INDIANAPOLIS -- With all due respect to the quarterbacks and running backs, the best position group in the 2018 NFL Draft might be defensive tackle, a unit that showed off its collective athleticism Sunday at the Combine.
Everyone expected NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne from Alabama to impress in the bench press, and he certainly did Saturday, lifting the bar 27 times. Where he helped himself the most Sunday, however, was by demonstrating his underrated athleticism.
Payne, at 6-foot-2 and 311 pounds, registered an eye-popping 4.95-second 40-yard dash and showed off much more nimble feet and core flexibility in bag drills than scouts were expecting, based on Payne's run-stuffing role with the national champion Crimson Tide.
Washington's Vita Vea, another lock for the top 15, also lived up to lofty expectations, despite suffering a pulled hamstring during the 40-yard dash testing. The massive Vea (6-4, 346), was clocked at 5.11 seconds and put up 41 repetitions in the bench press.
Fellow projected first-round picks Taven Bryan (Florida) and Harrison Phillips (Stanford) also had terrific workouts, with the former running the 40 in 4.98 seconds and excelling in positional drills. Bryan has exceptional body control and acceleration for a man of his size, looking more like a linebacker than a 6-4, 291-pound defensive tackle when asked to drop, change direction and accelerate toward the sidelines.
Phillips, stouter at 307 pounds, is not the same caliber of athlete, but he was smoother than anticipated -- and no one is stronger. He led all Combine participants with 42 repetitions in the bench press.
While scouts are still waiting for Bryan's athleticism to translate into production, no one questions Phillips' instincts, motor and tackling skills after he led the Cardinal with 100 stops last season.
Scouts love it when the top players live up to expectations, but the big winners of this year's defensive tackle workouts were the sleepers who excelled on the big stage -- with no one helping his cause more than Fort Hays State's Nathan Shepherd and Delaware's Bilal Nichols.
Shepherd, at a strapping 6-5, 315 pounds, was clocked at 5.09 seconds in the 40-yard dash (two-hundredths of a second faster than the freakish Vea), and no one looked more powerful during the bag drills. Shepherd punished the bags with his anvil-like hands, just like he did a little more than a month ago in an abbreviated performance at the Senior Bowl.
What is most impressive about Shepherd's powerful performance Sunday is that he suffered a metacarpal spiral fracture in his hand at the Senior Bowl, which limited him to just two flashy practices in Mobile, Alabama. Scouts will appreciate that the power and toughness on display in Mobile also were evident Sunday, as was his ability to quickly heal.
Nichols, playing for the Blue Hens at the FCS level, faces a similar challenge in capturing the attention of scouts in such a strong defensive tackle class. Clocking in at 4.95 seconds at 6-4, 305 pounds with 29 repetitions in the bench press, however, showed scouts he possesses the combination of size, athleticism and explosiveness to push for early Day Three consideration, as well.
California's James Looney, North Carolina State's duo of B.J. Hill and Kentravius Street, and Virginia's Andrew Brown also put up impressive numbers this weekend, just reinforcing this year's exceptional depth. Each is listed as a Day Three pick on NFLDraftScout.com's board, but in previous years with less competition at the position, they'd be competing for Top 100 consideration.
With so many exceptional performances from this year's defensive tackle class, it is easy to be overwhelmed with data. The rare talent and depth of the defensive tackle class is perhaps best shown by remembering last year, when just five true DTs were among the first 100 picks.
Expect that number to at least double in 2018, with 12 defensive tackles currently earning at least third-round grades on NFLDraftScout.com's board.