Not exactly a Big10 Powerhouse, Illinois has still been able to produce some great NFL talent in recent years; Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown, Kerby Joseph, Chase Brown, and Nate Hobbs all come to mind as of late, and all but the second to last name come from the defensive side of the ball. After sending Witherspoon into the league as a Consensus All-American, being the first cornerback to get picked in 2023, they now have a Consensus All-American interior defender who will likely be first off the board among his position group himself.
Let me introduce you to Jer'Zahn Newton, otherwise known as Johnny Newton, a one-time high school running back who was recruited to Illinois by the old Lovie Smith regime. Under Brett Belemia, he went on to have an absolute monster 2023 season. Newton took home the Nagurski-Woodson (Big10) Defensive Player of the Year honors, Smith-Brown (Big10) Defensive Lineman of the Year honors, and First Team All-Big10 honors on top of being a consensus All-American. Belimia recently called him the best IDL he's ever been around, and a program changer with his work ethic and motor. While Newton leaves a lasting legacy at his alma mater, does he live up to the on-the-field standard of guys like Witherspoon, Joseph, and others, or does he raise the bar?
Name: Jer'Zahn "Johnny" Newton
Jersey: No. 4
Position: Interior Defensive Lineman
Weight: 295 lbs
Games Watched: vs. Wisconsin and Minnesota (2022), vs. Wisconsin, Penn State, and Nebraska (2023)
Major Injury History: N/A
Block Shedding (12.5/15)
Where Newton will win off blocks with his raw finesse and elite hand usage. Swims, chops, you name it, he uses it to his advantage since power and leverage aren't his strong suits. This ultimately made him more of a disruptor than an outright game wrecker in the run game, but Newton can still make an impact there, especially in the three 2023 games in spurts. But just in general, the hand usage is elite, especially given that Newton doesn't have the longest arms.
Strength at the LOS (10.25/15)
Given Newton's size and length combination, teams may ultimately sour on him in terms of his strength. It's not that he gets moved around since he's a tree trunk with a great base, but he naturally lacks power at 295 lbs, and he can only create so much leverage for himself to dominate blockers. Also, needless to say, when Newton faced double teams, and yes, he did, often at that, there wasn't a ton he could do outside of his craftmanship with his hands. But will a team want him to gain weight at the risk of him losing some ground in some of his better areas? That will be something to watch for in the coming months. Even then, he led the Big 10 in run stuffs (among IDLs) in 2023.
Pass Rush Ability (14.75/15)
I think especially for a guy who's not going to light up the RAS measurable scores, Newton being as good an interior pass rusher as he is would be a testament to his work ethic and craftmanship. You don't exactly find guys with his combination of size and length, but also the ability to bend, close up on a quarterback in short order, and lineup versatility upfront, growing on trees. That last part was comfortably the most interesting. There was no shortage of reps where he showed off some incredible bend working over tackles lined up as a 4/4i-Tech. Of course, he looked great against IOL as well. Newton also feats working on push-pulls and makes the swim move look very easy at times. And on a final note, PFF had him down for seven (7) pressures in the 2023 Penn State game. Game wrecker stuff would be an understatement. Did I mention he's really good at running stunts yet?
For all of the shortcomings that Newton has (basically all of which are out of his control), he's never going to cheat you on effort, and he's always going to execute a play to the best of his ability. Whether that be sealing off gaps in the run game or fighting for everything he has to beat a block to get to the quarterback, you'll never have to worry about the play-by-play consistency with Newton. The only thing holding this back from being a perfect score would be the next category, funny enough, but watch this effort Newton shows on a pressure that leads to a pick.
There are times when Newton looked great coming off the snap, allowing him the advantage to seal up blocks or display some occasional power, but the timing of when he gets up out of the stance can be a bit inconsistent. That would lead to him getting bottled up, especially against bigger linemen who also have a leverage advantage in the run game, where he's already at a natural disadvantage. The good news is that this is fixable, and there's enough there to feel good enough for the time being. That, and the first step when everything is clicking, is great, leading him to being disruptive at worst and highly impactful at best.
Length Usage (8.25/10)
Since Newton doesn't possess above-average arm length, there's a natural cap on how he uses his length to his advantage. With that being said, you almost always saw him try to deflect passes at the line, and while he's a bit limited as a run defender in terms of length usage, he's shown with regularity he's just fine as a pass rusher, with the hands being a key part of that as we've mentioned.
Although Newton sits on the leaner side of things (for an IDL) at 295 lbs, the trade-off of being as athletic and mobile as he is is worthwhile. Closing speed is something we touched on earlier, but that'll be a huge advantage when Newton is tasked with chasing down running backs and more mobile quarterbacks. Like, guys who are close to 300 pounds should not be able to do this that well:
Football IQ (9.5/10)
It felt like Newton always had a firm grasp on what was happening in front of him, reacting accordingly in all phases. Super intelligent in that regard. One thing that popped up though, is that on a few occasions, Newton ended up overpursuing on read option-adjacent plays and went for the wrong guy. Again, we're talking about maybe a half dozen snaps at most out of about 300-ish. It's so far from a trouble spot, but something that coaches would want to get out of him. But here's an example of when he knows when to turn his brain off, knowing he can go for the jugular, unblocked at that.
While I think Newton's build may naturally have some teams concerned about his every down ability, he's such a good pass rusher that he'd be worth a round-one flyer. Aaron Donald is the creme de la creme of undersized IDLs but look at a guy like Calijah Kancey from the 2023 draft. He's even smaller than Newton but could end his rookie season with five sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Then in years past, names like Da'Ron Payne, Sheldon Richardson, and Alim McNeill fit into that smaller-size mold and have gone on to have productive NFL careers.
Newton has shown on the eye test he has all the makings to join that group, and I like him a tad more than what this score would even indicate (.5-1.0 more if anything). He has a great attitude and mindset, the work ethic on the field isn't just talk, and you can't teach the motor he gives. Even with some limitations, he's a first-round pick, no matter how you slice it.
Rookie Projection: 3/4-Tech Pass Rush Specialist
Third-Year Projection: Pro Bowl Caliber IDL
Final Grade (87.25/100): Mid-1st Round Talent
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