So, that was surprising. In what was billed as an elite class of edge rushers who might test off the charts across the board, several of the high profile pass rushers had underwhelming combine performances, while a few lesser-knowns stole the show. That is, outside of Myles Garrett and Solomon Thomas, who both had epic performances in the biggest job interviews of their lives. Here’s my thoughts on the combine results for many of the classes’ top rushers.
1. Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
Somehow we’d already reached the point in the pre-draft process where Myles Garrett was being over-thought, so seeing him dominate the Combine as expected alleviated any concerns that may have existed about his athleticism. Garrett’s jumps were otherworldly, as a 41-inch vertical and a 10’7” broad jump placed him in the 98th and 96th percentile among edge defenders since 1999, respectively (per mockdraftable.com). Jumps indicate lower body explosiveness, which aids an edge rusher’s first step and burst up the arc, a trait that is clearly evident on the junior’s tape as well. Garrett opted not to do the agility drills, but watch any game of him when he’s healthy and you’ll see elite cornering ability, flexibility, and change of direction in the open field.
So what did we learn? That Garrett is every bit the freak athlete we thought he was and that he should definitely be the first pick in the draft, positional value aside. So what did we learn that we didn’t know, or that wasn’t already obvious on tape? Not much.
2. Tim Williams, Alabama
What happened, man? Already facing issues about potentially serious drug issues in his recent history, Williams showed up to Indy light and lanky, with an obvious lack of development on his physique. After opting not to bench press, Williams bombed the workouts, running a 4.68 40 and posting three cone and short shuttle results that were in the 29th and 19th percentile among edge defenders.
His jumps were good, but Williams is a pass rusher that thrives on speed and athleticism to win up the arc, not by converting speed-to-power at a high rate. I’ll admit he plays stronger than he looks, but Williams’s style relies on the ability to corner or at least play speed-counter games on the outside, something I think he’ll struggle to do at a high level against NFL tackles. I still think he’s explosive and quick on his feet enough to be an impactful pass rusher with a little more refinement, but Williams needs to get stronger and fine-tune his hands to work for more space on every pass rush. Given his off-field concerns and lack of snaps against the run in college, the odds of NFL teams considering Williams as a top 20 pick in April just got a lot slimmer.
3. Jonathan Allen, Alabama
It was a good day for those who have made the case that Allen is not a true edge defender in the NFL, as the Alabama defender tested poorly for the position, but came out just fine compared to other interior defensive linemen.
Athletically, Allen lacks the profile to be a consistently impactful pass rusher off the edge, but his power, technique, block recognition, and hand usage make him a better fit to play inside anyway. If you were expecting Allen to be an athletic freak, you need to go back and watch his tape. That’s not who he is. Yes, his results were poor, but he’s 286 pounds and won more with physicality than athletic prowess, even at the college level.
I think his role is as a 3 technique on early/obvious run downs, and kick inside in nickel looks or obvious passing situations. Does this require a little leap of faith if Allen is just 286 pounds come September? Yes, as he’d need to be an outlier based on his size and athletic testing, but how many have tape as rare and impressive as Allen’s? He won’t be as dominant in the NFL as he was in college, but he can still be a very good starter for a long time, and is very much worthy of a top 15 pick this spring.
4. Solomon Thomas, Stanford
Garrett’s performance somehow buried the jaw-dropping showing by Thomas, who silenced any doubts that he could transition athletically to a full-time edge defender role. He came in taller (almost 6-3) and with longer arms (33 inches) than most assumed, and then preceded to test in the 80th percentile or better in every exercise except the vertical jump (74th percentile). Thomas proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can be a full-time edge defender in the NFL, and may even get teams interested in him as a 3-4 outside linebacker if he sheds a little weight.
He’ll be at his best as a 4-3 defensive end though, where Thomas will need to learn pass rush moves and how to corner and counter off the edge. He got enough reps as a defensive end at Stanford to have developed there some already, and his athletic profile suggests that his explosiveness and flexibility should help him become a complete pass rusher with the right coaching.
5. Carl Lawson, Auburn
Lawson’s combine results were best-case scenario for him. On tape he’s obviously not the most flexible edge rusher in the draft, so his weak three cone was as expected, but his jumps were good, 40 and 10 were excellent, and his 20-yard short shuttle was the best of all defensive linemen/edge defenders at the combine. Keep in mind that Lawson is the most polished pass rusher in this class, both in his hand usage, mental processing, and ability to manipulate tackles with savvy footwork to gain a soft edge. All he needed to do was check boxes to hold his position as a top 15 player on my board, and the junior did that and more. Strong day for Lawson.
