King of the Class
For most of Myles Garrett’s career at Texas A&M he was crowned as the future #1 pick in this draft – a level of expectation bestowed upon few that even fewer ever live to up. Just two weeks from start of the NFL Draft, it looks as though Garrett will see his name called first, fulfilling the expectation and beginning a career as the cornerstone player for the Cleveland Browns. This leaves us with the million dollar question: Is Myles Garrett worth it? Absolutely.
Cleveland is going to transition to a 4-3 Base scheme under Gregg Williams, which is perfect for Garrett’s 6’4’’, 272 pound frame. You want to line him up on the line of scrimmage, with his hand in the dirt, between the 6 and 7 technique. It wouldn’t matter what the Browns’ scheme was, because he’s that good, but the fact that Williams is going to be putting Garrett in the most optimal position on every down makes it all the more enticing for him to end up in Cleveland. But what does Garrett do well, what makes him worthy of the #1 overall pick? Thirty-one career sacks over three seasons playing in the SEC on a team where he was the focal point goes a long way in building his profile. Garrett was unblockable as freshman for the Aggies, beating tackles with combo moves and inside techniques, not just with standard bull rushes and bursts around the outside of the edge. There was a narrative while he was at A&M that he was a liability in run support, and I’ve seen that chatter a bit during this process. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Teams tried to run at him to negate his impact and Garrett more often than not turned that into a futile experience. He is willing and able as a run supporter and it’s actually not a deficiency at all. Teams weren’t able to run right at him in order to negate his effectiveness because he’s a willing and fairly outstanding run supporter. He was always the most impressive player on the field at A&M, even in games where he didn’t make as big of a direct impact.
Aside from the tape, Garrett followed up his production at Texas A&M with probably the most important traits for edge rushers: Size, power, and athleticism. Garrett put on a showing at the NFL Combine in March, posting a 41’’ vertical, a 10’8’’ broad jump, and a 4.64 40-yard dash. He even benched 225 pounds 33 times, which is impressive on its own, but even more so considering he has condor-like 35 ½’’ inch arms. He is, without hyperbole, an athletic freak. In a lot of ways it was impossible for Garrett to live up to his expectations in Indianapolis and, yet, I dare say he exceeded them.
Edge rushers are the second most important position in football. They are the quarterback of the defense in terms of value. Myles Garrett is a special talent, the likes of former great edge rushers like Julius Peppers and recently Joey Bosa. For a team like Cleveland, if there was ever a year to be bad enough to get the #1 pick, they lucked into the right year. Garrett is a cornerstone player. He is the type of player that a team would move heaven and earth to get if they could on the open market. In three-five years, if the Browns are a playoff team, it will be because they took one of the best edge rushers of the past decade with the 1st overall pick. Is Myles Garrett worth the #1 overall pick? Absolutely.
Solomon Thomas and Understanding Positional Transitions
My #2 edge player in this class, Stanford’s Solomon Thomas, is an interesting case study in the transition of positions from college to the NFL for some players. Thomas mostly played on the interior at Stanford, and his shorter frame and stockier size has led many to project him as an interior player. But when you examine his frame – 6’2’’ and 273 pounds – you see a player whose best physical comparisons are to that of Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston. Is anyone advocating playing him on the interior? Certainly not. Where I do agree is that Thomas, because of his experience and proven ability to play defensive tackle, can slide inside on sub-packages, particularly on long-yardage, obvious passing downs. Thomas is a defensive end – a very good one – and landed at #6 overall on my big board. He’s a three-down player who’s aggressive getting into the backfield, but holds up strong against the run. He’s still learning how to play within his talent, but by year three I fully expect him to be one of the blossoming rusher in the NFL.
Derek Rivers: Who We Expected Others to Be
Derek Rivers ended up being one of the show-stealers in Indianapolis, running a 6.94 three cone and posting a 4.61 40-yard dash, among other noteworthy numbers. Rivers’s physical and athletic traits were the solidifier to an outstanding career at Youngstown State and head-turning Senior Bowl in Mobile. I’d look at Rivers firstly as a 3-4 outside linebacker to slide down to defensive end in sub-packages, but I’m not opposed to him playing defensive end on base downs in a 4-3 system. In a lot of ways Rivers ended up being who many believed Tim Williams would be, and Williams was being talked about as a top 15 pick for a long while. Do not let Rivers being an FCS player hinder your perception of his quality – he is every bit the quality of a 1st round pick, and even a mid-1st round pick.
T.J. Watt: A 1st Rounder on More Than His Name
One of the worst mistakes you could make would be being cynical about the name on the back of his jersey. T.J. is J.J.’s brother, but he’s very much his own man and a tremendous prospect. If I were grading T.J. as a SAM linebacker, he’d be my #3 linebacker in this class. Up until the NFL Combine I thought he was best suited there at the next level, but seeing how superbly he measured and tested in Indianapolis leads me to believe that some team could be getting a terrific edge rusher, and therefore I’m projecting him there firstly. Watt is an ideal 3-4 pass rusher because he never has to come off the field. Let him play on the edge on primary downs and slide him off-ball to linebacker or down to defensive end on third-down and long-down and distances. I would take T.J. Watt as early as the teens and absolutely into the twenties as the final defensive piece for Super Bowl contending teams.
The Class That Wasn’t, but the Class That is
Many, including myself, believed the main players in this edge class would be Derek Barnett, Tim Williams, Takkarist McKinley, Charles Harris, and Carl Lawson, with many, if not all of those players, as mid-to-high first round picks. And for Barnett and Lawson that is still somewhat the case for me: I have high 2nd round grades on both. But overall, the edge class that was supposed to be historically top-heavy has turned out to be filled with many really nice, complementary defensive ends and outside linebackers, which is fine if you understand their value in context.
Of the non-1st round edge rushers I’ve graded, Auburn’s Carl Lawson is the one I feel best about producing at a high level in the NFL. He has the strongest hands in the class and is finally healthy and playing his best football after two years of battling injuries. His three cone leaves much to be desired in regards to his ability to bend, but he will win with straight rushes and counter moves. Barnett is going to get sacks and disrupt the pocket. There’s enough athleticism mixed with technical proficiency combined with a high enough motor.
Taco Charlton’s going to win with nice secondary moves / effort and using winning the leverage battle. He’s not going to be a Carlos Dunlap-style of edge. Charles Harris has an explosive get-off on tape, but had an atrociously bad Combine that he did improve upon at his pro day. Even still, at a position where athleticism matters immensely, Harris can’t be considered a primary rusher for a team, and primary rushers go in Round 1. McKinley has some really impressive tape at UCLA, and I somewhat expected him to test a lot better, but in hindsight it makes sense – he’s a lumbering athlete who struggled with pad level. McKinley reminds me a lot of Bud Dupree, a player I seem to have overvalued in 2015. If and when McKinley puts it all together, he very well could be a double-digit-sack outside linebacker, but it’s going to be a process for him.
The most intriguing player in this group is Kansas State’s Jordan Willis. Willis, a super-productive but high-variance and complicated player in college, tested like a rare prospect at the Combine. When a player at this position tests to that degree, it demands that you reassess your evaluation on him. I don’t think he performed solidly enough on tape to warrant vaulting all the way up securely into Round 1, but if he can add secondary moves, cut down on being rushed out of the play, and continue to develop in run support, he could be a 10+ sack artist with a bright future by the end of his rookie contract based on the physical traits he possesses.
This edge class is a mixed bag. It’s not the class we thought we were getting during the college football season and even pre-combine, but it’s not a class without a lot of potential, just with recalibrated expectations.