Timmy Jernigan of Florida State is unquestionably the highest-rated defensive tackle in this year’s NFL draft class. Athletic, versatile and hard-working, the former Seminoles standout is all but certain to come off the board in the first round.
Last year was Jernigan’s first as a full-time starter, finishing with 63 tackles, 11 for loss, and 4.5 sacks en route to being named a second-team Associated Press All-American and first-team All-ACC honors. During the BCS National Championship game, Jernigan was a critical part of Florida State’s ability to slow down Auburn’s up-tempo rushing attack.
At 6-foot-2 and 296 pounds, Jernigan is a prototypical fit as a 3-4 nose tackle, which is where he fit in under coach Jimbo Fisher’s defense. It was not only Jernigan’s first year as a starter but the first year in that sort of system, but he responded by frequently making plays at the line of scrimmage, showing an uncanny ability to shed blockers and displayed quick closing speed to swallow up running backs or pressure quarterbacks. And what most NFL coaches are looking for — Jernigan commands attention from more than one lineman, and is a force against the run due to his ability to penetrate.
Of course, in the NFL Jernigan will have to improve on his anticipation off the line of scrimmage. At times he’s been the last lineman to get going, and if he was as successful as he was with a late start he can only be more disruptive when he gets better at anticipating the snap count and reacting appropriately.
Jernigan is ranked No. 5 overall by ESPN Scouts Inc. and No. 12 overall by Mel Kiper Jr., and in both rankings is considered the best defensive tackle by far in the class and perhaps the only one worthy of first-round considerations.
The first — and widely considered the most likely — team in need of a defensive tackle is the Chicago Bears sitting with the No. 14 pick. The Bears struggled immensely to fill the void in the interior defensive line this season as the team was forced to plug in 4-3 ends. While Chicago desperately needs a player like Jernigan, it seems as if no team picking beforehand has a major need at that position.
Should Jernigan slip past the Bears, both the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers could easily go after him. Vince Wilfork is aging and is coming off a season-ending injury, and without their All-Pro the team struggled defensively. It’s a very similar situation with San Fran, as Justin Smith is getting older and the team will look to maintain one of the elite front sevens in the league.