The NFL appears to be turning a corner on the defensive end. Explosive plays and scoring are down league-wide, and the quarterback position is in an era of transition as schemes evolve. It’s finally rebalancing after the game’s greatest generation of QBs coincided with rule changes that made decades of coverage approaches obsolete.
Speed and versatility are at a premium that trumps any adage we’ve heard about prospect rankings, so why not take a look at the best players on two of college football’s fastest and most complex defenses? Between them, Alabama and Georgia could have half a dozen defensive prospects drafted on Day 1 of the 2023 NFL Draft. (And that’s on top of Bryce Young, Jahmyr Gibbs and offensive linemen.)
Let’s take a look at the best defensemen from these two programs and how each player’s game will translate to the next level.
Playing Style/Fit: A premium edge in whatever scheme you want to run
Every time I rewind the tape on Anderson, I find myself thinking of the all-time great Khalil Mack, a linebacker who was arguably the best hitter and stopper at his position. Like Mack, Anderson will likely enter the league right around 250 pounds (with a frame to accommodate growth) and with the power, explosiveness and contact balance to win using whatever movement he feels like at the time.
Watching Anderson this season shows how spoiled we’ve been with his dominance because all I want to do is see him line up in the nine technique and terrorize tackles. He is so good all, though Alabama wants him to solve any problem the opponent can throw at its defense. For example, against Texas A&M, Anderson had several snaps lined up as a “4i” technique, which placed him on the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle (where you’d typically see defensive tackles line up in a 3-4 defense).
At first, I assumed defensive coordinator Pete Golding was trying to be cute and hiding Anderson somewhere unconventional so the offensive line couldn’t slip the protection or chip block his path. But then I saw Anderson break out of his stance and hit with a perfect transfer of power — from his legs to his hips to his hands — and I couldn’t help but laugh at how he turned away Texas A&M’s offensive action.
Anderson (No. 31) will never rank there in the NFL, but snaps like this confirm his insane strength and why he projects to be a complete edge rusher early in his NFL career.
In another clip, also against the Aggies, Anderson is lined up in a seven technique (inside shadow on the tight end). That alignment translates much more naturally to how he will play at the next level.
With the entire league studying and copying (if not outright hiring) Shanahan’s coaching tree, controlling the edge on perimeter routes is the first step to building a proper modern defense. Here, despite being doubled, Anderson stretches the edge to the side without leaving the line of scrimmage, then shows off his contact poise to break free and make a tackle on A&M’s option.
The buzz around quarterbacks in this draft is going nowhere. We know that when there are multiple top players available, one is almost destined to be number one. However, Anderson is still the best player in this class. If Detroit and Houston hold their own as the top two teams, both should consider getting a potential generational head start before placing their franchise fortunes on the shoulders of CJ Stroud or Young.
Alabama Myth Vs. fact: How do the Crimson Tide compare to preseason expectations?
Playing style/fit: weak safety in a defensive-heavy zone
When I watch Nick Saban’s defense, the first place I look is the “star” position — the slot defender in the scheme — because that player’s skill set informs how Saban’s defense will play on a snap-to-snap basis. . This season, it’s Branch in that role, and the back end of the Crimson Tide’s defense reflects his versatility as a safety who’s comfortable playing all over the field.
He lines up in the slot and moves back to the middle of the field while the defense checks for a whole new challenge. When he stays in the slot, Alabama has a full lineup of coverages, from three-deep to tackle quarters and two-man (or whatever the custom calls this defense needs to handle the opposition). Against 12 personnel or in the red zone, Branch will get in the box and mix it up as a run defender as well.
He’s not quite the tackler that Alabama first-round pick Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick were in that role, but Branch is a capable finisher when the ball gets in his halo. On screens and lateral throws, Branch closes with great speed and tracks the ball well and doesn’t need the help of his teammates to bring down ball carriers.
His eyes and discipline as a zone coverage/tackle defender make him a weapon in this defense, allowing him to take away the ejection windows.
In this example, he executes a Cover 2 scheme, dropping the receiver into the seam and jumping under the punt route. It’s only a fraction of a second since he turned his head and settled pick six:
Branch is also a capable man coverage defender. He has all the necessary movement skills to handle the entire route tree, even if he is at a disadvantage.
Here, with Alabama playing Cover 1 (or a Cover 3 matchup), Branch breaks the outside leverage kick route without losing ground. Attacks the catch down the ground to force an incompletion without interfering.
However, Branch can get caught up a bit in the slot, which negates his coverage ability as routes break vertically or across the field. It might get him into trouble. In the A&M game, his rushes and grabs down the field gave the Aggies a chance to win — Branch had a pass interference call in the end zone as time expired on a dropped ball that would have been picked off no matter what.
