The EDGE defender crop in the ACC is the position group that collectively features the best talent in the conference. Headlined by Clelin Ferrell, his contemporaries offer considerable upside in their own right. A year after only Bradley Chubb tallied double-digit sacks, there could be as many as 4-6 to challenge that feat in 2018. Let’s examine the best five edge defender prospects in the ACC entering the season.
1. Clelin Ferrell, Junior, Clemson (6’5, 260)
It’s not a matter of if Ferrell will be a first round draft pick, it’s about how high he will ultimately go. Checking numerous critical boxes in an EDGE prospect, Ferrell has the skill set of a coveted player next spring.
Listed at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, Ferrell brings a dynamic athletic skill set to the table to pair with his ideal physical traits. Blessed with length and quickness, Ferrell knows how to use his gifts on the field and make plays.
As a pass rusher, Ferrell illustrates multiple ways to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback but it all stems from his first step quickness and economy of motion to get home. His steps and stride length are in unison with his plan of attack and it makes him highly effective. His go-to move is a chop-rip that is executed with precise timing to counter the offensive tackles punch and diminishing his surface area that enables him to corner the edge track. Ferrell also showcases a potent spin and inside moves to complement his variety of hand techniques to soften angles and get after the passer.
Ferrell does well to read the blockers set and appropriately attack blocks. He is first with his hands and knows how to keep his pads clean while establishing a half man relationship with blockers. He sharply changes directions and is capable of making plays out to the sideline on the perimeter.
When defending the run, Ferrell showcases excellent gap discipline to maintain his run fits. He does well to set a firm edge while maintaining outside leverage with the ability to also slash through gaps. He has good instincts as to play design and where the ball is going in relationship to blocking schemes.
Entering his third season as a full-time starter after missing his senior year of high school due to an ACL tear and redshirting during his first, Ferrell is primed for a monster season of harassing ACC quarterbacks.
2. Brian Burns, Junior, Florida State (6’4, 240)
A five-star recruit, Burns has racked up 23 tackles for loss, 13 sacks and four forced fumbles across his first two seasons at Florida State. Given his physical upside and billing, Burns is expected to have a standout junior season.
Already showing a variety of pass rush moves, footwork, burst and length, Burns has a considerably high ceiling as a pass rusher. He does well to minimize his surface area and use his hands to clear his pads. He knows how to use his feet to set up his pass rush moves and draw opponents out of their sets to soften his rush angles. He has the flexibility to corner the edge track and length to finish.
As a run defender, Burns competes hard to stay in his run fits while also effective attacking gaps. With that said, his lack of bulk and need for increased play strength yields notably different results when tasked with combating tight ends as opposed to offensive tackles.
Given his long and lean frame, Burns doesn’t quite have the elite athleticism expected of an edge rusher for his size. While he does showcase impressive moments of explosive burst, playing faster is needed. The need for more play speed often shows up with how Burns reads an offensive tackles set and is calculated in how he responds. He is a fluid mover that needs to execute quicker.
Burns is already an appealing prospect but there is room for growth and it’s exciting to consider how good he can get.
3. Zach Allen, Senior, Boston College (6’5, 285)
One of just two defensive lineman in the nation to rack up 100 tackles in 2017, Allen had a standout junior season working opposite Harold Landry where he tallied 100 tackles, 15.5 tackle for loss and four sacks. One of the Eagles’ senior leaders on an underrated unit, Allen is in search of a third consecutive double-digit tackles for loss season as a senior.
What’s most exciting about Allen is how physical and strong he is at the point of attack. Not easily moved out of his gap, Allen does well to dictate reps with aggressive hand technique and a stout anchor as he plays through blocks. He offers sharp mental processing skills in his ability to diagnose plays and seamlessly disposes of blockers in pursuit. His executes with a relentless motor and high degree of urgency.
While Allen offers exceptional play strength, he isn’t the most gifted of athletes. He wins with hustle and physicality but it’s hard to envision him winning around the corner against NFL offensive tackles. He sets a firm edge but his pass rushing upside comes attacking the a and b gaps. He doesn’t have the juice or flexibility to corner the edge track.
Allen is poised for another productive season and will be an attractive prospect for a defense that features multiple fronts in the NFL.
4. Joe Jackson, Junior, Miami (6’5, 258)
Racking up 21 tackles for loss and 14 sacks across his first two seasons as a Hurricane, Jackson has found early production. A long, lean and athletic edge defender, Jackson is physically gifted and plays with a hot motor. So far that has carried him, but in order to become a coveted NFL Draft prospect, Jackson needs to evolve in several areas.
The primary concern I have with Jackson is his vision to read the offensive tackles set. Jackson is more of a reactive player that does not set up his attack well. Even when he wins out of the gate with his quick first step and initial vertical push, Jackson doesn’t naturally use his hands to soften angles when he is hip-to-hip with blockers. Missing opportunities to attack offensive tackles when they are in vulnerable positions, Jackson must become more nuanced with his technique and become a more refined player. Jackson needs to be more assertive with his hands and develop the mental processing skills needed to effectively attack the pocket.
As a run defender, Jackson showcases good power at the point of attack when his leverage is right. Too often, his pads get high and he is easily reached and driven out of his gap. It’s imperative for Jackson to become dedicated to keeping his low pads so he can anchor and control his gap more consistently.
Make no mistake about it, Jackson has upside but he needs to put it all together to be a more consistently effective player. His concerns are teachable and his upside is evident.
5. Austin Bryant, Senior, Clemson (6’5, 265)
Bryant has a similar build to teammate Clelin Ferrell but they are worlds apart when it comes to who is a more appealing NFL Draft prospect. Blossoming during his first year as a full time starter as a junior, Bryant needs to demonstrate major growth as a senior to truly enter the first round discussion.
A modest athlete at best, Bryant doesn’t offer the type of juice out of his stance to put stress on an offensive tackles foot speed to keep pace around the edge track. He lacks vision, a plan and his pass rush moves are slow-developing and poorly-timed. He needs to become more of the aggressor as a pass rusher to make up for what he lacks athletically while developing his hand usage to disengage from blockers.
As a run defender, Bryant doesn’t process blocks quickly enough to position himself to be a consistent playmaker. While he does have flashes as an edge-setter and gap-shooter, he is too frequently late with his hands and is stuck in state of recovery to get back into his run fit.
Bryant’s best moments on tape were situations that the scheme specifically positioned him to make a play. To his credit, Bryant often took advantage of those opportunities.
Bryant did have some standout moments on tape but his snap-to-snap consistency is underwhelming. With that said, the stage is set for him to put it all together as a senior in a year where expectations couldn’t be higher.
Keep an eye on:
Darian Roseboro, NC State
Trevon Hill, Virginia Tech
Malik Carney, North Carolina
Rashad Weaver, Pittsburgh