Expect edge rushers to go early in 2017 NFL draft
(Second in a series)
In recent years, edge rushers have been overdrafted more than any position except quarterbacks.
That's because the best way to neutralize even the best quarterbacks is by putting pressuring on them.
Whether pass rushers line up as defensive ends in even fronts (4-3 alignment) or outside linebackers in odd fronts (3-4 scheme), players who can get after the quarterback and disrupt the passing game are valuable commodities.
Many mock drafts have this year's top two edge rushers, Myles Garrett and Solomon Thomas, going 1-2 overall, and it's a foregone conclusion that Garrett will be the top pick. Six edge rushers could easily come off the board in the first round and 10-12 in the first two rounds.
Texas A&M's Garrett appreciates being the presumptive No. 1, but he knows it doesn't count for much beyond draft day.
"It shows I'm top dog," he said, "at least from the beginning. But once I'm in the NFL, I can't just hang my hat on that. I have to keep on rising."
Stanford's Thomas is much less of a sure thing, a redshirt sophomore leaving school with two years of eligibility remaining. He had 8 sacks last season but showed the strength of his overall game by leading the Cardinal with 62 tackles, including 15 behind the line of scrimmage.
"I just thought I was ready," he said of his decision to come out early. "I've been dreaming about this since I was 8 years old. I know I'm ready to make an impact in the NFL. I know what the best opportunity for me was. That's why I left."
Even after the top-rated sack men are off the board, there is great depth among this year's crop of edge rushers. They include a pair of Fighting Illini, Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips.
The 6-foot-3, 264-pound Smoot may have been a better prospect after he had 8 sacks as a junior in 2015. His sacks dropped to 5 last year, although he improved his tackle total from 40 to 56. He had 30 tackles behind the line of scrimmage the past two seasons.
Smoot can play end in a 4-3 or outside linebacker in a 3-4, and he's expected to be a second day (Rounds Two and Three) pick. His teammate, Phillips, is better suited to outside linebacker at 6-3 and 242 pounds. He's likely a Day Three selection, despite a monster senior season in Lovie Smith's first year as Illinois' head coach. Phillips had 9 sacks and 20 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in 2016.
"I always had ability," Phillips said. "I just didn't have the opportunity to make plays and be in the game.
When Lovie came, I just took advantage of the opportunity. He showed me how to be a pro."
Northwestern's Ifeadi Odenigbo was a highly touted recruit. But the 6-foot-3, 258-pounder never became much more than a situational pass rusher.
"I was an immature 18-year-old," he said. "I thought I had it figured out. Northwestern helped me improve mentally, physically, just kind of mature.
"The thing I had to do is just get bigger. It's not that I wasn't athletic or didn't have the tools, it's just Big 10 play, and week in week out I'm going against guys that are 6-5, 310."
That's what he'll see in the NFL, and Odenigbo may never become an every-down player. But if he continues to get bigger and stronger without sacrificing athleticism and quickness, he can make an impact as a nickel pass rusher. And NFL teams can't have enough of those.
Odenigbo had 23.5 career sacks, including 10 last year, and he flashed enough pass-rush production to be a late-round consideration.
Next up: Running backs
Top 10 edge rushers in 2017 draft
(4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers)
Pos. Name, school Ht. Wt. 40-time
DE Myles Garrett, Texas A & M 6-4.4 272 4.66
Best player in the draft, elite athlete with all the tools to be a double-digit sack threat right now.
DE Solomon Thomas, Stanford 6-2.5 273 4.69
Rare combo of explosive get-off and power. Redshirt sophomore who has skyrocketed up many mock drafts.
DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee 6-3.0 259 4.86
10 or more sacks each year. Lacks great speed but has elite technique, especially in hand-to-hand combat.
DE-OLB Charles Harris, Missouri 6-2.6 253 4.81
May lack anchor vs. run to stay at DE but is a high-motor guy with pass-rush explosion who pursues well.
Haason Reddick, Temple 6-1.4 237 4.52
Rapid riser who lived behind the LOS with 22.5 TFL's in 2016. Explosive but also has long speed in coverage.
OLB Takkarist McKinley, UCLA 6-2.0 250 4.61
Ascending player has high ceiling but still a project. Wins with superior effort but needs better technique.
OLB Tim Williams, Alabama 6-2.7 244 4.66
Elite get-off, multiple pass-rush moves, and is similar to Bears Leonard Floyd. But major character concerns.
DE Taco Charlton, Michigan 6-5.5 277 4.94
Improved as player and pass rusher every year. Athletic for big man but needs to get stronger and tougher.
DE-OLB Charles Lawson, Auburn 6-1.6 261 4.74
Jacked physique, 35 bench reps. Powerful and quick but lacks flexibility. Has overcome knee and hip injuries.
OLB Ryan Anderson, Alabama 6-2.0 253 4.82
Hustle player gets it done with effort more than great athleticism. Lacks elite pass-rush ability.
Under "Ht." the number following the period refers to eighths of an inch.
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