These are the questions that will invade our pre-draft conversations from now until April 25th. While the draft world likely remains unsettled on anything close to a strong consensus on the 2019 edge defender class, my grade on the position group have been finalized. I went trait-by-trait to break down how each of my top nine prospects grade out.
In no order (the final order is at the bottom), here are my top nine edge defenders in the class (nine was the point at which a huge drop-off occurred):
Nick Bosa, Ohio State
Josh Allen, Kentucky
Montez Sweat, Mississippi State
Jachai Polite, Florida
Brian Burns, Florida State
Clelin Ferrell, Clemson
Christian Miller, Alabama
Rashan Gary, Michigan
Chase Winovich, Michigan
*I’m waiting for Charles Omenihu’s pro day weigh-in to determine where I’m going to grade him, I didn’t expect him to be up seven pounds to 280 at the Combine, so I’m just not sure which grading filter to put him through yet.
Ferrell: 50.5 TFL/27 sacks - 49 games
Winovich: 43 TFL/18.5 sacks - 41 games
Allen: 42 TFL/31.5 sacks - 42 games
Burns: 38.5 TFL/23 sacks - 33 games
Sweat: 30.5 TFL/23.5 sacks - 27 games
Bosa: 29 TFL/17.5 sacks - 29 games
Polite: 28.5 TFL/15 sacks - 29 games
Gary: 23 TFL/9.5 sacks - 34 games
Miller: 15.5 TFL/11 sacks - 28 games
Relative to the snaps and role they played, everyone on this list achieved outstanding production against Power 5 competition with the exception of Gary and Miller. Given that Miller was a situational player in a deep ‘Bama edge defender corps, he can be forgiven a bit more for his lack of elite production, while Gary doesn’t have as many excuses. It’s a concern to be taken into consideration, but in the end, the tape and Combine matter most.
Obviously Burns, Sweat and Gary stole the show in Indy, from their 40s to their jumps and agilities. Sweat running a nearly elite 3-cone was huge for him given his perceived lack of bend on tape, while Gary showed off the explosiveness that has always intrigued teams. Burns confirmed freak status as well with an unreal day across the board and an elite positional workout.
Bosa and Allen both had good, not great days, easily checking the box, while Winovich surprised many with a strong workout at 256 pounds. Miller only did the jumps, but tested very well in the broad and especially the vertical, where he leapt 38.5 inches.
The two disappointments? Ferrell and Polite. Polite bombed the entire Combine from the interviews to the weigh-ins (a sloppy 258 pounds) to the drills (4.84 40, 32-inch vertical jump). Ferrell crushed the interviews and weighed in great, but he was average-to-below average in the shuttles and 3-cone drills, his lone workouts at the Combine.
Make no mistake about it, there are some explosive edge rushers in this class. I asked a starting NFL offensive tackle the other day what athletic trait he feared most in opposing edge defenders, and his responses was 1. change of direction 2. explosiveness. We’ll get to the first one a little bit later under “Counters”, but there are plenty of rushers in this class who can threaten with their first step or speed up the arc.
I think Burns can time up his first step a little bit more, but his speed up the arc is among the best in the class. Allen was curiously more explosive when he was allowed to work from a 3-point stance in a handful of snaps last year, but he’ll likely stay in a two most of the time in the NFL. Polite has unbelievable quickness to corner, but a slight recoil in his first step dropped him a bit in this area for me.
The only concerning prospects in this category are Ferrell, Miller and Winovich. Ferrell erupts to life off the snap, but gains such little ground with his second or third steps that cornering is almost always a challenge. Miller is just late off the ball and false steps from a two-point stance, although his long strides can eat up ground once he gets going.
This is the area where Winovich takes a hit. He just isn’t super explosive and won’t threaten with burst off the ball. Tons of other traits working for him, but this is his kryptonite.
Big separation category, as edge defenders primarily win on the outside track in the NFL, and cornering is a critical area of success.
I see Burns, Allen, Bosa, Polite and Miller as standouts in this category, while Winovich is a lot better than he’s given credit for. He can dip under contact and finish at the top of the arc as an edge rusher, all despite not being super twitched up off the snap.
