In his preview of the 2017 NFL Draft EDGE defender class, Jon Ledyard examines the true seniors available to NFL teams. The first in a five part series, Jon looks at EDGE players who can set the edge, rush the passer, and defend the run. Check out his preview of redshirt seniors here.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be producing five articles highlighting around 45 draft-eligible edge defenders for the 2017 NFL Draft. They’ll be divided up by class. I began with redshirt seniors and now will look at true seniors before following up with redshirt juniors, true juniors, and finally ending with a few redshirt sophomores that could potentially declare early. I’ll look at each player’s skill set, current collegiate usage and best potential NFL fit in these pieces, as well as discuss strengths and weaknesses based on the tape study I’ve done so far. There will be much more to come on each of these prospects when draft season rolls around, including individual scouting reports that will feature video work on every edge on this list. But for now, here’s my preliminary analysis of the redshirt senior class of edge defenders that I’m currently watching.
DeMarcus Walker – Florida State – Senior – 6-2 – 273 – 22 (age on draft day)
Walker’s incredible start to the 2016 season included a 4.5-sack performance against Mississippi in the opener, three of which came from the interior. That may be Walker’s best spot at the next level, as the Seminoles’ captain lacks the burst, bend and athleticism to win the edge with regularity. He’s terrific with his hands, which always gives him a shot at the top of the arc to beat his man. However, Walker’s lack of length and explosiveness are a better fit inside, where he can match up against stockier guards and use his signature swim move to defeat blocks and flush the pocket.
Walker should be a better speed-to-power rusher, but because he’s often the last player off the ball, he doesn’t generate much pop at the point of attack. Perhaps this area of his game can improve, but Walker struggles in the same fashion as a run defender, rarely winning first contact and often failing to get off blocks. Despite his well-muscled build, Walker can get overwhelmed at the point of attack, especially by quicker linemen.
There will be plenty of questions about what Walker’s most natural position is in the NFL, as he lacks a lot of desirable traits to play on the edge, but is undersized to play a full time role inside. Walker’s best usage may come as a rotational player, but there is a lot of value in a third down, sub-package interior rusher who can defeat guards and centers in a variety of ways thanks to his polished hand usage.
Jimmie Gilbert – Colorado – Senior – 6-3 – 225 – 22
Gilbert is extremely lanky for his position, but he’s plenty physical and has surprising functional strength despite his size. However, Gilbert offers very little as a power rusher, and while his length helps him disengage from blockers, he’s often in pursuit of the ball by the time that happens. Gilbert is a fluid athlete, but not a twitchy one, rarely threatening the arc with his jump off the ball. As a pass rusher, I haven’t seen much to write home about (still have to watch his three-sack game against Arizona State), but Gilbert’s length, flexibility and agility in space will give a defensive line / outside linebackers coach a lot to work with at the next level.
Gilbert’s versatility will help his cause as well, as the linebacker he has experience dropping into coverage and playing from a two and three-point stance. He’ll easily project to 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL, but he’ll need to improve his get-off to eliminate the recoil bounce he often shows in his first step. His body will need time to acclimate to NFL standards, and his hand technique is far from refined, but if Gilbert shows teams he has the work ethic to make strides at the position, the outside linebacker has the moldable traits to be worth a late round pick come April.
Lewis Neal – LSU – Senior – 6-1 – 264 – 21
Neal is tough, physical and rarely gets pushed around in the run game, but there just isn’t much to love about him as a pass rusher. His technique is a plus, but Neal is significantly lacking in the first step burst, quickness, bend, and violent hand usage needed to win off the edge consistently. He’s built like a brick house and plays with excellent leverage at just 6-1, so perhaps the bull rush can become a signature move for Neal if he can improve at exploding out of his stance.
Mentally Neal can stand to improve too. He needs to have a consistent plan of attack when he reads the pass. Neal gets caught up in too many stalemates he can’t work his way out of. He’s a strong run defender who can hold his gap at the point of attack, but making plays in space might not be his forte. Facing longer, more powerful offensive linemen in the NFL could be tough for Neal as well, but I like his motor as a depth player.
Takkarist McKinley – UCLA – Senior – 6-2 – 258 – N/A
I thought I was watching Dadi Nicolas 2.0 when I saw McKinley lining up at 3 technique in 2015 for the Bruins. The 3 tech was a position where the lanky defender was constantly overwhelmed and blown off the ball. Thankfully for McKinley, UCLA has him playing a lot more on the edge this season, where his skills are much better suited. McKinley is not the twitchiest edge rusher off the ball, and his lateral movement skills can be a little disjointed, but the defensive end is high-effort all the time, playing a physical, aggressive brand of football that often earns him disruptive points versus the run and pass.
McKinley’s hand usage is not refined, but his upper body activity is better than many players at his position. Some of McKinley’s pass rushes look improvised, involving a lot of movement without a clear purpose or plan. Because his three-point stance is a little bit high, McKinley does not get maximum explosion out of his first step, which can often cause his rushes to sputter out. Power is a big concern with the UCLA product as well, as McKinley really struggles to work off contact despite his best efforts.
