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Five Takeaways From the NFL Combine, Day 5: This Pass-Rushing Group Is Ready to Take Over

Sunday’s workouts were all about the edge rushers, from players like Montez Sweat, who shocked evaluators, to Nick Bosa, who showed exactly why he may be the top overall pick in April’s draft

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Rejoice! The Patriots’ sixth Super Bowl win is now officially ancient history—you don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s now time to look forward: The 2019 NFL combine is already here, and a rotating cast of Ringer staffers will provide you with a collection of five thoughts from each day in Indianapolis.

1. This is an absurdly athletic class of defensive linemen and pass rushers.

Mind-blowing results were the norm throughout Sunday’s workouts. Just when it felt like the latest 40-yard-dash time couldn’t be beat, another blazing time would come in. Three defensive linemen finished the drill in under 4.7 seconds, including Michigan’s Rashan Gary, who led the group with a 4.58. Among edge rushers, nine players ran 4.65 or better. That’s a frightening amount of physical talent among one position group.

Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat was the clear winner on the day. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound edge rusher clocked an official 4.41 in the 40—a record for defensive linemen. Times for the 40 can get overblown for pass rushers, but Sweat’s 1.5-second 10-yard split was the second best among edge defenders (TCU’s Ben Banogu, who also dominated virtually every test, finished with a 1.47) and indicates an excellent initial burst. To go along with that performance, Sweat recorded a broad jump that landed in the 92nd percentile among edge rushers since 1999 and a three-cone drill time in the 83rd percentile. Sweat was already considered a potential first-round pick heading into the combine, and he likely moved up a few draft boards on Sunday.

Elite prospects Josh Allen and Brian Burns weren’t far behind. Allen is thought by many to be a top-10 talent, and his showing on Sunday likely won’t hurt his standing. He may not have blown the competition away to the degree that Sweat and others did, but Allen’s excellent 20-yard-shuttle time (88th percentile) and 4.63 in the 40 are the types of numbers you’d expect from such a highly sought-after edge prospect. Burns might have been even more impressive. The Florida State prospect already chalked up a win earlier in the week, weighing in at 249 pounds, which is considerably more than his listed weight of 235 at FSU. That extra bulk didn’t slow Burns down a bit: He ran a scorching 4.53 in the 40 (with a 1.61 10-yard split) and finished in the 97th percentile in the broad jump.

And though he’s not in the same prospect class as Allen and Burns, Michigan’s Chase Winovich also aced Sunday’s testing. The Wolverines star clocked a 1.55-second 10-yard split, which tied him for third best among edge players, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds at 256 pounds, and finished with blazing times in both the three-cone drill (90th percentile) and 20-yard shuttle (95th percentile). Those change-of-direction drills are often useful indicators of pass-rushing success, and Winovich’s 4.11 in the 20-yard shuttle was .12 seconds faster than the next closest edge defender (which would be Allen at 4.23). The pass rushers and defensive linemen are considered the marquee position group of this draft, and they showed us why on Sunday.

2. Nick Bosa and Quinnen Williams are who we thought they were.

Bosa and Williams are, in some order, the top two players on many draft boards, and they did nothing to tarnish that reputation during workouts. Bosa’s 4.79 in the 40-yard dash won’t wow anybody, but his 1.55-second 10-yard split was tied for third among edge rushers. That’s top-flight initial get-off speed. It’s also worth remembering that Bosa’s brother, Joey, actually ran a 4.86 at the combine three years ago (before he was drafted third overall by the Chargers). In fact, Nick’s third-closest comparison on his Mockdraftable athletic profile is his brother. Like Joey, Nick has elite change-of-direction skills. His 20-yard-shuttle time put him in the 95th percentile among edge players, and his three-cone drill placed in the 81st. And both brothers share impossibly refined pass rushing skills, with excellent hands and timing. The similarities even come down to their best move (a quick two-hand swipe and dip that Joey has used with effect for years). It’s almost eerie. Bosa was already in the mix to be the no. 1 pick, and it should stay that way after his time in Indy.

