This is the second installment of my preseason top five positional rankings for the 2016 NFL Draft class. The first segment took a look at draft eligible quarterbacks and it will continue with a preview of my top five edge defenders.
1. Joey Bosa, Ohio State, JR
Joey Bosa has been in the national spotlight since he burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2013 and it’s easy to understand why college football fans and NFL draft enthusiasts have been enamored with him. He has prototypical size to play defensive end at the next level while boasting pretty good athleticism.
Joey Bosa is extremely physical at the point of attack and plays with good leverage, which is important for players that are as tall as he is. To go along with his physicality, he has an extremely impressive first step off the line of scrimmage and uses heavy hands to shock offensive linemen on first contact. Even when he’s at a size disadvantage against bigger offensive tackles he still shows the explosive ability and hand-feet synchronization to drive blockers off the ball.
In the following play Joey Bosa lines up over Rob Havenstein, recent second round pick to the St. Louis Rams, and bullies him into the backfield before assisting on the tackle for loss. Rob Havenstein tries to reach him on the play, but Joey Bosa’s first step, hand placement, and reaction to the read block are too much for Rob Havenstein.
The ability to read, react, and attack different blocking schemes gets under-sold when evaluating defensive line prospects, but it’s one of the more important traits that prospects can have. Joey Bosa is really good in this aspect of defensive line play, but he can get a little overzealous and be a tad sloppy with his gap discipline. When he’s focused on performing his assigned task within the structure of Ohio State’s defense, he’s near unblockable.
Joey Bosa is stout on the edge against the run and generally prevents outside runs from being strung out past the point where he can make a play on the ball-carrier. His spatial awareness along the sideline is outstanding; he knows how far away he is from the sideline and when it’s appropriate to duck inside and use the boundary as an “extra defender”.
While Bosa is stout against the run, he’s also a dynamite pass rusher. As we enter the season and go throughout the draft process, some are going to knock Joey Bosa because he’s not a natural bender around the edge. Luckily for Bosa, he possesses the explosive ability and strength to play through offensive tackles, so he doesn’t necessarily have to be great at bending around the edge.
Joey Bosa also has really impressive hand use, including a quick swim off the snap which he uses to immediately gain separation off the snap of the ball. Bosa’s conciseness with this move is extremely important as he doesn’t leave his chest open to big punches by offensive linemen that would stop him dead in his tracks.
Joey Bosa is already an elite edge defender who would’ve been a high pick in this past year’s draft. If his level of play stays steady, or even increases, he’ll be well on his way to a top five selection in 2016.
2. Jonathan Allen, Alabama, JR
I’m honestly surprised Jonathan Allen isn’t getting more hype at this point. He’s a former five-star recruit who wound up as a 1st team All-SEC selection at the end of last year. He’s an extremely disruptive defensive lineman who lines up all over Alabama’s defensive line. A lot of players get hit with the versatile tag when they’re actually “tweeners” with no real position, but Jonathan Allen is actually an extremely versatile defender. He lines up at defensive end, 3-technique, and 1-technique and he’s effective in all three spots.
Great edge defenders are able to maintain forward momentum through contact and that’s what initially caught my eye in regards to Allen’s skill set. He’s especially effective on his movement steps and displays great power, athleticism, and tenacity to power through centers and offensive guards on the interior. This is especially impressive because he’s often giving up anywhere from 25-35 pounds against interior offensive linemen.
Jonathan Allen is incredibly strong at the point of attack, he’s a prototypical power rusher. When he gets his momentum going forward he can be a wrecking ball on the line of scrimmage. Even with his weight disadvantage on the inside he’s still a lot stronger than a lot of interior offensive linemen.
Jonathan Allen inflicts the majority of his pass rush damage through power, but he has flashes the ability to bend around the edge even though he’s a bit inconsistent in this area. In this upcoming play versus Mississippi State, he gets a good jump off the snap, bends the corner, and hits Prescott as he releases the ball. Allen doesn’t only show versatility in the areas in which he lines up, he also has versatility in the ways he beats offensive linemen.
This is a lesser example of this ability to bend, but note how he’s able to “run the hoop” and give a good chase towards the quarterback. I’m not sure if he’ll be a natural bender, but plays like this are encouraging.
I’m impressed with Jonathan Allen as a pass rusher and his versatility to move along the defensive line, but his run defense could stand to improve. Allen has the frame and athleticism to definitely take the next step in terms of his run defense, but he needs to improve his technique against offensive linemen coming directly towards him and recognizing zone blocking plays.
Jonathan Allen is one of the better defensive linemen I’ve seen since I started looking at prospects for the 2016 draft and if he elevates his play to another level (which I think is certainly possible; he is still a bit raw) don’t be surprised to see him among the rising superstars in college football. He has the frame, athleticism, and raw ability to be a first round pick. Allen will be a player I watch closely this upcoming season.
3. Dadi Nicolas, Virginia Tech, RS SR
Dadi Nicolas is going to be one of the more intriguing prospects in the entire 2016 draft class. He only weighs 236 pounds, but he spends a decent amount of his snaps playing inside, the majority of his interior snaps being spent at 3-technique.
What’s surprising about Dadi Nicolas’ play on the inside is that he actually generates a lot of power for a sub-240 pound defensive lineman. He’s shown the ability to drive guards into the backfield that outweigh him by seventy or eighty pounds. He packs a lot of strength onto a slender frame.
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Dadi Nicolas has really heavy hands at the point of attack and long arms that help him create space between himself and offensive linemen.
