Now that we have discussed the offensive tackle class, we finish our third week of positional draft rankings with the edge rushers. You can also check out my breakdowns of the best running backs and linebackers, interior offensive and defensive linemen.
Unlike a lot of sites still do, I don’t want to differentiate between defensive tackles, D-ends and outside linebackers, since a lot of times I would be forced to compare guys that actually come off the edge with two-gapping 5-techniques and off-the-ball linebackers. So this list includes 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside backers coming out of college.
We have an obvious headliner in this class and there is another group of three prospects that I will have first-round grades on. After that there is a pretty steep drop-off and a lot of disagreement with how the rest of this group stacks up. With that being said, I think there are plenty of versatile edge defenders available and you might find some early starters on day three, with some guys that are pretty technically advanced already.
Here is the list:
1. Chase Young, Ohio State
This former top-10 overall recruit had his choice of several big-name schools around the country and ultimately decided to join the Buckeyes. As a freshman he flashed some of that immense talent, but it was in year two that he really broke onto the national scene. After Nick Bosa went down and decided to focus on his draft preparation (being drafted second overall by the 49ers in the end), Young stepped right in and dominated, as he recorded double-digit sacks, 14.5 TFLs and five passes knocked down at the lane, immediately earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. Last season he was clearly the best defensive player in all of college football as with 16.5 sacks, 21 TFLs and seven forced fumbles made him a first-team All-American and led to a multitude of awards – all despite missing two games with a suspension.
Nicknamed the “Predator” by a few of his teammates, I felt like Young kind of looks like a creature from a different planet watching him play. Opposing teams needed to throw a bunch of different looks at Young with a lot of sliding his way and at times even leaving the 6’5”, 265-pound D-end unblocked as a read-man or to just make him run himself out of the play with his aggressiveness. Young wrong-shoulders H-backs and wing-men coming across the formation for sift blocks on split zone plays or goes underneath their block altogether when there is an angle towards the running back. He displays excellent reactionary athleticism and quick-twitch, when you see him read some type of pitch or read action and then run down the guy with the ball. While he obviously wasn’t timed at the combine, with the way you see him gain ground on ball-carriers, Young is probably is faster than about half the running backs available.
Young is a speed rusher first, who gets off the ball with some explosion and has the ankle flexibility to turn the corner, which he combines with different hand-swipes to avoid contact. He rushes with outstanding effort and hunts down scrambling quarterbacks on several occasions. It might not always lead to success on the stat sheet, but he influences the play and how the ball comes out. Young features some deadly cross-chops and double hand swipes. He has gotten a lot better at taking the inside path when tackles prematurely open their hips, where he clears himself with a well-timed swim, plus then he comes back later with some stutter steps combined with a burst back to the outside. Young has rushed the passer from either edge with a few two-point stances on third downs and also lined up over guards at times. Despite missing two games due to suspension, he still broke Ohio State’s all-time sack record last season (16.5) and in 2018 he led the entire nation with 77 total pressures, when he was still being pretty raw at that point – compared to how technically advanced he is now.
This guy took over several games, such as the first meeting with Wisconsin with a couple of strip-sack when things were actually pretty tight at that point. Versus Indiana, Young beat both tackles like a drum over and over again and even though he did have two sacks, he could have easily had five if the Hoosiers didn’t get the ball about as quickly as they did. Everybody wants to talk about how Young didn’t dominate at the same level by the end of last season, but he actually impacted games constantly, with team going to a more screen- and quick pass-heavy approach, as well as double-teaming and chipping him constantly. In the rematch with Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, Young directly forced two incompletions, was involved on a fourth-down stop and demanded two blockers on every single play of the game’s final drive. In the Sugar Bowl against Clemson he forced a near-interception, made Trevor Lawrence step up right into a sack and had them running screens away from him time and time again.
However, Young still needs to develop a better speed-to-power combination with tackles being so scared of his speed around the edge and shorten the corner that way. Too often you see him overrun the arc or get pushed further by the opposing tackle’s reach and not force the quarterback to move off the spot. He is also not a truly dominant run-defender at the point of attack yet, needing to lock out and keep vision through the blocker more effectively. He also could be a little more disciplined with just keeping his contain and forcing the run back inside. Overall Young doesn’t show the all-out effort some other guys do when the ball is going too far away from him
While he isn’t a perfect player at this point, Young is a pretty easy choice for the number one overall prospect in this draft, He was a dominant player with plenty of action in big games over these last two years. He may be quite as complete as Myles Garrett or the same kind of freak Jadeveon Clowney was a few years ago, but Young does grade out extremely well and should be an All-Pro candidate for about a decade.
2. K’Lavon Chaisson, LSU
Following a friend to the LSU campus on a recruiting trip before even playing a snap of varsity ball, earned Chaisson a scholarship way before be became a top-50 national recruit from the Houston area. After starting three of twelve games as a true freshman and flashing his skill-set, expectations were high for year two, but he ended up tearing his ACL in the sophomore. Chaisson came back to meet them as a redshirt sophomore, recording 6.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss as a first-team All-SEC selection during LSU’s national championship run. He payed his best down the stretch, earning Defensive MVP in the Peach Bowl versus Oklahoma. Chaisson also earned LSU’s highly coveted number 18 jersey for his great leadership and play.
