Defensive players again rising to top of NFL's draft class

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Alabama linebacker Will Anderson speaks during a press conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS – Will Anderson Jr. believes he's the best defensive player in this year’s NFL draft.

Heck, he might even be this year's top overall pick.

And the former Alabama star insists he's willing to do whatever he must to earn both accolades — even working out at this week's NFL annual scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Still, Anderson recognizes this week's big stage only adds a new chapter to what could be a potentially special journey, hearing commissioner Roger Goodell calling his name first on April 27.

“It's about what you've got in here and that's what's carried me through life," Anderson said Wednesday, tapping his heart. “It would mean a lot. It would mean all the hard work is paying off.”

The reward would be sizable — a lucrative contract, the prestige of being selected first overall. Travon Walker and Anderson could become the first defensive players selected No. 1 overall in consecutive years since Russell Maryland and Steve Emtman in 1991 and 1992.

Anderson also realizes this is not a coronation.

The Chicago Bears have the first overall pick, but have acknowledged they would be willing to trade the selection to a quarterback-needy team for the right price — and if they can find a trade partner. Then Anderson would need to impress another decision-maker that he's the best option.

Even if the Bears stand pat, though, the competition just to be the first defensive player selected this year promises to be fierce.

Anderson's biggest challenger was expected to be the athletic 300-pound defensive tackle Jalen Carter.

The two have faced off before on the field.

Alabama won the national title in 2020 then beat Georgia in the 2021 SEC title game. Georgia beat Alabama for the 2021 national title in Indy before Georgia repeated as champs this past season.

The two schools have combined for the past three national championships with Carter winning two and Anderson one.

But Carter, who announced earlier this week he was opting out of the on-field drills, is now charged with reckless driving and racing in conjunction with a January crash that killed Georgia offensive lineman Devin Willock and a recruiting staff member.

Carter did not speak to reporters in Indy, as scheduled Wednesday, and instead issued a statement on Twitter.

“It is my intention to return to Athens (Georgia) to answer the misdemeanor charges against me and to make certain that the complete and accurate truth is presented,” he wrote. “There is no question in my mind that when all of the facts are known that I will be fully exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing.”

Still, the charges could make general managers and coaches reconsider Carter's evaluation and press him for answers as the draft process continues.

But beyond Carter, there is plenty of other defensive talent, too.

Tyree Wilson of Texas Tech and Will McDonald IV of Iowa State appear to be the top defensive ends. Wilson has been climbing fast on some draft boards, something Anderson also has noticed as the two did combine prep work together following Wilson's foot surgery in November.

"I think I’m real close to 100 percent,” said Wilson, who intends to work out at his pro day. “I just started running. After the combine, I’m going to take it to the next level and start opening up.”

Cornerbacks Christian Gonzalez of Oregon and Devon Witherspoon of Illinois also could be top-10 picks.

But working out with the linebackers, instead of what draft analysts believe are stronger, deeper position groups such as defensive line and cornerbacks, could help the 6-foot-4, 243-pound Anderson prove he’s the most dominant defender in Indy.

“Being at Alabama made me very versatile,” he said. “I was dropping into coverage, pass rushing. I can do a lot of things."

Still, Anderson also must prove he's more valuable than the four quarterbacks projected to go in the first round — C.J. Stroud of Ohio State, Will Levis of Kentucky, Anthony Richardson of Florida and Bryce Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner and Anderson's former teammate at Alabama.

Even Anderson said he would be hard-pressed to pass on Young.

“If I’m in the position to take him, I’d take him," Anderson said.

Can he outperform them all? He's going to give it a shot.

“Every day is a business day, there are no days off,” Anderson said. “Practice is going to get you prepared for a game and practice is harder than a game.”


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