2017 NFL Draft EDGE Preview: Juniors

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Over the past several weeks, I wrote three articles highlighting a plethora of draft-eligible edge defenders in the 2017 draft class. I began with redshirt seniors and true seniors before moving to redshirt juniors and ultimately finishing with the true junior class. Ill look at each players 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 Ive 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, heres my preliminary analysis of the true junior class of edge defenders.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Myles Garrett – Texas A&M – Junior – 6-5 – 262 – 21

Theres no question that Garrett is one of the best players in the 2017 NFL Draft class, but I think hes just beginning to scratch the surface of his ability. Playing a 4-3 defensive end role for Texas A&M while occasionally kicking inside to 3 technique, Garrett probably saw more double teams and chips than any other pass rusher in college football this season. The Aggies often utilized him as a crasher on stunts to work another rusher free, and Garretts reps as an interior defensive lineman meant working to defeat more double teams than he would typically see on the outside. This peculiar usage of the best pure edge rusher in the country led to somewhat deflated sack numbers for the junior compared to his first two years with the Aggies (8.5 this season, compared to 11 and 11.5 his two previous seasons), but the tape showed an improved speed-to-power move while retaining the athleticism and stride length to threaten the edge consistently.

Garrett isnt as explosive out of his preferred 4-point stance as some of the elite pass rushers youll see him compared to this draft season, but he eats up a lot of ground while quickly getting up the arc. Much of his limited explosiveness this year was likely due to an ankle injury that he played through for most of the season, because his 2015 tape showed a more twitched-up player. He has that unique flexibility to run under contact and bend the edge tight to the quarterback, as well as the power to work through an offensive tackles punch. His bull rush improved significantly this season, but Garrett needs to work on getting off contact more readily. His hands are easily the most underdeveloped aspect of his game, and with some improved work to clear blocks more efficiently, Garrett can turn consistent disruption into quarterback hits and sacks.

Garretts range and agility in space are his best qualities as a run defender. Hes tough to get the edge on, and he can beat reach blocks consistently with his length and lateral agility. Texas A&M asked him to gap slant often in order to create disruption, so Garrett will need to work on holding his ground at the point of attack and playing gap-sound football. Hell occasionally work too far into his gap and leave large cutback lanes for his teammates to clean up, failing to keep his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and maintain proper depth. Garretts pursuit away from plays was much worse this season than last year, as playing hurt was clearly limiting his area of impact. He deserves props for playing through pain the entire year, even in games where it was obvious he wasnt 100 percent.

By all accounts and purposes, Garrett is a team-first guy who loves and dedicates himself to the game of football. Hes a terrific athlete with the size, length, and versatility to play anywhere from 3-4 outside linebacker to 4-3 defensive end to the occasional interior pass rusher in sub-packages. His game still needs some refinement, but Garretts natural tools and recent development will still make him a dangerous player as he continues to work toward his sky-high ceiling in the NFL. Hes first overall pick material and has the chance to become one of the top pass rushers in the NFL as his game continues to evolve.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Derek Barnett – Tennessee – Junior – 6-3 – 265 – 20

The more tape I watch, the more I believe Derek Barnett is my Taylor Decker of the 2017 NFL Draft. I was not a fan of Deckers 2014 tape at all, but was stunned by the improvements he made to his technique, posture, and footwork in 2015, leading me to rank him in my top 10 overall prospects for last years draft class. Barnetts ascension in my rankings has occurred in very similar fashion, after I wrote this offseason that he wasnt an elite prospect because he lacked the requisite athletic ability and flexibility around the edge.

Based on his 2016 tape, those words couldnt be further from the truth, as Barnetts burst and bend were on display week-after-week. He may not be the most laterally agile defender when asked to change directions in space, but as a pure pass rusher coming off the edge, Barnett gives you exactly what youre looking for athletically. Cornering was his top concern heading into the season, and it is easily the area of his game where Barnett improved the most during his junior year. Against Floridas big and slow-footed left tackle David Sharpe, Barnett looked like Von Miller running under the linemans punch and turning tight corners to the pocket. His ankles are probably more flexible than his hips, but Barnetts ability to threaten the edge with an explosive first step and excellent angles make him a consistent cornering threat nonetheless.

