Summary: In the Nick Saban era, Alabama has produced a steady string of excellent pro prospects and freak athletes. Payne continues that tradition for the 2018 NFL Draft. In 2016, Payne recorded 36 tackles with 3.5 for a loss, 1.5 sacks and one pass broken up. He caused disruption and ate up double teams to help free up Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams to put steady heat on the quarterback. As a junior in 2017, Payne totaled 47 tackles, two sacks and a pass batted. He was superb in the playoff games against Clemson and Georgia. Versus the Tigers, Payne made a critical interception and caught a touchdown pass on offense.
Payne was superb, showcasing his freakish speed and athleticism in 2017. The junior was a tremendous run defender all year, shutting down his gap and keeping teams from running the ball on Alabama. When the Crimson Tide let him rush the passer, Payne demonstrated the ability to collapse the pocket and pressure the quarterback as well. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Payne was excellent with an electric 40 time of 4.91 seconds, including a very fast 10-yard split of 1.67 seconds.
The heavy nose tackle is shockingly explosive and agile for a big defender. Payne uses his burst to get into the chest of blockers and reset the line of scrimmage. As a run defender, Payne is superb. He stuffs his gap and is impossible to move. Even double teams are ineffective as Payne's upper body strength and ability to anchor holds his ground well at the point of attack. With his developed technique, Payne will shed blocks and flow down the line to make tackles on backs.
It is very rare to say or think that a nose tackle flies around the field, but that is the case with Payne. In 2017, there were plays on which I saw him fly to the sideline to get in on tackles on wide receiver screens. His explosiveness and speed to cover ground is shocking. His motor is steady, and he shows real effort to get in on plays away from him.
In the pass rush, Payne can flash an ability to charge down the pocket and get after the quarterback. He has the speed to fire by blockers and a powerful bull rush to collapse the pocket. Payne won't be a big-time sack producer in the NFL, but he should contribute with taking away the ability to step up in the pocket and chase the quarterback off their landmark. Payne also can eat up blocks to free up other rushers.
Payne projects to the NFL as an impact-making nose tackle in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. In the 2018 NFL Draft, he is expected to go in the top-20 picks. Some sources think that Payne could crack the top 10.
Player Comparison: Marcell Dareus. Team sources have compared Payne to Dareus, and it is easy to see why. Both were freaky athletes as nose tackles for Alabama. Dareus (6-3, 331) and Payne are similar in size with rare combinations of speed and strength. Coming into the NFL, Dareus was a better pass-rusher than Payne and projected to doing more in the pass rush. Hence, Darues was a top-three pick while Payne will go lower than that. Still, I think Payne could end up having a more consistent career than the enigmatic Dareus.
NFL Matches: Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Oakland, Washington, Arizona, Oakland, Los Angeles Chargers, Detroit, Buffalo, Atlanta, New Orleans and New England
There are a lot of teams that could target Payne in the 2018 NFL Draft. With his ability to fit any scheme and be a disruptive force, he will be in high demand.
In the top 10, Payne has a few possible destinations. Tampa Bay needs to improve its line play on both sides of the ball. Payne could form a tough tandem with Gerald McCoy. San Francisco could consider Payne as an upgrade over Earl Mitchell. Oakland needs a lot of help in its front seven, and Payne could be an instant upgrade to the Raiders' run defense while helping to collapse the pocket for Khalil Mack. Payne makes a lot of sense for Oakland.
The Redskins could use more defensive line talent next to Jonathan Allen. Payne would give them an impactful nose tackle who could form an elite tandem with Allen. Reuniting Payne and Allen is something that intrigues Washington. Arizona, meanwhile, missed Calais Campbell in 2017, so Payne could be in play for the Cardinals.
The Lions need an interior disruptor to go with A'Shawn Robinson, and Payne would be a nice fit in Detroit. Buffalo could use an interior defender to replace Marcel Dareus, despite bringing in Star Lotulelei. Payne would fit the Bills' defensive scheme well.
Atlanta also could use more interior defensive line talent, and Payne would be a fit as a replacement for Dontari Poe. Staying in the NFC South, Payne could give the Saints a replacement for Nick Fairley and a tackle to team up with Sheldon Rankins.
At the end of the first round, Payne could be a fit for New England, which could use more interior defensive line talent. Payne and Danny Shelton could give the Patriots two heavyweights at the point of attack.