The 2021 NFL Draft lacked top-of-the-first-round options at edge rusher but still managed to see six of them picked in the opening round, all coming in the back half. Pass rush is at a premium in the NFL and all six of those first-rounders enter the league expected to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
Before I offer my predictions on this year’s crop of pass rushers and how many sacks they will produce in their first season, here’s a look at rookie sack leaders by season since 2014:
2020: Chase Young, 7.5
2019: Josh Allen, 10.5
2018: Bradley Chubb, 12
2017: Carl Lawson, 8.5
2016: Joey Bosa, 10.5
2015: Preston Smith, 8
2014: Aaron Donald, 9
Let’s examine how many sacks I expect to come from first-round rookie edge rushers in 2021.
Jaelan Phillips, Miami Dolphins
There was never a question about Phillips from an ability and talent standpoint. Through that lens, he’s got the same upside of recent high first-round selections like Myles Garrett, Nick Bosa, Joey Bosa, and Chase Young. The concerns with Phillips stem from his departure from UCLA and his injury history that once led to a medical retirement from football. Obviously, Miami is comfortable with his background and he now becomes the centerpiece of the Miami pass rush.
Should Phillips continue to build on what he displayed in 2020, the Dolphins have the type of pass rusher that opposing teams have to gameplan against. In my view, Phillips is the best bet for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. There should be no issues with Phillips not earning the playing time necessary to produce.
Kwity Paye, Indianapolis Colts
I loved this pick for the Colts. Paye embodies all of the qualities that general manager Chris Ballard covets in a prospect and he has the makings of a foundational piece of the roster for years to come. With Justin Houston and Denico Autry no longer in the mix, Indianapolis needed to make an investment in a pass rusher, especially with the injury concerns that come with Kemoko Turay and how disappointing Ben Banogu has been.
While Paye is still developing the technical side of rushing the passer, he does offer an exciting blend of burst, flexibility, and functional strength to develop. The curve ahead does temper early expectations, but this Colts coaching staff has been exceptional with maximizing the talent on the roster and Paye has the football character needed to produce earlier than expected.
Payton Turner, New Orleans Saints
Collecting 9.5 sacks across three seasons at Houston doesn’t impress when it comes to collegiate sack production, but the lightbulb started to come on for Turner in 2020. In five games, he produced 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. Turner has outstanding length, functional strength, and agility for his size while playing the game with an unrelenting motor. While somewhat of a first-round surprise, Turner is an ascending talent with high character and outstanding physical traits.
With Trey Hendrickson departing in free agency, Turner should step into the Marcus Davenport role as Davenport fills the Hendrickson role. Snaps could be an issue, but I still envision Turner claiming a fair amount of playing time.
Gregory Rousseau, Buffalo Bills
After collecting 19.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 in 2019 at Miami in what was his first full season as a defensive lineman, there was buzz that Rousseau could be a top-10 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. With Rousseau opting out of the 2020 season and failing to build upon his 2019 campaign, the rawness of his 2019 season loomed large and Rousseau barely snuck into the first round.
The Bills’ defensive end room is complicated. Starters Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison return while the team also invested a second-round pick in 2020 on A.J. Epenesa, signed Efe Obada in free agency, and picked another defensive end in Carlos Basham in the second round after selecting Rousseau. Head coach Sean McDermott loves to rotate defensive linemen so when pairing that with Rousseau’s rawness as a player, the sack production isn’t likely to impress during his rookie season unless his development is accelerated and he forces the issue when it comes to playing time.
Odafe Oweh, Baltimore Ravens
During the buildup to the 2021 NFL Draft, Oweh’s name couldn’t be mentioned without a reference to him not recording a single sack in seven starts in 2020 at Penn State. While that is a fact, so is Oweh’s unreal blend of explosiveness, length, and flexibility that makes him a perfect fit for the Ravens’ style of defense.
Baltimore said goodbye to lead pass rushers Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon in free agency, leaving behind a major void, and Oweh is primed to fill it. While he isn’t a technically refined sack artist at this point, I trust defensive coordinator Wink Martindale to scheme up favorable angles and opportunities for Oweh to rush and produce.
Joe Tryon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are my favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl and given their status as a top team in the league, there should be plenty of leads where defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can unleash his pass rushers and pressure packages. While Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are entrenched as the lead pass rushers in Tampa Bay, Tryon has a clear path to playing time behind them and he should get plenty of chances to rush late in games and in obvious passing situations.
Tryon won’t be asked to change the dynamics of an already outstanding Buccaneers’ defensive front seven—which takes the pressure off and allows him the opportunity to develop—but there still should be chances for him to produce as a rookie.