2021 NFL draft: After Iowa DT Daviyon Nixon's 2020 breakout, how high is his ceiling?

Eric Edholm
·6-min read

Leading up to the 2021 NFL draft, which starts April 29, Yahoo Sports will count down our top 100 overall prospects. We’ll count them down in groups of five for Nos. 100-51, followed by more in-depth reports on our top 50 players, with help from our scouting assistant, Liam Blutman. We reserve the right to make changes to players’ grades and evaluations based on injury updates, pro-day workouts or late-arriving information from NFL teams.

Other prospect rankings: Nos. 100-96 | 95-91 | 90-86 | 85-81 | 80-76 | 75-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. OT Liam Eichenberg | 49. WR Terrace Marshall Jr. | 48. LB Chazz Surratt | 47. EDGE Joe Tryon | 46. OT-OG Alex Leatherwood | 45. CB Asante Samuel Jr. | 44. DL Levi Onwuzurike | 43. LB Jabril Cox | 42. DT Daviyon Nixon | 41. EDGE Ronnie Perkins | 40. LB Nick Bolton | 39. CB Ifeatu Melifonwu | 38. WR Elijah Moore | 37. OT Jalen Mayfield | 36. EDGE Carlos Basham Jr. | 35. CB Elijah Molden | 34. RB Travis Etienne | 33. WR Kadarius Toney | 32. EDGE Jayson Oweh | 31. LB Zaven Collins | 30. DT Christian Barmore | 29. QB Mac Jones | 28. CB Caleb Farley | 27. RB Javonte Williams | 26. C-OG Landon Dickerson | 25. S Trevon Moehrig | 24. CB Greg Newsome II | 23. WR Rashod Bateman | 22. EDGE Greg Rousseau | 21. OT Christian Darrisaw

Here are how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
Here are how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

42. Iowa DT Daviyon Nixon

6-foot-3, 313 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 5.90 — potential starter

TL;DR scouting report: 2020 breakout star who flashed a gift for backfield penetration, even if there are some rough patches in his game

Games watched: Minnesota (2020), Northwestern (2020), Illinois (2020), Penn State (2020), Wisconsin (2020)

The skinny: A 3-star Rivals recruit, Nixon committed to the Hawkeyes out of high school but ended up spending one year at community college. At Iowa, Nixon redshirted his first season in 2018 to bolster his academic standing and nearly left, entering the transfer portal at one point. But he stuck around and found his way into the rotation in 2019, making 29 tackles (5.5 for losses) and three sacks in 12 games (one start).

In 2020, Nixon broke out in a big way, making 45 tackles (13.5 for losses) with a forced fumble and a 71-yard pick-six in eight games, earning first-team AP All-America mention, winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and being named a Nagurski Trophy finalist. Following the season, he declared early for the 2021 NFL draft.

Upside: Good penetration skills from the interior. Quickness off the ball is evident. Plays with an attacking mentality. Can chop his feet and leverage blockers with great cross-face pass-rush moves. Has the ability to disrupt the timing and blocking scheme of an offense quickly. Takes good diagonal paths to make plays.

Nice lateral movement skill to work down the line and flush plays out — makes plays in pursuit. Can squirt through tiny cracks, leverage gaps and shimmy into the backfield. Effective working stunts and twists — ideally built for a scheme that employs heavy DL games up front. Was saddled a bit by an Iowa defensive system that asked him to hold the point or control gaps rather than consistently try to shoot them.

Ran a 4.90-second 40-yard dash at 313 pounds at his pro day — strong linear burst. Averaged nearly 60 snaps per game in 2020 and had three contests with 70-plus snaps — run into the ground by the Iowa coaches. Saw time at the nose, as a 3-technique and as an end — even stood up as a rusher from inside in the Hawkeyes’ “amoeba” front. Has some little-guy skills for such a big-bodied frame.

Has some natural playmaking instincts — will smell screens, draws and misdirections. Athletic enough to drop on zone pressures.

Not too many 300-plus pounders who can do what Nixon did on this play against Penn State, from start to finish:

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Plays with some pop — some really violent streaks on tape that could fire up some DL coaches. Can fight for every inch as a run and pass defender. Good lower-body strength to power his way through tough spots — can stack blockers. Had a sack against Northwestern where he split the double team and fought through an (uncalled) hold to take down the QB.

Ascending talent who is just starting to realize his talent and put it all together. If 2020 is just the start, his upside could be terrific.

Downside: Lack of experience — fewer than 800 FBS snaps. Started only nine games. Bit of a late bloomer, turning 23 years old in December. Racked up a big chunk of his stats (three TFLs, 1.5 sacks, forced fumble) against a Northwestern offensive line that was beaten up.

Only spurts of dominance — very little sustained success. Motor and effectiveness ran hot and cold. Looked ordinary and went long stretches without making impact plays in games against Minnesota and Illinois. Run defending keyed on penetration skills — some offenses had success running directly at him. Will overshoot gaps and lose contain. Might not fit ideally in an odd (two-gap) front.

Iowa DT Daviyon Nixon turned in a brilliant 2020 season before entering the draft. (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Iowa DT Daviyon Nixon turned in a brilliant 2020 season before entering the draft. (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Turned in middling to sub-par pro-day testing numbers in the 20-yard shuttle (4.70 seconds), three-cone drill (7.68 seconds), broad jump (8-foot-10) and vertical jump (28.5 inches) — numbers closer to what you might expect for a burly offensive guard.

Lacks ideal length. Added bulk after the season (played closer to 300) but might not be able to sustain that weight and his play quickness. Upper-body development needs work — looks like he lost some battles when he couldn’t press out blockers and steer them. Got mauled a few times by tandem blocks. Hand work can be crude at times.

Still learning to develop offspeed pitches — could add more finesse, variety and technique to his pass rush, even though he appears quite capable. Can bog down when his initial burst is contained. Doesn’t consistently generate speed to power when lined up closer to the edges. Needs to see plays develop better.

Best-suited destination: Nixon appears to be the kind of prospect who ideally will be worked into a rotation early on before being handed a starting spot. We don’t have a large body of evidence for his potential dominance outside of his eight-game burst in 2020, and there’s plenty of room for development. He frankly was overused last season and would have looked more spry and consistent had the coaches not kept him on the field for such long stretches.

Did you know: Nixon almost ended up at Alabama. They offered him after his one junior college season, so Nixon went back to the Iowa coaching staff to let them know of that development. His father, Rodney, was stunned. But when Rodney asked Daviyon what school he wanted to pick, Daviyon said he planned to stick with Iowa. “He said, ‘That’s a good choice,” Nixon told Big Ten Network.

“Whenever I see him coming out of the tunnel, I get a little teary-eyed,” Rodney said. “I am super proud of him.”

Player comp: Malcolm Brown

Expected draft range: Rounds 2 or 3

More from Yahoo Sports: