It feels like the uncertainty surrounding the first pick in the 2017 NFL draft is dissipating a little more with each passing day. Texas A&M pass rusher/CGI superhero Myles Garrett has put together the résumé of a no-brainer no. 1 selection, and has the sort of talent that Cleveland would likely pass up only if it orchestrated a trade to net an armada of future picks. Similar to prized prospects such as Von Miller and Jadeveon Clowney before him, Garrett is considered a rare talent, the caliber of which doesn’t come around often. He’s comfortably the most appealing edge-rushing prospect in this class, but he’s far from the only intriguing one.
Relative to other recent drafts, 2016 was underwhelming for teams seeking pass-rushing help. This year, things have flipped the other way, with more than a half-dozen defensive ends and outside linebackers being projected as possible first-rounders. That number only increases when accounting for the handful of guys who played multiple positions in college but could wind up on the edge at the next level.
With this group, options mean variety, and teams looking to bolster their front four should have the luxury of prioritizing preference and fit over grabbing the last top edge rusher left on the board. The 2017 crop includes defenders of different sizes and styles, so as front offices try to figure out who to target beyond Garrett, it’s a good time to examine how prospects with varying traits have fared in the past.
The edge rushers often listed behind Garrett as potential top-five picks in this year’s class are Stanford’s Solomon Thomas and Alabama’s Jonathan Allen. The problem in comparing their potential to past prospects is that both defy the standard position distinctions along the defensive front. At 6-foot-3 and 286 pounds, Allen is smaller than a typical defensive tackle but considerably bigger than a run-of-the-mill end. He lined up all across the Crimson Tide’s defensive line last season, proving to be a dominant, offense-wrecking force in the process. With so many NFL teams using multiple fronts and moving players around their formations, Allen’s versatility is a positive. Yet it also expands the pool of players to whom he can be compared, and it means any team that drafts him will have to be imaginative with his usage.
This idea expands when talking about Thomas. During his college career with the Cardinal, the 6-foot-3 273-pounder played a majority of his snaps aligned head up over opposing tackles, or even one gap farther inside. His ability to penetrate into the backfield made him a consistently disruptive force, but considering his weight, Thomas may have trouble establishing himself as an interior presence on early downs in the NFL. Teams will have to project what Thomas would look like in their scheme, and he will almost certainly be asked to spend part of his time tearing off the edge and bending his way to the quarterback in a fashion that he rarely had to at Stanford.
The encouraging thing for Thomas is that it’s easier for exceptional athletes to add new arrows to their quiver. His testing numbers at this month’s NFL combine were staggering, whether it was with speed, change of direction, or explosion. His list of player comparisons on MockDraftable (a ridiculously valuable resource this time of year) is full of former first-round picks who have gone on to enjoy success in the league, including Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan, former no. 2 overall selection Chris Long, freshly minted Packers re-signing Nick Perry, and breakout playoff star Whitney Mercilus. Thomas may not have the experience of being a pure pass rusher that others in this edge class do, but he has the athletic profile to make that transition easy to imagine. Plus, he’s well-versed in playing on the inside and should be able to provide creative teams with a movable weapon along their defensive front.
The same can’t be said about Allen from an athleticism perspective. The first-team All-American put together an underwhelming combine showing, testing below the 20th percentile among all defensive ends in the three-cone drill, broad jump, vertical jump, and 40-yard dash. When those numbers are expanded to defensive linemen as a whole (probably a more reasonable metric for a player who falls between positions like Allen), he still leaves a lot to be desired. The gap between Allen’s otherworldly game film and his merely human athletic testing isn’t a new challenge for teams to solve, and it doesn’t preclude him from ultimately becoming an impactful NFL player. It does, though, signify that his ceiling may be lower than some previously believed. Zach Whitman, who owns 3sigmaathlete.com and does great work in analyzing testing numbers and draft analytics, put it best:
It’s possible to find players bordering on NFL superstardom who had rough outings in Indianapolis. A useful example is Titans defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, who tested below the 15th percentile in three of the combine’s four movement drills and has since had a stellar career that has included two straight Pro Bowl trips. During his final season at USC, Casey finished with 67 tackles, including 11 for loss. Like Allen, his production outstripped his measurables. Allen’s stats at Alabama — 69 total tackles as a senior, including 16 for loss, with 10.5 sacks — blow Casey’s (and those of virtually everyone else in the country) away. And there’s a reason Casey went as a third-round pick while Allen is widely projected to go in the top 10.
