Technically speaking I could also call this group the DE/Rush LB group, but I figure I will speak to this on each individual prospect. This is definitely one of the more impressive crops of pass rushers to come out in one draft than I have seen in some times. What makes it even more interesting is the scheme diversity of the players in the elite, first round category. There are a handful of edge rushers with the size and strength to hold up as a 5-technique in an odd man front, or move to the left or power end in an even man front, and with that you also have a handful of guys who are rush right ends or rush OLBs in a 3-4. There are even some guys I will cover in the Defensive Tackle section that could be considered as 5-techniques in an odd man front as well, so this is a position group that is loaded with solid talent. In fact, I think teams will get the most value by going early with these players who will contribute immediately in what will be a shortened offseason due to the lockout.
There are two guys who I think are elite level pass rushers that can and should be gone within the top 8 picks, and that’s Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers and UNC’s Robert Quinn. The most interesting thing to note is both have some question marks surrounding them going into the draft, and it may push them down a few spots lower than they should have gone.
For Bowers, look no further than what I wrote about him last year when watching Clemson games:
Da’Quan Bowers, DE, So- Bowers has a really bright future, and he’s someone I could see who comes out early next year and be in first round consideration. He can rush the passer and is very stout against the run. Next year Bowers needs to show that he can still make an impact once Ricky Sapp is gone (and he will face more double team blocks). What I like most about him is that he is absolutely relentless and never stops moving on a play. So makes more plays on second effort than on talent alone. That’s a dangerous mix when considering an NFL draft prospect
So what I don’t get is the misconception that he is a ‘one year wonder’ as some media outlets are saying. I think saying that his breakout junior season may appear to be this as he had better statistics, but I will argue right back that this is more of a case of a developing prospect learning to put everything together after getting experience. The above speaks volumes to this point exactly. He’s had the natural talent, and he was always a high motor player, he just learned how to put this all together this season. Watch some of the highlights they show of him on NFL network. He does a great job of getting second effort sacks, where he’s either doubled and beats this or he gets cut to the ground, gets up, and still gets the sack. I think he could be the number one overall pick, but his knee surgery really does scare me. I may wait until I see how his pro day goes as it sounds worse than what was released, and I would say this could move him down as low as the 6th pick. As for what position Bowers fits best, I’d be hesitant to say he can fit as a rush OLB, but his pro day could dispel that assessment. I’ve only seen him with his hand down, and that is where I would put him (in an even man front).
If not for making the mistake of accepting improper benefits, Robert Quinn may have something to say about anointing Bowers the top DE in this class. If Quinn had reasonable answers in his interviews with team personnel about what happened, and understands what he lost by making the choices he did, then I don’t think his draft stock will be that adversely affected. I can’t help but remember what I saw on the field in 2009 and that was someone born to rush the passer. Quinn has a natural feel for this part of the game, and he flattens around the corner better than most rush ends I have seen at his age. I think that he tested well enough and showed enough agility that I would be confident saying he could stand up and play rush OLB in a 3-4 as well. Because of that, I don’t see how Quinn makes it out of the top 10 either, regardless of the fact that he did not play last year. Elite pass rushers can make the difference between the cellar and playoffs (just look at the Bears with and without Peppers), and that’s worth more than taking a risk on a QB with ‘potential’.
After these two, the next group falls into the first group of versatile DEs I mentioned previously. What Adrian Clayborn of Iowa, J.J. Watt of Wisconsin, and Cameron Jordan of Cal have in common is that all of them would be very good fits at DE in a 3-4, but can be just as impactful as a left end in a 4-3. Clayborn had a down season this year, coming in with very high expectations from the media and myself based on his 2009 play. I’m not as down on him though as others seem to be as I think some of this has to do with teams scheming away from his side and neutralizing him with their offensive game plan. Clayborn is just a very good two-way DE. He has good size, good strength, and plays the run and pass equally well. Same goes for Watt, who really impressed at the combine. He always looked like an effort guy on film who won battles with his motor, but the combine showed he is much more athletic than most thought and those numbers match his effort as well. I think of any of these DE prospects, the bowl game and combine helped him the most as it confirmed his athleticism and scheme versatility. I think he goes no lower than the 13-15th pick overall, and when he declared many people would have considered that far fetched. Jordan is like Watt in that he is relentless and wins a good number of battles on effort. He also has great measurable numbers though, and what I liked most in what I have seen is his feel for mixing pass rush moves. He knows how to set up tackles with speed to power and vice versa. He’s not a guy who will wow you with double digit sacks, but he’s someone with experience playing the 5-technique position that will be solid against the run and the pass at this position. Like Watt, I doubt he makes it past the middle of the first round. One name you may notice was missing from my early comments, who I have been raving about for the past three years, is Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward. That’s not to say I am down on Heyward and letting this year’s games speak for his body of work. I’m simply saying that I think the other prospects mentioned above have fewer nicks on them than Heyward does. What really affects his value is the fact that he had Tommy John surgery on his elbow at the end of the season. Granted, he’s not an MLB pitcher, so this isn’t that big of a deal but it does affect his draft stock. I think because if this, he’s going to make a steal in the back half of the first round to the early second round. He’s the ideal 5-technique, but could play some 3-technique as well.
