EDGE play in the Pac-12 is odd.
It comes down to responding to how offenses stress you out. With the high number of running quarterbacks and proliferation of read concepts, it's very difficult to line up a 1-gap front and have your rushers just tee off. There's a lot more read and react play.
As such, these EDGE prospects just don't have a high quantity of quality pass rush opportunities on tape. They are asked to slow play and read the run so frequently, you're left with question marks in every other phase of the game.
Except for Jalen Jelks. Jelks isn't a question mark at all.
1. Jalen Jelks, Redshirt Senior, Oregon (6'5 245)
Okay, so technically there's a projection question mark with Jelks because he doesn't play EDGE full-time at this current juncture. Keeping in the spirit of unorthodox DL play in the Pac-12, Oregon DC Jim Leavitt likes to slide his 6-foot-5, 245-pound playmaker (not only light, but thin! Lanky!) all the way in to the 2-technique position.
I find it quite offensive.
Can't tell you why he thinks this is the best deployment of his resources. Even though Jelks wins more reps than he loses on the inside, it's a detriment to the player--and, I'd argue to the defense--to not give him every opportunity to win with quickness, length, and power on the outside rush track. But alas; here we are.
I'd categorize Jelks as a borderline first-round player, as things currently stand. I don't want to put rounds on any player at this juncture, but hey--gotta get these takes off. Jelks is a stellar run defender at almost every alignment, and has the profile to win pass rushes from multiple spots as well. His quickness is tough for guards to handle; his length and strength threaten offensive tackles on bull rushes.
But all that movement across the line hurts Jelks in that he doesn't have a solid outside dip/rip/flatten combo, because he so infrequently rushes from the outside. His hands are strong in the running game, and he places them well, but the timing on his rush moves (two-handed swat; swat to arm over; rip) is all over the place. If Oregon continues to deploy him how they did in 2017, he'll be a project. Which is annoying.
What to watch for in 2018: Bend. Jelks has a flexible frame, but at 6-foot-5, he's gotta get low in order to get underneath offensive tackles and win the outside rush track. We don't see that from his tape--yet. Again, I think the flexibility and the strength is there to at least rush with good tilt; he just hasn't worked on it at all. I'd love to see some true cornering rushes from him in 2018, to feel more comfortable about his projection to the edge.
2. Bradlee Anae, Junior, Utah (6'3 254)
If Jelks is borderline first-round, Anae is Day 3. That's what we're talking about right now, in terms of Pac-12 EDGE play.
What's nice about Anae: he has enough experience and intelligence to win in multiple ways as an outside pass rusher. That's hard to say for anyone on this list.
His upfield explosiveness is decent enough that he can threaten the outside shoulder, which is key. It sets up his favorite (almost too favored) rush move: the inside spin. It isn't technically perfect--he needs to bring more power through to finish the angle--but it puts him in a great spot to attack the set point. Anae's inside spin is the single best rush move you'll find in Pac-12 EDGEs right now.
Anae also boasts of a nice bull rush and can work a chop into his bull rush to soften the angle. But beyond the upper body strength therein, there's little to write home about when discussing Anae's athleticism. His pedestrian quickness limits his ability to create rush angles off of his bull rush; his struggles changing direction make him a liability as a space player on zone reads; he doesn't bend well.
The biggest glare of the poor agility, however, shows up when Anae attempts a tackle. He lunges and leans at the moment contact arrives, melting off of a disappointing number of rushers and failing to turn disciplined play into actual production. Generally as a run defender, he's easy to move off his spot and easier to make miss. Not great!
What to watch for in 2018: Lower body power. As an EMLOS defender, Anae fails to lock the B-gap and the C-gap alike. His quickness issues are likely more difficult to solve than his anchoring issues, so let's focus there: if he can add mass and play with better leverage, he's less likely to get displaced by down-blocking OTs. That will help the defense as a whole, clearing up the linebackers behind him to work in the space he can't cover.
3. Porter Gustin, Senior, USC (6'4 255)
Man, Porter Gustin. What a name.
Here's the thing about Porter Gustin: he might be good. I haven't seen any tape of his injury-limited 2017, so really we haven't seen the best of Porter Gustin's last two years of work. There could be promise there.
But also, Porter Gustin probably isn't good. He's long and has cornering/bend ability, which will always attract NFL eyes and make you a player with potential, so that box is checked. But the lack of explosiveness is dire, and greatly limits his ability to win the outside shoulder. His first movement out of his stance is up and his first step is usually back--that's a big false step. If he gets to that outside shoulder, sure, he can dip and twist a corner tight. But I don't think he gets there often in the NFL.
