The Pittsburgh Panthers boast one of the best defensive units in college football. Check out why the Green Bay Packers‘ scouts could be frequent flyers to Heinz Field this fall.
The Pittsburgh Panthers boast one of the best defenses in college football. It’s a defense that ranked 15th in total defense and led the nation in sacks. They have a front four that dominates the line of scrimmage and one of the best safety tandems in college football.
When the 2021 NFL Draft rolls around they could have up to six defensive players selected, including four that could be picked within the first two rounds. With all that talent on that side of the ball, one can bet that there will be plenty of NFL scouts heading to Heinz Field on Saturdays to catch that Pitt defense.
Jaylen Twyman, DL: The Panthers are loaded up front and Twyman is the ring leader. He sets the tone for the Panthers from his defensive tackle position.
The talented junior is coming off a 2019 campaign in which he recorded 12 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks to earn First-Team All-ACC. His 10.5 sacks were second in the ACC.
Twyman became the first interior defensive lineman to lead the Panthers in sacks since a guy by the name of Aaron Donald accomplished that feat back in 2013. In fact, Twyman needed just one more sack to break Donald’s single-season sack record at Pitt.
Aside from putting up gaudy numbers like Donald, Twyman gives off serious Donald-like vibes. Twyman has a quick first step and overpowers lineman with his power. He utilizes his hands well as a pass-rusher, possessing a great swim move.
With his athleticism and size, Twyman is an absolute force for the Panthers. With so much talent surrounding him, Twyman could set the program record for sacks in a season in 2020.
“Everyone knows that Twyman wears No. 97 because Aaron Donald is his idol,” John McGonigal, the Pitt football beat reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said. “And at times last year, he looked like Donald getting after the quarterback.
“Twyman is undersized, but he’s destructive. He’s not a space-eater, but he’s quick off the ball. Not Donald quick; no one in football is. But Twyman aspires to play like AD, and it’s obvious. He’s tight on his twists and beats linemen to the punch in shooting gaps. With Pitt’s quality defensive ends flanking him, it’s difficult to double-team him, giving him plenty of opportunities to wreak havoc.”
Twyman plays with a relentless motor. While he needs work against the run, he would bolster any team’s interior pass rush.
If the Green Bay Packers are able to extend Kenny Clark, the next step they need to make on the defensive side of the ball is find him a tag-team partner. Twyman fits the bill, with his size (6’2″ and 290 pounds) strength, and quickness, Twyman would be the perfect sidekick.
Patrick Jones II, Edge: Jones enjoyed a breakout season in 2019. During his first season as a starter, Jones recorded 12 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries. In 2018, playing as a situational pass-rusher, Jones recorded 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.
Jones is a twitched up edge rusher. The talented pass-rusher looks the part, checking in at 6’5″ and 260 pounds. He has an explosive first step and plays with good bend. He overwhelms offensive tackles with his speed and turns that speed into power. He plays with strong, heavy hands and has long arms.
“A scout I talked to told me Jones is great at “reducing surface area coming off the edge.” In other words, it’s tough for offensive tackles to get a good block on him,” McGonigal said. Jones is fast, and if he doesn’t get to the quarterback with an initial speed rush, he has the motor necessary for chase-down sacks and TFLs. There’s a reason why he led the ACC with four forced fumbles in 2019.”
Jones is one of the best edge rushers in the ACC and the country. He’s also solid against the run. He sets the edge and lives in the opponent’s backfield, causing constant disruption. One of the most impressive plays from Jones came against Boston College when he tackled AJ Dillon (the Green Bay Packers second-round pick) behind the line of scrimmage, something that didn’t happen very often in 2019.
AJ Dillon getting tackled behind the LOS by one guy is like seeing Sasquatch, it doesn't happen. Patrick Jones (#91) for Pitt is no joke. That Pitt DL is loaded. pic.twitter.com/8qrGWU262m
— Brennen Rupp (@royal_rupp) July 6, 2020
A team can never have enough edge rushers. That’s why the Green Bay Packers drafting Jones early is never out of the question. The Packers already have one of the best pass-rushing duos in the Smiths. Adding Jones to the mix, with Rashan Gary would give them one of the best pass-rushing stables in the NFL.