What I worry about is his ability to convert speed-to-power. Its a nonexistent aspect of his game for the most part right now, and with his built-in leverage at 6-2 1/2, Id like to see him utilize leverage and power more often. Against Florida and Alabama, he was able to beat Sharpe and Cam Robinson up the arc a few times, but it was a different story against Texas A&M. Aggies left tackle Avery Gennesy is more explosive out of his stance than Robinson or Sharpe, and he took away the edge consistently on obvious passing downs. The problem for Gennesy was that in his haste to protect the corner, he was leaving massive inside rush lanes, and failing to build his house with a strong base. A bull rush or a strong inside counter would have landed him in hot water, but Barnett still attempted to run the arc on most possessions. To the Tennessee juniors credit, he still found a way to work outside of Gennesy on occasion, using stutter-steps to lull the senior tackle to sleep, but there were easier ways to win that probably would have resulted in even better production for Barnett.

I think Barnetts hands improved this season, although progress can still be made. Hes getting better at using his inside arm to clear contact at the top of the arc, ripping or swatting punches to create a softer edge. That part of his game was non-existent in 2015, and while he still needs to become more consistent, the development was crucial to his career high 12.5 sacks. Ive seen a nasty spin move from Barnett on the edge, and a bevy of swims, rips, and push-pulls when he rushes from the interior. For teams who already have two strong edge rushers, Barnett is a guy you can line up inside and hell still be productive. The Vols did this with him some in 2015, and he was deadly working on guards and centers.

The question with Barnett is whether he is all-around athletic enough to make his style of play work as an edge. Im convinced the flexibility is there, and I love his first step, but I wish he was quicker up the arc on his second and third steps. NFL teams will be intrigued by how he tests at the combine, I just hope they know which workouts to value and which workouts to dismiss for edge defenders. Barnett isnt going to run a great 40, and Im ok with that, but lets see what is agility times and jumps look like before we judge him as an athlete.

As a run defender he can get reach blocked too easily, and needs to learn to recognize zone blocks and keep his playside shoulder free more consistently. Barnett is excellent at taking on counters and displays sound wrong-arm technique, but he can struggle to finish tackles against shiftier backs, and sometimes looks labored in space. I also want to see better arm extension at the point of attack, as Barnett isnt especially long-limbed and has to work extra hard to keep opposing offensive linemen off his frame. Having said that, few defensive ends in college football were the consistent force against the run that Barnett was, as he dispayed the ability to be disruptive at and behind the line of scrimmage due to an explosive burst off the ball. Fifty-one tackles for a loss over three seasons doesnt happen by accident, and Barnett has the strong frame and hand usage to be an asset against the run in the NFL.

As far as intangibles go, you may not find a more heralded prospect in this class for their character and leadership on and off the field. Barnett has a non-stop motor in games, which is matched by his relentless work ethic off the field. Hes a tremendous locker room presence who has garnered praise for playing through pain and rallying his teammates in several come-from-behind victories early in the 2016 season. Barnett played his best football in the biggest games of the year, and has three years of outstanding production (32 sacks, 51 tackles-for-loss, 3 forced fumbles) while starting 35 out of a possible 38 games at Tennessee. You wont find a better resume among any edge defender in college football. Best of all, Barnett will only be 20 years old on draft day, and wont turn 21 until June of next year. A lot rides on his combine and pro day performances, but if Barnett can test well and tighten up his frame, NFL teams will be lining up to acquire his talents in the first round.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Bradley Chubb – N.C. State – Junior – 6-3 – 273 – N/A

Chubb reminded me a little bit of a less explosive Brian Orakpo on tape, with long arms, a well-muscled frame, and the ability to keep moving through contact with power and hand placement as a pass rusher. Chubb is a terrific point of attack defender who rarely gets moved off the ball, winning chest control, and displaying the arm extension to work off of blocks and shut down his gap. He isnt the best athlete in space, but as a 4-3 defensive end thats less of a concern, and his ability to set the edge with sound positioning and leverage up front is impressive.

