After watching at least one game of each senior on the Power 5/Mid Major watch lists, plus watching every returning Power 5 underclassman with more than five sacks in 2016, I have composed an early top-10 EDGEs for NFL draft junkies trying to get a leg up on the 2018 draft class.
To be completely honest, evaluating edge defenders isn’t very hard if you know what you’re looking for. On one of the Setting the Edge podcasts from our visit to the Senior Bowl, we had a conversation with NBC Sports/Rotoworld’s Josh Norris in which we all agreed that for the most part you can tell which day a pass-rusher is going to be drafted on within 10 plays of video. With that in mind, after one game, I think we can start grouping pass-rushers together.
The first tier is players who could be Day 1 picks/starters in the NFL. I included underclassmen in these rankings. If an underclassman didn’t make the cut for the first tier, I didn’t include him on the list, as it’s still somewhat rare for a non-first-round pick pass-rusher to declare for the draft with eligibility on the table.
Tiers are not in order.
Tier 1 (#1-6) [immediate contributing pass-rushers] (all draft eligible prospects)
Harold Landry, Boston College
No surprise that Harold Landry makes this list. He led the nation in sacks last year and was one of biggest name seniors returning to college football. Landry has bend and size, though he does need work on discipline in the run game. He’s a higher-upside Derek Barnett-type, if you want to compare him from someone from last year.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma
Only three senior Power 5 pass-rushers who are measured as over 230 pounds had more sacks than Ogbonnia Okoronkwo last year. Click this if you want to figure out how to pronounce his name. He’s the top speed rusher in the senior class by far, but he has a history of injuries that follow him. Okornkwo missed spring ball after having shoulder surgery after the 2016 regular season. He missed a game against Kansas last year following the Texas Tech game, when EMTs had to be called after the shootout. He missed six games in the previous two years, too.
Arden Key, LSU (junior)
If you read mock drafts, Arden Key is in the conversation to be the first overall pick in the 2018 draft, the first draft in which he’d be draft eligible. Key was a former five-star recruit who finished second in the SEC last year and first among Power 5 sophomores with a 12-sack season. The biggest worries are are that Key’s currently not with the program after taking some personal time off in the spring and the fact that he may be playing in the low 230s on the field.
Dorance Armstrong, Kansas (junior)
Key was first among Power 5 sophomores in sacks last year. Dorance Armstrong of Kansas (Kansas!) was second in 2016. We’re talking about Kansas, the one team that Big 12 teams run on. Armstrong looks like he’s one year away from putting it all together, but players with his tools are first-round picks, even without his production. If Key’s stock for some reason starts to fall and Okornkwo’s medicals don’t come back great, there’s a chance that Armstrong is the best available clean, athletic pass-rusher.
Porter Gustin, USC (junior)
If you were a fan of T.J. Watt last year, Porter Gustin is your team’s chance to grab Watt in 2018. Except he’s better. Gustin’s best fit is likely a 3-4 defense, as his weakness at this point is the run game (but there’s no lack of trying.) He’s a twitched up, “undersized” pass-rusher who plays like his hair is on fire. He didn’t notch even 6 sacks last year, but his 5.5 were as good as Clay Matthew’s entire career at USC. College stats lie.
Clelin Ferrell, Clemson (redshirt sophomore)
Dexter Lawrence, a future NFL interior lineman from Clemson, had more sacks as a freshman last year than Clelin Ferrell did. Ferrell’s progression throughout the season, which is expected of a redshirt freshman, was significant though. If you watch him early on in the year, Antonio Garcia of Troy (now a New England Patriot) throws him around. By the time that the national championship game kicked off, he was jawing off at the undefeated defending national champions from the moment the whistle blew, going toe-to-toe with Cam Robinson, the third bookend off the board in the 2017 draft.
Tier 2 (#7-9) [immediate rotational pass-rushers] (senior prospects only)
Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest
This is one of the better examples of development of a pass-rusher from any staff in college football. Duke Ejiofor was a multi-sport athlete in high school who left Texas (and a Rice commitment) to play for Wake Forest. The staff has since thrown 50-plus pounds on his body since he arrived on campus. Only Landry had more sacks than Ejiofor did last year and returned to play Power 5 football for a senior season. He was a player on the radar of those who followed the 2017 draft.
Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State
You’re going to hear a lot that Bradley Chubb is the cousin of Nick Chubb, the Georgia running back who went into the 2016 regular season with first-round hype before a disappointing season. Chubb has made his own mark at North Carolina though. Chubb was awarded Mario Williams’ number and earned team captain status with the team. There are legitimate concerns about the idea of him being drafted to be a number one pass-rusher in the NFL, but his 10-sack season ranks third behind Landry and Ejiofor among returning Power 5 seniors. He was a player on the radar of those who followed the 2017 draft.
Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State
It’s not often that a pass-rusher is named the defensive lineman of the year in a Power 5 conference and is a First-Team All-Conference player and returns to school, but that’s the situation here. Larry Johnson brought another one back. Lewis is the third of three in a tier of pass-rushers whose talents may have them coming off the bench for teams with high depth at defensive end or being the number two pass-rushers on teams with low depth at defensive end. Either way, pass-rushers are hard to find and even third and fourth defensive ends make an impact in the NFL.
Tier 3 (#10) [high-upside projects] (senior prospects only)
Garrett Hughes, New Mexico
There is no pass-rusher more interesting and confusing to me as Garrett Hughes. If you measured him after 2016 games, he’d likely fall under 6’2″ and 265 pounds. Despite that, he has one of the best get-offs I’ve seen in my years doing this. He isn’t very refined, but he he has all of the tools to succeed at the next level. A player that reminds me of this is former Nebraska Cornhusker Maliek Collins, a defensive tackle who after a summer with Rod Marinelli was nearly the Dallas Cowboys’ sack leader as a rookie. Here’s the difference: Collins was over 300 pounds at the combine. Hughes will likely weigh under 270, and most of his time is spent playing defensive tackle for New Mexico, which runs an option offense and does what it needs to for Mountain West success. His role on the team isn’t too different from say Solomon Thomas’ was at Stanford. In the NFL though, like Thomas, he’s probably a better fit as a true pass-rusher, because of his size and point of attack limitations, than an interior defensive lineman. He’s a player you really need to squint at to project, and my eyes get tired after watching four games of that.