Few position groups were more highly anticipated in the 2016 NFL Draft than edge defender, with many boards featuring as many as four in their top 20 prospects. Joey Bosa has obviously lived up to the hype, but most of the other edge defenders in the class have ranged from mildly disappointing to out-of-the-league bust.
Third-round pick Yannick Ngakoue has become one of the league’s best pass rushers. Second-round pick Emmanuel Ogbah has been an excellent run defender, but an average pass rusher with minimal production. Fifth-round pick Matt Judon has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the draft for Baltimore, as he kept more highly-touted rookies Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams on the bench last year.
The rest? Bunch of yuck so far. Can any of them break out this season? I took a look at the class and what is holding them back.
Shaq Lawson, DE, Buffalo Bills
Shaq Lawson was the no. 2 edge on most pundits’ boards, largely due to his well-rounded game and the fits he gave Notre Dame left tackle Ronnie Stanley on tape. Lawson has battled through some injuries early in his career, but hasn’t come close to meeting the expectations the Bills had for him when they took him off the board at no. 19 overall.
Holding Lawson back is his lack of elite athleticism, combined with a shallow stable of moves off the edge. He doesn’t have any calling card as a pass rusher, and his lack of great burst and speed up the arc makes counter moves a lot harder to access than they were in college.
To me, Lawson was a teaching tool for how much traits matter for edge rushers. He tested relatively well, but he was never able to win around the outside hip of the tackle consistently in college. The vast majority of successful first round pass rushers can consistently beat a tackle at the top of the arc. If your favorite edge can’t, he probably isn’t a first round caliber player.
Lawson has been a solid run defender, but edge rushers who can’t win 1v1 and impact the pocket on a regular basis aren’t long for today’s NFL. With six career sacks in 21 games, the vast majority of which have been of the coverage variety, Lawson needs to break out in 2016 or he could be on the roster bubble next year.
Noah Spence, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Spence has had a hard time seeing the field in a full-time capacity for the Bucs due to injuries and his struggles against the run. He played in just six games last season with only one sack before a shoulder injury ended his season early.
Turn the page to 2018 and Spence is 263 pounds, up 35 from a year ago. He looks unbelievable on the hoof, and has been impressing in practices as well. There is a lot better chance that Spence makes a high end impact this season than Lawson, as his athletic traits have been far more evident in his brief career. As a rookie, Spence’s burst and hand usage were calling cards, but he isn’t as bendy at the top of the arc as I thought he was pre-draft, so he’ll need a strong counter game to really thrive in the NFL.
It sounds like Spence is being used off the edge in the Bucs sub-package looks, while either Vinny Curry or Jason Pierre-Paul kick inside next to Gerald McCoy, and the other bookends Spence. I’m extremely excited to see Spence return to action, as he was a top 10 player for me in the 2016 class. He’ll probably never play to those expectations, but I still think he can be a productive player if he can stay on the field.
Leonard Floyd, OLB, Chicago Bears
Floyd has flashed a lot in his first two seasons, but he’s still highly inconsistent and unrefined, disappearing for long stretches of play. Establishing a consistent rush plan and a secondary move outside of his inside counter should be the priorities for Floyd this season.
11.5 sacks in 22 games is solid, but a lot of that production has come off schematic wrinkles that Vic Fangio has drawn up to get Floyd free pressures. I wouldn’t describe the Bears third-year defender as the type of edge who wins consistently 1v1, although that change could be coming this year. Can he finally match up against top-tier talent and establish himself as a premier young edge rusher in the league? 2018 is a huge year for Floyd’s career trajectory.
Stock: Slightly up
Kevin Dodd, DE, Nowhere
With the Tennessee Titans cutting Dodd loose a few weeks ago, he becomes the first big-name casualty of the 2016 class. Dodd is a lesson in two things: 1) athleticism matters, as mentioned previously, and 2) intangibles matter. My personal opinion is that Dodd never had that drive to be great, and I think the Titans would agree with me there.
Kamalei Correa, OLB/ILB, Baltimore Ravens
Remember when Correa was getting first round hype? And then he actually came off the board at no. 40 overall? Those were the days, man.
Since then, Correa has played in 25 games and started four with zero sacks and 19 tackles. He’s been unable to nail down the job next to C.J. Mosley at inside linebacker, so it appears the Ravens are experimenting with him on the edge again. Correa had three sacks in Baltimore’s first preseason game, although they came against un-rosterable players for the most part. I don’t think it is likely he plays a big part in the Ravens 2018 plans.
Shilique Calhoun, DE, Oakland Raiders
Calhoun has already been cut once, but Oakland brought him back to the practice squad when he cleared waivers. 19 games, zero starts and half-a-sack later, Calhoun is squarely on the roster bubble heading out of training camp.
I thought Calhoun would always be a sub-package player, and his burst and bend were evident on tape. He checked some of the boxes that Lawson and Dodd didn’t, but functional strength, motor and consistency were still issues. I would probably bet on most players with Calhoun’s athletic/production profile to at least become solid situational rushers, but the other missing factors have won out in his case.
Calhoun reportedly played well in the Raiders’ first preseason game, but with Bruce Irvin, Arden Key and Mario Edwards still in the mix, I’m not sure I see an obvious role for him unless Khalil Mack’s holdout lasts into the regular season.
Jordan Jenkins, OLB, New York Jets
In some ways, Jenkins has been a successful third round pick. He’s smart, assignment-sound, tough and stands out as a run defender. But there’s also no upside, athleticism or splash play potential in his game, and Jenkins won’t make a ripple as a pass rusher.
For a lot of NFL teams, Jenkins would be the fourth edge off the bench. For the Jets, he might be their best one. 30 games and 26 starts have seen only 5.5 hustle sacks from Jenkins, and I wouldn’t expect that mark to improve this season either.
Kyler Fackrell, OLB, Green Bay Packers
Packers fans abhor Fackrell because he’s not very physical nor imposing in the run game. There are definitely times where he gets his backside handed to him, and he’ll never be a preferable starter in the NFL.
But five sacks in limited playing time have revealed a little of why Fackrell is still on the team. I do think he could be on the bubble this preseason if Vince Biegel and some of the other unproven pass rushers play well, but more than likely Fackrell is back in the fold for 2018, continuing to drive fans crazy.