There has been so much talk of quarterbacks and offense for the 2021 NFL Draft class, and with good reasons. This quarterback class has five players who could all go first round, and with plenty of teams in need of upgrades, there should be no shortage of entertainment for where each will land come draft day. This class is also deep at both wide receiver and offensive line; chances are you’ll be able to find some starters through the first two days of the draft, not just at the very top.
All of that plus one of the most unique tight end prospects we’ve ever seen in Kyle Pitts heading up the offensive weapons. It makes for a lot to talk about and focus on. But what about the other side of the ball? Well, let’s just say this defensive class doesn’t seem to be as touted as the players on offense. But we all know that there are plenty of defensive needs and priority defensive positions that teams will want to draft. The question becomes, “When?”
Pass rushers are often the first defensive players drafted in a draft class; specifically, at EDGE rusher, we’ve seen this position be chosen as the top overall pick in recent years with players like Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. Nick and Joey Bosa, Chase Young, Von Miller, and Dante Fowler Jr. were all picked in the top three.
This season we don’t really have a Garrett, Clowney, or the Bosa brothers to point to as a consensus top pick at EDGE. In fact, there’s a chance we might not see an EDGE player even taken in the first 10 picks.
Here’s a look at when the first EDGE player could be drafted.
Pick 11: New York Giants
The New York Giants did the right thing bringing back Leonard Williams, who was their best pocket pressure player in 2020. However, the gap between him and the next best pass rusher on the Giants’ roster was far too wide. Williams finished 2020 with 11.5 sacks and the next closest to him was interior defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence and outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell, each tied with four.
The Giants like to stay multiple with what they do on their defensive front. For that, a player like Jaelan Phillips, an EDGE out of UCLA (and later Miami), would fit perfectly. Phillips brings size, at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, to play with his hands in the ground as a 5-technique or 4i-technique defensive end. He is also comfortable rushing from a 2-point stance in an outside linebacker role. Phillips presents the highest ceiling for a pass rusher in this class; if anyone can go in the top 15, it’s him.
Pick 14: Minnesota Vikings
Though it’s not typically the Minnesota Vikings’ way to draft a defensive end or EDGE pass rusher early, this really might be their best move.
Since Rick Spielman has been the general manager, the Vikings have never drafted a defensive end before the third round, and the last first-round defensive lineman they selected was Sharrif Floyd in 2013. The last time Minnesota invested a Day 2 pick in a defensive end was in 2015 and Danielle Hunter turned out pretty great. But the Vikings need more exterior pass rushers beyond Hunter. They brought in Yannick Ngakoue last year, but that didn’t really pan out. This allows us to look at the draft.
Phillips is once again going to be the top target if he’s not off the board already. Perhaps the Vikings will also like a player like Kwity Paye, a 6-foot-2, 260-pound defensive end out of Michigan who hits like a brick house. He’s dense when anchoring to defend the run and has some very unique athleticism for a player of his strength profile. As a true 4-3 defensive end, Paye could see his name off the board first here at No. 14 overall.
Pick 17: Las Vegas Raiders
If there haven't been any pass rushers off the board and the Las Vegas Raiders come on the clock, at No. 17 overall, they almost have to grab one—whoever they want, really. Phillips and Paye could certainly be on the board for them, as could former Georgia pass rusher Azeez Ojulari, who is more of an outside linebacker type of rusher.
Maxx Crosby led the Raiders with seven sacks last season and the next closest player was Nick Morrow with just three. Their 21 sacks total was the fourth least amount in the NFL. The Raiders have other needs, but if they have their pick of this entire EDGE class, this is the latest we’d see one go off the board.