If Bosa is the first non-QB off the board, then Williams might very well be the second. The former Alabama star clocked a 1.67 10-yard split, which puts him in a rare class of interior rushers. As The Athletic’s Dane Brugler pointed out on Twitter, both Aaron Donald (1.63) and Fletcher Cox (1.66) finished at 1.67 or better. Those two guys turned out to be pretty good. For the best prospects in every draft, the combine is often a chance to just confirm what scouts have seen on film for months, and that was certainly the case for both Bosa and Williams. They won’t wait long to hear their names called in April.

3. The edge-rushing position will present the most fascinating “draft vs. free agency” debate of the spring.

This year, the glut of pass-rushing talent in the draft coincides with a loaded group of edge defenders hitting free agency. The list of players set to hit the market later this month includes Demarcus Lawrence, Dee Ford, Frank Clark, Jadeveon Clowney, Trey Flowers, Ziggy Ansah, Dante Fowler Jr., and a few less-heralded players like Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, who should still garner plenty of interest. Lawrence, Ford, Clark, and Clowney will all likely receive the franchise tag at some point over the next week, but even if those four stay put next season, that still leaves several quality options for teams willing to open the checkbook. The feeling around Indianapolis is that Lawrence’s potential extension will carry an annual value of somewhere around $21-22 million, making him the third highest-paid defensive player in football behind Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald.

Using Lawrence’s expected contract for reference, the potential deals for guys like Flowers, Ansah, and Fowler are easier to project. Any team that covets a pass rusher and has a pick in the top half of the first round will have to decide whether it wants to shell out $18 million or so a year for Trey Flowers or look to fill that need with a guy like Sweat on a rookie contract. The market for the second tier of edge players would almost certainly skyrocket if all the top guys get tagged, but the sheer number of quality pass rushers in the draft could give some teams pause about diving into a bidding war. Most of the guys who don’t get tagged are going to get huge deals over the next two weeks, but there are several competing factors at play that we don’t often see with this position group.

4. The dual Devins showed out on Sunday.

LSU’s Devin White and Michigan’s Devin Bush were the consensus top-two off-ball linebackers coming into the combine, and both guys put on marvelous performances in workouts. White’s 4.42 in the 40-yard dash is the fourth-best time for a linebacker in the past 20 years. Even in the moment, White knew how special the accomplishment was; he cried and celebrated on the phone with his family immediately following the run. Along with a 93rd percentile vertical jump—and what many consider the best tape among the off-ball linebackers in this draft—White all but confirmed that he’ll be a high first-round pick this year.

It’s remarkable that, along with having the same first name, White is more physically similar to Bush than any prospect in the past two decades. Bush is White’s top athletic profile comparison by a wide margin, which speaks to why evaluators are also so high on the Michigan prospect. Bush ripped off a 4.43 in the 40, and he beat White’s incredible vertical leap, finishing in the 96th percentile. Along with his ridiculous testing numbers, Bush also has my favorite film of the few players I’ve watched so far this spring. He may only be 5-foot-11 and 234 pounds, but he’s a physical force in the run game and looks like a heat-seeking rocket as he moves sideline to sideline. He’s a fantastic blitzer for a player his size, using his burst to finish off sacks. And though his stature says that he should get enveloped by offensive linemen more than he does, his body control and ability to bend make him a tough target for guys that outweigh him by about 70 pounds. Both Devins are built for the modern NFL, and they’ll step in as Day 1, three-down linebackers for any team that snatches them up in the first round.

5. Daniel Jeremiah has been stellar in his first year as the NFL Network’s lead analyst.

It’s been a checkered year for replacement analysts in high-profile roles, but the NFL Network’s transition from new Raiders’ general manager Mike Mayock to Daniel Jeremiah has been seamless. The network has long done an impressive job turning the combine into a television event by splicing the workouts with concise, effective scouting reports. And this year they added a new wrinkle, as Jeremiah has spelled out explicitly why these drills are relevant in evaluating NFL talent. Allowing Jeremiah to explain why the stack-and-shed drill matters by pointing out how the Packers’ Kenny Clark uses those techniques in actual games makes this entire process seem a little less silly. Jeremiah has shown an encyclopedic knowledge of this class while also keeping the coverage engaging. That’s a tough needle to thread, and he’s making it look easy.