Each day leading up to the 2018 NFL draft, I’ll break down one of my top 50 prospects. In some cases, we had to make tough omissions because of injuries, poor pre-draft workouts or incomplete information. For more complete scouting reports on all the prospects, check out the Pro Football Weekly 2018 Draft Guide, which is available for order now.
18. Alabama DL Da’Ron Payne
6-foot-3, 311 pounds
Key stats: Started only 17-of-42 games at Alabama but logged 41 career hurries (per Pro Football Focus).
The skinny: A five-star prospect who cracked almost every recruiting service’s top-50 national players coming out of Birmingham, Payne chose Alabama over Auburn, Florida State, Clemson and Georgia. He was listed at 335 pounds in high school (and might have been closer to 350 at one point) before shedding weight and earning playing time immediately on defense for Kirby Smart and Nick Saban.
Payne played in all 15 games for the national champs in 2015, starting three games even though there were four Bama players drafted on that unit in the following two years, along with fellow 2018 prospect Da’Shawn Hand (who was considered an even loftier recruit). Payne made 13 tackles, 0.5 sack and one forced fumble as a true freshman.
In 2016 as a sophomore, he started all 15 games at nose tackle for the national runners-up, making 36 tackles (3.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks and scoring a touchdown on a fumble recovery. As a junior in 2017, Payne earned second-team all-SEC honors in making 53 tackles (one for loss), one sack, one interception and four passes broken up. He also caught a 1-yard TD pass in the semifinal playoff victory over Clemson.
After the season, Payne declared for the 2018 NFL draft. He performed the full battery of tests at the NFL scouting combine and opted to stand on those numbers and only perform positional drills at Bama’s pro day a few days later.
Upside: Unnatural, rare combination of athleticism and strength for a man his size. Turned in an eye-opening 4.95-second 40-yard dash — only about 15 players his weight or heavier have run faster since 2000. Perhaps more impressive was his 10-yard split time of 1.66 seconds — faster than a handful of receivers and defensive backs. Has bench-pressed 545 pounds before, and he did 27 reps of 225 pounds at the combine. Nice work in the agility drills as well. Flashes good quickness off the snap and often will beat centers out of their stances.
Hands fighter who can maul with the best of them but also do so with nice controlled strength. Well-coached and technically sound. Gets a lot of QB hits and pressures that don’t show up in the box score. Was used equally as run stopper and pass rusher. Has the mass, drive and take-on strength to handle double teams. Works down the line well and can navigate traffic to make plays laterally. Will stack up offensive linemen, keep his head up, steer and shed them and make plays on the ball. Lateral agility and balance to change directions and pivot quickly.
His interception vs. Clemson was fortuitous in that the ball popped right into his hands, but Payne’s athleticism on the play was mighty impressive and is worth a look:
Routinely stood tall against top-tier competition vs. SEC offensive linemen. Had some of his most dominant performances in the four FBS playoff games the past two seasons — named Defensive MVP of Sugar Bowl and National Championship Game in 2017. Appeared unblockable in title-game victory against strong Georgia offensive line. Watch Payne stun Bulldogs C Lamont Gaillard off the snap with speed and power, disengage the block attempt and then swallow RB Sony Michel for the loss:
Clean medical history. Showed he could handle an increased workload — upped snap total to 687 last season after 572 (in 2016) and 222 (in 2015). Cited as vocal leader by fellow Bama defenders, such as Rashaan Evans and Minkah Fitzpatrick, at NFL scouting combine.
Downside: Relatively short arms and small hands for the position. Weight has fluctuated in the past. Vertical jump (28.5 inches) was below average, considered more of a middle-of-the-road number for less athletic offensive linemen. Unlikely he ever will be an Aaron Donald-esque gap-splitter or backside playmaker.
Lack of career production is eye-opening — one tackle for loss in 2017 and only five in his career. Benefitted from playing on some of the most talented lines in recent college football history the past three seasons. Performances such as the Georgia game were the exception, not the rule. Disappears for stretches. Can run out of gas late in games with higher snap totals — loses gap integrity and technique gets sloppier. Occasionally prone to late hits and playing past the whistle (see fourth quarter vs. Tennessee).
Tends to pop out of his stance at times and can be stood up. Bull rush wasn’t as dominant as you’d expect for such a powerful man. Even with improved pass-rush arsenal, he appears to be a one-move-and-go rusher — must develop some better counters. Let a few ballcarriers whizz by him while he was neutralized.
Whiffed on some tackles this past season after not being guilty of that in years past. Here’s a good example of that in a fairly lackluster performance against Fresno State. Watch as Payne (No. 94) sniffs out the bubble screen nicely, follows the ball and is in a position to make a play but can’t make the first-down-saving tackle:
Best-suited destination: Payne can be a factor in both even and odd fronts, and he played every technique from guard to guard in his career, even lining up as a 5-technique at times. So in theory he should fit in most teams’ schemes, but those that run two-gap systems or demand a little more strength and bulk in their interior players might place a higher value on him. Among the teams that could be good fits for Payne include the Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Washington.
Quotable: “He’s strong, but I watched the Auburn guard [Braden Smith] go blow for blow with him. Urgency needs to be better at times. You can win with [Payne], and he showed up for the big games. I just thought he was a little too inconsistent earlier [in the season].” — NFC area scout
Player comp: Tim Jernigan
Expected draft range: Top 25
50. Oregon RB Royce Freeman
49. South Dakota State TE Dallas Goedert
48. LSU DE-LB Arden Key
47. Ohio State C Billy Price
46. Alabama S Ronnie Harrison
45. Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph
44. Texas A&M S Armani Watts
43. South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst
42. UCF CB Mike Hughes
41. USC RB Ronald Jones II
40. Maryland WR D.J. Moore
39. UTEP OG Will Hernandez
38. Stanford DT Harrison Phillips
37. Ohio State DE Sam Hubbard
36. Stanford S Justin Reid
35. Oregon OT Tyrell Crosby
34. SMU WR Courtland Sutton
33. Penn State TE Mike Gesicki
32. Colorado CB Isaiah Oliver
31. Georgia OL Isaiah Wynn
30. Texas A and M WR Christian Kirk
29. Alabama LB Rashaan Evans
28. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley
27. Michigan DT Maurice Hurst
26. Texas OT Connor Williams
25. Georgia RB Sony Michel
24. LSU RB Derrius Guice
23. Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch
22. Florida DT Taven Bryan
21. Wyoming QB Josh Allen
20. Notre Dame OT Mike McGlinchey
19. Iowa C-OG James Daniels