Here’s my first crack at ranking an incredibly talented edge defender class, with 15 to 17 prospects currently attracting my interest for the first three rounds. Even with Harold Landry, Sam Hubbard, and Bradley Chubb reportedly heading back to school, this edge class will probably be the most talented I’ve ever scouted, both in terms of immediate impact and high ceiling players. You can find Part 2 of my early rankings here.
- Myles Garrett – Junior – Texas A&M – 6-5 – 262 – 21 (age to begin rookie season)
Analysis: Garrett is a rare edge talent with the size, power, athleticism and burst to be an annual 12-sack defender in the NFL at his peak. He’s the rare breed that can convert speed-to-power as easily as he can corner, and has the talent to become even better in time. Garrett will test off the charts if healthy at the combine, and should interview extremely well thank to his reported maturity and coachability during the pre-draft process. He’ll be in consideration for the first overall pick to the Cleveland Browns and will not fall out of the top five.
Best Scheme Fit: Garrett probably has the athleticism to drop in coverage and fulfill 3-4 outside linebacker responsibilities, but I prefer him with his hand down as a 4-3 defensive end, getting after the quarterback every snap.
Importance of Draft Season: Teams will want to know why his effort and impact seemed to wane at times this season, even though a fairly significant ankle injury would seem to explain the situation. Garrett should receive props for playing through pain when his draft stock didn’t require him to do so. As long as he tests as well as expected, the pre-draft process shouldn’t be too concerning for him.
Draft Range: Top 5 talent
- Tim Williams – Senior – Alabama – 6-3 – 252 – 23
Analysis: One of the more fluid pass rushers in the class, Williams has the first-step burst and bendy frame you want off the edge. His production per snap at Alabama was incredible, and despite his lack of reps against the run, Williams has all the tools and the technique to make an easy transition to a higher snap count. His variety as a pass rusher makes him a fun watch, and very difficult for opponents to block one-on-one. There’s some rawness in his angles and footwork, but the abilities you want are there.
Best Scheme Fit: I’m not ruling out Williams’s fit as a 4-3 defensive end, but for now his size and athleticism in space would make me covet him as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Williams is explosive from either stance, and will likely get reps from both positions in an era of hybrid NFL defenses.
Importance of Draft Season: Williams’s off-the-field history could see him tumble down this list and down the board of many NFL teams, especially in a loaded edge defender class. The Alabama star was arrested recently for carrying a pistol without a permit, but the marijuana found in the car was ultimately claimed by another passenger. This incident isn’t the only question surrounding Williams’s character, and his interview process and drug tests will be key for his draft stock moving forward.
Draft Range: Top 10 talent
- Solomon Thomas – RS Sophomore – Stanford – 6-2 – 275 – 21
Analysis: If you watched Thomas tear apart UNC’s offensive line in the Sun Bowl, you received a glimpse of what happened to every PAC-12 unit the redshirt sophomore faced this past season. Thomas’s tape is remarkably consistent game-to-game, as the 21-year-old defensive lineman demolished his opponents with some of the best hand usage and power you’ll see. Thomas could potentially play inside against a lot of 11 personnel looks in the NFL, but has the athleticism and ferocity to win from anywhere along the defensive line.
Best Scheme Fit: The more Thomas is allowed to one-gap, the more effective he will be. I think his size will put him at 4-3 defensive end in the NFL, but he’ll kick inside on a decent amount of passing downs, destroying guards with his quickness, length, and ridiculous power. His ability to read blocks quickly on the inside will be critical, but all the tools are there for him to be a dominant defender all over a four-man front.
Importance of Draft Season: The Stanford product is young, but remarkably mature with high football and personal character. Teams will want to figure out what his football IQ is like given his relative lack of experience, so that part of the interview process will be key for Thomas to see if can master the schematics of an NFL defense and not simply rely on natural tools week-to-week. I don’t anticipate intelligence being an issue with this one however, as Thomas gives off the impression of one of the sharper prospects in the class.
Draft Range: Top 10 talent
- Takkarist McKinley – Senior – UCLA – 6-2 – 258 – 21
Analysis: This is bold to say, but McKinley might have the highest ceiling of any edge defender in the draft, Garrett included. He’s an incredible athlete with some of the quickest feet I’ve ever seen for an edge. McKinley’s first step is a blur, and his ability to win with power and quickness make him difficult to predict as a pass rusher. His hands are incredibly active and violent, but McKinley’s pad level kills his attacks at times, allowing blockers to get into his frame and lock him up. He’s still raw in many ways, and will get blown up at times in the run game when he doesn’t identify blocking concepts quickly, but all the tools and intangibles are there for McKinley to be a star in the NFL.
