The 2018 NFL Draft Prospect series breaks down draft-eligible players, highlighting their college production as well as their NFL potential. Daily fantasy players should know about NFL rookies before they’ve played a down of professional football because they are among the most misvalued assets in all of DFS. People who know NFL rookies have a significant DFS edge. The draft will be held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX, from April 26-28.

This piece is on Alabama defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, who has declared early for the draft. For the total list of all players leaving school early, see our underclassmen tracker.

Junior | 6’2″ and 308 Pounds | Born May 27, 1997 (Age: 20) | Projection: Round 1

Combine numbers: 40-yard: 4.95 sec | bench reps: 27 | 3-cone: 7.58 sec | 20-yard shuttle: 4.71 sec | vertical: 28.5 in | broad: 119 in

There aren’t many 300-plus pound linemen in college football, and there are even fewer massive linemen capable of moving quickly enough to warrant double teams routinely. The country found out Payne falls firmly in the latter group during Alabama’s College Football Playoff semifinal win over Clemson, as he both intercepted a pass and caught a touchdown. Still, it’s the former five-star recruit’s ability to swallow rushing lanes with his size and strength that could lead to his becoming the fifth Alabama defensive lineman to be picked in the first two rounds since 2016. The defensive MVP of both the Sugar Bowl and National Championship game could hear his name called sooner rather than later if teams are convinced he’ll be able to make an impact as a pass rusher.

While Payne racked up only five tackles for loss and three sacks during his 35 career games, he showed progression as a pass rusher with a team-high eight quarterback hurries as a junior. His rare combination of size and speed proved unstoppable against a single guard or center, which typically led to a heavy dose of double teams. This was especially true in the run game, where he was the key cog in Alabama’s nation-best rush defense. Overall, the Crimson Tide allowed just 2.72 yards per rush and were one of just three teams to allow fewer than 100 rushing yards per game.

Sometimes big run stuffers simply rely on their size to bull rush overwhelmed linemen, but Payne has already managed to add a layer of technique to his game. His pass-rush array already consists of moves seemingly unfit for a man his size, and Alabama routinely trusted him to keep contain as a de facto defensive end on stunts. Clemson and Georgia quickly adjusted to Payne’s ability with constant double teams, although he still made his presence felt.

Payne’s lack of career numbers behind the line of scrimmage don’t quite do him justice, as he regularly set up shop in the opponent’s backfield regardless of the number of men tasked with blocking him. A strong showing at the combine could quantify what appears to be high-level short area quickness, which could help bring to light his ceiling as a tantalizingly talented interior pass rusher, considering the size and strength Payne already possesses. Even if he never becomes one of the league’s elite inside pass rushers, Payne carries a high floor as a dominant inside presence against the run.

Even with potential limitations as a pass rusher, Payne could become the 12th defensive linemen no older than 21 years and weighing 300-plus pounds to be drafted in the first round over the past 25 years. The last four have established themselves as great players, but they didn’t necessarily prove to be gamebreakers at getting to the quarterback during their first two seasons.

  • Kenny Clark: 2.5 sacks
  • Malcolm Brown: 6 sacks
  • Corey Liuget: 8 sacks
  • Marcell Dareus: 11 sacks

Payne has the ability to help a good defensive line become great against the run, but it might be asking a lot to expect an Aaron Donald or Ndamukong Suh-esque impact against the pass right away. Still, defensive line coaches all over the league will undoubtedly line up to draft a young specimen with enough strength and size to play a long time in this league. There might not be a defensive linemen in the draft with a higher ceiling than Payne, and his floor certainly doesn’t appear to be all that low either.

In our most recent mock draft, we have Payne going to the Bills at No. 21.

Photo credit: Chuck Cook – USA TODAY Sports