When it comes to positional value and drafting at the top of the draft, three positions stand above all others. History has shown us that quarterbacks, offensive tackles, and pass rushers are the positions teams value most when it comes to picking in the top 10 of the draft. And while this year we can expect multiple quarterbacks and offensive tackles to come off early, the first pass rusher could have to wait a while to hear his name called on draft night.
In recent years, we have seen players such as Joey Bosa, Myles Garrett, Bradley Chubb, Nick Bosa, and Chase Young come off the board within the first 10 picks of their respective draft classes and each make immediate impacts with their ball clubs. Unfortunately for clubs who are seeking edge rush help, there is no surefire top pass rusher in this class, and no player nearly as talented as the names listed previously. Now, that’s not to say that this edge rusher class is bad, there just isn’t an elite prospect who is a no doubt top-10 pick.
If you ask five different scouts about who is the best edge rusher in this year’s class, you might get five different answers. Some evaluators would say Michigan’s Kwity Paye is the best pass rusher in this class, as he offers a very good blend of quickness and strength off the edge. Others might say Miami’s Jaelan Phillips is the best because he is the best athlete of the bunch and also is very good against the run. Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari is another name who might be discussed as EDGE1, as he is coming off a very productive year for the Bulldogs and has excellent burst and bend. A wild card name that could even be mentioned is Jayson Oweh, who tested like an absolute freak at Penn State’s Pro Day—and while he didn’t record a sack last season, Oweh still flashed disruptive pass-rush potential. Last, but in my opinion not least, Miami’s Gregory Rousseau could be listed as the best pass rusher in this class, and based on my latest big board, that’s exactly what he is.
Prior to the season, Rousseau is a name that you would see at the top of the draft rankings, mock drafts, and most definitely at the top of edge defender rankings. Rousseau decided to opt out of the season back in August as he wanted to begin his preparation for the 2021 NFL Draft. Since then, Rousseau’s stock has seemingly fallen in the eyes of draft analysts, and for the life of me, I don’t understand why. As a matter of fact, when I posted my first Top 50 Big Board last weekend, the majority of replies I received were regarding how I was too high on Rousseau (who sits at No. 11).
This had me wondering... was there something I was missing? Based on my film study, I feel good about Rousseau being EDGE1 with his biggest competition coming from his fellow Hurricane, Phillips, who finished 13th on my board.
Rousseau was an under-the-radar high school recruit who played multiple positions in high school including receiver. He redshirted his freshman year after suffering a season-ending ankle injury but burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman. In his redshirt freshman season, Rousseau recorded an insane 15.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss while only starting seven of the 13 games he played in. That sort of production is rare, and he was playing and beating very good offensive tackles in the ACC. While I do wish he would have played this season, it is easy to understand why he felt opting out would be in his best interest after such an incredible season.
As a prospect, Rousseau is a long-limbed, well-built player who still has room to grow into his frame. He’s an above average athlete who does not possess the explosive first step as some of his counterparts, but he offers excellent lateral agility and short-area quickness to win the edges and get inside position. In the passing game, he wins with his outstanding length, power, and motor. He has above average speed off the edge and has the ability to beat offensive linemen around the edge, with a really good ability to turn a tight corner and get home for a man his size. He has rare length, and this allows him to finish at the quarterback at an extremely high rate even when he isn’t exactly in a position where he should be getting to the quarterback. He shows a nice range of rush moves consistently incorporating swims, rips, and creativity with his rush plan—something that is nice to see for a player still fairly new to the position. He is able to rush from anywhere on the defensive line and some of his most impressive wins come from the zero or 3-technique where he wins with quickness.
There are times he plays too high and blockers can get under him and win leverage, but for the most part, he plays with a good body lean. Rousseau has outstanding size and strength for the position and can easily overpower blockers with his sheer power from both his hands and from his lower half. That is something that stuck out to me, that for a long rusher who hasn’t completely filled out his frame, he is a powerful dude who is an extremely tough player to block at the point of attack. He plays with tremendous effort and consistently makes plays chasing the quarterback from backside pursuit and across the line of scrimmage. His length is also an asset when it comes to batting down passes at the line of scrimmage.
His ability as a run defender is extremely underrated. He possesses good strength at the point of attack to set an edge and hold firm while also using his length to lock out and disengage. When left uncovered, he has outstanding range and closing burst to make plays laterally in pursuit and his motor translates in this phase of the game as well. He does have a tendency to get fooled by draws and screens and is sometimes over aggressive rushing up field, leaving a hole for the back to slip through, but this is something that can be coached.
At the end of the day, Rousseau’s rare length, agility, and sheer power allow him to make plays that other defenders simply can’t. Do I wish he was quicker twitched and had more of a sample size to go off of? Sure. However, I struggle to see why folks are down on this player when, for the most part, his tape is excellent—and from a physical traits standpoint, he has it all.
Is this simply a case of a player being hyped too early and then because of him opting out he lost his luster from the draft community? Certainly possible. Could it be because of the success Phillips had at Miami last year? Are some folks thinking that Rousseau’s 2019 season wasn’t as impressive since Phillips came in and had strong success in his first year as a 'Cane? Maybe.
All I know is that I’m not going to over-evaluate this kid and I am of the belief that he is the best edge defender in this class—and we haven’t even begun to see his best football.