No matter their college numbers, though, players with Allen’s physical profile rarely go that high in the draft. The last defensive end with those types of testing scores to go in the top five was Tyson Jackson, who the Chiefs picked third overall in 2009. Eight years later, it’s hard to qualify his career in both Kansas City and Atlanta as anything but a disappointment. Teams considering taking Allen will have to weigh the tape that makes him look like a Sheldon Richardson–type defensive force against the stopwatch time that likens him to former fourth-round pick Jared Crick.
Beyond Allen and Thomas, most of the other pass rushers who could go in the top 40 picks fall into a few loosely defined categories. Both Charles Harris (Missouri) and Derek Barnett (Tennessee) are 6-foot-3 former SEC standouts who are between 250 and 260 pounds, produced at a high level against excellent competition, and have shown advanced abilities rushing the passer. Barnett, in particular, was ruthlessly effective during his time with the Volunteers, racking up 33 career sacks on his way to breaking Reggie White’s school record.
Barnett’s testing numbers more or less line up with the player he is on film. His ability to roast offensive tackles off the edge is more the result of great anticipation than explosion. Barnett’s best trait, by far, is his flexibility and change-of-direction skills, as evidenced by his showing in the three-cone drill (6.96 seconds, in the 88th percentile among defensive ends) and how easily he was able to dip around the edge to pummel quarterbacks last season. Barnett might not have the burst to ever push for the NFL sack crown, but he should be a solid pass-rush option from the moment he steps on the field. While some of Harris’s strengths differ, the same takeaway should be true. Teams like the Cowboys and Lions, which could sorely use immediate contributions from that spot, should be more than happy to snag either if those players are available when the franchises pick.
Whereas Barnett and Harris aren’t defined by that first step, players like Alabama’s Tim Williams and UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley are banking on teams valuing it above all else. Both have similar builds — between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot 3, and 244 and 250 pounds — and project as pass-rushing outside linebackers in the NFL (although McKinley did much of his work with the Bruins playing with his hand on the ground). Their athletic profiles are also remarkably similar. McKinley tore up the 40-yard dash, ripping off a time of 4.59 seconds. (Williams posted an absurd 4.68.) Not to be outdone, Williams bested McKinley in the broad jump by about two inches (124 to 122). However you slice it, both of these dudes have explosive traits that can turn pass-rush nerds into puddles.
What they sacrifice with all that twitchiness is the bend and flexibility that guys like Barnett have in excess. This mold of edge rusher, the undersized instant blur, is one that has come along reasonably often in recent drafts. Denver’s Shane Ray and Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue featured similar profiles as Williams and McKinley: excellent broad jump and 40 numbers with three-cone drill times that are lacking. As a rookie last year, Ngakoue had eight sacks while playing about 66 percent of the Jags’ snaps. Ray had the same total while staying on the field about 58 percent of the time. Both are effective rushers whose size makes them a liability against the run.
As teams try to gauge how high to select Williams and McKinley, this is the calculus they’ll have to do. Barnett, who has a stout, thick frame and refined hand usage, should be a capable run defender from the get-go, but his pass-rushing ceiling likely doesn’t approach that of Williams or McKinley. The 2017 class is full of options for teams that need an infusion of edge-rushing talent. And each of these players carries the upside and the potential downside of similar prospects in the past.