The 2014 NFL regular season comes to a close on Sunday, with several teams potentially moving up in the draft order with possible losses in Week 17. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans both have 2-13 records, and should the league’s two worst teams both lose on Sunday, the top pick will be decided on strength of schedule.
The Titans enter Week 17 in the lead, with their opponents having compiled a .484 winning percentage, while the Buccaneers are at .489. The AFC’s Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets each have three losses entering the final week, but the Titans and Bucs are guaranteed to have the top two picks.
While quarterback Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston are expected to be top selections in April’s 2015 NFL Draft, teams may decide to pass on the Heisman Trophy winners and bolster their defenses. Two defensive players were selected in the top five in 2013 and 2014, as offensive linemen remain in high demand for most teams.
Defensive players are often overlooked as the top overall selection. In the 2014 draft, the Houston Texans selected defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 pick. It was the first time a defensive player was drafted No. 1 overall since the Texans chose defensive end Mario Williams in 2006.
While this year’s class boasts some excellent defensive players, most mock draft boards don’t have any of the players below as potential top overall picks. That could all change in February when the NFL Scouting Combine gets underway.
Here is a list of the current top defensive players expected to enter the 2015 NFL Draft.
Leonard Williams, DE, USC
He didn’t rack up great statistics with the Trojans, which took him out of the running for the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, but the talent is clearly there. Williams has great speed for his size, and is a tenacious player with good instincts. He was an All-American in the 2013 season, recording 12.5 sacks, despite playing with an injured shoulder. The junior stated this week that he remains undecided about declaring for the draft, but considering his high draft stock Williams is expected to make the jump.
Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
At 6’6 and 245 pounds, Gregory is a lean pass rusher, who has a knack for not just sacking agile quarterbacks, but also slowing down speedy running backs. He recorded 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons with the Cornhuskers. Though he probably needs to put on a bit more weight, Gregory has the makings of the next Aldon Smith.
Williams and Gregory will be on the same field on Saturday when USC and Nebraska meet in the Holiday Bowl.
Shane Ray, DE, Missouri
Perhaps the most versatile defensive player in the nation, Ray looks like he could be a star at either defensive end or linebacker with his speed and aggressive style. Scouts have questions about his size, but Ray has proven to be a more than capable pass rusher who didn’t have much trouble flying past big blockers. He picked up 14 sacks this season after recording four in 2013.
Landon Collins, S, Alabama
With quick feet and a compact body, Collins seems certain to be a solid contributor in the NFL, and could easily be a top performer on some teams next season. He leads a defense than ranks fourth in points allowed, plays in a demanding conference, and has proven to be a fierce competitor, though he hasn’t impress in bowl games. Scout say Collins may have more upside than HaHa Clinton-Dix and C.J. Mosley, who have both enjoyed excellent rookie seasons.
Dante Fowler, DE, Florida
Might be more of a work-in-progress player than the others on this list, but Fowler is expected to be a top pick based on his 6’3, 275-pound frame and his experience with the Gators. Critics feel that Fowler was inconsistent in 2014, but he is a prototype defensive end with a lot quickness and strength. He totaled 5.5 sacks and 57 tackles this season.
An IB Times staff reporter contributed to this report.