While he’s stronger against the run, McKinley gets bullied off the ball too often, struggling to hold his ground and play with leverage. I doubt he’s 258 despite the weight he appears to have gained for his senior year, but McKinley’s fight and intensity in the trenches is admirable. I think he’s a little bit like a poor man’s Danielle Hunter, sharing the same athletic prowess and natural bend that made Hunter such an alluring developmental piece. McKinley looks like a day three prospect right now, but he’s been coming on strong as his senior year progresses. I could see a climb up boards if he finishes the year on a high note and tests well during workouts, proving he has the ability to play as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level. I personally think he’s more likely to be the latter.
Tim Williams – Alabama – Senior – 6-2 – 245 – N/A
A smooth athlete with some of the best bend and hip flexibility in the class, Williams is a master at winning the edge, posting some of the highest snap-to-pressure ratios in recorded history. Williams’ hand usage is intricate and violent despite his lanky build, showing the necessary strength to ward off punches and work offensive linemen with a myriad of moves. Spins and rips are common with Williams, who excels at recognizing and exploiting inside counter moves with his quick feet and active mitts. I love how sudden he is as a rusher, showing tremendous burst to lull tackles to sleep before exploding past them. Twitchy feet make Williams incredibly difficult to mirror in pass protection, especially given the fact that he consistently mixes up his attacks to keep his opponents guessing.
He’s not much of a speed-to-power rusher right now, but given his propensity to play with leverage and get quick hands inside his opponent’s frame, Williams could become a solid power rusher with a little more added muscle. Right now he’s too weak to move blockers one-on-one, but his technique and physical mindset suggest a player who won’t shy away from power moves in the NFL.
However, Williams isn’t without issues, beginning with his usage and snap count at Alabama. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams has played just 438 snaps over the past three seasons, 323 of which were pass rushes. He’s almost never on the field for rushing plays, instead performing as a pass rush specialist for the vast majority of his career. As a result, his key and diagnose skills against the run are incredibly raw, and Williams lacks the power to get off blocks efficiently. His hand placement and physicality are impressive, but the Alabama edge is so slight of frame that he can easily be knocked off balance by contact, despite his aggressive style of play. He’ll spend too much time on the ground as a pass rusher, but you learn to live with a few negative plays because of how often he gets home or at least creates disruption within the pocket.
Williams comes with off-the-field issues, namely a recent arrest for carrying a pistol without a permit. Officers smelled marijuana coming from Williams’ vehicle as well, but a passenger claimed responsibility for it. These concerns will only add to the polarizing pre-draft opinions on Williams stemming from the relative unknowns surrounding his game. Will he be a character concern? Can he bulk up and play a full snap count at the next level? Can he transition to playing exclusively from a two point stance as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL (he does have experience with this at Alabama)? How long will it take for him to develop into a strong run defender?
One thing is for certain however, despite the questions surrounding Williams’ game, pass rushers are at a premium right now in the NFL, and there is no denying the senior’s ability to get after the quarterback in an incredibly efficient manner.
Joe Mathis – Washington – Senior – 6-2 – 255 – N/A
After watching Mathis against Stanford, Arizona and Rutgers, I’m convinced that he’s the best senior pass rusher in this draft class that no one is talking about. Mathis, who is currently out with a foot injury but should be back in action before the end of the season, does it all off the edge, playing a physical brand of football and showing a non-stop motor snap-to-snap. Mathis is a powerful outside linebacker who erupts into blockers with good hand placement and pop at the point of attack. A gap-sound defender with the ability to shed and chase in the run game, Mathis is a good athlete who moves fluidly in space and plays with the desired urgency and temperament against the run. Little things like stance and stepping rather than hopping into contact can be improved, but overall Mathis’ skill set against the run is exactly what you hope to see from a 3-4 outside linebacker.
But where Mathis will make his money in this draft is as a pass rusher, showing the necessary bend and violent hands to threaten the edge consistently. I love Mathis’ attacking mentality, both as a speed rusher and as a bull rusher. His speed-to-power conversion is solid and will only get better as he works on getting out of his stance cleaner, and Mathis’ ability to play with leverage and battle through contact are rare for a collegiate edge. Mathis isn’t beholden to one move either, utilizing swims, spins, and rips at will in the three games I scouted. His recognition of inside rush lanes and ability to set up counters is still a work in progress, but all the tools are there for Mathis to become a pass rushing asset in the NFL. How teams value his injury and relative lack of collegiate production (if Mathis is unable to return this season and add to his five sacks in six games) remains to be seen, but the Washington defender seems poised for a rapid ascent up draft boards if he can test well throughout the pre-draft process.
Daeshon Hall – Texas A&M – Senior – 6-5 – 260 – 21
If you want a defensive end who looks the part and plays physical football with a non-stop motor, then look no further than Daeshon Hall. Unfortunately his size, strength, and heart may be by far his most admirable traits, as the Texas A&M product lacks the athleticism and the hand usage to be much of a force as a pass rusher. Hall does not have the burst or quickness up the arc to make offensive tackles uneasy about protecting the edge, and the senior does not dismantle opponents with power or pass rush moves the way he should given his size and motor. Hall’s signature move is the bull rush, but he does not always get low enough to generate a tremendous push, and when you can’t offer much variety to complement the move, offensive tackles start to know what to expect.