When I first watched Nicolas, I underestimated his ability to be a speed rusher and bend around the corner. This is a really big deal for Dadi Nicolas because he’s never really going to be a power rusher at the next level. However, after a quick conversation with Justis Mosqueda I went back and realized that Dadi Nicolas could actually bend pretty well around the corner. This ability is on display on the first play of this cut up in their game versus UNC.
He beats the offensive tackle in his kick-slide, then shows the requisite ankle and hip flexibility to rush around the offensive tackle and sandwich the quarterback with teammate Ken Ekanem (who’s also really good).
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As we look forward to Dadi Nicolas’ senior campaign, it’ll be interesting to see if he’s able to pack more weight on to his slender build. He has the length and frame to add weight and it’ll be imperative for his success on the next level. I expect another highly productive year out of him, but his weight gain will be the most important aspect in terms of his draft stock.
4. DeForest Buckner, Oregon, SR
DeForest Buckner is also a really intriguing defensive end prospect. He easily passes the eye test and has a massive build for a defensive end. He’s stout at the line of scrimmage; he uses his frame well to clog rushing lanes and offensive linemen generally have a tough time moving him off the line of scrimmage.
Right now, his run defense is by far the best aspect of his game. He uses his length and strength to create distance between himself and blockers and is pretty solid at disengaging while making stops for little to no gain.
Even though he doesn’t always play with great leverage (which is fairly normal for players of his height), DeForest Buckner can be overwhelming at the point of attack. When he gets some momentum moving forward, he uses his powerful legs to push offensive linemen into the backfield disrupting the running game. Buckner’s hand placement isn’t always great, but he’s shown the ability to be “slippery” and slide off blocks.
One huge area of concern I have with DeForest Buckner is his pass rush ability. He naturally comes out of his stance tall so it’s going to be difficult for him to generate consistent pass rush off the edge. Buckner isn’t a natural bender and he’s not the most effective power rusher either at this point. I’m also a little unsure with how to gauge Buckner’s athletic ability at this point. Oregon plays a really conservative defense that asks their defensive line to be extra conscious of gap discipline. Buckner’s really good at staying in his gap, but it’ll be interesting to see how he can adjust to more aggressive, up-tempo defensive schemes in the NFL.
It almost feels a little unfair to rank DeForest Buckner among the edge prospects because he’s probably going to end up being a 5-technique at the next level. However, I do think he has some value playing strong side defensive end in a four man front. His run stopping ability should translate well to the NFL and it’ll be interesting to see if can continue to shut down run games while expanding upon his pass rush ability.
DeForest Buckner has a solid bull rush at times, but he needs to be more consistent against the pass (much like his former teammate Arik Armstead). If he can use his length a bit better to disrupt passing lanes it’ll increase his three down potential heading into the NFL.
With his size and strength, DeForest Buckner looks like a future day two pick with the potential to rise into first round discussion with an impressive 2015 season.
5. Ken Ekanem, Virginia Tech, RS JR
Ken Ekanem is another piece to a really talented Virginia Tech defense. He’s a bit undersized, but Ken Ekanem is a really good edge prospect for the upcoming season. He’s a natural rushing off the edge and shows an innate ability to bend around the corner.
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Like Dadi Nicolas, Ken Ekanem plays a fair amount of snaps at 3-technique. While he’s not as good as Nicolas as anchoring against heavier offensive linemen, he has shown the ability to be disruptive from the interior. On this next play Ekanem is lined up over the left guard.
Ken Ekanem held up well here and disrupted the structure of this play, but he’s generally not that good against the run. However, even players that are deemed “pure pass rushers” should have a semblance of run stopping ability and it’s good to see that Ekanem has a some functionality in that aspect of the game.
Where Ken Ekanem is going to make his money is against the pass. He shows good athleticism coming off the edge and is a natural bender, as I said before. He shows good hustle and doesn’t give up on plays running away from him. Here he beats Taylor Decker around the edge and chases down J.T. Barrett for a short gain.
Ekanem is a really talented edge prospect; if he can improve his ability to anchor against the run on the outside, he could find himself near the top of this list when it’s all said and done. It’s encouraging to see him rush with from a 2-point stance, because he’s most likely going to have to move to outside linebacker at the next level. Virginia Tech has a monstrous front seven and supremely talented players like Nicolas and Ekanem are a big reason why.
Fool’s Gold: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State, SR
Shilique Calhoun is going to get a lot of hype this year because he’s been a productive pass rusher over the past few years for the Spartans, but he’s being overrated up to this point. He’s not overly athletic and doesn’t produce pressure on a very consistent basis. His undrafted teammate from last year, Marcus Rush, is a better and more athletic player than he his at this point. Don’t be surprised to see the online draft community and the NFL cool off on Shilique Calhoun as a prospect over the season.
Dark horse: Kyler Fackrell, Utah State, RS SR
Kyler Fackrell probably would’ve made this list if he hadn’t suffered a season ending ACL tear in the first week of the 2014 season. He has a great first step and shows a natural bend ability off the edge. If Kyler Fackrell can stay healthy, he should be primed for a big 2015 season. As I did with Josh Dobbs, I’ll have a Dark horse post breaking down Fackrell’s game in the near future.
What to make of Shawn Oakman?
Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman is one of the most polarizing prospects this year. He’s an extremely imposing figure standing at a chiseled 6’9″ and 280lbs. He recently caused a stir with his insane box jump video, but that athleticism doesn’t always pop up on the game tape. Shawn Oakman is raw with his hand placement and overall technique. He looks stiff coming around the edge and isn’t truly an effective pass rusher at this point.
Some people have brought up the planet theory when referring to Oakman, invoking the reasoning that you almost have to take a chance on him because there aren’t many people of his stature playing in the NFL. Oakman has raw tools, but he seems to be a bit of a project right now.