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Top defensive tackles to watch at the Senior Bowl

With the Senior Bowl kicking off this week, we continue our preview series with a look at some of the best defensive tackles to watch in Mobile.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 02 Big 12 Championship Game - Texas vs Oklahoma State Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2023 NFL season is over for most NFL teams—our Atlanta Falcons included—and that means it’s time to turn our attention to 2024. With free agency fast approaching and the 2024 NFL Draft close behind, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover over the coming months. The first big event on the offseason calendar is the Senior Bowl: a massive scouting event collecting some of the top prospects from college football in Mobile, AL for a week of practice and interviews. This year’s event takes place from Tuesday, January 30 through Saturday, February 3.

I’ll once again be on-site in Mobile to cover the event for The Falcoholic and the Dirty Birds & Brews podcast, and will be providing daily updates here on the site. Before we get down to Mobile, I’ll be previewing some of the most critical positions for the Falcons and giving you a breakdown of some players to watch heading into the week.

Today we take a look at the defensive tackles, where Atlanta has a need for depth and developmental starters behind a very good but aging duo of Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata.

Note: It was just announced that top DT prospect Byron Murphy II would be held out of Senior Bowl practices due to an injury, so I’m removing him from this list.

T’Vondre Sweat, Texas

This year’s top nose tackle prospect is Texas’ T’Vondre Sweat. The massive (6’3, 350) interior defender had an outstanding 2023, where he showcased elite play against the run and better-than-expected pass rushing acumen. Sweat obviously eats up a ton of space with his size and length, but he also possesses a very good first step and surprising lateral mobility. He’s an absolute ox and can eat up double-teams with ease—he’s simply too big and strong to be handled one-on-one at the college level.

Sweat’s quickness and movement skills combined with his bull rushing ability actually make him a dangerous pass rusher, although he’s not the best finisher. He’s a great pocket-pusher and often throws offensive linemen back into the QB, giving his teammates an opportunity to finish the play. I think his best path forward is to slim down into the 330 range, which should help his consistency. As a long interior lineman, he also has some issues with leverage to continue to refine. He could be one of the most dominant one-on-one players at the Senior Bowl this week.

Ruke Orhorhoro, Clemson

Clemson’s Ruke Orhorhoro is one of the most disruptive interior defenders in the class. With his unique combination of length, explosiveness, and strength at the point of attack, Orhorhoro is a well-rounded prospect who can make an immediate impact on all three downs. While he’s a little on the slim side at 6’4, 295, he doesn’t lack for physicality in the slightest and has been a dominant run defender from the 3T alignment. As a pass rusher, he has enticing flashes, with an effective bull rush and a good pass rush plan to affect the QB in a variety of ways.

Orhorhoro will probably need to bulk up a bit to take on NFL size consistently, but I doubt it will be an issue for him. He’s still developing some of the finer technical aspects of the position: his hand usage is inconsistent, and he can get stalled out on blocks as a result. Still, he’s a high-ceiling prospect who would be a big boost to Atlanta’s interior rotation.

DeWayne Carter, Duke

I actually wasn’t aware of Duke’s DeWayne Carter until hearing Trevor Sikkema gush about him on the NFL Stock Exchange podcast (check it out if you like draft talk). Now that I’ve had a chance to watch him a bit, I can see why there’s hype. Carter has a stout build (6’3, 305) and plays with non-stop energy. He’s a very strong player who has dominant stretches against the run and enough juice and lateral mobility as a pass rusher to give him a solid projection in that area.

Carter doesn’t have the high-end production of the bigger names on this list, and there are some concerns about his arm length. I’m not sure if it’s a length issue or an inconsistent hand usage issue, but he can struggle to get off blocks and free himself—particularly as a pass rusher. Still, Carter is a ferocious competitor who can carve out an immediate early-down role with upside in the passing game. He’s got the potential to rise up draft boards with a strong practice week in Mobile.

Tyler Davis, Clemson

If there’s a player who most resembles Grady Jarrett in this class, it’s Clemson’s Tyler Davis. OK, so it helps that they both played at Clemson, but Davis is an intriguing prospect in his own right who has some of the same traits that made Jarrett such a polarizing player back in the 2015 NFL Draft. Davis is a disruptive, athletic interior lineman who, like Jarrett, has some size concerns—although Davis is a bit bigger at 6’2, 300.

Davis has an explosive first step and is able to create immediate chaos in the backfield when working from 3T. His size is a natural boost in the leverage game, and Davis pairs that with strong hands and power at the point of attack. He moves well and is an excellent finisher thanks to his lateral mobility and high effort. Davis won’t be a fit for all schemes due to size constraints, and he’ll have to learn how to split double teams and avoid getting washed out of plays by superior length. With Jarrett entering his age 31 season, the Falcons could look to draft his eventual successor—and Davis would make a ton of sense towards the end of Day 3.

McKinnley Jackson, Texas A&M

Texas A&M’s McKinnley Jackson is one of the players I’m most excited to watch this week. With a good frame (6’2, 320) and elite athletic traits, Jackson has tremendous potential as a three-down starter in the NFL. Jackson plays the run with high energy and good technique. He’s experienced at taking on and defeating double-teams with his combination of power and explosiveness, and is rarely moved off the ball. As a pass rusher, Jackson’s first step quickness, length, and lateral mobility make him consistently disruptive.

Jackson has some impressive flashes, and his weaknesses are all coachable. He needs to refine his hand placement and technique and needs to develop further counters and a more sophisticated pass rush plan. Against the run, he simply needs to use his length more effectively and find ways to avoid getting stuck on blocks. Of all the players on this list, I think Jackson might have the best chance of elevating his stock in the first round at the Senior Bowl.

More players to watch:

Michael Hall Jr., Ohio State
Braden Fiske, Florida State
Jordan Jefferson, LSU
Marcus Harris, Auburn