I see Branch as more of a safety at the next level, which I would imagine puts him somewhere between the late first and early second rounds of the draft. If an NFL team believes he can replicate his success in the slot at the next level, that positional versatility could give him a solid Day 1 projection.
Playing Style/Fit: Press the corner in a man/matchup coverage scheme
Ringo knows he’s bigger than most receivers he’ll see and plays similarly on the perimeter. Ringo, a Georgia legend forever after sealing the national title last season with a pick-six, is the next defensive back we’ve seen. man since he entered the starting lineup. After Ringo’s strong play in 2021, I was curious to see if he could improve the nuances in his game to show he could live in the uncomfortable world of press coverage at the NFL level.
As a bigger-bodied corner (6-foot-2, 210 pounds), Ringo’s change-of-direction abilities and short-area lunges will be challenged by receivers trying to create space at the line of scrimmage or over the top. route stop sign.
In this game against Auburn, I was encouraged by Ringo’s hip fluidity as the receiver’s release broke his initial leverage. As Ringo’s kick-slide takes him over the top of that release, you can see him put his outside foot in and turn his hips and head to recover without taking a bad angle or losing speed.
He uses his physicality brilliantly to control the upper part of the route in the field without holding or jumping, then dives to the sides to change direction and fight for the tackle.
If Ringo can consistently lower his center of gravity to match downfield routes, it will open the door for him to chase receivers all over the field. That’s an invaluable trait for NFL defenses because offenses are built to create mismatches by matching up receivers all over the place.
When all the features come together, you get a perfect repeat like Ringo’s coverage of this fade route. His kick-slide forces the receiver to release wider than is ideal, and his physicality drives the receiver’s speed and helps Ringo maintain leverage on the route. His hip transition is smooth on the ball play as he is in phase against the Auburn receiver.
Ringo is going to check every box with his measurables and athleticism. If he can continue to do the little things against the top receivers in the country, he could be a top 10 pick this spring.
Does Georgia still have an elite defense?
Playing style/fit: safety without schemes
When I think of Battle, I think of those guys who do everything at safety: Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, Marcus Williams, Justin Simmons.
It’s not obvious based on his coverage discipline, but Battle can struggle with boredom in games where he doesn’t appear in run support. Quarterbacks don’t even bother trying him in the seams or in the middle of the field anymore.
But watching Battle master route concepts with speed, change of direction and spatial awareness is a treat, whether the ball is thrown his way or not. He has some of the smoothest transitions you’ll ever see from a safety and is a strong tackler. He is every bit the player he is thought to be and I would expect him to go no lower than the third safety off the board in this draft.
Playing style/fit: raw speed rusher in a 3-4 formation
Like every quarterback that has come through Georgia, Smith is a source of endless fascination for me. Whatever gripes you have about his pass production will have to be kept under wraps until we get a chance to see him at the combine. I feel like he’ll break the 4.4s in the 40-yard dash, and that would change the trajectory of an edge prospect, regardless of what the statistical profile says.
As a run defender, Smith is stout and tough (especially for a guy listed at 235 pounds), and this year he’s been better at sliding blocks than losing battles on the edge. Off the line of scrimmage and in pursuit on the perimeter, you can see Smith’s explosiveness, but he lacks the bend needed to blend the quickness and hip mobility to turn tight corners. I want to see his three-cone time before I make any final decisions because I think the ability is there, but Smith’s angles as a pass rusher leave a little to be desired.
Playing style/fit: wide overhang in 4-3
To’oTo’o has improved many folds since I watched him last season. He diagnoses offenses better than at any point in his career, which made his decision to stay until his senior year a valuable data point in his prospects. My favorite part of To’oTo’o’s game is his determination to stay clean as a run lineman, an important trait for a smaller linebacker (under 240 pounds). To’oTo’o moves well laterally and clears short and perimeter routes for ball carriers.
Alabama uses him more as a blitz than a pass coverage body, but that has more to do with his defensive background than a lack of confidence in To’oTo’o. That said, I don’t think dealing with him in space will work to his best ability.
My concern about To’oTo’o is whether he can stand tall in the box when teams go in heavier personnel and run right at him. The NFL is adept at putting linebackers in bunches in which there is no real option to avoid contact as a running back. If that’s an issue against the better plays Alabama sees, that will be a definite ceiling for his game. However, I enjoyed his production during the first few weeks of the season.
(Top image of Will Anderson Jr.: Gary Cosby Jr. / USA Today)