This kid played was a 6’3”, 255 pound outside linebacker at LSU, who plays with a bounce to his step and easy movement skills. Chaisson is a very flexible and light-footed athlete, who gets off the ball with some explosion and has tremendous closing burst. He has great length to keep vision on the back-field and reach out for ball-carriers trying to get to the edge. However, he can also dip underneath some pulling linemen and initate first contact with the ball-carrier or side-step those guys altogether on a few occasions. Chaisson stays disciplined with his backside contain when he is unblocked, but also has enough burst to flatten and chase down the running back from behind, as that guy hesitates to set up his blockers.
Chaisson has an absurd first step and can bend around the corner at the most extreme angle in this entire draft class, thanks to ridiculous ankle flexibility. He has the loose hips to almost side-step offensive linemen combined with a club to clear the blocker’s reach and gives them some movement they are not used to. That also enables him to stay with scrambling quarterbacks and not allow them to escape. He is very unique in that way, with his quickness and ability to change directions almost like a running back. Chaisson can some turn corners some other guys wouldn’t even dream of. There was one snap in particular in the 2019 SEC Championship game versus Georgia. While he actually didn’t make much of an impact up to that point, at the end of the third quarter he somehow got a hit Jake Fromm’s arm even though it looked like Andrew Thomas already had him pushed past the arc. I have even seen him hurdle over guys trying to cut him on quick pass plays.
Chaisson is a nightmare to pick up on different stunts and twists across multiple gaps, where he can turn a tight corner to minimize the time it takes to get to his target. Every once in a while you will see a sweet spin move that he could/should utilize more. He uses some chops and rip moves to get an easier angle around the corner, as he flattens towards the QB. Chaisson had just under 100 snaps in coverage last season, whether it was dropping into the flats and showing good tackling skills in space or picking up backs on outlet routes. One of his most impressive plays on the season came against Mississippi State, when he carried first-team All-SEC running back Kylin Hill on a wheel route about 20 yards downfield. As talented as Chaisson is, his effort might be his best quality – which differentiates him from another edge defender coming out of LSU recently in Arden Key.
On the flipside, Chaisson obviously has a very skinny frame, that he will need to add some mass to in order to survive on the edge as a pro and he might lose some of that dynamic qualities when he does. He doesn’t display a lot of power and ability to finish at the quarterback with that final push through a blocker- There are several snaps where the LSU edge rusher has his tackle a couple of steps away from the quarterback and he doesn’t drive him into the QB to make that guy move. When tackles can stay on his hip and force him to continue working upfield, they can often ride him towards their own end-zone and negate Chaisson’s impact while opening huge escape lanes for the quarterback. He dIdn’t do too well against the top two tackles he faced last season – Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr. and Georgia’s Andrew Thomas.
Chaisson is the most bendy edge defender in this class with very natural pass-rushing skills and a lot of room to grow with just one full season as a starter in college. He might need to strengthen his core a bit to set a harder edge at the point of attack, but he is already a valuable run defender – especially from the backside – and he has quality experience on limited snaps in coverage.
3. A.J. Epenesa, Iowa
This kid was the highest recruit by Kirk Ferentz at Iowa thanks to being a three-time high school All-American, while also scoring over 1000 points on the hardwood and winning back-to-back discus throw state titles. Following his father Eppy’s footsteps with the Hawkeyes, A.J. was already a valuable rotational piece as a true freshman. Despite not starting any games in year two either, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors with a team-leading 10.5 sacks, 16.5 TFLs and four forced fumbles. Last season, Epenesa was a first-team all-conference and second-team All-American selection with almost identical numbers. That makes 22 sacks, 30.5 TFLs, eight forced fumbles and six passes knocked down over these last two seasons.
Epenesa has a freakish build at 6’6”, 280 pounds with a wing-span slightly above 81 inches. He already flashed some real potential in the 2017 opener versus Wyoming when he first stepped on the field for Iowa and I have followed his collegiate career closely. Epenesa holds his ground in the run game with ease and can pull blockers off himself when the ball-carrier is around him. He can really keep blockers at the point of attack at distance with his long arms and once he sees the back cut upfield, he can release underneath and make the tackle for no gain. When opponents try to hinge-block against him, Epenesa knocks them backwards by quite a bit to close down any cutback lanes. He is also a nightmare to try to kick out on any counter or power play, because of how strong his base it.
His length is a tremendous weapon on those club-swim moves and on all those power moves. Epenesa shows good flexibility and torque when he turns his upper body towards the blocker on the initial club, but then follows through with the secondary swipe with his chest slightly turned away from the opponent, in order to minimize the area to grab. Offensive tackles trying to land a punch early will find themselves trying to catch back up, as Epenesa swipes past and steps around them, but at the same time if those guys lean too far back and raise their pads, he can also go through them. His immense natural power is apparent on bull-rushes and long-arms, where blockers end up with tangled feet and in awkward position thanks to not being able to re-gain their balance. Overall he just counters hands the opponents very well and uses their lean against those guys by pulling them to the side.
