It takes a rare blend of size and speed to be an effective NFL defensive lineman or linebacker.
Pass rushers need the explosiveness and flexibility to burst off the line of scrimmage and bend around an offensive tackle. For defensive tackles, it’s a combination of strength and burst to hold their ground against 300-pound offensive linemen. Linebackers need the speed to run with tight ends and running backs, but the strength to be a force against the run.
The NFL Combine can help reveal which players have what it takes to be effective. In 2019, Quinnen Williams had one of the fastest 40-yard dash times ever for a 300-pounder and was the third overall pick two months later. On the other end of the spectrum, Jachai Polite struggled in interviews, on-field drills, and he got injured. The performance tanked his draft stock and he landed in the third round.
Let’s take a look at the defensive linemen and linebackers who bolstered (or hurt) their draft stock at the 2020 NFL Combine.
Check out our overall combine winners and losers, as well as the quarterback, wide receiver/tight end, running back, and defensive back position groups.
1 and 2. Nebraska’s twin defensive tackles, Carlos and Khalil Davis
Neither Davis twin is small. Carlos weighed in at 313 pounds, just a little heavier than his 308-pound brother, Khalil.
Both ran like they were 20 pounds lighter.
Twins run the 40 back-to-back— NFL (@NFL) February 29, 2020
Carlos and Khalil Davis run a 4.83u and 4.79u in the 40-yard dash! @HuskerFBNation
: #NFLCombine on @NFLNetwork
: https://t.co/vDFxxNddNZ pic.twitter.com/amt80LQ4wK
The official times were even better. Khalil finished in 4.75 seconds, sixth-best among all defensive linemen and No. 1 among defensive players over 270 pounds. Carlos wasn’t far behind at 4.82 seconds.
And just in case that’s not enough to prove they’re athletes, both of them were All-American discus throwers in 2019 at Nebraska. They did well enough in the other drills to earn the top two spots in Next Gen Stats’ athleticism scoring.
Pending the results of the 3-cone & shuttle, the Davis twins from Nebraska — Khalil & Carlos — currently stand as the top 2 defensive tackles by the NGS Athleticism Score.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) March 1, 2020
Khalil Davis would join Aaron Donald and Ed Oliver as the only DTs with a 99 Athleticism Score since 2014. pic.twitter.com/HqVytBpd4d
Both players are projected to be mid-round selections and neither appeared in SB Nation’s Dan Kadar’s two-round mock draft. Saturday could’ve pushed one or both into the second day, though.
3. Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson
Simmons isn’t exactly a linebacker, at least not like everyone else. The 6’4, 238-pound prospect did a little bit of everything in the Clemson defense, from rushing the passer to playing safety.
So it’s not surprising Simmons tested well Saturday. Expectations were so high for Simmons, he had to put up outrageous numbers to really stand out. He did exactly that.
First was an 11-foot broad jump that was one of the best ever by a linebacker:
.@ClemsonFB LB Isaiah Simmons with the 11-foot broad jump!@isaiahsimmons25 | #NFLCombine pic.twitter.com/bFdUD3qa7H— NFL (@NFL) March 1, 2020
His 39-inch vertical jump was third-best in the class. Then he toasted everyone in the 40-yard dash.
#Clemson LB Isaiah Simmons— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) March 1, 2020
6-4 (93rd percentile)
39” vert (92nd percentile)
11’0” broad (98th percentile)
4.39 40-yard (99th percentile)
This is Earth’s greatest defender pic.twitter.com/uXboqqGT0Z
Simmons is a likely top-10 pick and he showed exactly why Saturday.
4. Willie Gay Jr., LB, Mississippi State
Simmons was expected to completely dominate the linebackers, but Gay took a bit of his spotlight. Shortly after Simmons posted a ridiculous 11-foot broad jump, Gay beat him by four whole inches. He also edged the Clemson star in the vertical jump by half an inch.
While Simmons won the 40-yard dash, it wasn’t by much.
An 11'4" broad jump.— NFL (@NFL) March 1, 2020
A 39.5" vertical.
And now Willie Gay Jr (@HailStateFB) runs a 4.46u 40-yard dash!
