​NFL Draft Betting: Who Will Be the First Defensive Lineman Selected?

It can sometimes be hard to find love for defensive players in mainstream fantasy football and betting markets.

We aficionados of “the other side of the ball” do get the occasional compelling prop bet that pops up. By and large, however, the betting markets are an offensive game. That’s why numberFire’s NFL Draft prop betting positional pieces to date have focused on offensive linemen, wide receivers, and running backs.

But not anymore!

In the buildup to the 2021 NFL Draft, more and more markets that you should check out have appeared – including lines for defensive positions.

We’ll start by looking at the odds on FanDuel Sportsbook and figuring out who you should bet on to be the first defensive lineman off the board on draft day.

Kwity Paye, Michigan

FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: -145

Michigan's Kwity Paye is the odds-on favorite to lead the position group off the draft board at the end of this month. Paye posted a 93rd percentile speed score (weight-adjusted 40-yard dash), with a more average 66th percentile Burst Score. In 16 games over the last three years, Paye produced 4.1 tackles (1.0 for a loss) per game and 1.0 pressure per game.

He has both the pure tools and ascending technique to one day be a solid edge defender in a variety of schemes, but one of the knocks on Paye is that he is not yet a finished product. This has been called a deep edge class, but the top of the position group does not appear to be the superstar quality we have come to expect.

As recent Covering the Spread guest Matt Freedman identified, using mock drafts from historically accurate mockers can be a good way to get a feel for the “wisdom of the masses.” To give us a baseline for expectations, I sourced the nine most accurate mockers over the last three years by FantasyPros’ mock draft accuracy tracker and compiled their 2021 predictions.

In each of the nine expert mocks, Paye was the first defensive lineman off the board. He was the only defensive lineman selected in all nine mocks, in fact, and did average a selection value of 13.9 -- the 14th pick.

Jaelan Phillips, Miami (FL)

FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +230

The next man in the odds is Miami's Jaelan Phillips, whose frame is much more reminiscent of a traditional hand-in-the-dirt defensive end. Phillips is one of the younger top prospects. and he has a long 6-foot-6 and 260-pound frame.

He tested out of his shoes at Miami’s pro day, putting up 80th percentile marks or better in speed score, burst score, and agility score. That helps to confirm his absurd 2020 season, where he posted 4.5 tackles per game (1.6 for a loss) and 1.3 pressures per game in 10 games.

Phillips’s talent has never been in doubt; he was the nation's top recruit in his class by 247 Sports and top-six on Rivals. Instead, the questions appeared when he suffered a series of injuries over his first two college years at UCLA -- including two concussions. These led to him playing just 11 collegiate games before retiring from football in 2018. He eventually changed his mind, of course, but NFL teams will closely scrutinize his medical red flags and (unfortunately) might question his tenacity.

Phillips is a high-risk, high-reward type of prospect. This is reflected in the fact that he is projected as high as the 14th pick but was left out of the first round in two mocks entirely. Some teams may look at Phillips and see an athletic marvel with sky-high potential, while some may look at him as an injury concern with upside that could never be unlocked.

Phillips’s average pick when mocked is closest to Paye’s (19.0 to 13.9), but when factoring in his pick floor, he ends up much lower (29.2 to 13.9).

Christian Barmore, Alabama

FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +500

The top pure defensive lineman in this draft is undoubtedly Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore. Over his two years as a starter, Barmore played in 24 games, producing 2.6 tackles (0.6 for a loss) per game and 0.9 pressures per game from an interior spot. Weighing in at 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, Barmore might look on the surface like just a throwback anchor-style nose guard. However, he has the motor and attacking technique to play a few positions along the line and get into the backfield like smaller and quicker players.

The issue that keeps Barmore from being a true elite prospect is that “quicker” element. He had up and down testing numbers, coming in with a 69th percentile speed score, not testing in the explosiveness drills, and posting just a 35th percentile agility score.