The former five-star recruit slid inside over the guards quite a bit on third downs as well as end-of-half situations and should give some excellent value as an interior rusher in sub-packages. There his combination of quickness and length makes those bigger guys on the interior look heavy-footed, while being strong enough to deal with a few runs being sprinkled in during those drives. He was chipped from the side by tight-ends and backs quite a bit last season. In 39 career games, Epenesa has recorded 138 total QB pressures. According to PFF, he had a 25.4 percent pass-rush win rate in 2018 and put up 58 total pressures in 2019, with 27 hits on the QB. What I think sets Epenesa apart from a lot of other guys is the fact he doesn’t just get the sack but rather tries to get the ball out. He even did so versus Mississipi State’s Nick Fitzgerald in 2018, who hadn’t fumbled on over 500 carries.
While Epenesa has some snaps where he gets a good jump on the snap, over the course of the game he rarely was the first one off the ball for the Hawkeyes. He has to do a better job establishing that half-man relationship earlier against the run and pass. Epenesa is not a super twichty or explosive athlete, making him less of a dynamic pass-rusher when it comes to sudden bursts to catch blockers off guard. What I think he needs to improve most on is keeping that outside arm free instead of just locking horns with offensive linemen and I want to see him revving up that motor to chase down plays from behind and fighting through holds more.
Some teams may value Epenesa the highest as a three-tech or versatile D-end in a 3-4 hybrid that shifts their line across the front. I think he has plenty good speed off the edge considering his size and has a good feel for tackles, so I don’t mind keeping him there, but I would certainly use him as a mismatch against guards, if it also means I can bring in some other rotational pass-rushers. While his 5.04 in the 40 and modest numbers across the board may be a little underwhelming, I thought he had a really clean field workout at the combine.
4. Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State
A former four-star recruit from Virginia, Gross-Matos came off the bench his freshman season and showed some flashes for the Nittany Lions. In year two he was named Penn State’s Defensive Lineman of the Year and received third-team All-Big Ten honors due to a stacked class at the position. In 2019 he improved to first-team all-conference after leading Penn State in tackles for loss and sacks for the second straight year. Overall Gross-Matos has put together 34.5 tackles for loss and 17 sacks over these last two seasons combined.
At 6’5”, 265 pounds with 35-inch arms, Gross-Matos has the type of body evaluators could die for. He understands the principle of one arm being longer than two when he stabs inside the chest of the blocker and keeps him at distance in the run game, setting a hard edge. Plus he is quick to disengage when the run is coming off tackle. Gross-Matos also has the flat-out speed to chase running backs down on outside plays from the backside and closes the space to the last blocker when there is a chance the QB pulls the ball. He slips some blocks and tries to shoot up the B-gap, which mostly works out with his burst to chop running backs down. When tight-ends or wing-men are tasked with sealing him, he can crash through the inside shoulder and create a mess in the opposing backfield and as teams target him on some long pulls, you see Gross-Matos try to go underneath the outside shoulder of the puller and beat the back to the spot at times.
As a pass rusher, Gross-Matos’ speed around the corner and very sudden movements stand out. He has the flexibility to dip underneath tackles and some snap in his hips when he swerves them in a way to create an angle towards the quarterback. He has a lot of tackles overextending for him speed-rushing on them and he can easily defeat their hands with simple swipes when he catches them doing so. When they lean into him, he can yank those guys by pretty effectively as well. Moreover, his hands are forceful when he is converting speed to power. Gross-Matos heavily utilizes the up-and-under, where he lifts the elbow of the blocker’s inside arm to open up a lane to the QB, and then he counters back outside off that. Even when you think he has slightly overrun the arc, he has the freakishly long arms to reach out for the quarterback from a good yard away with a blocker having hands on him.
Gross-Matos used two-, three- and four-point stances with either foot forward from both sides. He was stunted up the A-gap at a heavy rate and has some experience sliding inside over guards on passing downs, where he showed active hands to avoid blockers trying to pick him up on slide-protections. Penn State ran too many twists and stunts up front for my taste, when I would have liked them to just let Gross-Matos rush off the edge. However, he still recorded a QB pressure on 11.5 percent of his pass-rush snaps last season. In addition to that, he has some experience dropping into the flats and looks pretty comfortable doing so.
With that being said, Gross-Matos gives up his contain responsibilities in the run game on too many occasions and gets pinned inside for the most part against reach-blocks, instead of fighting over the top of them. He is a tick late diagnosing different run schemes and loses balance on a multitude of snaps, when he is working off blocks. As a pass rusher, his spin move is way too predictable and badly executed when used as a counter. He needs to work on his usage of it or find something else he can rely on in that fashion. Gross-Matos simply never had those kind of dominant showings, where he was able to really take over games throughout his collegiate career.
This young man probably features the best combination of speed, power and length in this draft class outside of Chase Young. His mental processing in the run game has plenty of room to grow and he will need to develop more dependable counters to be able to make an every-down impact in games, but he has already made big strides since arriving at Penn State. To me he is the third guy from that second tier behind Young, but his upside is through the roof.