The third group of elite guys are the undersized 4-3 DEs who have also shown they can play out of the two point stance. Ryan Kerrigan of Purdue is someone who has grown on me this season. I wasn’t a huge fan of him previously as I felt he was a one trick pony with the speed rush. This year he did a better job of mixing pass rush moves, and also showed he can hang against some of the better tackles in this year’s class. Kerrigan’s motor runs non-stop, and he’s lucky enough to be blessed with solid athleticism to boot. I personally think he fits best as a down rush end, but he definitely showed the ability to learn how to play with his hand off the ground. He should not make it past the Patriots at pick 17 as I think he’s exactly the type of player they need (but he may be gone before then anyway). Aldon Smith of Missouri is a lot like Quinn in that he missed almost the entire 2010 although he was injured. Taking Smith high is banking on his potential, which is higher than some of the other DE’s already mentioned. I’m just worried about where his floor is, and I don’t know if he’s strong enough at the point of attack to hold up as a 4-3 DE unless it’s the right system. Having said all of that, he’s a dynamic pass rusher who also is athletic enough to stand up and rush as an OLB. When all is said and done, someone is going to fall in love with his potential and draft him in the top 12-15 picks, although I would wait until the 15-20 range due to my concerns about how consistent he will be at the next level. Justin Houston of Georgia is very similar as well. He’s a tweener, but he has elite athleticism and speed for someone his size, and teams will fall in love with what they can mold him into. I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see a team like the Bears take someone like Houston to play DE in a Cover-2 defense, but I think he’s better fit as a rush OLB on a team like the Ravens or Jets as he just looks a lot like that type of football player.
I’ve saved two of my favorite players for last as I think they are under the radar guys who really should be talked about. Brooks Reed of Arizona will be an outstanding 3-4 rush OLB. He stood out more this season when I watched some Arizona games checking up on his linemate Ricky Elmore, and I came away much more impressed with what Reed has to offer. You will see that places like ESPN Scouts Inc are also singing Reed’s praise, and I’m glad to see this. I’ve just always thought of him as a poor man’s Clay Mathews, and I don’t mean that as a slight either. I think he’s a very similar player; he was overshadowed by other talented teammates and managed to continue to develop and grow based on hard work and effort. Reed is more experienced with game time than Mathews was at this point, and like Mathews, I think Reed will be a better pro than he was a collegian. He will not be the biggest, the fastest, or the most technically sound player on the field but he will fight tooth and nail to make a play. I actually think he could slip to the end of the first round and be paired with Mathews to make what might be the best pair of rush OLBs other than the Steelers duo. I hope that doesn’t happen as that makes for some difficult times for Bears fans moving forward. The other DE is Sam Acho of Texas. I can’t understand why he does not get the respect he should, but I think Acho is going to be a steal no matter where he goes. He’s a very intelligent player, and he’s just a well rounded prospect. I don’t think he’s a first round talent, but he’s someone I would take in the second round and be very pleased with my return on the investment. I actually thought Acho had more potential than his teammate last year in Sergio Kindle. Since he got hurt last year and never played for the Ravens (and may not ever play again due to a skull injury he suffered). In fact, if he’s there when Baltimore picks in the second round, I think he’d be an ideal fit in that defense. I think he’s athletic enough to stand and play in the 3-4, and he can play a traditional 4-3 DE position on a team that values speed and edge rushing more than size and run stuffing.