Best Scheme Fit: McKinley does his best work from a 2-point stance, and his ability to play in space will have teams coveting him as a force defender. Gaining an edge on him is difficult, and he has the potential to drop into coverage and play all over a defense with a little coaching and experience. The desire to use him as a chess piece will be alluring for NFL defensive coordinators, but McKinley’s biggest impact will come off the edge, working one-on-one against offensive tackles.
Importance of Draft Season: McKinley is expected to test off the charts, so affirming those expectations at the combine will be critical. He also has the opportunity to move closer to locking up a top-15 selection with a strong Senior Bowl, as he is currently the best pass rusher slated to be in Mobile (invitations still outstanding to Tim Williams and Demarcus Walker). As with any somewhat raw player, football IQ and technique will be where NFL teams focus their line of questioning.
Draft Range: Top 10-15 talent
- Carl Lawson – RS Junior – Auburn – 6-2 – 253 – 22
Analysis: One of the best in the class when it comes to technique and hand usage, Lawson is a twitched-up edge rusher, who will need to convert speed-to-power at a strong rate to reach his potential in the NFL. Lawson isn’t the pure athlete that Garrett, Williams, or McKinley are, but he still checks the box in that area, and uses his hands expertly to create softer edges and better angles to the pocket while cornering. Lawson sets up his rushes as well as any defender in the class, and his cerebral, technical approach to the game is complemented by incredible power and variety as a rusher. He’s polished and ready to make an impact in the NFL.
Best Scheme Fit: Unless Lawson’s combine results tell me otherwise, I think he’ll be a stud working from a 2- or 3-point stance at the next level. He’s experienced at both, and often dropped into coverage comfortably for Auburn. Lawson is explosive out of both stances, and even has the power and technique to rush from the interior in obvious passing situations.
Importance of Draft Season: Lawson will check all the boxes for character, work ethic, leadership, football intelligence, tape, and production, leaving two big concerns open for questioning: his athleticism and his health. He’s clearly not a bad athlete, but in a loaded edge class, teams will be interested to see what his ceiling is as a pass rusher. Can he win in space and around the top of the arc like some of the other premier edges in the class? As for his health, Lawson finally put together a complete season for Auburn, but he missed the 2014 season with a torn ACL, and was limited to seven games in 2015 with a hip injury. Med checks will be crucial.
Draft Range: Top 15 talent
- Jonathan Allen – Senior – Alabama – 6-2 – 291 – 22
Analysis: This is where it gets tough. I’m just not sure how to rank Allen as he definitely isn’t a pure edge at the next level. He’ll play 4-3 defensive end on early downs, then kick inside on passing downs. He’s going to be a very good player, and maybe the safest pick in the draft, but he doesn’t offer the same propensity to win the edge as other players on this list. Instead Allen is a power rusher with terrific hand usage and the ability to one- or two-gap. I’ve never seen a college defensive lineman dominate so completely with a push-pull move, and Allen also offers swims and clubs to clear hands as well, and is a much better athlete than you’d think when looking at his frame. His value will be more about the fit than anything else.
Best Scheme Fit: Allen isn’t going to be rushing off the edge on 3rd downs consistently in the NFL, but he’s extremely difficult to block one-on-one, and could be one of the better interior rushers in the league in a year or two. That isn’t to say he can’t beat tackles on the perimeter however, as Allen’s ability to convert speed-to-power and disengage from contact will test the technique of offensive linemen across the front five.
Importance of Draft Season: Allen has an atypical frame for a defensive end, and will be viewed by some teams as undersized for an interior defensive lineman. If he can display abnormally impressive athleticism for his measurables, teams will be more inclined to overlook his lack of a prototypical build.
Draft Range: Top 15 talent
- Joe Mathis – Senior – Washington – 6-2 – 255 – N/A
Analysis: Here’s the best edge defender that no one is talking about, especially after Mathis missed the second half of the season with a foot injury. The Huskies outside linebacker was on a tear when he went down, notching five sacks in six games while posting three PAC-12 performances that were downright eye-popping. I wrote him up at length here, but Mathis’s ridiculous variety as a pass rusher and exceptional range of impact and technique as a run defender blew me away.