6. Derek Barnett, Tennessee
The combine confirmed that Barnett is who we thought he was, a non-explosive cornering threat who relies on snap-jumping to get a head start on gaining the edge. But there’s no doubting Barnett’s flexibility and bend, as the stocky pass rusher posted an exceptional 6.96 three cone time on Sunday. Barnett has enough refinement to make an impact despite his limitations, but he’ll be a much better pass rusher once he develops counter moves to go with his cornering style.
7. Takkarist McKinley, UCLA
McKinley’s biggest weakness on tape is his pad level, which seems to rise at the point of contact almost constantly, making it difficult for him to clear contact or work to a blocker’s edge consistently. I wondered aloud before the draft if this was due to a lack of experience and refinement to his game, or a mobility issue in his lower half that keeps him from playing with better knee bend. Sunday’s workouts seemed to answer my question quite clearly, as McKinley posted a 7.48 three cone (14th percentile) and a 4.62 short shuttle (11th percentile) for two of the worst marks in his position group.
What does this mean? McKinley’s agility workouts indicate that he’s as stiff-hipped and inflexible as he appears on tape at times, and will struggle to bend a hard edge around more athletic tackles. If his first 10-yard split of 1.61 holds true, that time along with his jumps show an explosive athlete who can really move up the arc, but McKinley will have to develop a go-to counter move and greatly improve his hand technique to consistently finish as an NFL pass rusher.
That’s a big shot to McKinley’s stock, but it is important to remember he was dealing with a torn labrum and has said on Twitter he wasn’t even medically cleared to be participating in the Combine. Now I’m not sure how much a labrum injury that he played with for two years impacts your three cone, but there’s no denying that he wasn’t 100 percent on Sunday or during his training for the Combine.
Still, McKinley’s results might be the most troubling of any edge defender on this list. His allure was as a high-ceiling ultra-athlete who just needed some coaching and refinement to become a star, but his testing reveals a player who will face some limitations as a pass rusher even if he does develop aspects of his game. There’s still a lot to like about McKinley, but I’d compared his ceiling to Myles Garrett’s in the past, and that simply isn’t accurate anymore.
8. Derek Rivers, Youngstown State
What a terrific pre-draft process it has been for Rivers, who dominated at the Senior Bowl, came off as a high character, hard worker with leadership skills in interviews, and wowed at the Combine with some impressive testing. A 4.61 40 (93rd percentile), 6.94 three cone (90th percentile), 10’3” broad jump (88th percentile), 35-inch vertical jump (74th percentile) and 30 bench reps (88th percentile) helped move Rivers securely into the first round conversation, especially when coupled with his exceptional college tape. He should interest a number of 4-3 and 3-4 teams in the 20-40 pick range come draft weekend.
9. Charles Harris, Missouri
I expected to be underwhelmed by Harris’s agility tests, as I struggled to identify proper bend and flexibility as a cornering edge on tape. But I was sure his explosive exercises would be off the charts, giving him a trump card to overcome his limitations. That wasn’t the case at all, however, as his broad jump ranked in the 20th percentile and his vertical jump in the 37th percentile among edges. His three cone and short shuttle weren’t much better, as Harris failed to hit an average measurement or test result for his position outside of the 40-yard dash (54th percentile).
So given that disaster of a workout, how do we treat Harris as a prospect? I thought he was the most explosive player off the snap on tape, and was fast enough up the arc to play and win speed-counter games with a nasty inside spin move. I still see an enticing player on tape, but I’m concerned that he lacks the athletic profile to translate his supposed trump cards to the NFL while maintaining the same impact as a pass rusher. Harris already needed a lot of work in terms of technique, converting speed-to-power and maintaining tighter gap fits against the run, so this will only add to the list of concerns for a prospect that had been moving up boards. To his credit, Harris reportedly had a great on-field workout and interviewed extremely well with teams.
