The last time Payne played, he was wreaking havoc on college football’s biggest stage. Can he continue to develop into a stud at the next level?
The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series is back! Over the course of the eight weeks leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the defensive line. Today, we’ll take a look at Da’Ron Payne from Alabama.
Payne was one of the nation’s top recruits entering college, and even earned some starts his true freshman season in Tuscaloosa. He started all 15 games the next season, recording 36 tackles on the year.
When star DT Jonathan Allen departed for the NFL last year, it gave Payne his chance to shine, as he racked up 53 tackles, one sack, and one interception in his junior campaign. He especially stood out in the college football playoff, capping off his college career with a dominant performance against Georgia in a national championship victory. With his stock higher than ever, Payne decided to forego his senior season and head to the pros early.
Payne is among the best run stuffers in this year’s class, using his surprisingly lean 6’2, 311-pound frame to hold his ground against interior blockers. One of his best traits is his body control and balance when engaging with a blocker. Payne consistently stays off the ground, always giving himself a chance to impact the play:
Here, Payne fights off a solid initial push from the guard, keeps his ground while reading the play, then sheds the blocker and stuffs the RB at the line of scrimmage.
Another of one Payne’s strengths is his powerful initial punch, which allows him to control his man without being driven back:
Payne throttles the blocker in the chest, doesn’t get pushed back an inch, then tosses the blocker aside to meet the back for a short gain. Opponents simply didn’t have success when they ran at Payne; he’s been an immovable object for two years now.
While defending the run is certainly his strong suit, Payne made strides as a pass rusher over the course of his college career. He pressured opposing QBs 27 times in his junior year, up from 15 the season prior. He’ll have to get more consistent as a rusher, but Payne showed some legitimate quickness against the pass in college:
Should he continue to develop as a pass rusher to match his chops against the run, Payne will be an absolute difference-maker whenever he’s on the field.
While Payne certainly shows quickness on occasion, his massive frame can be a detriment when coming off the snap. He tends to come off the line slowly or pop straight up, which helps the blocker get leverage. At 6’2, Payne should naturally be the “low man” against most of the NFL’s behemoth interior linemen, but he’ll have to work on going forward and not up so much at the snap.
Payne’s athletic limitations also prevent him from making down-the-line tackles. He can get up the field just fine, but when it comes to moving laterally to track down ball carriers, Payne suffers. Almost all of his damage comes on runs to his gap.
As it stands, Payne will likely go in the late first/early second round, but has a chance to jump up into the top 20. If he does, the Chargers could be the team to take him. They’ve already got two elite defensive ends in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but adding a DT like Payne would take the defensive line from good to great.
Another team that could target Payne is New England. The Patriot defense was gashed on the ground all last season, and the team’s weakness against the run was ultimately exploited by the Eagles in the Super Bowl. Fortunately, the Patriots own picks 23 and 31 in the draft, putting them right in Payne’s range.
Payne may not be the most well-rounded DT in the 2018 class, but his ability to defend the run is rare. At just 20 years of age, Payne has yet to reach his final form and could very well have his best ball in front of him. He’s drawn comparisons to Ndamukong Suh, and while he’ll have to make great strides to get to Suh’s level, it’s not out of the question given Payne’s physical tools.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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