Best Scheme Fit: Mathis looks like your prototypical 3-4 Steelers or Ravens outside linebacker, both in build, athleticism and style of play. He can definitely play with his hand down situationally, but his flashes in coverage and ability to set the edge against a variety of blocking schemes make me excited about his future from a two-point stance. Let him play in space and thrive.
Importance of Draft Season: Mathis’ foot will be an area of concern for teams, but by all the reports I have heard, it is unlikely the injury is a long term one, or that it will keep him from participating in the combine. The more pressing question will be where Mathis was before this six-game stint to start the season. He’s battled minor injuries in the past, but had recorded just four sacks in his three prior seasons at Washington. I’ve heard from people inside the organization that claim he was simply a late bloomer, and that his loss this season was completely devastating to their pass rush and to their hopes for a national title appearance. Still, the limited tape will be concerning to some NFL teams, who really only have three games (albeit it, ridiculously dominant ones) against real competition to evaluate Mathis by in his most recent season. I’ll take the risk.
Draft Range: Top 25 talent
- Malik McDowell – Junior – Michigan State – 6-5 – 282 – 21
Analysis: A bendy defensive lineman with insane flexibility and first-step burst, McDowell played all over Michigan State’s front, using his power and athleticism to be a constantly disruptive force. His balance isn’t great, and he’ll struggle to maintain proper depth to the line of scrimmage as a one-gap penetrator, but McDowell’s athletic and physical tools will push teams to overlook some of the technique/pad level concerns that arise at times.
Best Scheme Fit: Despite his longer build, I like McDowell as a 3 technique at the NFL level, as his size and power are more than adequate enough to hold up inside. I think he’ll probably play all over a defensive front, and I wouldn’t want to have him eating doubles at nose tackle, but on passing downs I’d expect him to get a few edge reps each game. He’s explosive and athletic enough to corner well, he just doesn’t have a lot of experience there compared to most of this list.
Importance of Draft Season: McDowell is probably a top 10-15 pick based on talent, but his weigh-ins will be key for teams determining where they want to play him. Many NFL organizations have thresholds at different positions, and McDowell will need to fit into one of those for some teams to feel comfortable taking him that high. I’ve heard there were effort concerns with him over the second half of the season, but I’ve only watched four Michigan State games from earlier in the year, so I’ll need to check that out for myself before I comment further on it.
Draft Range: Top 25 talent (as an edge)
- Derek Barnett – Junior – Tennessee – 6-3 – 265 – 21
Analysis: The model of consistency during his time at Tennessee, the big question for Barnett will be how his style of play translates to the NFL. During his final season with the Vols, Barnett was a pure cornering threat, who rarely mixed up his rushes and surprisingly failed to convert speed-to-power at a high rate. His first step is impressive, but at times it appears he’s trying to jump the snap rather than actually reacting to the ball. Is he athletic enough to corner at a high level in the NFL? His lack of a counter move and intricate hand usage makes him a work in progress if his preferred style of play doesn’t transition smoothly to the next level.
Best Scheme Fit: Barnett is a pure 4-3 defensive end who can play from a six to nine technique alignment and occasionally kick inside on a team with multiple talented edge rushers.
Importance of Draft Season: The pre-draft process is going to be about one thing for Barnett, and one thing only: Proving he is a top-tier athlete at the position. I have serious doubts about his testing across the board, but if he can post strong three-cone and short shuttle results, I’ll feel better about his style translating to the NFL. From an intangibles standpoint, Barnett is the full package, but teams may want him to cut some weight to add more quickness to his game.
Draft Range: Late 1st round
- Devonte Fields – RS Senior – Louisville – 6-3 – 242 – 24
Analysis: The pros with Fields: He’s a silky smooth athlete, he’s polished with his hands, and he can bend the edge, winning inside with counter moves against high-level competition. The cons: He’ll be 24 when his rookie season begins, his effort is hit-or-miss almost every single game, and he has issues in his past that could scare teams away. Based purely on the field, when his motor is running hot, Fields is a first round talent that could be as high as #6 or #7 on this list.
Best Scheme Fit: Fields was asked to do a lot at Louisville, including drop into coverage, play from a two- and three-point stance and occasionally even line up as an off-ball linebacker. Given his fluidity in space and strong mental processing, it makes sense to play Fields in a similar fashion in the NFL, although he’ll probably stand up on early downs in a base 3-4 defense.
