Lions 2024 Draft Prospect of the Day: Jer’Zhan “Johnny” Newton, DT, Illinois

USA Today

The Lions Draft Prospect of the Day features arguably the top interior defensive lineman in the 2024 NFL draft.

The focus is on players who should hold some appeal to the Lions in the draft, with a focus on the more likely positions the team will be targeting. If you’re looking for quarterbacks or upper-echelon running backs, you’re probably not going to find those here. Outside cornerbacks, defensive linemen, interior offensive linemen, some wide receivers and offensive tackles figure to appear along the path to April’s draft. Not all of the players will be top-100 prospects, either.

Today’s prospect is a wrecking ball of a defensive tackle who unfortunately won’t be participating in next week’s NFL Scouting Combine due to injury.

Johnny Newton, DT, Illinois

Height: 6-2

Weight: 295 (listed by Illinois)

Jer’Zhan is now officially recognized as “Johnny,” and he’ll also be widely known as one of the top defensive talents in the NFL draft class of 2024. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year was a two-time first-team All-American and a finalist for several defensive postseason honors. He led all collegiate interior linemen in QB pressures as a senior with 44, 15 more than any other Big Ten DT.

For his four-year career at Illinois, the Florida native racked up 188 tackles, 28.5 TFLs and 18 sacks. He was a two-time Academic All-Big Ten performer off the field and a team captain for Illinois. Newton recently had foot surgery that will keep him idle at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he is expected to make a full recovery before the draft.

What I like

  •  Explosive burst off the snap
  • Great natural knee bend and pad level
  • Powerful hands and shoulders to jolt off blockers
  • Excellent 2-step closing burst to the point of attack
  • Can win over either shoulder of interior OLs with a barrage of pass-rush moves
  • Plays with violence and passion
  • Showed real progress at shedding blocks and finding the ball as a run defender
  • Rarefied open-field speed for a DT
  • Played through a Jones avulsion fracture in his foot without showing signs of being limited
  • Consistently disruptive against all types of blocking schemes

What worries me going into the NFL

  •  Doesn’t play with a lot of base strength or anchor against the run
  • Would rather try to keep getting around than going through a blocker
  • Can get caught off-guard by traps and pulls
  • Doesn’t consistently wrap up on tackles and can bounce off attempts
  • Frame appears maxed out
  • Will try to do too much at times if he’s not successful early in a game
  • His size limits him to playing almost exclusively as a 3T in a 4-man front in the NFL

Best game I watched: Penn State

Worst game I watched: Purdue in 2022

Overall

 Newton offers up so much to like as an interior defensive force. His playing style and movement skills remind me a lot of former No. 3 overall pick Gerald McCoy as a prospect. Like McCoy at Oklahoma, Newton is productively disruptive on his own but also elevates the play of everyone around him. 

I don’t expect Newton to last to the Lions at the 29th pick, but his recent surgery and the rise of so many WRs and OTs leave the door cracked open. Newton would be an instant starter next to Alim McNeill and immediately impact the interior pass rush with playmaking consistency. He should be a top-15 pick.

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