After talking about a pretty weak offensive tackle class I want to take a look at the guys lining up across from them. And to make myself clear about the difference in the quality between those two classes – the edge rushers would whip those tackles if you went number five against number five or seven against seven. While most of the prospects lined up primarily with their hand in the dirt during their time in college, many of them will convert to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. That’s why I won’t knock their game too much if I didn’t see them drop into coverage before turning pro. At the same time pass rushers are at a premium right now and therefore the ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be the most important criteria.
1. Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
This dude is a monster athlete, which he showed off at the combine with a 4.64 in the four and a 41 inch vertical at more than 270 pounds. He has an elite first step and using the word explosive to describe him would be an understatement. When he gets into his rush he has unbelievable balance and bend to run the edge the way he wants instead of letting offensive tackles guide him. He is often underrated as a run defender, but he has the strength to bench-press blockers and devour ball-carriers. If you want to see him at his full potential turn on the UCLA tape and watch him kill Connor McDermott over and over again. I was he told that in high-school he once recorded 8.5 sacks in a single game. Not only is he a dominant presence off the edge, he has the versatility to line up all over the defensive front on passing downs and he stood out even though he had a target on his back this entire season. I haven’t seen a defensive player get the kind of attention from opposing teams since Jadeveon Clowney. My only real knock on him is that when he gets stood up by an extra-blocker and is straight up to offensive linemen he sometimes tends to stop working and gets caught looking into the backfield. His brother was a former first overall pick in the NBA and threw all his potential away with some silly off-the-court decisions and I have no doubt Garrett won’t make the same mistakes. Not only does he look like a first overall pick, he also has the game to back it up.
2. Derek Barnett, Tennessee
Barnett is a tenacious pass-rusher who to me has shown the best usage of techniques in this year’s class. His pass rush arsenal includes the rip-and-rip, spin moves and just pure speed around the edge. He also puts pressure on blockers instantly by getting a great jump off the ball. All that led to him breaking Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee with 32 in just three years. When he arrives at the quarterback he puts those kinds of them that force interceptions. Barnett keeps his pads low and can slip past blockers when lined up on the inside in the run game, he sees through the blocker and locates the ball without having to give up leverage, leading to 52 TFLs in just 36 starts. In the Texas A&M game you saw him checking an uncovered slot receiver and running 30 yards downfield with him to knock the pass down. He shows a relentless attitude that lifts the rest of the team. He doesn’t have elite bend or twitch due to rather tight hips, he might not wow people with his athleticism and you’d like him to be a little longer, but he has the smarts and technique to be very productive in any front with the versatility to line up all over the line on passing downs.
3. Taco Charlton, Michigan:
The former Wolverine is 6’6’’ and plays long and hard. He gets into a track stance and explodes out of it, keeping his pads close to the ground and running with a forward lean to get early leverage on offensive linemen, with the lateral agility and secondary burst to catch hesitating RBs from behind. As a pass rusher he has an excellent bull-and-pull move, feels his blocker and knows when to spin off of him. He has the length to grab the back of the opposition’s shoulder pads and push himself past that guy, but he can also flatten to the QB with a hand up his pads or helmet. Charlton simply has a way of stepping around blockers and accelerating past them before punishing quarterbacks with devastating hits. He might lack some play-recognition and could be a little quicker off the snap, but he will only get with NFL coaching to string moves together better and use his hands more consistently in general. Sometimes I feel like he is a little late to read the backfield overall, but most importantly he has the hunger and enthusiasm to dominate the opposition.
4. Tim Williams, Alabama:
At just 245 pounds the Alabama stud has a lot twitchiness to his game and maybe the best get-off in college football last season. He can bend and torque his body to get around offensive linemen, works with hesitation moves and seems to always be faster to make that one step past the blocker. He complements his speed with a seemingly unfair spin move and while he might not look like a power rusher, he has the leg drive to push around tackles that are on their heels, resulting in nine sacks and 16 TFLs in 2016. Williams might not set a very physical edge, but he creates havoc by looping around blockers and showing up in the backfield. Due to a suspension because of misdemeanor gun charge he didn’t see the field for the first half in the Kentucky game, but once he was out there he destroyed people and looked absolutely unstoppable. There’s no doubt he has to add some weight to his frame, which shows up when he is mirrored and a man gets a straight punch on him or when tackles get their hands inside his chest as run-blockers in general. For somebody who will most likely be looked at as a 3-4 OLB he doesn’t really have any experience dropping into coverage. At this point Williams is ‘just’ a pass rusher in the NFL, but he can excel at that one thing as long as his coaches keep things simple for him and he learns the good old tomahawk chop to translate some of those easy sacks into fumbles. That is if he manages to stay clean off the field and frustrates opponents more with what he does on it.
