2020 NFL Draft: Defensive players to watch in the American Athletic Conference (AAC)

The AAC has some defensive prospects who are ready to show out for NFL teams this upcoming season.

It has been over a month since the 2019 NFL Draft and preseason rankings are starting to come out for the 2020 NFL Draft. These rankings fill with players from all of the Power 5 schools. This article, however, is for players from the Group of 5 conferences. Let’s look at some of the top defenders from the American Athletic Conference (AAC).

James Wiggins, S, Cincinnati

One of the highest rated players in the AAC is the defensive back from Homestead, Florida. Wiggins made Bruce Feldman’s “Freak List” before last season because of his 4.4 40 yard dash, 37-inch vertical leap and 11-foot broad jump all while benching 405 and squatting 675.

And it shows up on the field every down.

Wiggins can play all coverages and has a knack for tracking the ball with his 4 INTs last year. Being listed as a corner coming out of high school, Wiggins can be a nickel defender and has no trouble playing close to the line and defending the run.

Wiggins has a chance to become the third Bearcat ever to be drafted in the 1st round; the first since DT Bob Bell in 1971. The former Miami commit can get there with another productive season leading his defense.

Bryce Huff, EDGE/LB, Memphis

The returning AAC tackles for loss leader comes back to try to take the crown once again. Huff plays the Genard Avery role well for the Tigers playing in their front seven as an off-ball linebacker and as a pass rusher.

Huff is explosive with that first step and can stop on a dime. He loves the inside move but can tend to get carried away with it sometimes. Huff also has the strength to counter his speed as well.

Huff is an incredible athlete and has the potential to be an astonishing pass rusher in the NFL. Teams always gamble on athleticism even if there is a lack of polish to his game. Expect Huff to rise during the pre-draft process because he should have excellent combine scores. You could even see Huff taken somewhere in Day 2 of the NFL Draft just like his former Memphis counterpart Genard Avery barring any setbacks.

Patrick Johnson, EDGE, Tulane

The returning AAC sack leader is back and ready to impress in his final campaign at Tulane. Tulane utilizes Johnson similar to how Josh Allen played at Kentucky. He is not the player that Allen is but the Green Wave has Johnson drop in coverage as well as rush the passer.

Johnson is at the place that Josh Allen was the season before he came out: a good athlete with minimal variety in his pass rush. The production was there with 10.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But coming from the AAC, Johnson is going to have to show more pass rush moves and stronger hands to rise on draft boards.

Richie Grant, S, UCF

Here’s another ball-hawking safety from the 2018 national champions of college football. Grant is fast and has natural ball instincts. He usually plays single high for the Knights, but he comes down to the box and covers crossing routes very well.

Grant is keen at creating turnovers as he led the AAC with six last season. I like Grant in coverage, but he is not very physical and doesn’t attack the run well. Another good year in coverage would help Grant but better angles attacking the run could help propel him up draft boards as well.

Mike Hampton, CB, USF

USF had a disappointing end to their season after winning their first 7 and dropping the next 6. Fortunately, head coach Charlie Strong returns a lot of talent and has leaders on the team that can put them back into the AAC championship picture. Those leaders start with Mike Hampton.

At 6’1, 180 pounds, Hampton has the arm length to pester receivers which is the reason why he is the AAC returning pass breakup leader with 18 of them. USF plays a lot of Cover 3 and man-to-man coverage that Hampton plays well. He plays one side of the field and can mirror receivers with the best of them.

Hampton can improve his technique by playing through receivers’ hands. There are many plays where Hampton thinks he punches the ball out, but the receiver catches it and runs for extra yards. Hampton is physical with receivers in coverage, but he could be a tad more physical in run defense as well. There are times where Hampton gets blocked out of the play, and the offense runs for big yards.

Heading into his junior season, Hampton could make a big jump up boards if he can make jumps in his development. With former DB and defensive coordinator Charlie Strong as head coach, it can certainly happen.

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