Importance of Draft Season: Fields was kicked out of TCU in 2014 for accusations of assaulting his girlfriend (punching her in the head) and threatening her with a gun. The league has seemed to frown more harshly on those types of infractions since the Ray Rice incident (as well they should), so it’ll be interesting to see how they weigh the fact that Fields’ case was dropped and that there is no video of the assault. Fields has admitted that he made a mistake, but beyond that I haven’t seen much to indicate whether he’s truly remorseful or not. That’ll be for teams to decide during the pre-draft process.
Draft Range: With off-field incidents of this nature, it is very difficult to say. Fields is a first round talent with an undraftable incident in his past.
- Dawuane Smoot – Senior – Illinois – 6-3 – 255 – 22
Analysis: I don’t think Smoot is outstanding in any one area, but he’s a very balanced pass rusher who knows how to set up attacks, use his hands, and counter when his initial rush is stymied. He plays with good natural bend at the point of attack to reduce his surface area, making it tough for offensive tackles to get a clean punch on him. He’s not a crazy talented athlete, but there is enough bend and burst to threaten the edge consistently, setting up a nice spin back inside. As a run defender Smoot isn’t outstanding in his range of impact, but he’s gap-sound and displays good understanding of leverage and hand placement to fulfill his responsibilities.
Best Scheme Fit: Smoot is probably a 4-3 defensive end in the NFL, although he could project to a standup role if he tests better than expected. He might be a little undersized to play with his hand down in the NFL, but I think his tape will alleviate some of the concerns that come with his projected measurables.
Importance of Draft Season: I think right now the main concern with Smoot is how he’ll test in the agility drills. I like what I see on tape, but to separate himself from a crowded pack of edge rushers, he’ll need to really stand out during the combine and at the Senior Bowl. The trip to Mobile is a huge opportunity to show out in front of scouts and NFL teams, as Smoot will be one of the best pass rushers at the event.
Draft Range: 2nd round
- Charles Harris – RS Junior – Missouri – 6-3 – 255 – N/A
Analysis: Harris might have the best first step in the entire class, as the incredibly twitchy defensive end uses speed rushes to outflank offensive tackles on the edge. Harris’s style would be deadly, except he lacks the flexibility to turn the corner and flatten to the quarterback at a high level. He’s simply not a very bendy athlete, but his elite burst off the ball often has offensive tackles scrambling to protect the edge, opening up opportunities for Harris’s inside spin counter move. It’s a deadly combination against linemen who don’t have refined footwork or drive-catch technique(™) off the snap, but Harris is unpolished in other ways, and needs work on his hand usage, mental processing, rush variety and run defense if he’s going to reach his peak in the NFL.
Best Scheme Fit: Harris played from both a two and three-point stance at Missouri, but was so explosive as a defensive end that I’d be hesitant to remove him from that spot. He looks like he weighs more than 255 to me, and if he can add a little bulk I think he’ll be fine with his hand down in a four-man front. He’s shown the ability to drop into coverage just fine however, and doesn’t seem to be labored in space much, so outside linebacker isn’t out of the question either.
Importance of Draft Season: Harris’ game is pretty consistent on tape, but he’s clearly somewhat raw, so the question will be how moldable he is at the next level, and how high his ceiling is athletically. Proving to scouts that he is coachable and eager to learn during pre-draft interviews will be key, as well as standing out amidst his position group during combine drills. If he tests as a premier athlete there, his stock could skyrocket for NFL teams, and on this board.
Draft Range: 2nd Round
- Taco Charlton – Senior – Michigan – 6-5 – 285 – 22
Analysis: Charlton has been bandied about as a potential top 15 pick during the past few months, but I don’t see that special of a talent off the edge, not in this class. Charlton is a solid run defender who could be very good with some time with NFL coaching. He has a nasty spin move and the tools to be a good developmental prospect if he improves his hands, but right now Charlton isn’t yet the sum of his parts, and might not have the burst or flexibility to be on the same level as some of the defenders ranked above him.
Best Scheme Fit: Charlton is a 4-3 defensive end who can probably play in the occasional 3-man front as a 3-4 end as well.
Importance of Draft Season: Charlton was a little bit of a late bloomer at Michigan, so there may be questions about where his production was before 2016. I’m not critical of his decision, but Charlton choosing to decline his Senior Bowl invitation will forfeit him an opportunity to make a strong impression in front of scouts in Mobile, both on and off the field. Regardless, given Charlton’s build and physical measurables, his stock will skyrocket if he posts some eye-popping numbers at the combine.
Draft Range: 2nd round