5. Takarrist McKinley, UCLA:
That guy is fast-ball off the edge. He often wins clean off the ball with his speed, especially with the way he can bend and get under blockers in combination with using his hands to swim or rip pas them. While he doesn’t solely rely on that, he uses it to his advantage to set up other stuff like keeps offensive tackles guessing with hesitation moves. Not only does he have the best burst in this class, he also comes with a relentless motor. He certainly gives up a lot of weight to opposing O-linemen, but he doesn’t mind running right into them to not give them any chance to exploit his size. McKinley does an excellent job not letting cut-blocks get to his legs by extending his arms and pushing the blocker to the ground. He completely abused Utah’s right tackle and had a play where he got through clean, sacked the quarterback and simply took the ball away on the way to the ground. You worry about his extremely thin calves and he doesn’t always make initial contact with his arms. Once the speed doesn’t work he doesn’t really know what he’s to do if his blocker can stay straight to him and get under his pads. Against NFL O-linemen he won’t be able to really anchor in the run game and his pad level rises too much when he gets a little tired, but with the way he can run that edge he puts a lot of stress on offensive tackles and he still is far from the player he can become one day.
6. Charles Harris, Missouri:
In line to be the next great Missouri edge rusher, Harris presents a wide frame and the power to push offensive linemen around, but he has also shown the athleticism to drop into coverage by how well he moved in those drills at the combine. He probably is at his best when slanting inside and creating havoc right up the middle, as he created 30 tackles for loss and 16 sacks over his last two years at Mizzou. He sets up his rushes with power early and spins off the body of his blockers. At times I saw him struggling with long offensive tackles, who keep him from flattening to the QB or create initial contact to force a different path. Harris works his way through holds with a torqued upper body to draw yellow cloths. While he has some quick moves with his arms, he doesn’t use them consistently enough. I really like how he seems to always chases ball-carriers from the back of running plays. He doesn’t come in with a large arsenal of pass-rush moves and the initial quickness to win many reps off the snap, but he plays with a ton of energy and through the echo of the whistle.
7. T.J. Watt, Wisconsin
This dude is an all-day sucker. He has a great get-off and lot of punch in his hands to stack blockers and control the edge. His length shows up when he sheds blockers and catches ball-carriers at their legs. He has a great power rush and knows how to work off of it, using well-timed counter pulls to get past blockers. Watt has only one year of starting experience, but he put up some impressive numbers during that run – 63 tackles, 15.5 TFLs, 11.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four passes defensed. Yet what he brings to the table can’t always be measured by numbers. What I love about him is how complete his game is. He is an excellent edge-setter, but also stuffs runs behind the line of scrimmage. He can run the edge, but also quick-set inside to create leverage and even work on guards standing up. And he has shown he doesn’t shy away from taking on man- as well as zone-coverage responsibilities. Against Purdue he had an incredible pick-six similar to the one his brother J.J. put his name on the map with against Cincinnati as a rookie in the playoffs. It’s never easy to live up to the hype if your brother is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, but young T.J. shares the same crazy effort and intensity as the Texans star. He might not be quite the athlete his brother was coming out of college, but he was a top performer in most of the combine events, relies on his technique and is just a great overall player, who could still add some muscle to his frame.
8. DeMarcus Walker, Florida State:
This guy was an absolute monster for FSU in his senior year, finishing second in the country with 16 sacks as well as recording 19.5 TFLs. He often gets a good jump off the ball to put stress on opposing tackle’s, forcing them to catch up right away, he has a strong club to completely twist the upper body of OTs and open up a way to run past them and when his rush stalls or he reads quick drops he often sits and waits to take away throwing lanes and knock passes down. Walker has experience lining up inside with the power to hold up against those big guards and he chases ball-carriers towards the sideline and down the field. While he might not be very sudden in his rush, he constantly looks for different ways to get to his target. He doesn’t have any superior quickness or speed and he doesn’t have the length to keep savvy blockers off of his body though. Although he’d be ranked lower based on his natural abilities his crazy production at the collegiate level can’t be ignored and he has shown the ability to take over games, like he did in the season opener against Ole Miss when he finished the day with 4.5 sacks.
