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 true seniors and now will look at redshirt juniors before following up with true juniors and 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 junior class of edge defenders that I’m currently watching.
Carl Lawson – Auburn – RS Junior – 6’2” – 253 pounds – 21 (Age on Draft Day)
Just stay healthy, Carl. That should be the prayer of every NFL team when watching Lawson on tape, because simply put, there isn’t much the Auburn stud lacks as an all-around defender. Lawson’s powerful frame and ridiculous work ethic have allowed him to become an incredibly refined player despite the relative inexperience he has because of a history of injuries at Auburn. Finally fully healthy this year, Lawson is posting the type of production analysts have always known he was capable of after a four-sack freshman season.
As a pass rusher, the first thing that really stood out to me about Lawson’s game was his variety and cerebral approach to rushing the quarterback. Spins, swats, rips, clubs, swims, etc., it’s all in Lawson’s repertoire, and he won’t hesitate to utilize a move on any given snap. There’s always a plan of attack, as Lawson sets up blockers with his footwork before going to work with his upper half. His hands are active and violent, as you could see if you watched the way he almost broke 2015 first-rounder Laremy Tunsil’s wrist with a violent chop during their premier matchup in 2015.
I expected to see Lawson’s rocked up frame and built-in leverage put to good use as a bull rusher, but he doesn’t convert speed to power as often as he could. Because Lawson has so many moves at his disposal he isn’t beholden to simply one attack, but given his explosive first step and ridiculous power at the point of engagement, I think the bull rush could become one of his signature moves at the NFL level.
Lawson has received some criticism for being too muscular and therefore a bit tight in the hips, but while he may not have the Gumby-like bend of Myles Garrett, Lawson is flexible enough to stress the edge and corner at a high level. Combine his ability to flatten to the quarterback in a hurry with his elite hand usage at the top of the arc, and you have a complete pass rusher who can win inside and out with regularity.
You won’t see Lawson get pushed around in the run game, period. It just doesn’t happen. He isn’t an elite athlete in space, but I think he’s more than capable of setting the edge and playing from the core of the formation to the boundary. Lawson will miss some tackles from time to time, but he’s finished much better now that he’s been on the field consistently. The redshirt junior isn’t often asked to drop into coverage, so that will be an area of playing 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL where he’ll need some work.
There aren’t many holes in Lawson’s game, but unless he passes through rigorous medical testing with flying colors during the pre-draft process, concerns will remain. Lawson missed the 2014 season with a torn ACL, before playing in just seven games in 2015 because of a hip injury. Staying healthy this year is imperative, but as long as no long-term injury concerns arise before the draft, Lawson is on his way to being a first-round pick.
Charles Harris – Missouri – RS Junior – 6’3” – 255 pounds – N/A
Despite not having elite bend or flexibility to corner consistently, Harris flashes impressive first step explosiveness to threaten the top of the arc, which opens up inside spins and counters. Because offensive tackles fear his inside spin so much, Harris is able to win the corner at times, showing the power to rip through contact and flatten to the quarterback. He’s not ideal in space, but is probably better getting off the ball from a two point stance than a three point, giving him some alignment versatility.
Harris flashes a deep arsenal as a pass rusher, including stutter steps and swim moves, but he doesn’t really convert speed-to-power yet, which is a buzzkill considering his first step and sturdy frame. He doesn’t appear to lack physicality, but Harris is much more of a finesse rusher right now than his appearance or natural traits would suggest. His hands are really underdeveloped, and if he doesn’t beat his opponent with quickness or gets locked up at the point of attack, the threat is typically over. I just don’t think Harris is the type of rare athlete that can dominate as a pass rusher without learning to play square and use push-pulls, punches, swats and other hand maneuvers to clear blocks and pressure the pocket. That aspect of his development as a player will be crucial at the next level.
Harris can be a freelancer against the run, and his technique at stacking and shedding blocks is subpar. The man loves to rush the passer, but sometimes that same passion fails to show up in the run game. He’ll get high out of his stance or lean on blockers instead of using proper arm extension to hold his opponent at bay. Harris wrong-arms pullers with little violence or intensity, and he’ll occasionally flow too far upfield and get trapped, leaving his teammates to defend an expanded gap.
Missouri often asks Harris to shoot gaps, allowing him clean access into the backfield because of his first step. If he doesn’t win that way however, he becomes overly reliant on spinning to get off blocks, rather than holding the point of attack and covering his gap. The untechnical approach runs him out of more plays than anything, and Harris’ pursuit and snap-to-snap intensity wane considerably as well.
And then there is the mental side of the game, where Harris sometimes looks the most unrefined. He reminds me a lot of Bud Dupree in the fact that he looks like football is brand new to him at times. Harris is at his absolute best fulfilling really simple requirements – edge rush, gap shoot, zone drop – rather than asked to think on his feet and react in a timely fashion to misdirections, RPOs, zone reads, end arounds, or play action. He has to process and react a lot quicker (and wiser) before he’s going to be ready for every down action in the NFL. Missouri is known for developing quality defensive line talent, and Harris may ultimately return to school for his final year of eligibility.
Tyquan Lewis – Ohio State – RS Junior – 6’3” – 260 pounds – 22
Lewis is one of the unsung studs of Ohio State’s stellar defense, a stoutly built defensive end with excellent play strength and football smarts. If you want a spatially aware defender who knows how to take on a variety of blocks and squeeze gaps in the run game, Lewis is a solid choice. He’s not gonna get bullied around, and he understands when to step down inside and when to set the edge.