5. Julian Okwara, Notre Dame
The brother of Fighting Irish alumn and current Detroit Lions D-lineman Romeo Okwara, Julian was a first-team All-Charlotte performer his senior year of high school and chose the golden helmet as a four-star recruit. After barely seeing the field as a back-up player his freshman season and coming off the bench in his second year, he has been a full-time starter in 2018 and ’19. As a junior he put up 12.5 TFLs and eight sacks. Once again he led the Irish with 13.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks last season, as well as four passes knocked down and a couple of fumbles forced and recovered each.
The 6’5”, 240-pound edge rusher displays active hands in the run game with some force behind them and is ready to disengage quickly. He has some plays where he jumps the snap and just drives somebody backwards by a few yards who outweigh him by 70-80 pounds. When he is unblocked and reads the mesh point, Okwara’s feet don’t get stuck and he shows some juice once he deciphers, who has the ball, cutting off angles for ball-carriers trying to get to the sideline. He displays easy change-of-direction skills to react against the run but also to chase around scrambling quarterbacks.
Okwara gives plenty of tackles problems with his speed and bend around the corner, plus he stays active with that inside arm to swipe or rip through the reach of his opponent, while being able to really snap those hips around to shorten the arc. He can convert into a long-arm and take guys off balance, who need to pick up their feet too much to counter his burst. He even lifted Georgia’s 350-pound right tackle Isaiah Wilson off his feet with that once, because the blocker had to fire out of his stance to be able to keep up. Okwara brings some wiggle as a pass-rusher and can jump inside or make blockers stop their feet when he gives them a couple of hesitation steps. He was basically unblockable versus Virginia with three sacks and four more QB hurries. In 2018, Okwara put up an incredibly 61 total pressures on the quarterback and while that number dropped to 31 last season, that is still a really good mark on just 202 pass-rushing snaps.
Unfortunately, Okwara plays with inconsistent pad-level and his hands get too high and wide as he tries to lock out blockers. He also needs to establish more of a half-man relationship in the run game and you see him back up in that area at times, instead of just setting a hard edge – although that might be something he was taught to some degree by the Notre Dame coaches. Overall he just was never an overly consistent player for the Irish in any area and he missed 17 tackles on 64 attempts over these last two years. At his size, he is also right on the fringe of being able to stick on the edge and has no experience really playing off the ball, with a few spots drops here and there.
As a pass-rusher, when Okwara defeats the hands of the blocker quickly, he can terrorize quarterbacks, but his sack production never quite reached the level you would like it to, with six of nine games without a sack. If he can add some mass and core strength to be a more reliable run-defender, I like him as a high-ceiling 3-4 outside linebacker. With this guy, it is all about consistency, because he could be a beast if he can attain that.
6. Joshua Uche, Michigan
This former three-star recruit out of Miami did not receive a single start for a highly talented Wolverine defense through his first three years in Ann Arbor, not even when he was an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick in 2018 with seven sacks. Uche finally became a starter his senior year, when he led the team with 7.5 sacks in and recorded double-digit tackles for loss. That earned him second-team all-conference accolades and put his name on the map.
The 6’2” Uche has weighed in at 250 and 245 pounds respectively at the Senior Bowl and combine. He is light-footed athlete, who uses kind of a unique two-point stance with very narrow feet and his hands barely touching the ground. Still, he sets a pretty good edge and won’t let guys bully him – he even stood his ground surprisingly well against Iowa’s massive right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Uche is very aware of kick-out pulls and other action when he is unblocked and finds a way to make an impact on the play. He also has defended the run from an off-ball alignment and shown pretty good diagnosing skills for what is happening in front of him.
Uche is primarily a speed rusher, but he does a nice job reading the depth of the OT’s kick-slide and countering back inside when the opportunity presents itself. He also likes to give a little hesitation jab-step that way and then dip underneath the opposing tackle. Uche has the burst and bend to get underneath blockers and flatten to the quarterback, but he can incorporate multiple hand maneuvers to complement that. You see him line up off the ball and blitz from different angles to make things tough on the O-line, as well as displaying tremendous closing burst. Whoever defensive coordinator gets to coach him will have fun designing a third-down plan for him.
The versatile backer has some experience dropping into the flats or hook zones from an edge alignment. He at times he ran down the seams 20+ yards with guys and he was even used as a MIKE in a Tampa-2 defense on some passing downs. However, he has also shown good range and fluidity standing up and covering any of the underneath areas or even open up and carry guys along the sideline at times. At the Senior Bowl, Uche was asked to stand up and he really hung in there with backs and tight-end in coverage drills. However, he also continued to flash getting around the corner against offensive tackles and beating up RBs in blitz pick-up, in addition to to continually setting a hard edge during inside run drills and flashing color, so the RB had to cut back inside.