9. Carl Lawson, Auburn:
The first thing on tape that jumps out about this guy is his explosive lower body. He does a good job shuffling laterally to read backfield-action before getting involved and has consistently dominated tight-ends at the point of contact in the run game with violent hands. As a pass rusher he wins with a swim-move in combination with stepping around the tackles to glide through to the quarterback or he catches them off guard and simply puts them on their back by shooting his hands inside their chest. Once QBs take off, Lawson doesn’t waste any time shedding his blocker and trying to catch him from behind. He might be a little over-reliant on his power when getting after the passer, but he could still develop some counter-moves to put more stress on opposing linemen. The former War-eagle was mainly lined up in a two-point stance and with his lack of height (6’2’’, 31 ½ inch arms) he probably won’t put his hand in the dirt on early downs at the pro level. On the other hand, that size gives him natural leverage against opponents similar to what Elvis Dumervil has been able to over the course of his career. While he wasn’t really used a lot dropping into coverage, I saw enough from him in linebacker drills at the combine to feel comfortable with him taking on some of those responsibilities at the next level.
10. Tarell Basham, Ohio:
This guy plays extremely hard and is very physical against the run, with some shock in his hands to stand offensive linemen up, which he also to put tackles on skates and drive them back to the quarterback. Basham shows some explosive initial burst with one of the best get-offs I’ve seen on tape and he is another guy who knows how to convert speed to power. He pairs that with an excellent arm-over move and when the QB is in range he is very determined to release from his man and chase after the passer. While he doesn’t really use it a lot yet, he has shown flashes of effective spin-moves. Basham recorded 11.5 sacks and became the all-time leader in that department at Ohio on his way to being named MAC Defensive Player of the Year last season. I don’t see very good bend with him and he still has a lot to learn as far as pass rush moves go as well as simply keeping his arms moving to create separation later in his rush, but the athleticism is there. I’d like to see him get into his stance a little quicker at times as he gets caught with his arms on his knees or when he’s just getting down at times.
Just missed the cut:
Jordan Willis, Kansas State:
The K-State product presents a muscular upper body with broad shoulders. When people try to push him off the ball he buries his hands into the chest of the blocker and tries to run right through, but at the same time I’d like to see him extend his arms more. His best attribute are quick reaction skills once he diagnoses plays. As a pass rusher he likes to overpower opposing tackles and then understands how to slap his hands away or use the push-pull move, which he is excellent with. At this point his approach isn’t very diverse and he lacks any dangerous counter-moves. Something I’m not happy about when I watch his tape is how he lets holding penalties stop him from his mission, which is getting to the passer. He has to learn to play through it. He will probably be over-drafted because of his combine performance with a 4.53 in the 40 including a 1.54 split and the surprisingly loose hips he displayed in open field drills.
Derek Rivers, Youngstown State:
This is an athletic kid, who can really bend and run the edge low to the ground. But what makes his rushes go are his burst off the line and hand swats, ripping and swimming by opposing tackles, which resulted in 38 collegiate sacks. He just knows how to collapse the pocket and doesn’t mind pushing the tackle for the last couple of feet just to make the quarterback move off his spot. Rivers definitely needs to get stronger at the point of attack, but he shows excellent change-of-direction skills and chases outside plays all the way to the sideline. He isn’t quite as effective against longer tackler and I’d like to see him disengage from blocks quicker in general, but his motor is always running and he dominated the FCS competition.
Tanoh Kpassagnon, Villanova:
This guy’s body type is ridiculous. He’s 6’7’’, 289 pounds and with 37 inch arms he has a wing-span much greater than the one of Jason Pierre-Paul. Despite his size he rarely lets blockers attack his chest and works them to draw penalties constantly. At the same time he could use his length much better to control blockers and he loses balance and track off the ball too easily. Tanoh displays outstanding hustle and dominated one-on-ones at Senior Bowl practices, where he showed much more variety in his approach as a rusher. Overall he certainly still is a pretty raw prospect, but his natural gifts and competitiveness are second to none.
Trey Hendrickson, Florida Atlantic:
As one of the best defensive ends in Conference USA since he arrived at campus, this guy is twitchy edge rusher with a non-stop motor. While he might not be the most bendy player he rarely presents blockers a straight target to punch at and he has much more speed than he gets credit for (4.65 in the 40). He takes advantage of poor body positioning by tackles, going right through tackles that are too high as well as showing an effective spin when the opposing blocker leans too much into him. Hendrickson lacks elite length and I’d like to see him set a more physical edge, but he was very productive even though opposing gameplans revolved largely around him and he saw double-teams constantly as a senior. At the East-West Shrine week he lit people up and showed improved get-off speed. He leads by example and will make his mark early on blocking kicks, like he did in his time at FAU.
Right behind them:
Daeshon Hall (Texas A&M), Dawuane Smoot & Carroll Philipps (Illinois), Ejuan Price (Pittsburgh), Devonte Fields (Louisville)
Note: I have Alabama’s Ryan Anderson and Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel listed as linebackers and they’ll be featured in the rankings at that position.