Paris Ford, S: Ford led the Panthers talented defense in tackles (97) and interceptions (3). The playmaking safety also broke up 11 passes and forced three fumbles.
“While I would argue that Jaylen Twyman is Pitt’s top prospect, followed by Ford or maybe even Patrick Jones II, Ford’s play-making ability is impressive,” McGonigal said. “I’ve never watched a college player with comparable instincts.”
The junior safety is the complete package. He’s comfortable in the box. He can line up and cover tight ends or slot receivers. He can play centerfield. That type of versatility is paramount in today’s game.
“Hamlin is a box safety, so Ford hangs deep more often than not,” McGonigal said. “But he reacts, flies all over the field and comes down hard in the run game. What’s perhaps most impressive is, last season was his first as a starter (and first as a safety). He was a reserve cornerback in 2018, and he slotted in at safety last year and led the team in tackles. His ceiling remains high.”
Everything about Ford’s game is fast. The junior safety flies all over the field. He’s quick to diagnose and comes downhill in a blur. In run support, he packs a heavy bunch as a tackler. In a recent interview, Ford warned wide receivers about coming over the middle against the Pitt defense.
“I’ll never intentionally try to hurt someone, but if you cross the middle there’s definitely a price you have to pay. You always should have your head on a swivel.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Ford was one of the most productive safeties in the ACC in run support during the 2019 season.
“Ford plays a brand of football seldom seen in today’s landscape as he lays the hits on the opposition almost routinely. He brought down 20 defensive stops in the run game to rank second among all ACC safeties, recording a stop on 7.5% of his snaps.”
“He diagnosed plays quickly and made quick cuts to ball carriers and receivers just the same, as he was truly one of the country’s best ballhawks at the position. He made the second-most total tackles at the position but led the conference’s safeties with 31 total defensive stops.”
“With three forced fumbles and three interceptions to his credit in coverage alone, Ford allowed a passer rating of just 56.9 into his primary coverage, allowing 15 receptions on 30 total targets with 10 plays on the ball himself.”
While Ford is reliable in run support, he’s equally as good in coverage. He possesses great ball skills and does a great job of breaking on the ball, showing good route recognition.
Ford has the skill-set that would allow the Green Bay Packers to utilize Darnell Savage Jr in the slot without there being much of a talent drop-off at safety. A future Packers secondary that consisted of names like, Jaire Alexander, Adrian Amos, Savage, and Ford looks good on paper.
Damar Hamlin, S: Hamlin has been a solid contributor for the Panthers over the past two seasons. In 2018, Hamlin recorded 90 tackles, three tackles for loss, two interceptions, and six pass deflections. As a junior in 2019, Hamlin recorded 84 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one interception, and 11 pass deflections.
Hamlin is as steady as they come. He’s not the flashiest player, but as Mike McCarthy used to say, “he’s just a heck of a football player”. He’s a versatile chess piece, reminding me a bit of Micah Hyde during his time at Iowa.
“Aside from the intangibles (leadership, etc.), I’d say his biggest strength is his reputation as a sure tackler,” McGonigal said. “He’s not the fastest guy, but when he has someone in front of him, rarely do they break free. I’m not sure how he’ll project as an NFL player, perhaps a dime linebacker? But he’s an ideal box safety for what Pat Narduzzi and Randy Bates need.”
Hamlin is at his best playing near the line of scrimmage. He’s solid in run support and is quick to diagnose plays, beating offensive lineman to the spot. Hamlin’s running mate (Ford) said that Hamlin’s greatest strength is his high football IQ.
“His knowledge, off the rip. He’s the leader on the back end. If someone’s not in position, he puts us all in position. I would say his knowledge is second to none. You can’t deny his knowledge about the game.”
Hello, Damar Hamlin. What a play to tackle AJ Dillon behind the LOS.
Pitt's defense is nasty with their front four and safety duo. pic.twitter.com/sDLHz2eQYl
— Brennen Rupp (@royal_rupp) July 6, 2020
In coverage, Hamlin shows a knack for getting his hands on the ball to force incompletions. His high football IQ is on display, showing good route recognition. He has good foot quickness and could be a nickel corner at the next level.
Hamlin isn’t getting the same hype as his teammates, but with another solid season, he could play himself into day two consideration. With his versatility, Hamin could be the type of player that Mike Pettine, the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator covets.