With that being said, Uche struggles to convert speed to power effectively and he usually has to go all the around blockers other than slightly through them. When he gets too close to the blocker and that guy gets hands on him, there usually isn’t much happening after that point. Uche is also just a tad bit late coming off the ball and with the stance he uses, you almost see him fall forward because he is so eager to get out of it. With only 657 snaps across three seasons, Uche lacks a lot of experience and while his versatility can obviously be seen as a plus, he is kind of a tweener without a true position.
While some teams may not allow him to stay on the edge full-time and ask him to be a stand-up backer with third down rush ability, I really like what I see from Uche. Early on in his career he might be more of a designated pass-rusher, but as he continues to grow as an off-ball player, he could be a valuable player across all three downs, with the ability to fulfill a multitude of roles in a creative defensive gameplan.
7. Terrell Lewis, Alabama
This former Washington D.C. Gatorade Player of the Year and five-star recruit uncommonly earned some playing time as a true freshman for a very talented Alabama defense. Lewis only appeared in four games in year two, due to an upper arm injury. He also missed all of 2018 with a torn ACL, before displaying his talent once again last season. Finally playing in double-digit games last season, he was a second-team All-SEC selection with 31 tackles, 11.5 of them for loss, six sacks and a couple of passes broken up.
While he might not look very big, but at 6’5”, 260 pounds now with 34-inch arms, Lewis’ measurements are pretty much right where you want them to be for a rush linebacker. His burst off the ball and overall athletcisim really stand out. Lewis primarily lined up with his outside foot in front and his hips turned pretty far inside on base downs. He takes advantage of the principle of one arm being longer than two and he can pull some big tackles to the side in order to wrap up the ball-carrier. When a puller comes his way, he can be sudden and go underneath that guy, but also doesn’t mind sticking his face in the fan and create a mess in the backfield. Lewis also showcases excellent reactive athleticism, when he adjusts to running backs changing directions or plant his feet and run down quarterbacks as they pull the ball. This guy is certainly not a candidate to be left unblocked on jet/fly sweeps. You can also see his athleticism when he turns and runs with some backs out of the backfield and he looked smooth pedaling backwards to take away quick throws over the middle.
His ability to speed around the corner combined with hand swipes is a problem for most offensive tackles. Then he has a quick up-and-under and a deadly spin to counter off that, which make his opponents look like they don’t know what hit them. Once he has set that up, Lewis uses subtle nods to the inside or a little one-two step to make tackles stop their feet and beat them around the corner. Lewis was moved around quite a bit on third downs, rushing from either side, with either foot forward, from two- or three-point stances and he even lined up over centers at times. He is also very slippery on those inside stunts and twists, where he can torque his shoulders and not give blockers an area to hit, as they try to pick him up. He might have only had six sacks last season, but he had another 42 extra pressures to go along with that on just 259 total pass-rushing snaps. During Senior Bowl week, Lewis’ speed rush and spin moves off it were too much for pretty much everybody there.
However, Lewis gets caught trying to look around blockers at times and gives up his contain responsibility in the process. He doesn’t always come off the ball with enough urgency and he still has to learn to take advantage of tackles giving him a soft set, by going through them with some power. The biggest concern for Lewis however is his health after all those injuries during his collegiate career. Through 2017 and ’18, he missed 25 games with ligament injuries and he has only played one full season with the Tide.
If Lewis can stay healthy and learn some speed-to-power conversion techniques, he could be a double-digit sack artist at the next level. I think he needs to be a little more disciplined as a run-defender, but he can certainly set a physical edge and force plays back inside or out of bounds with his speed. He really won me other with the way he can set up his pass-rush moves and play a one-on-one game within the actual game, despite not playing a whole lot.
8. Bradlee Anae, Utah
A fairly little coveted three-star recruit out of Hawaii, Anae found himself on the back of the depth chart early on with the Utes, but then started ten games in 2017, leading his team in tackles for loss (ten), sacks (seven) and forced fumbles (three). As a junior, Pac-12 coaches voted him first-team all-conference thanks to leading the league with eight sacks, to go with 15.5 tackles for loss, three PBUs and two fumbles forced. Last season he once again led the Utes with 13 sacks, as he repeated those honors as a first-team all-conference selection.
At 6’3”, 265 pounds this young man has excellent thickness throughout his frame. Anae is a man in the run game and tight-ends are ill-equipped to deal with him at the point of attack. He can also back-door some blockers with a quick arm-over or jump inside if someone oversets him. You see him run through the reach of offensive linemen from the back-side of zone run plays quite a bit. Anae displays good discipline as the read-man on the end of the line, with an active shuffle down the line, and he is looking to get involved against whoever ends up with the ball. He slid inside to the B-gap quite a bit, even on base downs and didn’t show any weakness standing his ground in the run game. His ten-yard split of 4.72 at the combine was plenty good and he looked pretty fluid during his on-field workout, considering he was looked at as a little stiff. Anae was also dropped out into the flats occasionally by Utah and picked guys up in the area.