: #NFLCombine on @NFLNetwork
: https://t.co/vDFxxNddNZ pic.twitter.com/41bL9joFIO
However, his performance in interviews may have been more important than his showing on the field. He was suspended eight games in 2019 for violating unspecified Mississippi State team rules. He also got in an altercation with his own quarterback, Garrett Shrader, in a practice that kept Shrader from playing in the Music City Bowl.
5. Neville Gallimore, DT, Oklahoma
The Davis twin brothers weren’t the only big men who put their speed on display. Neville Gallimore, who weighed in at 304 pounds, also finished the 40-yard dash in less than 4.8 seconds.
Neville Gallimore with an INCREDIBLE 4.79 pic.twitter.com/shWXdRSijo— Carter Donnick (@CDonnick3) February 29, 2020
That run made him one of only five defensive players over 300 pounds (along with Khalil Davis) to ever run the 40 in under 4.8 seconds.
6. The hoop drill
Bending around offensive linemen is a difficult skill to measure. The closest the NFL Combine has had to offer is the three-cone drill, but the new alternative is even better.
The league added a hoop drill that has linemen run a figure-eight pattern while picking up and dropping off bean bags.
Derrick Brown running the hoop pic.twitter.com/gAQZeW87Eg— Billy M (@BillyM_91) February 29, 2020
Even though it’s untimed, the drill allows teams to see how smoothly a player can run an arc and if they need to slow down to get the job done. It’s been a common exercise at pro days, and it’s a welcomed addition to the combine.
1. Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn (and also the clock)
The crew at NFL Network didn’t even consider believing Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown finished his 40-yard dash in 5.51 seconds.
Derrick Brown’s first 40-yd dash attempt at the #NFLCombine2020 pic.twitter.com/6i0KkOiLIx— Auburn Tigers | AL.com (@aldotcomTigers) February 29, 2020
They were right. Brown came in at a much more respectable 5.16 seconds.
Still, that was the fourth-slowest time of the day. He also finished fourth from last in the vertical jump (27 inches) and sixth from last in the broad jump (108 inches). His three-cone drill was at the very bottom of his group:
Auburn iDL Derrick Brown posted the slowest 3-cone of the 26 DL who participated (8.22 seconds)— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) March 1, 2020
Those numbers don’t change the fact Brown was a dominant force at Auburn who’s a likely top-10 pick, but it didn’t help his case to be an early pick either.
2. Pass rushing speed
The 2019 NFL Draft class was a special one for defensive ends. The position is coming back to earth a bit in 2020.
The difference in speed is a bit staggering. Here are the top 40 times from 2019:
More official 40 times for DLs:— Chase Goodbread (@ChaseGoodbread) March 3, 2019
Montez Sweat 4.41 (modern combine DL record)
Brian Burns 4.53
Rashan Gary 4.58
Chase Winovich 4.59
Nick Bosa 4.79#NFLCombine
Not a single player finished in under 4.6 seconds this time around. There are talented defensive linemen in this class, but it’s a year to add size and strength up front, and not much speed.
3. Anybody who wanted to see Chase Young
The Ohio State Heisman Trophy finalist probably would’ve been able to help the lack of speed problem. Unfortunately for viewers, Young decided not to participate.
It makes sense for Young. He’s the consensus top defensive prospect in the class and will likely be Washington’s selection with No. 2 pick in the draft. Young had 16.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss in 2019 and doesn’t need to run through combine drills to improve his lofty stock. In his words:
Chase Young is not participating in drills this week because “I don’t want to waste time being a Combine athlete.”— Paul Schwartz (@NYPost_Schwartz) February 27, 2020
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, the heavy favorite to be the first pick in April, made the same decision for similar reasons. While some will criticize the pair for not competing, it’s probably the right choice. He did get to share some pass rushing moves with his peers.
Top prospects Chase Young and A.J. Epenesa exchanging pass rush moves @youngchase907 @ajepenesa24 #NFLCombine pic.twitter.com/0xc7XoZraJ— NFL (@NFL) March 1, 2020
It sure would’ve been fun to see what kind of numbers he could put up, though.