A position lauded for its strength at the top last year, edge rushers have become the norm and are paid as a premium position.
In the pass-happy NFL having a dominant defensive end is now seen as a requirement in order to win a championship. From Von Miller’s performance in Super Bowl 50 against the Carolina Panthers to the heavy rotation the Philadelphia Eagles employed to defeat the New England Patriots in 2018, teams are scrambling to find the next impact player to help them hoist a Lombardi Trophy.
This year’s class once again stacked. It all starts with Chase Young who has already received lofty praise, but there are others that have helped this class become a well-rounded group. Prospect-to-NFL comparisons are never easy, but once again we must remember these are comparing playing styles and not their career projected outcome.
Chase Young, Ohio State
NFL comparison: Julius Peppers
When you think of some of the best edge rushers to come through the draft of the past 10 seasons, Myles Garrett, the Bosa brothers and Miller are the first few that come to mind. Young firmly threw his name into that hat and some are even saying he's surpassed some of those as a college prospect. His production is off the charts and with 30 1/2 career sacks, he's only 5 1/2 away from tying Mike Vrabel's school record of 36. It speaks volumes to just how big of an impact he had during his junior season, especially considering the star rusher missed two games due to a questionable suspension.
Young will enter the league with monumental expectations. Julius Peppers is one of the best defensive ends to ever play the game, and that will be the type of hype Young will be expected to live up to. Peppers (6-foot-6, 283 pounds) was a bit bigger than Young and I don't anticipate him running a 4.74 40-yard dash time like the future Hall of Fame player did.
But with somewhat similar size and traits, Young has the potential to have the same type of impact as Peppers had. Young thrived in taking advantage of one-on-one matchups, but even when targeted with extra bodies, he was able to still get home and finish plays with sacks as evident by his 21 tackles for loss and 16 1/2 sacks.
A.J. Epenesa, Iowa
NFL comparison: Cameron Jordan
A.J. Epenesa finally got his chance to be a full-time starter this season. After terrorizing opposing offenses the seasons prior, it's mind boggling to comprehend he never played over 40 percent of defensive snaps during an entire game. With the graduation of Anthony Nelson, and now a junior, it was finally time for the former 5-star recruit to prove he was worthy of the hype he garnered.
Through the first 10 games, Epenesa led the Big Ten in quarterback pressures with 47, according to Pro Football Focus. At first, he was unable to finish those pressures with sacks or tackles for a loss but over the last five games, he recorded six sacks, including a stand-out performance against Nebraska. During the big 27-24 win, Epenesa totaled career highs in tackles (14), tackles for loss (4.5) and two sacks.
"Scheme Proof" is often used to describe Epenesa’s style of play and rightfully so. He can be a base defensive end in a four-down defense, while also being a 4/4i technique in a three-down defensive front. It makes him similar to the likes of Cameron Jordan. While neither are overly explosive or the bendiest players, their effort, mature hand positioning and hand-to-hand combat are what makes them in the upper echelon categories of their respective positions.
K'Lavon Chaisson, LSU
NFL comparison: Whitney Mercilus
K'Lavon Chaisson falls more into the 3-4 outside linebacker category, but in draft terms, he is still classified as an edge rusher. The biggest drawback with the former LSU starter is the low sack totals despite recording a career-high 4 1/2 this season. After tearing his ACL in an opening week matchup against Miami last year, Chaisson bounced admirably in his second season as a starter. His draft profile starts and ends with his explosiveness off the ball. His upfield burst is one of the best in this class.
A frequent spot dropper in pass coverage, Chaisson has the comfort in order to do it ever so often, but it’s not something he should be schemed into making a living out of. This makes him an ideal fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but his biggest assets come during the passing game. Even though his sacks totals may not reflect it, Chaisson has been able to generate consistent pressures on throwers and forcing them off of their spots within the pocket.
It’s an eerily similar game to Whitney Mercilus as neither get their due credit as a run defender. Both possess light lower halves, but they have the strength in order to set a firm edge and also the burst on the backside to chase down perimeter runs. The evaluations for Chaisson will be interesting as he's assured to be atop many boards as a pass rusher, but the comfort with the evaluations of his run defense will remain mixed.
Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State
NFL Comparison: Ziggy Ansah
Yetur Gross-Matos has been forced to overcome an extreme amount of tragedy after the loss of his father and younger brother. All the while, he has become one of the premier players on Penn State’s defense and now positioned himself to be one of the top edge rushers in this draft class. Gross-Matos is natural with his athleticism, violent hands and ability to win the corner. The star rusher has already set a career-high in sacks (8 1/2) entering the Goodyear Cotton Bowl (12:00 p.m. ET, ESPN).
However, consistency has been a major flaw. He disappears in stretches far too often and must improve as a run defender. Gross-Matos has the potential to set a firm edge but allows perimeter runs to circle the defense often — it's a result of him being unable to keep his outside shoulder free in order to contain runs. He already has the natural ability to be an instant impact type of rusher but now must become a more well-rounded run defender to avoid being boxed into certain packages.
Curtis Weaver, Boise State
NFL Comparison: Derek Barnett
Kudos to my colleague, Kyle Crabbs, for mentioning this comparison during our pre-season scouting series. It is one that matches perfectly. Curtis Weaver and Derek Barnett are two thickly built edge rushers that will not wow you with their juice off of the edge. Where they stand out the most is with their alignment versatility and abilities to win no matter their positioning in defensive formations. While watching the Boise State defense, it's almost required to pause the screen prior to each snap in order to find where Weaver lined up.
After arriving on campus originally as a defensive tackle, he still has the body composition to maintain in between the A and B gaps. As a result, the Broncos use this to their advantage by sliding him inside to those areas on passing downs or third and long situations. Because of Weaver’s quickness and power, he is efficient with penetrating through the first level to later wreak havoc.
Julian Okwara, Notre Dame
NFL Comparison: Leonard Floyd
Julian Okwara had an up-and-down collegiate career, but showed flashes of returning to his 2018 form this season. After tallying a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks, Okwara’s numbers have slipped to seven tackles for loss and only four sacks. He’s left a lot to be desired this year, but that is attributed to many variables. Okwara seems ready to blossom outside of the Notre Dame’s defense and be a dependable starter on the next level.
Okwara's length, bend and up the field burst are his top traits, but many are waiting for him to take that next step in his development. This is where Leonard Floyd comes in. They have a similar body structure and developmental pathway. Okwara could be a prospect that turns out to be a better pro player than what he showed during his three-year career with the Fighting Irish, but scheme fit coupled with a proven talent developer will be vital to his career.