I think Anae has highly underrated get-off and closing burst, as he seems to be at top speed in just two or three steps and stresses the tackle upfield. He combines that with a club-rip, double-hand swipe or a wicked cross-chops while stepping around his blocker and turning his hips towards the passer. What sticks out it here is the violence he delivers that initial club or chop with to make some guys hesitate with trying to even put hands on him again. Anae also flashes a rapid spin move that seems to catch blockers off guard and if they extend over their those, he can yank them out of the way in a fashion that you shouldn’t be able to do to guys North of 300 pounds. Moreover, he does a great job using his hands to defeat cut-blocking attempts. He easily led all Pac-12 defenders with 52 quarterback pressures in 2018 and he improved that number by another ten last season. At the Senior Bowl, his violence and great motor stood out throughout the week and he collected two sacks in the actual game.
However, he is not a very flexible or twitched up athlete. Anae looks pretty slow-footed when he is actually asked to really change directions – also illustrated by the second-slowest three-cone drill among what I classify as edge defenders at the combine. While you like the thickness, Anae also offers a lot of room for blockers to grab and his frame looks pretty maxed out, if you consider to put him at 3-tech. If he faces a big tackle who can move fairly well, he struggles to consistently win if he can’t go through the blocker. With just 32-inch arms and some stiffness in his hips that is even more evident. When he faced Oregon All-American left tackle Penei Sewell, he could not really create any pressure all game long.
Anae reminds me a lot of a little taller Brandon Graham from the Eagles, because he lacks some length, but packs a lot of power and plays hard. The Utah D-end has recorded at least 744 snaps in each of the last three seasons and has been a very consistent player for the Utes throughout his collegiate career. While he doesn’t offer the type of dynamic athletic profile some of these other edge guys do, you get a hard-nosed, competitive player.
9. Curtis Weaver, Boise State
Just a three-star recruit out of Long Beach, California, Weaver moved to Boise. As a redshirt freshman he already put up 11 sacks and was named a Freshman All-American. In year two he came up just half a sack short of double-digits once again, as well as making 15 tackles for loss, earning himself first-team All-Mountain West accolades. Last season he repeated those honors with 13.5 sacks, 19.5 TFLs and three passes batted down, which also made him the 2019 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.
At 6’3”, 265 pounds, Weaver certainly does not the most rocked-up body. He play the so-called “STUD” linebacker for the Broncos 3-4 defense (primarily on the short side of the field) and he played like a stud for them over these last three years. Weaver keeps a half-man relationship with the blocker for most of the time, Uses his hands very well to knock down the ones of blockers at the point of attack and rips through to stop any momentum that way. When he sees an opening to shoot inside, he doesn’t mind taking it either. Weaver knocks tight-ends off balance in the run game and for as heavy-footed as he is described at times, he put up second-best three-cone drill among edge defenders at the combine at 7.0 flat. Weaver has experience dropping out into the flats or picking up RBs out of the backfield one-on-one. In zone his eyes go towards any potential in-breaking receivers and then quickly toggle back to the quarterback. Altogether he spent over a hundred snaps in coverage last season.
Weaver does a great job anticipating the snap and getting a nice jump off the ball. He has a lot of force in his arms to utilize on clubs and chops to free himself from the blocker with excellent placement and aiming points. His best moves on the edge are the club-rip and two-hand swipe, but he can also just run through the chest off tackles after rushing upfield. What stands out here is how well he pairs those moves with his footwork. Weaver has a sudden dip of the shoulder and can flatten to the QB much better than you would expect from him. He recognizes running backs trying to chip him and usually goes underneath them and when you have somebody like an H-back picking him up as the O-line slides the other way, Weaver beats that guy like a drum. The Boise edge rusher is also dangerous on twists and inside loops, where his timing of different swipes as somebody tries to pick him up is impeccable. Weaver won 26.4 percent of his pass rush snaps in 2018 and recorded 59 total pressures last season, with 28 total hits on the QB. He also earns some late Ws as a pass-rusher with spins either way.
On the flipside, Weaver takes an unnecessary step backwards with that back-foot for the most part when rushing off the edge and loses that split-second because of it. This is even worse considering Weaver simply doesn’t have great speed off the edge. He does not show the quick twitch to wrap up ball-carriers right in range going through either gap next to him. Overall he is just a pretty linear athlete. Weaver is not a very dependable tackler even in a phonebooth at times, dropping his eyes, getting off balance and reaching for air on too many occasions. I would also like to play him with more violence in the run game in general and show better hustle when the play is going away from him. He simply doesn’t have an NFL-type of body with some bad weight in the mid-section.
Weaver’s best traits are usage of hands and power. He is not the greatest athlete and his potential is kind of capped, but he is a very solid option on the edge, with experience as a 3-4 outside backer. He is more slippery than he gets credit for and has a track record of being a highly successful pass-rusher, even if it wasn’t in a Power 5 conference. Weaver has shown high football IQ, active hands and versatility at Boise.
10. Jonathan Greenard, Florida
A three-star recruit out of Georgia, who saw quality playing time off the bench as a redshirt freshman at Louisville. In year two he led the Cardinals in tackles for loss (15.5) and sacks (seven). While he was named a team-captain in 2018, he suffered a season-ending wrist injury in week one and saw head coach Bobby Petrino get fired, which made him transfer to Florida. Last season with the Gators, he led the team in tackles for loss (16), sacks (ten) and forced fumbles (three), while also intercepting a pass and knocking down another three, which earned him first-team All-SEC honors.