10. Jordan Willis, Kansas State
Well, I did not see that coming. Willis being explosive and having strong jumps was a Combine outcome I wasn’t completely surprised by, but his three cone and short shuttle stole the day. The Kansas State edge rusher showed much better fluidity and flexibility than even his advocates believed he would, making his lack of bend on tape that much more puzzling. Somewhere in Willis’s polished skill set there is an athletic ceiling that he hasn’t been able to reach yet, which bodes well for an NFL team that has the teachers on their staff to get him there. His hands are excellent and he’s more than explosive enough to threaten the edge, but now Willis has proven there’s even more to him than currently meets the eye. I can’t see him working heavily from a two-point stance, so I’d expect 4-3 teams to be very interested in Willis somewhere in the 2nd round.
11. T.J. Watt, Wisconsin
My opinion of Watt’s overall game was low coming into the combine, and I certainly didn’t think he’d be one of the best athletes at Indy. He has a long way to go as a pass rusher from a technical and mental perspective, but what he demonstrated in workouts was a prospect with a sky-high athletic ceiling if he can refine the rest of his game. Watt tested in the 83rd percentile or better in every athletic event at the combine, showing flexibility, explosiveness, and fluidity in space that were only visible in rare flashes on tape. Coming into the combine at 252 pounds was a big win for Watt as well, who needed to bulk up and get stronger to play on the edge in the NFL. The first round hype might be a little rich, but tough not to believe Watt will be a top 50 pick given his family pedigree and athletic upside at such an important position.
12. Tanoh Kpassagnon, Villanova
If we can get past Kpassagnon’s physical appearance – a shredded, 6-7, 289 pounds of muscle – the reality is that his athleticism doesn’t match the look, as the redshirt senior tested poorly across the board at the combine. Kpassagnon posted abysmal agility results, with a 7.46 three cone and a 20-yard shuttle of 4.62 seconds. That matches up with the lack of bend and flexibility you see in space and around the edge on tape.
Having said that, don’t be completely out on Kpassagnon as a draftable prospect. He’s not worthy of the 2nd round hype, but his broad jump put him in the 96th percentile, highlighting his best trait: first-step explosiveness and burst off the line of scrimmage. Kpassagnon doesn’t have the power or pad level to play 5 tech in a two-gap role, but allowing him to use his quick-twitch as a one-gap penetrator could have situational benefits. He’s only average after his first two steps up the arc, but possessing that one tool could open up some variety for him as a pass rusher when his hands and mental processing develop further. He’s a project without the upside he’s been billed as having, but he can still have limited success at the next level.
-Michigan’s Taco Charlton and Illinois’ Dawuane Smoot held their stock steady with solid, but unspectacular workouts in Indy.
-Alabama’s Ryan Anderson did nothing to alleviate concerns about his athleticism with a 4.78 40-yard dash, especially when he decided to wait to do the agility drills and jumps at his pro day.
-Pitt’s Ejuan Price really needed strong athletic testing to buoy his stock considering the size concerns surrounding him (5-11, 231), but didn’t really show out in any drill. His shuttle and broad jump were above average, but at his size you’d love to see more overwhelming trump cards, and I’m just not sure Price has anything special in his repertoire. He’s probably an early day 3 pass rush specialist that could go later if teams decide to value more well-rounded edge defenders higher.
-Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel had a really nice day and should be getting more chatter as the draft approaches. He’s out of control and unpolished on tape, but he’s a good athlete who could become a stud with the right coaching. Biegel’s numbers were strong across the board, including top-notch agility drills that suggest high-caliber pliability he didn’t get to show often on tape. He plays hard, fast, and physical so if the Wisconsin senior can develop a plan of attack and improve his processing speed as a rusher, his best football could be ahead of him.
-Texas A&M’s Daeshon Hall had a great combine that isn’t getting much buzz. His tape was frustrating because he was so frequently asked to stunt inside and shoot gaps that you often didn’t get to see his full pass rush talent off the edge. He told me he’s been working hard developing a set of moves to make himself a more NFL-ready edge rusher, and a 36” vertical jump, 10’3” broad jump, and 7.03 three cone suggest a high ceiling at the next level. Pre-Combine I thought of him as a 4th round pick, but his testing probably bumped him up a round for me.
-Ohio’s Tarell Basham and Arkansas’ Deatrich Wise are both raw, but did some nice things in Indy. Basham is explosive off the line of scrimmage, but tight-hipped and needs to refine his hands to corner consistently. Wise is more athletic, but was tasked with lots of tackle reads at Arkansas, and didn’t show the same consistency this season as he did the year before. Both are intriguing mid-round talents that could pay off big time if they land with the right coaching staff.