marino)

The No. 32 overall recruit on the ESPN 300 in the class of 2016 out of Greenville, Davidson had that classic Alabama boy conundrum: Tigers or Crimson Tide? He chose the former, and wound up as a four-year starter on consistently good teams. Davidson both had the great fortune of playing at Auburn with Derrick Brown, and was done a developmental disservice in the same breath. Davidson existed wholly in Brown’s shadow, and played out of position on the edge as Auburn’s staff tried to figure out how to get all the studs on the field at the same time.

It was with this context that Davidson stepped to the podium at the NFL Combine and gave this legendary response when asked what he liked most about football that immediately had folks tweeting about Marlon, and not Derrick, for once: “What I love most about the game is that I can literally go out there and hit a man consistently, and pound him, and the police won’t come.” I think he’s going to be in a position to do the thing he loves in the NFL more than in college – which is to say I think Davidson will be better in the pros than we saw in college. Gus Malzahn, who calls Davidson one of the best players he’s ever coached, might agree.

Davidson is a three-technique. He’s extremely agile and active with his hands, and he handled his business on the edge against the run in college. But Davidson doesn’t have the athleticism to play out there, he lacks burst, speed and skill in space. Inside, his combination of agility and handwork should lead to penetration. He may get bullied by power in the run game, especially early on, so bulking up and getting coached up on the technical side of his new post will be crucial. I’d suggest having a run-eating early-down DT on the roster to platoon Davidson with as a rookie as the youngster gets his feet wet and hits the weight room.

7. Ross Blacklock (TCU) | 6'3/290


SPARQ percentile: 29.4

Adjusted SPARQ: .21

RAS: 7.85

Comp: Maliek Collins (Eric Edholm)

The wildcard of the iDL group. Blacklock was a three-star recruit who was recruited like a high-four, with TCU beating out Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M for his signature. He was named the Big 12’s co-defensive freshman of the year in 2017 following a redshirt campaign. But then came a lost 2018 due to a torn Achilles. Well, not all the way lost. He used that year to drop 25 pounds.

Blacklock was a far more disruptive force when he returned to the field, with a PFF run-defense grade just south of 90.0 (elite territory) and 24 hurries in only 323 pass-rushing snaps. Blacklock fires off the snap low and gets skinny to fit through keyholes, he’s a gap-shooting menace. He’s difficult to deal with as a pass rusher because of his joystick agility and William Wallace devotion to taking down the quarterback. In TCU’s 3-3-5, he was tasked with handling a lot of double-teams, and that’s not really his forte. If Blacklock isn’t winning with quickness and agility, he typically isn’t winning.

Though the package is exciting, the risk profile concerns me. Blacklock plays hard, but without discipline – he gets flagged too often, he’s out of position too often, and he’s on the ground too often. His technique needs work, particularly in terms of hand usage. He has medical concerns with the Achilles injury, which increases the odds of tearing the other one. And Blacklock played less than 1,200 snaps total in college, including 570 in his breakout year last season. We haven’t yet seen him dominate over a full-season of snaps, and his NFL Combine showing disappointed. If it's me, I’m letting another organization spend Blacklock’s list price – it seems to be acknowledging the ceiling but not the risk, which feels high.

8. Raekwon Davis (Alabama) | 6'6/311


SPARQ percentile: 23.9

Adjusted SPARQ: .45

RAS: 6.22

Comp: Jared Odrick (Joe Marino)

Okay, so, you could say that Raekwon Davis had a strange career. He could have played anywhere as a hyped 6-foot-6, 300-pound four-star, and he chose Alabama. He saw some playing time as a true freshman in 2016. Less than one week before the 2017 opener against Florida State, Davis suffered a minor gunshot wound to his leg. No matter. He started and got a sack against the Seminoles.

Davis went on to have a huge year, with 8.5 sacks, 10 TFL and an 89.9 PFF run-defense grade. That turned out to be Davis’ best season. His overall PFF grades went from 84.8 as a sophomore to 81.9 as a junior to 83.2 as a senior. Maybe he should have come out last year. But really, Davis was a player who flashed early and then stayed that same player. That’s okay, he’s still good. Just maybe not the star we thought he could be – and that’s probably in large part because his sophomore sack total was highly fluky, with his PFF pass-rushing grade that year coming out to a poor 62.7. It never rose higher than last year’s 71.2. This is the difference between grading and raw numbers: PFF charters actually thought Davis was making incremental gains as a pass-rusher even as the public saw him falling off a cliff in this phase because he accrued a mere two sacks combined between 2018-2019.


Either way, Davis doesn’t add much in that phase – one-note power rusher. But Davis has been and will continue to be an elite run defender. He’s just so dang long and strong. It’s like trying to move The Mountain from Game of Thrones out of the middle. Davis fires with force out of his stance, and he throws heavy mitts with ill intent. He’s going to continue be a great run defender in the NFL. I just wouldn’t expect much more.

9. James Lynch (Baylor) | 6'4/289


SPARQ percentile: 48.3

Adjusted SPARQ: .54

RAS: 8.55

Comp: Dean Lowry (Mike Renner)

On the night James Lynch was named the 2019 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Matt Rhule was named the conference’s Coach of the Year. Lynch was one of the first recruits Rhule brought to Baylor, convincing him to stay home in Texas rather than sign with USC. A month after the ceremony, and within days of each other, Rhule announced he was leaving to become the Panthers’ head coach and Lynch declared early for the NFL Draft.

Lynch racked up 19.5 TFL, 13.5 sacks, three forces fumbles and five pass breakups last year, big jumps from his totals of nine TFL and five sacks the previous year, his first year as a starter. He’s a physical, disciplined player who has a Terminator-esque mandate to seek and destroy until the whistle. Lynch compensates for mediocre athleticism with a nice assortment of pass-rushing moves.

Lynch was predominantly an EDGE in Rhule’s 3-3-5. But he’s lacking in the skill, athleticism and length (short arms) for NFL edge play. Inside, his revved-up motor, hand fighting and attack-the-hips leverage games will work better. But he’s tall and skinny, with chicken legs – will Lynch be able to add the requisite bulk and strength necessary to hold up to the rigors of interior run defense in the pros? PFF noted that Lynch graded better on the edge than when Baylor played him at defensive tackle, a potentially worrying sign (with small sample size caveats). Lynch is a tweener, yes, but was such a good player in college that I think he’ll figure it out. If nothing else, he should be a good situational pass rusher on the interior.

10. Leki Fotu (Utah) | 6'5/330


SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: .93

RAS: 6.52

Comp: A’Shawn Robinson (Renner)

Fotu largely focused on rugby into high school before throwing in fully for football as a prep senior. He signed with the home-state Utes as a three-star prospect in 2016. Developmentally undercooked early on in college, Fotu developed into a first-team All-Pac-12 selection for each of his final two seasons with Utah, landing as a third-team AP All-American for 2019.

A sublimely physical specimen, Fotu is a dense athlete, hitting offensive linemen with the force of poured cement, staggering them while he overwhelms through sheer size. He has the stamina to keep charging on extended reps and pursues running backs like they just pick-pocketed him.

What blunts Fotu’s upside is that for as dependable as he might be chewing up the run -- per PFF he posted an 83.4 run-stop grade and an 8.7% run-stop rate in 2019 -- he’s close to invisible on pass sets and passing downs, popping up at the snap and playing with a bare minimum in terms of moves, nuance and general feel. His value comes as a physical two-down nose tackle. Teams in need of that will be very interested. Everyone else won’t consider him.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is NBC Sports Edge’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!