This young man is excellent at anticipating the snap and getting out of his stance as the first guy for the most part. Greenard has some jolt in his hands to stand up blockers at the point of attack. He does well to re-position his hands and keep the blocker at distance to set a hard edge. However, when he sees an opportunity to jump inside to shut down the run, with the tackle oversetting him, Greenard will make some plays behind the line as well. He also chases really hard from the backside and adjusts his angle according to the running back, even when he needs to re-route to a deeper path along the sideline. He plays with his hair on fire throughout games.
Greenard is a relentless pass-rusher. He does a nice job reducing his shoulders to not give blockers a lot of area to grab and he packs a beautifully-timed chop-down maneuver. If tackles overset him to the outside, Greenard will jump inside and swipe down their hands, as they try to hit that post-leg against him. To follow that up, he can give a couple of hesitation steps or a little stab to the inside combined with a head-fake and then swipe away the hands of the blocker to create an angle towards the QB. At the same time, if guys get too high and leaned backwards, he doesn’t shy away taking them for a ride either. Greenard does a nice job reacting to slide-protections and taking advantage of taking the lane that opens up by the direction the guy in front of him moves. He has experience rushing from either side, two-and three-point stances with either foot in front. Last season Greenard put up 37 extra pressures to go with double-digit sacks on a little over 300 pass-rushing snaps. That was despite a lot of offenses using chips with their backs and tight-ends against him, especially when teammate Jabari Zuniga got hurt.
With that being said, Greenard simply doesn’t have a ton of juice off the ball and he doesn’t eat up much ground vertically as a pass-rusher off the edge. He throws a predictable, slow-mo spin move without much technique when it comes to staying low and balanced. When he rushes from wide alignment and tackles can keep up with his speed, they can take him past the arc way too easily. His agility looked questionable on any stunts to the inside, making it easy for blockers to pick him up, and he did not look very mobile on the few coverage snaps he had every game. Greenard had his share of struggles working against the Georgia tackles.
This kid plays with great effort at all times and has had success as a pass-rusher in the best conference in college football. Greenard won’t stress NFL tackles too much with his pure burst, but is a pretty well-versed player and will produce for you quickly. Give me this guy over some flashier athletes and one-trick ponies that are out there. He can defend the run, rush the passer and has some coverage experience.
Just missed the cut:
Alton Robinson, Syracuse
A former three-star recruit out of Texas, Robinson was set to join the Aggies from A&M, but a robbery charge, which was later dismissed, cost him the offer and he had to start out in a junior college nearby. Syracuse saw the talent and let him start ten of twelve games the following season. As a junior he stepped up his game, earning second-team All-ACC honors and being named the Orange’s Most Outstanding Defensive Lineman of the Year with a team-high 17 TFLs and ten sacks. Last season his numbers dropped quite a bit, but he was still an honorable-mention all-conference pick (9.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks).
Robinson competes hard in the run game and doesn’t allow blockers to shield him. He plays with his hands inside the chest of the blocker and is ready to pull him to the side when the ball-carrier is in range. When tackles set too far outside, Robinson shoots through the B-gap and flattens down the line. He aggressively squeezes the run down from the back-side and plays with excellent pursuit overall. When he is targeted on sift block on the split zone plays, Robinson tries to slip underneath the guy coming across the formation towards him. He also has a little experience dropping out into the flats.
What stands out about this kid is his explosive first step and the way he eats up grass with his strides. He really likes to use the dip-and-rip or the push-pull when he feels he tackle shift his weight forward too much. If tackles get too far on their heels or open up, Robinson takes the inside path quickly or engages in some speed-to-power maneuver, mostly the long-arm. Robinson gives some really good late efforts as a pass-rusher to get hits on the QB and influence throws with excellent closing burst. He likes to give that little head- and foot-fake to the inside before swiping the hands of the blocker with a swim and going around him. He also does a nice job timing up T-E twists to where his tackle has forced the guard to turn his shoulders, but hasn’t been able to communicate with his tackle properly to pick it up.
Unfortunately, Robinson’s burst upfield takes him past the quarterback on too many occasions, as his tackle continues to guide him that way. He doesn’t have the most mobile hips to snap them around as he tries to get around somebody or dart back inside. Robinson uses this weird two-point stance with parallel feet at times and has to get more consistency with the way he lines up in general. I also wouldn’t call him a super-disciplined run-defender when the ball goes away from him either, getting out of his fits as he is looking for a lane towards the ball-carrier.
While he didn’t quite make my top ten, Robinson is one of those I think doesn’t get talked about enough. He is a strong run-stopper with pop in his hands and he should only get better at rushing the passer. Robinson earned the highest pass-rush grade among all ACC edge defenders in 2018 by PFF, with 23 total hits on the quarterback, and still recorded 49 total pressures on 355 opportunities last season.