This is an area of struggle for two players in particular, Ferrell and Sweat. Ferrell can drop the inside shoulder and tilt a bit, but he doesn’t have the flexibility to turn tight corners to the pocket without softening the edge with his hands a good bit. Sweat also gets hung up on contact a good bit, sporting a long, leggy frame that struggles to dip and bend.
Bosa and Ferrell set the standard here, each boasting a deadly pair of mitts that can seamlessly stack move on top of move. Burns and Winovich are also masterful with their hands and body control to keep offensive tackles off balance. If Burns can add a power element to his game, he could become the most complete edge rusher in the class.
Allen is still developing in this area, but took big leaps forward in 2018 when compared to the two years prior. His two-hand swipe and chop-dip at the top of the arc were big assets on his way to 17 sacks. Miller loves the cross-chop, and Sweat hits the rare long arm-snatch-rip combo on occasion.
Gary is clearly the player with the furthest to go in this area, as his pass rush plans often lack intricacy despite his natural talent.
The ability to work to a secondary move when your first move doesn’t work or set up a two-way go for yourself as a pass rusher is highly important. I mentioned above how an NFL offensive tackle told me that change-of-direction or rushers that can set up and access a two-lane path to the quarterback are the most deadly to handle 1v1. The following is what he explained to me:
"Change of direction causes you to be a little more honest in your set. If it's a speed-only guy you can set deeper to take it away and know they won't really counter inside to beat you. But if you over-set a change-of-direction guy, he'll go inside and beat you. To me, change-of-direction guys take advantage of your weaknesses better."
With this in mind, Burns and Ferrell have an excellent array of counters, while Polite’s quick change-of-direction allow him to be deadly on speed-counter rushes, even if his process isn’t fully developed.
Bosa’s primary move defeated opponents so often that he didn’t develop a go-to counter move or plan in college, but he has all the traits to be great at it when he does. Similar story with Josh Allen, who is still developing as a nuanced pass rusher, but took a big leap with his 2-hand swipe inside counter this past season.
This is an area Sweat has to get better in, as his lack of bend can make cornering tough. If he can sell speed and get back inside offensive tackles, that will make him a much more dangerous rusher. Gary is in a similar boat, while Miller just needs to process a little quicker. when tackles overset on him.
The top four in this category are standouts, and Burns did an unbelievable job as a run defender considering he played significantly lighter than anyone else on this list. He is hardly ever overpowered, playing assignment sound football and consistently making plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Allen isn’t as good at the point of attack as Burns, which hurts his score some. Gary’s issues are more on the mental processing and technique side of things, while Polite worked his tail off but still struggled to get off of blocks. Miller hardly played run downs at Alabama, so he’s just a little underdeveloped in this area.
Gary may need a little extra motivation and structure in the NFL than some players, but that wasn’t enough for me to dock him in this area. Polite was the only player I hit in this category, as I’ve heard rumors about his coachability and practice week work ethic going back to the middle of the college football season. I’m worried about his ability to conduct himself as a professional in his training, practice habits and conditioning, especially after he was an undersized part-time player at Florida most of his career.
I grade a few other categories too, like Lateral Mobility, Mental Processing/Vision and Tackling/Finishing, but the most vital areas have been covered. If you’re curious, Gary was the most underdeveloped in mental processing while the others all impressed. Miller and Winovich have the biggest issue with missed tackles/finishes, while the lateral mobility of Sweat, Ferrell and Winovich concerns me on tape. Conversely, Bosa, Allen and Burns stole the show with their mobility in game situations.
One note on the final grades here: Polite had a Round 1 grade on tape, but the work ethic and Combine categories scored low enough to drop him into Round 2. Depending on what I discovered as a team in his interview process, I might not draft him at all, or I might take him higher if I felt like he could work in my locker room culture. He is more talented than Ferrell or Sweat in my opinion, I just don’t trust him at the next level.
1. Bosa - Round 1
2. Burns - Round 1
3. Allen - Round 1
4. Ferrell - Round 2
5. Sweat - Round 2
6. Polite - Round 2
7. Winovich - Mid Day 2
8. Gary - Mid Day 2
9. Miller - Mid Day 2