Chubb isnt super explosive or sudden in his movements as a pass rusher, which is somewhat concerning to me. Against college-level athletes he often compensated for his methodical pace with well-placed rip and push-pull moves to win the edge, displacing tackles with power rather than quickness up the arc. Chubb recognizes and attacks inside rush lanes when given to him, but hes not particularly quick on his counters, which can allow him to be caught and ridden down the line of scrimmage. His pad level gets higher as a pass rusher than as a run defender, and I sometimes question whether Chubb has a clear plan of attack on ball-read situations (obvious passing downs).

The question with Chubb is what his upside will be compared to his positional counterparts in the draft. Its a remarkably deep edge class, and Chubb might not have the athletic profile of some of the elite prospects at his position, but hes very technical and mentally proficient for a third-year player, reading and attacking blockers and blocking schemes with decisiveness and physicality. Chubb spent just two years at defensive end for the Wolfpack, both as a starter, after switching over from linebacker as a sophomore. His selection as the defensive captain as a true junior will be meaningful to scouts, as will the wide array of tasks Chubb was asked to carry out at N.C. State. The defender often lined up inside as a 3 technique, while playing from a 2- and 3-point stance on the edge. Chubb dropped into coverage a couple times in each of the three games I studied him in, and he rallies to the football with a nonstop motor from anywhere on the field.

I think Chubb can be a good, but not great pass rusher in the NFL, which probably has value sometime on day 2. Combine testing will be big for Chubb, as his quickness and first step burst will be questioned heading into the pre-draft process. If Chubb can master long-arm principles as a pass rusher, his hand placement and ability to transition to half-man from a bull rush could make him an effective power rusher in the NFL. Ive always said that guys that dont stay blocked have a lot of value in this league, and even though Chubb might not have the vast range of impact that a Tim Williams or Myles Garrett might, hell be a disruptive presence against the pass and a stout run defender on the edge. Ultimately I dont see the twitchiness or explosive traits to be a top-tier defensive end, which probably makes Chubb a mid-round value at this point in the process.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Harold Landry – Boston College – Junior – 6-2 – 250 – 20

Landry is one of the top cornering threats in the country, an athletic edge defender who plays with his hand down and offers the burst and bend to make offensive tackles work quickly up the arc. His get-off is consistently strong, and Landry shows the stride length and quickness to threaten the corner on any given down. Landrys ankle flexibility to turn sharp angles is eye-popping, and his flexibility to bend the edge tight to the offensive tackles frame makes it tough for quarterbacks to evade his rushes. He has some of the best balance in the class, and can sustain forward movement through contact, even when bending the edge.

Landry will occasionally flash counter moves and the presence of mind to adapt his plan of attack on the fly, but for the most part he is a pure cornering threat who needs to develop his hand usage and variety as a pass rusher, especially against superior athletes at offensive tackle. Hes physical when he needs to be, and will work diligently to get off blocks against the run, but hes at his best shooting gaps or pursuing plays from the backside. His lower half looks a little under-developed on tape, and teams may want him to add a little bulk to his frame.

Landrys biggest question may be, can he set the edge consistently against NFL power, especially as a 4-3 defensive end? There are times when he gets knocked off the ball and sealed inside too easily, and many have said he might be best as a 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level, who rushes with his hand down situationally. Personally I think he can play either role just fine. His intensity and quick mental processing against the run show up consistently, and Landrys range allows him to pursue plays to the sideline with reckless abandon. Hes a sure tackler in space who also has the fluidity to drop into coverage, which should make teams look at him as a standup edge defender at the combine.

In the end, Landry has game-changing, coveted traits, and plays with the nonstop motor and competitive toughness of a future leader on the defensive side of the ball. In Boston Colleges bowl game against Maryland, Landry was almost unblockable, intercepting a pass, batting down several others and consistently disrupting the pocket before finishing the day with two sacks. He might not go in the first round of this draft, but if he tests well at the combine, youll have a hard time convincing me Landry isn’t a top 30 talent in the 2016 class. Did I mention he doesnt turn 21 until June? Sign me up.

Follow Jon on Twitter @LedyardNFLDraft. Check out more of his work here, including his articles on Todd Bowles and twist stunts, and DeMarcus Ware’s resurgence with Denver.

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