NFL Draft 2019: Jachai Polite, Oshane Ximines and the unheralded edge-rushers with serious NFL talent
They might be relative unknowns now, but these five pass-rush specialists could become household names
Khalil Mack was once just an obscure, not-even-on-the-radar pass-rusher playing for the University at Buffalo. Now there's chatter about him as an NFL MVP candidate, and he won Defensive Player of the Year on his rookie contract.
That got me thinking ... no, not to try to identify the next Mack, because he's a rare breed, but to pinpoint some edge-rushing talents in the 2019 Draft class who, right now, are underrated but may either move into the first round or ultimately become household names at the NFL level.
Here are five of my favorite underrated edge-rushers.
Want juice off the edge? Then Polite's your guy. The Florida junior is an ultra-twitchy, explosive athlete with plus bend around the corner, active hands, and a spin move to beat offensive tackles if his speed-rush doesn't get him home. He typically leans on his speed-rush, which is smart because he's that dynamic of an athlete. However, he's not a one-trick pony on the edge.
Polite doesn't have elite, Von Miller-esque bend, but oftentimes he's simply so quick to the corner, the arc he can take to the quarterback doesn't have to be extremely tight. Polite is utilized primarily as a rush specialist in obvious passing situations, and he was dominant in Florida's upset win over Mississippi State. He had two tackles for loss and two sacks, and one of the quarterback takedowns came on an outstanding speed-rush on the Bulldogs' final possession. At 6-foot-2 and 242 pounds, Polite has ideal size to be a stand-up edge-rusher who can threaten the kick-slide speed of every offensive tackle in the NFL. Right now, he looks like a classic second-round pick, but if Polite continues on his current trajectory, the first round isn't out of the question.
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At times, Nevada uses the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Reed as a stand-up edge-rusher, and he has plenty of experience sinking in zone coverage. When getting after the quarterback, he's a speed-to-power, low-center-of-gravity bull-rusher but, importantly, he does have a developed repertoire of counter moves, including a tightly-wound spin.
Through five games, Reed has seven tackles for loss and three sacks. In 2017, he had 10 tackles for loss and eight quarterback takedowns. Reed isn't a superior edge-bender but does have a good amount of twitchiness to his game and plays with a high motor. Right now he seems like a Day Two selection and a candidate to ultimately outplay his draft position.
Ferguson was a menace against the LSU offensive line a week ago, and he followed that nearly unblockable performance with four tackles for loss and four sacks against North Texas on Saturday.
He's been highly productive now in four consecutive seasons at Louisiana Tech with 48 tackles for loss and 35.5 sacks currently to his name. Ferguson's a tall, sleek power-rusher with a good inside counter and long arms he uses to initiate contact with offensive tackles. He can get stuck on blocks occasionally but typically disengages en route to the quarterback or when locating a ball-carrier in the backfield. Ferguson's greatest strengths are his sustained acceleration off the snap, smooth athleticism, and impressive length. He has block-shedding skills, which have helped him become a fine run-defender too.
Ximines is a master with his hands, and that trump card has allowed him to enjoy a consistently productive career at Old Dominion. He's a fifth-year senior and had 14 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks a season ago. Ximines' breakout game this year came in the stunning defeat of Virginia Tech, when he recorded 2.5 tackles for loss to go along with two sacks and seven total tackles.
In most cases, plus athletes thrive in the NFL, especially at the edge-rusher position. And while Ximines isn't particularly slow or stiff around the corner, he might not be a high-caliber physical talent once reaches the pro level. However, he's far ahead of the majority of edge-rushing prospects when it comes to hand work. He deploys a nasty swipe move and can slip past offensive tackles with a fluid inside swim. He's probably somewhere in the late second-round to third-round range at this point but is a prime candidate to skyrocket up draft boards with a strong showing at the Senior Bowl.
What will the NFL do with Smith, a 6-1, 235-ish pound edge-rusher? With the right defensive coordinator, the insanely productive defender can be a valuable niche pass-rusher in the pros. He had 30 tackles for loss and 14 sacks in 2017 and has already racked up five sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in 2018. The league is trending toward smaller, faster defenders, and Smith is a blur on the field. Sure, there are times he's engulfed by bigger, longer offensive linemen, but he routinely wins with speed around the corner, a seriously low-to-the-ground dip, and a wide array of nifty pass-rushing moves that make him slippery at the point of attack.
Importantly, Smith has shown he hasn't simply feasted on MAC offensive tackles. Last year, he had five tackles for loss and a sack against Boston College, and four tackles for loss to go along with two sacks against Nebraska. In September of this year, the senior had 4.5 tackles for loss with two sacks against Utah before two tackles for loss and sack against Florida State. His lack of size will probably lead to him being an early Day Three selection, yet if he aces the pre-draft process, there's an outside chance he jumps into Day Two.
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