Of course we're still recapping and evaluating everything that materialized in the 2023 NFL Draft. But don't be ashamed to admit you're already looking ahead to the 2024 NFL Draft and the crop of top-tier prospects it will provide.
The offensive stars like Caleb Williams and Marvin Harrison Jr. will be the headliners, yet there are plenty of studly defensive prospects to get excited about. These are my top 10 defensive prospects in the 2024 class before the 2023 college football season.
Honorable Mention: Bralen Trice, EDGE, Washington
Trice led all of college football in pressures last season with 70, and he accomplished that feat on a mere 335 pass-rushing snaps. That 20.8% pressure-generation rate is in rarefied air. Now, for as uber-slippery as Trice is -- his pass-rush-move arsenal is sprawling -- he's a stocky physical specimen who may not check the burst/athleticism boxes teams want in early-round edge rushers. His production, however, cannot be ignored.
10. Dallas Turner, EDGE, Alabama
Perfectly on-brand for the Nick Saban era, the Crimson Tide will replace 2020 No. 1 weakside defensive end recruit Will Anderson with Turner, the class of 2021's No. 1 edge recruit, per 247 Sports. We've seen Turner play well over the past two seasons as a regular contributor on Alabama's defense. While he's held his own, he hasn't been outrageously productive. The big-time recruit flashes are absolutely there on film.
His acceleration off the snap usually jumps off the tape, Turner just needs to add more bulk and power to his game and sharpen his finishing skills when he's closing in on the quarterback or ball carrier at or behind the line.
9. Cooper DeJean, CB, Iowa
Playing opposite longtime stud Riley Moss, DeJean was a rock star on Iowa's defense in 2022. He rarely missed a tackle, housed three of his five interceptions and had eight other pass breakups. At 6-foot-1 and over 200 pounds, DeJean has NFL outside cornerback size. While maybe not a super-explosive athlete, he's plenty agile enough to mirror decently well, and his football intelligence allows him to recognize when the ideal time is to pounce underneath a route. Clearly he was blessed with plus ball skills.
8. Laiatu Latu, EDGE, UCLA
There was some thought Latu would've entered his name in the 2023 draft after an enormous 65-pressure campaign for the Bruins. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, Latu has a tall, slenderish frame with plenty of stored power. His body control through contact is outstanding, and he's clearly been coached well as a rusher because he deploys his hands in a creative way on almost every outside pass-rushing attempt.
7. Barrett Carter, LB, Clemson
Carter was a five-star recruit and the No. 3 linebacker in the country in the high school class of 2021, per 247 Sports, and looked the part last season in the Clemson defense. He crowded the stat sheet with 73 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, two picks, eight pass breakups and a pair of forced fumbles. Explosive but not out of control in space, Carter's talent allows him to play comfortably in coverage and find the football frequently when he's not assertively attacking downhill on an A-gap blitz or ranging toward the sideline on an outside run.
He has the athletic chops and the advanced game to be the first true off-ball linebacker picked in the 2024 draft. Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Carter's linebacker mate, looks like someone who'll be a high-caliber prospect too.
6. Chop Robinson, EDGE, Penn State
Such an amazing name for an amazing breakout player in 2022. Robinson's a smaller, highly explosive, flexible outside rusher who typically manufactures pressure in a hurry. His games against Auburn, Michigan and Utah were ridiculous. Burst, bend, dip -- it was an athleticism showcase for the Nittany Lions star.
He does need to get better and more powerful with his hands. But his traits are through the roof. And you know -- the first round is mainly reserved for the freaky athletes. Kalen King, Penn State's other star cornerback in 2022, has major upside as well.
5. Jer'Zhan Newton, DT, Illinois
If Calijah Kancey can be the No. 19 overall pick in the draft at his size, we need to accept that Newton can be a first-round pick in 2024. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 295 pounds, Newton looks a little more formidable from a size perspective and has athletic juice in the Kancey range.
Newton recorded multiple pressures in all but one contest in 2022 and in five of those games he had more than five pressures. He's your classic up-the-field defensive tackle who consistently wins with a rapid first step, quick hands, and acceleration into the backfield.
4. Leonard Taylor, DT, Miami
A foot injury curtailed what could've been a monstrous season for Taylor in 2022. From his interior spot, he was generating a pressure nearly 16% of the time he rushed the quarterback, a lofty figure for the position.
And the intrigue with Taylor isn't solely about productivity. In fact, I'm actually more enamored with his traits. He looks like a linebacker playing on the inside. He's sculpted with seemingly long arms. He effortlessly erupts off the snap, has one of the fastest, most efficient swim moves I've seen in a while then can mix in serious speed to power to drive guards and centers backward. Oh, and he's listed at 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds. After the 2023 college football season, we may look back on Taylor at No. 4 and realize I had him too low on this list. He's that talented.
3. J.T. Tuimoloau, EDGE, Ohio State
While not the most naturally bendy outside rusher on this list, Tuimoloau did flash the ability to slightly tilt his upper body when turning the corner in 2022, and his size, strength, and hand work were much advanced last year at Ohio State. His performance against Penn State was one of the finest in school history -- six tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble, two interceptions, a pass breakup, a fumble recovery and a touchdown.
Overall, he wasn't ridiculously productive. Tuimoloau pressured the quarterback on 12.1% of his rushes. However, with time to add even more power to his game to have a stellar base bull rush, that efficiency is likely to skyrocket in 2023. At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, he has the frame to be picked early in 2024.
2. Kool-Aid McKinstry, CB, Alabama
McKinstry was easily the best, most reliable defensive back on Alabama's defense in 2022 -- and that's counting third-round pick Jordan Battle at safety. The former No. 1 cornerback recruit in the nation in the 2021 class, per 247 Sports, is fast and fluid and is never unaware as to where the football is when it's thrown in his target area.
He knocked away a whopping 15 passes in the NFL receiver factory that is the SEC as a true sophomore. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 188 pounds, McKinstry possesses the sleek frame many pro clubs want in their top cornerback in today's NFL.
1. Jared Verse, EDGE, Florida State
Verse probably would've been a late first- or early second-round pick in the 2023 draft had he declared. This is a former SUNY Albany star who transferred to Florida State before the 2022 campaign and exploded onto the scene for the Seminoles. Relentless rush after relentless rush with major power and bend and authoritative hand work, Verse was downright unblockable for most his debut season in Tallahassee.
He wasn't quite the same after his early-season injury, but Verse did return and finished the year with 36 pressures on just 205 pass-rushing snaps. He demolished second-round pick Matthew Bergeron in their matchup in Syracuse and put freaky high-level flashes on film. At 6-foot-4 and 248 pounds with what appears to be long arms and athleticism galore, the sky's the limit for the Seminoles star.