However, the production is undeniable, as is Barmore’s quality of competition in the SEC, but the decline of the run game has led to non-elite interior defensive linemen becoming less highly valued. Barmore does have similar athletic numbers to two recent former top-15 picks in 2018’s Da'Ron Payne and 2015’s Leonard Williams, but it’s just as likely that he ends up a later selection.

The mock composite gives Barmore an average 30.3 pick value (ceiling of 25th overall), and an adjusted value of 41.9 when factoring in that three mocks left him out of the first round entirely.

Jayson Oweh, Penn State

FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +1900

If Christian Barmore’s issue was a dearth of testing to go with obvious production, Penn State pass rusher Jayson Oweh’s problem is the exact opposite. Oweh -- at 6-foot-5 and 257 pounds -- is a true speed rusher and posted weight-adjusted numbers that blew even Jaelan Phillips’s out of the water. His speed score and agility score both hit the triple-digit 100th percentile, and his burst score (96th percentile) wasn’t far behind.

Oweh’s prospect wart comes in the form of converting his potential into production. He played 20 games over the last two seasons, earning 3.0 tackles (0.6 for a loss) per game and just 0.3 pressures per game. In his final season, 2020, he earned no sacks and just one quarterback pressure. There was a time in NFL history where teams would overdraft raw tools like Oweh’s and assume that they could coach technique into him, but that time is beginning to pass.

The expert mocks agree with this sentiment, projecting him for an average value slot of 27.7 when selected, but 40.1 when adjusted for the fact that three mockers left him out of the first round. If Jaelan Phillips is a boom-bust prospect, Oweh is a nuclear explosion-sinkhole opening one, and his range of expected outcomes mirrors his Jekyll-and-Hyde profile.

Joe Tryon, Washington

FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +11000

Finally, one of the longest shots on the board, Joe Tryon of Washington, actually has a compelling case to be highly drafted. He has a prototypical frame for a wide lineman/rush linebacker type of defender, and Tryon comps well to fellow first-round guys in that mold like Robert Quinn or Clelin Ferrell. He didn’t test phenomenally, like some of his peers, earning just average marks across the board in the weight-adjusted scores.

Still, he took major steps forward in his last season (2019; he opted out of 2020) production-wise, posting 3.2 tackles (1.0 for a loss) per game and 0.7 pressures per game across 13 contests. Not captured properly by these box score numbers, too, is Tryon’s coverage potential, which gives him an additional dimension for NFL defensive coordinators to play with.

The expert consensus puts Tryon as the sixth-most likely defensive lineman off the board, averaging 43.3 when mocked and 55.3 when adjusting for the five mocks in which he doesn’t appear.

My Pick

Although it’s a boring notion, I have to recommend either laying the favorite on Kwity Paye at -145 or taking the second-lowest odds with Jaelan Phillips at +230.

Paye being the top projection and only defensive lineman to appear in all nine most accurate mocks gives me confidence about getting him at a line that equates to only 59.2% implied probability. The one red flag I would wave is that Paye would be just the fourth defensive lineman to check in at under 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds in the last 20 years drafted in the first round -- if he goes that high. Those shaky physical comp priors help to explain why Paye’s line is still so reasonable despite being the clear favorite of the experts.

Phillips is a fine hedge at his value, too, assuming that a team prefers his prototypical size to Paye’s and focuses more on the explosive tools and production than the spotty medical history. A +230 line implies just over a 30% chance of the outcome, and Phillips isn't expected to go too far behind Paye if he makes it into the first round as expected.

If I were to want a longshot, Joe Tryon would be the guy. A line of +11000 implies a probability of just 0.9%, which is a perfectly good value for a guy who checks every box as average-to-good in a confusing year where a high floor might be even more valuable than a high ceiling. Tryon’s versatile skill set is tailor-made for the modern NFL defensive line mold, which is why he’s my favorite dark horse in this group.