There just isn’t much athleticism or range to Lewis’ skill set however, making his area of impact as a pass rusher and as a run defender more limited than many of his colleagues. Against outside zone runs Lewis get scooped far too easily, struggling to show the burst out of his stance or the lateral quickness to keep his playside shoulder consistently free. The limitations are the same in space, as Lewis was a defender teams often looked to exploit with zone reads on the edge.
As a pass rusher, Lewis’ hands are detailed at the top of the arc, combining swats, clubs and rip moves, but his hips are too tight to turn the corner at a high level, forcing him to rely heavily on power moves to get home. His bull rush pushes the pocket at times, and he can string it into a rip or push-pull on occasion, but there isn’t enough suddenness or violence to his play to get most offensive linemen off balance. I think Lewis can play, but he’ll probably always be a depth defensive end, and his lack of pass rush juice and upside may peg him as a fringe roster guy year-to-year.
Chikwe Obasih – Wisconsin – RS Junior – 6’2” – 267 pounds – N/A
Obasih is reportedly a terrific locker room presence and leader for Wisconsin, but I struggled to find draftable traits for him on tape. He’s undersized to be playing 3-4 defensive end, but he does understand hand placement and arm extension to keep bigger blockers off his frame. Obasih still got buried several times against LSU, and generally struggles to hold his ground at the point of attack.
One could say he’s playing out of position, but he’s far too limited an athlete right now to play on the edge, and he has no idea what to do as a pass rusher. Push-pulls and bull rushes should be Obasih’s M.O. right now, but he’s too methodical in his movements to challenge offensive linemen much. Obasih’s best chance of success at the next level is to drop his weight to the 250 range while hoping for an increase in quickness and burst off the ball. I would recommend he stay in college for another year and work on his hands as a pass rusher, but another year playing out of position might not do much to boost his draft stock.
T.J. Watt – Wisconsin – RS Junior – 6’4” – 243 pounds – 22
After sitting out his first two seasons at Wisconsin because of a redshirt and an injury, Watt began attempting to emerge from his brother J.J.’s shadow in 2015 when he appeared in eight games for the Badgers as a reserve. Joe Schobert’s departure to the NFL opened up a starting spot for Watt in 2016, and the redshirt junior has been producing at a clip that is already close to surpassing his predecessor’s sack numbers from the year prior. With 9.5 sacks in 12 games, Watt has established himself as a force off the edge for Wisconsin in a season where the Badgers have lost several key defenders to injury.
Watt absolutely must get stronger and learn to play with better knee bend at the point of attack if he wants to have a shot at the pro level. At 6’ 4”, Watt has plenty of frame to fill out with another strong offseason, and can be twice as effective next season by maintaining leverage more consistently. Too often Watt gets high at the point of attack and struggles to get off blocks efficiently, more as a pass rusher than in the run game. A solid athlete with the length, physicality and motor to be a tough assignment for collegiate offensive linemen, Watt is still learning how to put all his tools to their best use.
Watt is a smart player who recognizes rush lanes and won’t hesitate to go to an inside counter if he sees an opening. His overall pass rush game is raw, but there are impressive flashes of hand usage and quickness that make Watt an intriguing developmental piece at the next level. He’s definitely a 3-4 outside linebacker right now, and his range, tackling and smarts are a welcome addition on any defense. He’s developing nicely, but I’ll be pretty surprised if he doesn’t head back to Wisconsin given his lack of collegiate experience and production.
Demetrius Cooper – Michigan State – RS Junior – 6’5” – 252 pounds – 22
Cooper doesn’t get much hype playing on a line with Malik McDowell, but he’s not a bad player at all. He’s well-built, a decent athlete, and plays with an intensity and fire that makes him tough for blockers to get a hat on. Cooper’s unrefined for the most part, but he’ll flash a deadly swim move here and there, making you wonder where he could be with a little more coaching and experience. He’s physical at the point of attack, but struggles to disengage and doesn’t always maximize his length. Michigan State will move him around and give him reps as a 3 tech, where Cooper typically holds his own. He hasn’t put it all together yet, so it’ll be interesting to see if he opts to return to MSU to continue his development or declares for the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining.
Duke Ejiofor – Wake Forest – RS Junior – 6’3” – 275 pounds – 22
Ejiofor reminds me of a poor man’s Ronald Blair, the Appalachian State defensive end that the 49ers drafted in the fifth round last spring. Blair was more explosive and aggressive though, and despite his 10-sack redshirt junior season, Ejiofor is in danger of not being drafted if he declares this year. It’s a deep edge class, and the Wake Forest product is a limited athlete who spends most of his time in a frog stance making tackle reads while playing strong side end for the Demon Deacons. Much of his production came as an interior rusher, which is undoubtedly where Ejiofor will need to play in a rotational role at the next level. His pass rush moves are his biggest strength, but Ejiofor is a liability against the run, and doesn’t play with the desired intensity or physicality of a player who will need to rely on power and leverage in the trenches to make an NFL roster.
Kemoko Turay – Rutgers – RS Junior – 6’4” – 240 pounds – 21
Injuries and a lack of playing time have seriously derailed the once-promising career of this Rutgers edge defender. Turay is an athletic freak with the ideal size and movement skills for a 3-4 outside linebacker. He is unrefined and inconsistent, appearing in just two games this season and making only 10 tackles (3.0 sacks) over the past two seasons. He’ll generate interest if he comes out, but with such a limited resume following his 7.5-sack redshirt freshman season, Turay almost certainly returns to school, or transfers to a more promising destination for his final collegiate season.
Al-Quadin Muhammad – Miami / Hampton – RS Junior – 6’3” – 250 pounds – N/A
Muhammad has an intriguing skill set, but is only on this list as a footnote after being kicked out of Miami for taking alleged improper benefits. The edge rusher is reportedly transferring to Hampton, but will likely play there next season and enter the 2018 draft.