Texas A&M asked Hall to slant gaps constantly in order to open up lanes for other rushers, so he wasn’t always put in the most advantageous situations for production purposes. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Hall’s 14 career sacks are of the coverage variety, or as a result of Myles Garrett constantly running quarterbacks his way.
Hall rarely gets pushed around against the run, but will often play too high and struggle to get off blocks efficiently. He’s a defensive end only, lacking the movement skills and agility to play in space or drop into coverage. Hall will give you 110 percent and consistently carry out his assignments, but I don’t see a high ceiling on the big defender despite his enticing frame and length. If he can improve his hands, Hall may have a future an interior rusher in nickel packages, but right now it’s hard for me to get excited about him as an edge prospect.
Dawuane Smoot – Illinois – Senior – 6-3 – 255 – 22
As a pure pass rusher, Smoot is one of the top prospects in the 2016 class. He’s a terrific athlete with ideal size and play strength, showing the ability to win off the edge in a variety of ways. Smoot’s first step is consistently explosive, allowing him to threaten offensive tackles up the arc, where his hand usage often sets him apart. Smoot has excellent technique and enough flexibility to be disruptive at the top of the arc, but his ability to counter when his initial rush is stymied might be the Illinois senior’s most impressive trait. Spins, rips, and one-arm rushes are all in his repertoire.
Where Smoot can still stand to improve is in his speed-to-power conversion. Ironically this could eventually become the signature move in Smoot’s arsenal, thanks to his impressive burst and powerful build, but right now the defender rarely relies on the bull rush. As his hands develop, push-pulls and other power moves will become much more natural for Smoot, making him even more challenging to block.
Smoot is a very assignment-sound run defender who leverages his gap well, but needs to maintain better arm extension at the point of attack in order to shed blockers. He’ll be over-aggressive to his gap at times, failing to recognize a play’s development in time to help out in pursuit. As good as Smoot’s hands are as a pass rusher, I think they can stand to improve significantly in run defense. He’ll often try to run himself off of blocks, rather than stand his ground and win a fistfight in a phone booth. It isn’t due to a lack of desire to be physical, but rather a non-stop motor that occasionally hampers his efficiency. He’s most effective right now when asked to shoot gaps and be disruptive, but this fact has been true of other Illinois defensive linemen in seasons past. Their development hasn’t always been as complete as many other college prospects at the same position, and while Smoot is significantly more refined than someone like Jihad Ward, some aspects of his run defense are currently a work in progress.
Taco Charlton – Michigan – Senior – 6-5 – 277 – 22
Charlton has garnered a lot of attention this season for his play, but the big defensive end is extremely raw as a pass rusher, and diagnoses far too slow as a run defender. Charlton’s stance needs major work, as he currently sits with his butt too high at the line of scrimmage, negating any forward momentum or power that can be utilized in his first few steps. The senior appears to have the ideal frame and a decent burst for converting speed to power, but Charlton tends to bend at the waist when engaging blockers, rather than at the knees. This will often cause him to lose his balance and struggle to finish, especially when he is tasked with changing directions quickly in space. He does throw a wicked spin move out there on occasion, which is encouraging for a pass rusher still learning all the moves at his disposal.
Charlton has the size and athleticism to be an intriguing developmental prospect, but right now he does not have a plan of attack off the edge. He’s not bendy enough to be a big-time cornering threat, and most of his rushes end up in stalemates because he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. If he can learn to set up rushes and win with power I think Charlton can be a disruptive force up front, but right now there are only flashes of potential. It doesn’t help that Charlton plays in a heavy rotation, limiting the amount of reps he gets per game. I think Charlton may eventually be best as a 3-4 defensive end in the NFL, but I can also see him as a 4-3 anchor for teams that want some versatility in their fronts. He needs to test really well during pre-draft workouts to keep teams excited about his upside.
Corey Vereen – Tennessee – Senior – 6-2 – 249 – 21
At 6-2, 250, Vereen looks like a speed-to-power defensive end, but he just doesn’t move anybody with his bull rush, even when he establishes leverage. A good first step gives Vereen a solid building block as a pass rusher, but choppy, short strides up the arc limit his effectiveness to the edge. I was surprised to see Vereen flash some bend against Florida, but I don’t think he’s flexible enough to make that his signature move at the next level. Vereen has a good rip move and seems to think through his attacks in obvious passing situations, but he’s not athletic or powerful enough to make a major impact. That could change some at the next level as he develops his hands more, but I don’t see Vereen as a high ceiling pass rusher in the NFL.
As a run defender, Vereen is really labored in space, struggling to change directions or even chase down ball carriers in pursuit. Alabama attacked him all game long with zone reads and stretch plays, and Vereen was constantly exposed. He’s physical at the line of scrimmage, but doesn’t really have the length or strength to set the edge well. Vereen’s inability to play in coverage makes it difficult to project a role for him. He’ll likely be billed as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but I’m not sure he tests well enough to make the transition in the NFL.