1. DE Joey Bosa, Junior, Ohio State
His adoption of the nihilistic shrug emoji as his signature reaction to triumphant moments captures this beast's place in the world: a generally-untrammeled force of nature, whose part in life's play is mostly to smash guys while somehow showing little malice in doing so. The shrug is neither gloating nor confrontational. You see, your quarterback has just been smashed into the turf; how and by whom are incidental concerns. It is merely a thing which has happened.
Right, so let's move past the poetry and talk numbers. 55 total tackles, 21 of those for a loss and 13.5 of those being sacks. To be sure, he played on a line with three other terrors who needed to be accounted for, leaving this scarlet-clad tornado free to work without restraint (unless you count the conference's right tackles as restraints, which. Check those numbers again). As I said last offseason, the best news about this guy if you're a fan of another team is at least he's a surefire early draft entrant, so soon he'll be hunting a better class of QB.
2. DE Shilique Calhoun, RS Senior, Michigan State
Calhoun opted to return for a final season in East Lansing despite some lofty NFL draft projections and, as a returning captain, he figures to shoulder even more of a leadership role as a senior. Mammoth preseason expectations for Calhoun were perhaps not fully realized, as opponents keyed on him through most of the season and at times limited his impact.
Still, 39 tackles with 12.5 for loss and 8 sacks is nothing to sneeze at, and with similar production from bookend Marcus Rush and pass-rushing LB Ed Davis, the Spartan pass rush did just fine even without the otherworldly numbers some expected from Calhoun. Nonetheless, one presumes he returned to school in part to solidify his first-round draft status, and if that's the case, scouts will be looking for a splash season from the senior.
3. DT Anthony Zettel, RS Senior, Penn State
Arguably the most indispensable cog of Penn State's elite 2014 defense, Zettel's picture can be found under the encyclopedia entry for 'persistent' in a gallery of photos including a mosquito and those LDS guys with the nametags. A former defensive end, the untutored observer watching a Penn State game might see this smallish guy lining up across from an offensive guard and expect to see Zettel get blasted onto his backside as the opponent runs right at the undersized tackle. Then, the ball's snapped and somehow Zettel is already in the backfield tackling the ballcarrier, having slipped around the big lug who was supposed to block him.
On top of impressive tackle numbers for an interior lineman (42 total, 17 TFL, 8 sacks), Zettel displayed an uncanny knack for disrupting passing lanes. He broke up 5 passes on the year, good for third on the team behind two starting DBs, and intercepted 3 passes. Zettel's NFL future is uncertain given his lack of size, but he and fellow tackle Austin Johnson will again give PSU a formidable pairing up front in 2015, even with both starting DEs departing.
4. DE Drew Ott, Senior, Iowa
Lost in Iowa's disappointing 2014 campaign was the fact that the defensive line actually played quite well for the most part, although the utter lack of athleticism behind them reduced the front four's impact. This was most visible in the bowl game, where Tennessee didn't bother running straight at the Iowa front much, but instead avoided Iowa's strength by running outside instead.
Supported by strong play from tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, Ott notched 57 tackles, with 12 TFLs and 8 sacks. With Davis and Trinca-Pasat graduating, Ott is likely to face increased attention from offensive coordinators, at least until someone else in Iowa's front commands that attention. There is decent, if unproven, talent at tackle in the form of Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie, either or both of whom could plausibly help Ott maintain a high level of play up front. Until that happens, though, Ott is presumably priority #1 for Iowa's opponents.
5. DT Adolphus Washington, Senior, Ohio State
Another who postponed a promising NFL draft projection to finish out his eligibility, Washington figures to team with Bosa as the anchors of a retooled Buckeye DL. Depending on how effective replacements for departing linemates Steve Miller and Michael Bennett are, Washington may attract considerably more attention this year from opposing blocking schemes.
Washington's 2014 numbers were good for an interior lineman- 48 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks. With Bosa next to him and commanding consistent double teams, another step forward from Washington would help OSU's defense continue its return to its glory days.