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The Mountains in the Middle: Meet the Best Interior Defensive Linemen in This Year’s NFL Draft

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The 2016 NFL draft could feature the best defensive line class we’ve ever seen … wait, where are you going? Come back!

I get that mustering excitement for interior defensive linemen isn’t easy, but this year’s crop is so full of studs that there’s a chance we’ll see six or seven selected in Round 1. You owe it to yourself to get to know these guys, so here’s a primer on the handful of players most likely to come off the board in the mid-to-late first round. Embrace the big boys. You know you want to.

A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama (6-foot-4, 307 pounds)

Anyone who has watched the first trailer for Season 6 of Game of Thrones has seen Robinson: He’s the massive heap of armor behind Cersei giving her the courage to “choose violence.”

I’m not sure how Robinson found the time to play the Mountain during the Tide’s national title run. Even among linemen, Robinson is a behemoth. He’s one of the tallest and stoutest trees in the forest, and he knows how to use that frame to manhandle opponents. I’ve seen him send guards airborne. He’s limited as a pass-rusher, but he has the strength and mobility to instantly be a factor against the run.

Sheldon Rankins, Louisville (6-1, 299 pounds)

I understand the temptation to measure every short, explosive defensive tackle prospect against Aaron Donald, but Donald had 11 sacks as a senior and ran a 4.68 40 in Indy. He’s a unicorn. That shouldn’t make Rankins any less appealing, though.

Rankins delivered great production in his final two years at Louisville (14 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss), roasted people during Senior Bowl drills, and posted some crazy combine numbers. A 118-inch broad jump and 34.5-inch vertical are downright nasty for a 300-pound dude. His height might scare off closed-minded coaches, but his initial surge makes him the most promising pass-rusher of this group. He’s not going to be Donald, but I think Rankins can be Jurrell Casey. No team is going to complain if that happens.

Andrew Billings, Baylor (6-1, 311 pounds)

To me, Billings feels like the purest nose tackle of this bunch. His game is based on power, and he has the strength to survive the hell that is life as an NFL 1-technique. But he isn’t just a space eater, and that’s what makes him so vexing to evaluate.

When Billings is chasing a quarterback or pursuing a back down the line, there are moments when the space between him and the ball seems to disappear. He can make Uhh … what just happened? plays, but they typically come at the end of snaps instead of the beginning. If a good staff can find a way to make his burst off the line match his closing speed, he has a chance to be scary.

Chris Jones, Mississippi State (6-6, 310 pounds)

Plays like the above are why Jones will likely sneak into the back half of the first round despite finishing 2015 with just 2.5 sacks. Every game, he seemed to deliver at least two rewind snaps — plays that forced me to tell whoever was holding the remote to pause and go back, annoying the hell out of every person in the room. Someday, Jones could be the best of this group off the snap, and his frame gives him more positional versatility than most of these guys. I hate it whenever someone says a tall, long-armed dude has a chance to be Muhammad Wilkerson — but I think Jones could be Muhammad Wilkerson.

Jarran Reed, Alabama (6-3, 307 pounds)

When I watched Reed’s film recently, I kept muttering one word: “control.” The guy next to me at the coffee shop was definitely scared.

Reed seemed in command on every early down in college and is comfortably the most refined run defender in the draft. Against double-teams, he barely moves. Darth Saban often asked his defensive linemen to own a blocker and work two gaps, and no one did it better than Reed. The dude recorded 111 tackles in two years despite playing barely half the Tide’s snaps.

You’re thinking, “That all sounds great.” And it does. The problem is that at Bama, that’s where Reed’s value ended. He managed just two total sacks in two seasons, and he wasn’t consistently disruptive. Even if he never bothers quarterbacks, though, there’s value in a run-stuffing monster who controls blockers, finds the ball, and gets to it.

This piece originally appeared in the April 13, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.