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The Best of the Best of the Best?

Myles Garrett is the clear no. 1 prospect in the 2017 NFL draft, and the Browns would be fools to pass him up. But is he a guaranteed All-Pro or the top talent in a watered-down year?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Myles Garrett’s extraordinary performance at the combine removed any doubt that he’ll be the top overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft. With now-measurable elite athleticism to go along with his top-tier production — 31 sacks and 47 tackles for a loss over three years at Texas A&M — he’s turned Cleveland’s decision into a rarity: something that not even the Browns could screw up. At this point, most mock drafts don’t even bother to present other scenarios.

However, there isn’t quite as strong of a consensus among draft experts and scouts that he’s a home run pick at no. 1. Have we too hastily anointed the 21-year-old as a generational talent and the next great NFL sack master? After all, it’s notoriously difficult to project pass rushers from the college game to the professional ranks — the history of the first round is littered with names like Courtney Brown, Vernon Gholston, Aaron Maybin, Jamaal Anderson, Quinton Coples, Bjoern Werner, and Marcus Smith — and even a productive, elite athlete like Garrett possesses a few negative traits that give scouts pause.

The scouts are right, and the weakness are real. But that doesn’t mean the Browns should even think twice about taking Garrett first overall.

In talking to scouts and analysts both at the combine and over the past few weeks, I encountered a surprising resistance to the idea that Garrett is a slam-dunk future All-Pro. While just about everyone I spoke with acknowledged the through-the-roof upside the Texas A&M pass rusher brings to the table, a few common worries came up.

First, Garrett didn’t show the play-to-the-whistle effort you like to see on every snap from that spot. Garrett’s highlight-reel tackles in the backfield are entrancing, and like top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney before him, the former Aggie had a few “wow” plays that look like evidence that he’ll be the real deal at the next level. For Garrett, a good chunk of those came when opposing teams made the mistake of trying to leave him unblocked on read-option plays.

In the NFL, though, stopping the read-option will make up only a small fraction of Garrett’s responsibilities. Far more often, he’s going to be tasked with stopping gap- and zone-scheme run plays where he has to set the edge, hold his gap, or move down the line of scrimmage to pursue runs to the opposite side of the field.

In college, Garrett often showed a lack of urgency in chasing down these runs from the back side. He’s too frequently what I like to call a “pile watcher,” somewhere near the action but content to let his teammates swarm tackle and deliver physical punishment to opposing ball carriers.

Garrett faced criticism for a lack of effort on a few run plays against Alabama last year, and the former Aggie admitted at the combine that he might have “loafed” on a few plays throughout the season. While Garrett played through a high ankle sprain in that 33–14 loss to Bama and made plays in the backfield against the run with 3.5 tackles for a loss, Crimson Tide left tackle Cam Robinson got the better of him in the more important category: pass protection. Robinson consistently walled him off and latched on to control him, didn’t give up a sack, and now he’s using that game as a selling point to prospective teams.

Across his three years in college, Garrett struggled to bring down the quarterback against top-level competition. He finished with just 11 career sacks in his 21 SEC games while picking up his other 20 career sacks in 13 matchups with nonconference teams. He grabbed 4.5 sacks against Texas–San Antonio last year, and a combined 11.5 more came against teams like Nevada, Rice, Louisiana-Monroe, and Lamar.

Of course, logic suggests that Garrett wouldn’t be as productive against better players … because they’re better players. But his struggles against some more sophisticated offensive lines highlighted another of his weaknesses: a limited portfolio of pass-rush moves. Garrett relies heavily on his speed to beat slower-footed tackles to the edge, and when that doesn’t work, he mostly goes straight to a bull rush to try to run through a block. There are hints of potential to build that repertoire. And real improvement in that area can happen once someone turns pro: Atlanta’s Vic Beasley and Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter were both speedy pass rushers who relied on their pure athleticism in college, but they became two of the NFL’s top sack producers in 2016 because they refined their technique and developed new pass-rush moves. With the right coaching, both from NFL staffs and from veteran players around him, Garrett could add a swim move and a spin move and better refine his inside counter moves, but right now, his improvement in those areas is a projection.

I went to the NFL combine last year hoping to write a story on the 2016 draft’s top pass rushers from the opponent’s point of view, so I polled a dozen or so offensive linemen on their toughest blocking assignment of the season. Ultimately, I had to scrap that piece because everyone kept talking about a sophomore at Texas A&M named Myles Garrett, who was still a year away from NFL eligibility.

Garrett might’ve padded his stats against inferior competition in his college career, but when you put on his tape, it’s clear that he’s been a huge pain in the ass to game plan against over the past three years. Coaches must account for him on every play: He’s consistently double-teamed or chipped in pass protection, and more often than not, opponents were forced to speed up the tempo of their passing game to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands as quickly as possible. That was the case against Alabama in 2016: If quarterback Jalen Hurts wasn’t running the ball away from Garrett’s side, he was consistently passing quickly to an outlet option underneath.

Even at 6-foot-4 and 272 pounds, Garrett has incredible burst out of his stance to go with excellent balance and an explosive agility to change direction.

There’s a reason that he tested in the 98th percentile among all college defensive ends in the vertical jump, the 96th percentile in the broad jump, the 94th percentile in the bench press, and the 88th percentile in the 40-yard dash — he has rare athleticism, and it shows up on tape.

Even the best NFL left tackles are going to have to account for Garrett’s speed coming out of his stance.

In addition to having that straight-line speed to get past a tackle, he’s shown an ability to turn the corner and bend around the edge to close ground on the quarterback. On this play against Auburn, he beats the guard into the backfield before turning on a dime to chase the quarterback back into the pocket. This forces a quick throw, and it’s nearly picked off.

As tackles overcompensate in pass protection to account for his speed to the outside, Garrett has demonstrated the agility to counter inside. He helped create another near-interception against UCLA by doing this.

Even when he doesn’t get the jump on a tackle, he has the ability to convert speed to power and push a blocker back into the pocket to disrupt a play. Against Tennessee, he helped force a game-sealing pick by doing just that.

For teams worried that he still possesses just an average grasp of rush techniques, there were a few glimpses of a Dwight Freeney–esque spin move that could be developed into something more consistent at the next level, too.

Additionally, Garrett has the upside to produce in obvious passing situations as an inside rusher. He’s so explosive and powerful off the snap, coaches could bump him inside to shoot gaps from the three-technique position on the guard’s outside shoulder in a 4–3 front.

In another year, Garrett might be involved in a conversation for the no. 1 pick rather than being the only name. But 2017 is an unusually bad quarterback class, and the other defensive player close to Garrett’s level, Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen, has struggled with injuries to both of his shoulders.

Garrett is not as complete or polished a player as the hype might suggest, but we haven’t seen a pass rusher with this blend of size, agility, and explosiveness since J.J. Watt blew up the combine in 2011. Combine that with his elite (though lopsided) college production and his potential to develop more robust technique, and you get something like this range of outcomes for Garrett’s pro career: an absolute floor as a very good pro and a ceiling as a game-wrecker. The Browns can’t afford to pass up either one.