Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Travis Etienne and a talented group of wide receivers will be the most predominant headliners for the 2021 NFL Draft, but let me tell you right now: the edge-rusher class is awesome. Multiple blue-chip talents who deserve to be selected in the top half of the first round, and a rare amount of fringe Round 1 defenders who'll ultimately land as wonderful value picks on Day 2.
And here's what's fascinating: there wasn't much preseason hype about the position from a draft perspective, and then the presumed top prospect, Miami's Gregory Rousseau, decided to opt out in the summer. Even in this truncated college football season, a variety of outside rushers have emerged onto the NFL radar.
Below, you'll be introduced to all the edge defenders you need to know.
Kwity Paye, Michigan
Best traits: Athleticism, bend, power
Weaknesses: Hand work
The first time you watch Paye, you're immediately convinced he's around 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds. He has the smaller, defensive end twitch and tight bend around the corner. When you discover he's listed at 6-4 and 272 pounds, you realize you're dealing with a top-half-of-the-first-round talent. Men that large shouldn't -- and typically don't -- move the way Paye does. And it lends credence to Paye landing at No. 1 on Bruce Feldman's "Freaks" list over the summer, a sourced top 40 of the most athletically-blessed players in college football.
He's gotten off to a blistering start in 2020 by showcasing -- along with the advantages provided by his athletic freakiness -- a more diverse and efficient arsenal of pass-rushing moves.
Gregory Rousseau, Miami
Best traits: Length, explosiveness, energy
Weaknesses: Hand work
Rousseau is that "built-in-a-lab" prospect in the sense that, if you were building a versatile edge defender in a video game -- bring "NCAA Football" back! -- you would give him the Miami star's measurements. Rousseau was listed at 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds last season as a redshirt freshman. His arms never end.
But Rousseau isn't just the first guy you want walking off the bus when you arrive at the opponent's stadium. He's an athletic marvel too. Most players as tall as Rousseau are stiff. He isn't, and that fact makes him a disaster for offensive lines on twists. Many of his 15.5 sacks in 2019 came on such plays. There isn't a ton of variety to his pass-rushing moves, but given that Rousseau hasn't played much football yet, he's the type of prospect a coach should believe can develop the finesse side of his game.
Patrick Jones, Pittsburgh
Best traits: Burst, motor, pass-rushing moves
Weaknesses: Inconsistent bend
Jones is listed at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds but looks like he could add more bulk to his lower half, which for most edge rushers is typically a good thing. But man, Jones is already so powerful. And it's all speed-to-power conversion. He explodes off the snap and leans on his bull rush before countering (if necessary).
His hands are best described as "active" instead of "efficient," but I like that Jones has a plan when attacking an offensive tackle. With time, his moves should get more effective. He flashes what I call "high-end bend," -- rolls off the tongue -- but then there are snaps when he's easily pushed past the quarterback. I will say though, the weakness for Jones is nitpicking. There's not much to dislike about his game.
Jayson Oweh, Penn State
Best traits: Burst, bend
Weaknesses: Pass-rush plans
The No. 4 player on Feldman's "Freaks" list, Oweh is likely ecstatic to work out in Indianapolis at the combine. At 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds with long, chiseled arms, he looks the part, and I don't think there's an edge rusher in the country who bends the edge with more unadulterated speed than Oweh. It's frighteningly fast. And he gets out of his stance like an Olympic sprinter.
Now, is he flashing karate-style hand work? No, not really. But the Penn State star is precisely the type of athletic marvel who gets drafted early, and, more importantly, can win with his physical prowess alone at times in the NFL while he's sharpening the finer details of his game.
Rashad Weaver, Pittsburgh
Best traits: Power, hands, dip
Weaknesses: Burst, overall athleticism
Weaver currently leads the nation in pressures, and he's a fun prospect because he's a powerful technician, a edge-rusher type rare to see. Power players typically rely so heavily on their strength that they're not very refined. And most technicians are small and lack pop in their hands which is why they have to be outstanding with them.
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Weaver frequently shocks offensive tackles with sheer force, and he's a mature hand-work master. Right when I thought I had Weaver pegged, he deployed a ridiculous dip of his upper half to cruise around an outside blocker en route to the quarterback. I was floored. His acceleration and twitch are of Day 2 caliber, but his size, length, power, pass-rushing maneuvers, and that nasty dip are all Round 1 worthy.
Joseph Ossai, Texas
Best traits: Quickness, energy
Weaknesses: Inconsistent hands, length
A classic "rush" linebacker, Ossai wins with energy and quickness around the outside or when utilized on stunts. You won't find a play on film that shows him lackadaisically attacking the backfield. I do think Ossai is quicker than he is fast but the vast majority of quarterbacks won't be able to outrun him in space.
