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6 top defensive draft prospects heading into the 2018 college football season

Time to prep you for college football and the 2019 NFL Draft. We start on the defensive side of the ball.

The 2018 NFL season gets going a week from Thursday, but this weekend we have the start of the college football season. The 2019 NFL Draft is a long ways off, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start breaking down prospects in preparation. The San Francisco 49ers draft position and team needs are going to change between now and the end of the season, but it’s good to know the players we can start to keep an eye on.

Our college writers, Josh Eccles, Greg Valerio, and Alex Eisen have put together thoughts on a handful of players they are particularly interested in this season. We’re starting with six defensive prospects, and will follow up with six offensive prospects. Additionally, we’ll have a look at six prospects to watch this weekend as the college football’s Week 1 slate gets going.

Over the course of the season, we’ll offer looks at various players each weekend, as well as positional rankings and the like. Feel free to let us know who you will be keeping an eye on this season.

Josh Eccles

Montez Sweat, DE/OLB, Miss St

Height: 6’6” | Weight: 241 lbs
2017 stats: 10.5 sacks, 48 tackles, 15.5 tackles for a loss, 1 fumble recovery

If you’re looking for a behemoth of a man to scare the living daylights out of opposing quarterbacks then look no further because Montez Sweat is your man. He stands at 6’6”, 241 lbs, and is only 21 years old — meaning he’s going to get bigger. The San Francisco front seven has shown flashes of talent but still needs some sort of consistent pass rush and Sweat would provide just that; in 2017, he compiled 15.5 tackles for loss, which included 10.5 sacks.

Chauncey Gardner, S, Florida

Height: 6’0” | Weight: 207 lbs
2017 stats: 58 tackles, 2 interceptions, 7 pass break-ups, 6.0 tackles-for-loss, 1 sack

The 49ers are young in the secondary but the clock is ticking for several players - the likes of Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt have proven to be solid defenders but the jury’s still out on whether or not they can be effective starters for years to come; Ward is more of a wildcard when it comes to figuring his position out and Tartt still needs to prove that he can be a top safety in the league. Chauncey Gardner would provide depth at a position with question marks and seeing him line up next to Adrian Colbert would be quite fun for 49ers fans. Gardner is a converted corner-turned-safety so the growing pains showed early - as he’s gotten more comfortable, though, he has shown potential to be one of the elite prospects in next year’s draft.

Alex Eisen

Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson

Height: 6’5” | Weight: 207 lbs
2017 stats: 66 total tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles

Pass Rusher remains one of the most, if not the most pressing need for the San Francisco 49ers. Until further notice, this should be at the top of their drafting priority list. Clelin Ferrell was one of the most dominant defensive ends in college football last season. Sure he plays on perhaps the most lethal defensive line with three other projected first round draft picks, but Ferrell might be the best of the bunch. Watching tape, his first step off the line is amongst the quickest of all eligible defensive end prospects in the country. Plays his best football and has the biggest impact when the stakes are at their highest. He has the ability to consistently create pressure and disruption in the opponents backfield.

Has elite speed for his position, and can get to the quarterback quickly. Strong against run, often causing a loss of yardage. Another quality that makes Ferrell a first round lock is what often gets overlooked...His ability to create holes and plays for his three teammates along the line (Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant, Christian Wilkins). They don’t have the stats that they have without the opportunities that Ferrell creates. The scary part is that had Ferrell declared for the draft last season he would have been a first round lock. Nick Bosa might be getting the national attention, but don’t sleep on Ferrell and his first-round playmaking abilities.

Greedy Williams, CB, LSU

Height: 6’2” | Weight: 175 lbs.
2017 stats: 6 interceptions, 11 passes broken up, and 38 tackles

Williams exploded onto the scene last season, and heading into the 2018 season he is one of the top rated draft-eligible cornerbacks for 2019. While the 49ers have good depth at the moment, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan will most likely be looking towards the long-term future in the pass-friendly NFL. Richard Sherman may not be a long term answer and the team would be wise to continue to add elite talent. Williams height an length are what the 49ers seek at the position. He has the ability to cut receivers off their routes, close gaps, and break-up plays. He is a ballhawk corner who has great instincts and anticipation for where the play is going to occur. Isn’t afraid to challenge receivers in one-to-one matchups. Has great speed and agility to challenge receivers on short, intermediate, and deep routes.

One concern scouts and evaluators have with Williams is his weight and frame. It will serve Williams well to put on some muscle and weight between now and the start of the draft process next year. Still, there is much ti like about Williams and his potential as a physical corner, who plays tough in one-to one matchups. I’m not sure if he is the best corner in next year’s draft, but he is sure looking like a day one pick at the moment.

Greg Valerio

Nick Bosa, Edge, Ohio State

Height: 6’4” | Weight: 270 lbs
2017 stats: 8.5 sacks, 34 tackles, 16.0 tackles for loss, 2 pass break-ups, 1 forced fumble

It is rare to see two brothers sharing high end success at the next level, but Nick Bosa is on the path to match older brother’s “Joey” ride and success in the NFL. The junior is a tremendously gifted athletic talent showcasing a terrific combination of size, strength, athleticism, natural ability, power, quickness, football intelligence, and superb technique. NFL Bloodlines runs thick and Bosa’s successful transition to the next level is pretty much a sure thing.

Always running hot with a relentless motor, Bosa dominates in the run game with great fundamentals (superb hand technique), agility, and pure power. He effectively stack and sheds nicely and has tremendous awareness disengaging and attacking finishing with explosion, as well as the athletic ability and balance to defend against back-side blocks taking advantage of his blazing motor chasing down the ball carrier. Off the edge, Bosa utilizes fantastic speed to power conversion to get in the backfield, along with quickness and flexibility to side-step opponents on his way to the quarterback (has a good array of pass rush moves). He displays superb burst and explosion off the line of scrimmage with a quick, heavy, and violent punch at the point of attack, sound leverage utilizing his length, excels at converting speed to power, and the versatility to be disruptive from off the edge and on the inside. A man amongst boys, Bosa is an all around complete player with excellent technique, adept in all facets of the game whether rushing the passer, wreaking havoc in the backfield, or as a stout run stopper.

Brian Burns, Edge, Florida State

Height: 6’5” | Weight: 231 lbs
2017 stats: 4.5 sacks, 48 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 4 pass break-ups, 1 fumble recovery, 3 forced fumbles

Brian Burns is poised to have a breakout year similar to his freshmen season, where he lead all freshman with 9.5 sacks. During his sophomore campaign, Burns numbers dipped at 4.5 sacks, but with a new defensive scheme employed, allowing the junior to attack up-field with violence and speed, expectations are high for Burns. Burns provides the ideal LEO opportunity flying off the edge with excellent bend, explosion, athleticism, and length.

Burns is a tall, long-armed, athletically gifted pass rusher that explodes off the edge with a superb quick first-step, excellent bend, agility, flexibility, and impressive closing speed. He also possesses great balance and body control, where coming out of the arc from his bend he is able to adjust with ease and take advantage of his length and make quick adjustments to finish with explosion. Burns utilizes good hand technique with a solid pop at the point of attack, quick to transition into his pass rush moves (needs to refine and develop more) with smoothness winning with tremendous speed and good power (functional strength will need to improve). Stacking and shedding is a work in progress; nevertheless, with improved technique and consistency matching his high-end athletic ability, Burns showcases the tools to be an effective edge defender at the next level.