It’s a good year to be picking at the top of the NFL draft if you’re in need of help along the defensive line. The 2017 class is headlined by a pair of blue-chip prospects that have sparked plenty of debate in the mystical world of Draft Twitter and beyond. Alabama’s Jonathan Allen was long the consensus top lineman coming out, but as more and more analysts got around to watching Stanford tape, Solomon Thomas quickly entered the conversation and took the crown from the SEC standout.
One thing is overwhelmingly clear with these two — you can’t go wrong. Much like DeForest Buckner and Joey Bosa last year, both of them are elite defensive line prospects that deserve to be drafted in the Top 10, and both are more than capable of widely successful NFL careers in a variety of schemes. Preference between the two will likely vary by team, based on how they see them fitting in their defense, but it is essentially like picking between a Ferrari and a Bugatti. Either way, you’re driving off with a top-of-the-line, well-oiled machine.
Thomas is definitely the flashier of the two. He’s more explosive and appears to have more length to him, although the NFL Scouting Combine will determine how significant the difference between them really is in this area. On tape, he often looks like he’s shot out of a cannon, firing off the snap to initiate contact and prevent blockers from squaring up on him comfortably.
These types of explosive plays are all over Thomas’ tape. He feels about as high-flying as a defensive lineman can get, and he took snaps all over the line for Stanford, from 1-technique nose tackle to 9-technique outside linebacker. He has a variety of pass-rushing moves and a wide skillset that allows him to win in so many different ways.
David Shaw expects #Stanford DL Solomon Thomas to wow NFL folks.. 6-3, 270-275 & thinks he'll run 40 in high 4.5s & VJ close to 40 inches.
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) January 11, 2017
Where Thomas falls a little short of Allen is in his size. He doesn’t have the same bulk (listed about 20 pounds lighter), and he plays a little bit of a different style because of it. Different does not mean worse, but the one area where Thomas seemed to have the most trouble was handling double teams.
When he’s not exploding through blockers and bringing down the ball-carrier in the backfield, he can get washed out when he loses his leverage and doesn’t keep his balance and feet underneath him.
This is obviously reaching a level of nitpicking of Thomas’ game, but it’s a necessary process when trying to differentiate between top prospects. It’s also not to say that Thomas never wins double teams, but his lack of bulk shows up often enough in these situations to warrant recognition. Compare that to the 290-pound Allen, who does an excellent job of consistently holding down his gap in the face of multiple blockers against both man and zone plays run at him.
Still, Allen lacks the same explosiveness on tape that Thomas offers. The Alabama lineman rarely won his rush off of the snap, but he is the best in the draft at using his quick and strong hands to separate from and shed blockers. He too lined up all over the defensive line, even at his size, and was effective wherever Nick Saban put him.
Keep an eye on Jonathan Allen here. He's lined up in a variety of spots throughout the year:
Slot: 2 pic.twitter.com/a6L8DCEpER
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) January 10, 2017
Allen doesn’t offer the same burst off of the snap that Thomas does, but his athleticism and closing speed were far from an issue. His style was much more calculated and controlled, but once he was free from his block, there was almost no stopping him from getting to the ball-carrier.
Both of these defensive line prospects are the cream of the crop. Thomas has more explosiveness, and Allen is the more cerebral immovable object, but when you look at them as prospects as a whole, very little separates the two as Top 10 talents. There’s a good reason Pro Football Focus graded them within a fraction of a point of each other this season.
Top-graded interior D-lineman 2016
Jake Replogle, Purdue, 92.5
Jonathan Allen, Alabama, 92.1
Solomon Thomas, Stanford, 91.7
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) January 16, 2017
Draft analysts will debate until April about which one deserves to be taken first, but you can’t go wrong with either. Both of them can line up and get the job done no matter where you put them. Whether you come away with the Ferarri or the Bugatti, you better buckle up, because you’re going to have a fun ride either way.