Darrell Taylor, Tennessee
Coming out of Virginia as a four-star recruit, Taylor redshirted his first year in Knoxville and then only had nine tackles as a back-up the following season. In 2017 he started seven of ten games at defensive end and as a junior he transitioned to linebacker, where he led the Vols with 11 TFLs, eight sacks and three forced fumbles. Last season he once again finished first on the team with double-digit TFLs, 8.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, to go with four passes knocked down at the line.
At 6’4”, 265 pounds, Taylor was Tennessee’s strong-side OLB and he plays a physical brand of football. He gets off the ball with low pad-level and arms ready to shoot. He has some shock in his hands and usually owns the point of attack even if tackles outweigh him by 60+ pounds, by locking out and hitting the proper aiming points consistently. Taylor takes it personal when teams leave him one-on-one with tight-ends. When a TE or wing is tagged with shielding him on the backside of zone run plays, Taylor really squeezes the play down by pushing that player down the line and crashing the party. On the snaps where he is completely unblocked on the backside, you see excellent burst and hustle to chase behind the line. His motor is running at all times and you don’t see him give up, even if the ball is going all the way to the opposite side.
Taylor is an excellent power-rusher, who utilizes the bull and long-arm to take blockers off balance. Not only can he convert speed to power, but Taylor also does a nice job doing it the other way around, meaning he can square those feet and fake to engage, but then give another burst to the outside to win that way. His speed and flexibility are also more than adequate. Taylor does a good nice diagnosing play-action and when he is on the backside of zone run plays with the tight-end giving a half-hearted chip, he closes in on the QB before that guy can even get all the way out of the bootleg. Taylor has experience rushing the passer out of two- and three-point stances from either side and he also has some pretty good agility to slant inside the B-gap and work on guards. Overall he recorded 37 additional pressures to go along with his 8.5 sacks on 300 pass-rushing snaps last season. He also spent about 40 plays in coverage of the shallow zones.
However, Taylor is a tad bit late at times coming off the ball and he doesn’t really have the speed around the corner to stress tackles too much that way. He is not very well-versed with his hand techniques yet, mostly winning based on power and some athleticism. He has to do a better job stringing moves together and becoming less predictable with his rush maneuvers, since he is a good, not great athlete. He also needs to attack half the man more consistently. Taylor primarily rushed against right tackles, when the better one of the two was mostly on the opposite end. I also would like to see him disengage a little quicker against the run at times.
Having a strong power-rushing profile is a good start for any pass-rusher. Now it will be up to his future coaches to teach him better usage of his hands and expand his arsenal in that area, while he needs to show the ability to utilize that on game day. Taylor is already an exceptional all-around run-defender and gives the effort you want to see. To me his best fit is at 3-4 outside backer in a scheme that lets him go forward on the majority of snaps.
Khalid Kareem, Notre Dame
This former Detroit Defensive Player of the Year and top-100 national recruit out of high school chose the Fighting Irish over his home-state Wolverines and others. Kareem saw the field in four games as a true freshman and then appeared in every contest of year two. As a senior he was tied with Julian Okwara for the team-lead in sacks (5.5) and recorded double-digit tackles for loss in 2019, while also forcing three fumbles and taking another one back to the house.
At 6’4”, 265 pounds, Kareem has some violence in his hands as he stands up blockers and won’t give up much ground in the run game, playing with consistent leverage and extension. When the ball-carrier comes his way, Kareem pivots his hips around and re-sets his base accordingly or grabs cloth and pulls the blocker to the side to jump inside and set the tackle. On the backside of zone run plays he attaches to the hip of the offensive tackle. Kareem usually does not stay blocked very long and displays excellent pursuit effort to run guys down.
Kareem Uses a really low four-point track stance on most third downs. He is primarily a power-rusher who can go through tackles on the way to the quarterback, but also has some pretty good flexibility to turn the shoulders and reduce the area for the offensive lineman to grab. He does a great job setting up loops on twists by attacking upfield before jumping inside. Kareem also has some experience lining up at 3-tech and gives his defense flexibility with his third down alignments. He has recorded 71 additional pressures to go with his 11 sacks over these last two years.
With that being said, Kareem is not an all-world athlete and doesn’t offer above-average burst. He is pretty linear pass-rusher without much twitch – unlike his teammate Julian Okwara – and didn’t win much with any types of dynamic moves or counters. He will have to find more ways to win in that are to get by NFL offensive linemen, if he wants to make an impact in the pass game consistently. Kareem has no experience playing in space and could be a fit for 4-3 defenses only, unless you project him to play inside.
While there are some athletic limitations with Kareem, he is a very physical player, who would be an excellent addition for any defensive front. While he won’t have any chance to work out for teams and show if he can drop into coverage on occasion at least, he can move along the D-line and make an impact. I definitely think his best days as a pass-rusher could still be ahead of him, considering how limited his variety was in that area. Just coach him up a bit and let him play with his hand in the dirt.
Right behind them:
Kenny Willekes (Michigan State), Anfernee Jennings (Alabama), Jabari Zuniga (Florida), Trevis Gipson (Tulsa), Jonathan Garvin (Miami), Alex Highsmith (Charlotte)