Again, lots of room for improvement/time that has passed since then. Gustin's a hard one to peg.
I like his ability to read through OTs and adjust his rush plan accordingly. I'm worried about his lateral quickness to execute a rush move when faced with a two-way go. I like his strength to stack and re-set the line of scrimmage as a run defender. I'm worried about his inability to anchor when he doesn't immediately win with hands.
Lotta question marks with Gustin. He's one to star as a must-watch in 2018, in that he's a riddle to figure out.
What to watch for in 2018: Hips. When rushing for the corner, Gustin often fails work his hips from square to angled to the quarterback. If you can't get your hips pointed to your landmark, you can't get to your landmark at all. Again: if Gustin can win the outside shoulder and bend, he's got something marketable. That's gotta be the focus.
4. Justin Hollins, Redshirt Senior, Oregon (6'4 238)
Hollins plays the role for Oregon you want to see Jelks fill (minus all the dropping into coverage). He stands up as a 7-technique or wider and is tasked with winning the edge.
The problem is, he doesn't really win the edge.
All of Hollins' significant pass-rush production that I saw on tape came from inside moves. He's sure twitchy, so working that explosive step outside only to launch back into the B-gap makes a lot of money for him. When facing a tackle head-on, he'll stutter step or slow play them to harness that quickness and soften the rush angle, which is good: he knows his strength.
But man, if he goes to the outside track, he just gets pushed past the peak of the pocket time after time after time. I saw him take a tight corner I think once, and it was waaay outside the OT's cylinder. He beats slower offensive lineman so often--see: Washington--but can't flatten to the QB at all.
The big issue is the inside shoulder: it stays stagnant. He doesn't bring it across the OT's face to reduce surface area or duck underneath his punch. He just leaves his chest plate there for the taking: on long arms, on cross chops, on rips, everything. Explosiveness and good hand play won't save you when you don't bend.
What to watch for in 2018 (besides bend): Run defense. Hollins has shock and shed ability when handling down blocks, but his inability to recognize pulls/kick-outs right now leaves him highly vulnerable. He's far too easy to neutralize as a read key or EMLOS defender reading backfield action. Starts with the eyes.
5. Tevis Bartlett, Senior, Washington (6'1 234)
I like Tevis Bartlett for what he is. Of course, what he is is a linebacker playing EDGE, but what'll ya do?
Really, that's unfair. If I thought Bartlett projected better to linebacker in the NFL, that's where he'd be listed. He's a 3-4 OLB who should play a good deal of zone coverage and give you quality run defense reps--but change of direction issues are going to haunt you wherever you go.
Bartlett's one successful rush sequence is predicated on a quick speed-to-power conversion--he has good lower body strength to explode out of three-point stances--and then hand usage to create a rush angle. He doesn't have the juice to generate rolling displacement as a power rusher, nor the bend to take that initial explosiveness off the line and translate it into an outside rush. His athletic profile is just uninspiring.
Like Hollins, he struggles to get his inside shoulder down/across, and he has an even bigger issue getting his feet pointed the direction he wants to go. Bartlett also struggles to disengage from blocks--length is a question mark--despite his initial shock ability, which Hollins has in spades.
But he's a high-motor and heady player who fills multiple roles for Washington. He's valuable; I'm just not sure he has an elite ability to rest on in terms of pro projection.
What to watch for in 2018: Zone drops. Zone coverage ability will be huge in terms of getting high-quality pro reps for Bartlett. Whether on the edge or off-ball, he'll need to play well in short zones, and right now, he's too easily manipulated by the quarterback's eyes. That issue is especially damning when you lack the agility to recover.
Keep an eye on:
Jay Jay Wilson, Senior, Arizona State (6'2 247)
Jay Jay has no idea what's going on. He transitioned to playing full time EDGE during the season in 2017. Bruh.
The athletic profile is there. He's slippery, active, and can corner/change directions nicely. But he can't enter the league with absolutely zero hand usage to speak of, and he'll have to show an attempt at a counter move or two. He might not pan out at all--it should be quick to figure out--but let's see what an offseason of work did for him.
Christian Rector, Redshirt Junior, USC (6'3 275)
There are so few quality wins on Rector's tape. He's long and thick and can really pop a player with that one-handed stab, but hand usage, bend, quickness? There are only quick and rare flashes; nothing more. He takes reps off and doesn't adjust his plan in-play, and until those effort questions are fixed, I think he'll always be limited.