One of the premier positions in the NFL is also one of the deepest positions in this year’s NFL draft. Not only are there several talented edge defenders, but each has a unique skill set and can bring different dynamics to every scheme. Here are the top five edge players in the class:
Vic Beasley, Clemson, 6-3/246, First Round Grade
Beasley is a divisive prospect, in which people cannot agree whether he can consistently hold up against the run or not. However, one thing is clear: he can rush the passer like a maniac. Beasley has an unreal first step and burst off the line. It is insanely difficult to slow him down off the edge. In addition, he has an array of moves that he uses to disengage when blockers can initiate contact. As for his ability against the run, it is not his strength, but he has the speed and awareness to play the ball from the weak side. The edge defender’s ability to show up at the combine with great size, yet still show off his athletic ability is also a positive sign going forward. He has some hitches to his game, but there is no doubt there is ability to get after the passer like few can. He fits best as a 3-4 outside linebacker who can use his burst to rush the passer. However, he can play as an off ball linebacker in a 4-3 who can blitz, play in space, and come down on the line on passing downs. It will be very hard to misuse such a dynamic player.
NFL Comparison: Demarcus Ware, Denver Broncos
Dante Fowler Jr., Florida, 6’3″/261, First Round Grade
Fowler is an incredibly “safe” prospect where there are so few weaknesses to his game, and he can do so much. Along with a good first step (a bit of which is based on good anticipation), being an incredibly active rusher with many different moves in order to disengage is a strength. He has a relentless motor and is very aware on the field. Fowler does a good job dipping and bending the edge and has the lower body strength to hold up against the run. He is not an elite athlete like Beasley, but the young rusher is a good athlete who compensates with great technique, field IQ and a high motor. He could play defensive end in a 4-3 or a strong side outside linebacker in a 3-4, but he has the size/skill set to be moved around and disrupt from everywhere.
NFL Comparison: (A bit less athletic) Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
Alvin “Bud” Dupree, Kentucky, 6’4″/269, First Round Grade
Dupree ‘wowed’ the entire football community after he absolutely destroyed the combine, and that insane level of athletic ability is evident on tape. He has ridiculous levels of explosiveness off the line, while maintaining the strength of a bull once he engages a linemen. The sky is the limit for Dupree, and that flashes all the time on tape. That said, there are some fundamental flaws in his game that are worrying. He has really poor infield awareness and that causes him to hesitate, and thus look slower. He also can take bad angles to the ball. The young rusher can lose technique from time to time and just try to win with athletic ability, which rarely works consistently in the NFL. He is a project, both technically and from the standpoint of field awareness, but there remains great upside. Ideally you are using him in a simplified roll regardless of scheme because asking him to do too much is limiting him. Let him pin his ears back and wreak havoc.
NFL Comparison: (More raw) Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins
Preston Smith, Mississippi State, 6-5/271, First Round Grade
Smith has been flying under the radar for the most part, but he has the talent to hang in the first round with the big names. The Mississipi State prospect has great size, and while he is not the speed/finesse player that most of the edge guys are, Smith is still very disruptive. Smith is incredibly strong with active, violent hands. He is a good technician and has an incredibly high motor. There also is the ability to play all over the line to create disruption. He is not the type of guy who is going to come flying off the edge on passing downs, but Smith is gonna be busting his ass on every snap no matter where he is playing from. Playing him as an outside linebacker would be hurting him. He fits best as a strong side defensive end in a 4-3 who can kick inside on passing downs.
NFL Comparison: Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks
Randy Gregory, Nebraska, 6-5/235, Second Round Grade
Gregory is another divisive prospect. He flashes incredible movement skills on tape and especially when rushing the passer, but he also played in college at nearly 215 pounds (that is really low), so his movement skills may not translate to the NFL if he needs to add 15-25 pounds. He has great bend off the end, and is able to convert speed to power really well. However, he has a tendency to get pushed around against the run and also looks slow to react. That said, his field instincts may look worse than they are due to responsibilities he had in the defense. Regardless, his translatability really worries me. If Gregory can put on substantial weight while maintaining his speed, then he will be a disruptive pass rusher in the NFL. If the Nebraska rusher is playing the edge consistently in the NFL, he is best suited to play in space a la LEO role or weak side OLB in a 3-4. Honestly, he may be best suited playing off the ball. Gregory is certainly a unique player.
NFL Comparison: Kamerion Wimbley, Tennessee Titans
After the top five, there is still a host of talented players, many of whom are getting first round hype. If your favorite team needs pass rush, this is a good year to fix that problem.