The 2021 NFL Draft is deep at the EDGE position, but there’s one prospect whose name is especially buzzing in league circles right now.
Houston’s Payton Turner is seen by many as an exciting and ascending player. Turn the tape on and his skill set jumps off the screen. Turner possesses the length and traits to really thrive at the next level. Pair that with his overall athleticism, and it’s easy to see why teams are so high on Turner right now.
Turner spoke exclusively with The Draft Network. We discussed his move to the defensive end position, his ability to wear multiple hats on defense, how he developed such a physical mindset, and how he uses his terrific length to his advantage.
JM: You capped off an impressive career at Houston with a really strong season in 2020. How do you look back on your time there?
PT: I really enjoyed my time at Houston. I was born and raised there. I was blessed to play for my city. Houston is an amazing program. I really enjoyed it. I grew a lot as a man and player. I’m really happy with the results. I approached every day with the right attitude.
JM: You got better every single year. There’s no denying that. The numbers got better, and so did the tape. You had five sacks in just four games this past season. Imagine what the numbers would have been like had you played a 10-12 game season.
PT: I played defensive tackle during my first two years at Houston. I moved to defensive end during my junior year. I was learning how to play that position on the fly. By my senior year, I knew what I had to get better at. I had more consistency in the offseason. I went out and performed at a higher level in 2020. I put the work in and it paid off for me.
JM: It sure did. Moving to defensive end was a blessing for you. What was that transition like?
PT: It was all new to me. I played defensive tackle in two quick steps at the 4i. As a 3-technique, I was taking quick steps and engaging with a guard immediately. You may cover a single yard in those two steps. I moved to defensive end during my junior year. I switched positions during fall camp. It’s not like it was already in the plans during the summer. They put me on the edge and I was learning on the go during that junior year.
I became more explosive and learned how to bend. I had to move my feet better. I needed a better plan of attack with my hands. It was all new to me. I worked on it during my junior year. I was much better prepared during my senior year. It led to more production.
JM: It really did. Houston continued to move you around though. It’s not like they glued you to the edge. They took advantage of your unique and versatile traits. What can you tell me about the scheme and how your coaches utilized you?
PT: We ran a four-man front. We had a lot of different pressure packages. We were in a 4-2-5 most of the time. We ran a 4-3 once in a while. It was all about being disruptive up front. When you have four D-linemen on the field, which we did, you have to produce up front. If you’re not being productive in a four-man front, the defense might as well run a 3-4.
We had that four-man front. We had a bunch of different packages. When it was third-and-long, I moved into the middle for certain looks. I don’t mind rushing on a guard. It gives me more of an advantage with my length and quickness. Guards aren’t used to seeing guys like me down there on the interior. I enjoyed rushing down there but I spent most of my time on the edge.
JM: What’s your favorite part of playing that versatile role?
PT: There’s always something new to learn. I got used to working a different look in practice quite frequently. I really like getting better at something that I’m not yet familiar with. It’s all about learning new skills.
Pass rushing on a guard just one rep after I rushed on the outside on a tackle, that’s a lot of fun. I had a great time with that. I love learning something new and challenging myself. I enjoy that a lot.
JM: Where do you see yourself playing at the next level?
PT: Everything I’ve heard from NFL teams indicates outside linebacker or defensive end. That’s what the coaches and scouts are saying during my meetings. They think I’m athletic, fast, and quick enough to play out there on the edge. I bring power to the table as well. NFL teams see me being versatile just like I was at Houston. If they need me to, I can bounce inside to the 3-technique and rush on a guard. That allows us to get an extra rusher on the field.
JM: I love that. Your length really jumps off the screen. How do you use that to your advantage?
PT: They can’t block you if they can’t touch you (laughs). Using my length to keep blockers off my body is huge. It allows me to create more separation. I’m strong enough to come off a block and make a play. Length is a huge advantage for me.
JM: When I turn the tape on, I also see a physical player. You have a lot of power. You also play with a great motor.
PT: I became physical and powerful in the weight room. I didn’t have a lot of time off in high school because I also played basketball. I was going from one sport to the next. Coming into the college, that was the first time I really got to have an offseason. I spent that time in the weight room. I lifted and worked hard.
I missed some time early in my career. I got hurt. When it comes to my motor, I think about that every time I’m out there. I value my time on the field. I hate going out there and seeing somebody that doesn’t pour everything they have into every play. That’s just not me. You never know when you’re going to play your last down of football. I love to compete. That’s what keeps me going.
JM: That’s a terrific answer. What can you tell me about your pass-rush arsenal?
PT: I’m well-rounded. I can do multiple things. I don’t allow myself to get stuck as a pass rusher. I have long arms. We’ve talked about my length. I love using anything to do with a long-arm. I can use a powerful long-arm move or a stab. I can get into their chest and wipe their hands off of me. I have a good scissors move. I love the cross-chop. I can speed rush. It really just depends on what the film reveals.
If I had to point something out to you, I would say anything to do with a long-arm.
JM: You have so many moves in your arsenal. You’ve spent the last few weeks meeting with NFL teams virtually. How is that process going for you? Have you met with a lot of teams?
PT: I got the opportunity to speak with every team in person at the Senior Bowl with the exception of the Rams because they weren’t there. I’ve spoken to the Rams a good amount of times since then. Other than that, teams have asked me to respect their privacy. I have to keep the full list of teams private.
Not including the Senior Bowl, I’ve spoken with nearly every team again through Zoom at least once. That list probably includes 24 teams. I still have more meetings on my schedule. That’s as detailed as I can get (laughs).
JM: There’s a ton of interest in you and it’s easy to see why. Are there one or two areas of your game that you’re still looking to improve?
PT: I’m trying to take my game to the next level. I have a lot of room to grow as I prepare to enter the NFL. You can always improve your technique. My hand placement can be better. I can be more precise with that. I’m working on my bend and being more flexible. There are so many little details that I can get better at. You have to improve. You’re not gonna get it done any other way. You can have a bad rep in college and still get by. You can’t do that in the NFL.
JM: That’s the truth. I’ve really appreciated your time today. This has been terrific. I feel like this conversation has proved why you’re one of the best and most exciting EDGE defenders available in this class. In closing, what kind of impact is Payton Turner gonna make at the next level?
PT: I’m a great pass rusher. I’m gonna set the edge. I’m physical. I bring a lot of versatility to the table. I feel like I’m as good as any edge player in this draft. I think every NFL team realizes that.