Occasionally, Ossai flashes a swipe move, and he's reasonably powerful. But he doesn't look terribly long on film, which allows offensive tackles with tentacles to get into his frame and negate him at the point of attack. As for bend? Average. I do wish Texas would use him in a more straight-forward pass-rushing role. Oftentimes he's asked to shade inside on the edge to help set it against the run.
Carlos Basham, Wake Forest
Best traits: Size, explosion, bend
Basham was on the first-round radar a season ago because he's a unique cat. No. 2 on the "Freaks" list, Basham is a ridiculous mover at 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds playing on the edge at Wake Forest. NFL teams are going to love that he has the athletic gifts and Herculean power in his hands to kick inside in some instances.
He knows how to use his hands too. Seeing a tall, 285-pounder execute a rapid swim move is sight to behold. Despite his awe-inspiring size-to-athleticism ratio, Basham disappears for long stretches, and his higher center of gravity hurts him. There's flash to his game, but the consistency concerns are real.
Jaelan Phillips, Miami
Best traits: Length, athleticism, pop in hands
Weaknesses: High center of gravity, injuries?
The No. 1 recruit in the class of 2017 per 247 Sports started his career at UCLA, dealt with injuries, retired from football, then returned and transferred to Miami. Quite a story. And he's flourished in 2020 with the Hurricanes. From a traits perspective, Phillips has it all. He's long, inherently athletic, bendy, and his hand work is both powerful and varied. Altogether, that makes him one difficult human being to block on a football field.
Had he not suffered a handful of concussions at UCLA, we probably would've been talking about Phillips as a candidate to be picked in the top 10 heading into this season. We just hadn't seen much of him. Now that's he's fully healthy, we've all been given the luxury of watching an advanced and athletic defender wreak havoc every week. On rare occasions, he plays a little high, which makes him easier to control at the point of attack.
Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati
Best traits: Length, athleticism, quick hands
Weaknesses: Weight, bend
Sanders looks like a rocked-up tight end playing defense for the Bearcats. He's a natural athlete who flies around the corner with almost reckless abandon. What's good, too -- Sanders is smooth enough to jump back inside if he notices a quarterback sliding into the area he just vacated while rushing, and he's super long.
Sanders' go-to move is a lightning-quick swipe, which helps propel him around the corner and toward the football. His closing speed and tackling radius are both phenomenal. If a passer or runner are anywhere remotely close to him, Sanders is likely going to bring them to the turf. While listed at 6-foot-5 and 258 pounds, Sanders could add about 10 pounds to his frame to improve his edge-setting ability, but he already does play with plenty of aggression. Lastly, for as athletically fluid as he is, Sanders is only reasonably bendy, which is normal for a tall edge defender.
Azeez Ojulari, Georgia
Best traits: Burst, overall athleticism
Weaknesses: Strength, efficient hands
Ojulari has burst onto the scene with a productive redshirt sophomore season. He's a high-motor player with impressive athletic gifts that pop in every game. At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, he's not particularly long or a people-mover in the trenches, as expected at that size.
He understands he can't just rely on his athletic traits on every rush, but his hands aren't dynamic or particularly effective. He hasn't played that much football yet. There's a movement to push Ojulari early in the first round. I don't see a prospect of that level right now.
Quincy Roche, Miami
Best traits: Pass-rush plans, quickness
Weaknesses: Length, athleticism
Roche looks like a five-year NFL veteran when flashing his hands. He counters off his speed rush fantastically, inside outside, swim move, swipe move, spin -- there are many ways he can beat blocks.
At around 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, he'll struggle with longer tackles in the NFL, and at best, he's an above-average athlete (unless he proves me wrong at the combine). Finesse players absolutely have a place in the NFL, they just typically aren't picked in the first round. Those types -- especially at the edge-rusher spot -- often outplay their draft position but need to be selected by a team with a savvy defensive coordinator who'll use them in a limited, pass-rush only role early in his career.
Jordan Smith, UAB
Best traits: Length, fluidity, hands
Weaknesses: Power, size
Smith looks like a basketball player with shoulder pads and a helmet on at 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds -- I think that listed weight is generous. He explodes toward the quarterback like he's on a fast break. Then, when he meets the offensive tackle, he's ready to swim inside or swipe past him. I'm addicted to watching his hand usage.
There's not much power to his game, which could come with simply more weight on his frame at the next level. And while being 6-7 sounds intimidating, it's not necessarily the best attribute for an edge rusher. Fortunately for Smith, he's incredibly long, so he doesn't have to worry as much as others do about lengthy blockers making first contact.