The Top 5 "Edge" Players in the NFL Draft

With many teams playing hybrid defenses, there are now players in every draft that have premium value because of their ability to rush the passer. Some are 4-3 defensive ends, others are 3-4 outside linebackers. The one similarity is that, on passing downs, regardless of their position designation, they are primarily pass rushers. Last year’s first overall choice, Jadeveon Clowney was a 4-3 defensive end in college but Houston uses him as a 3-4 OLB. Regardless, he was drafted because of his pass rush skills. The following are my top five “edge” players, depending on an individual club's base defense, teams may rank these players a little differently than I do, but I don’t think that the names of the top five would change. 1) Dante Fowler Jr. – Florida Fowler is a third-year junior who entered the draft. Interestingly, he won’t turn 21 until after training camps open this summer. Fowler played both up and down at Florida, and in their scheme, he was asked to do a number of things. Because he did so much, his numbers might not be as good as the numbers you'd expect from a player with his natural talent. What jumps out to me on tape is his natural explosiveness through the hips. That allows him to play with power. He has good hand use and plays with strength at the point. He is a natural pass rusher, and over the last two years he has 12 sacks and 25 tackles for loss. Being 6025 – 261 with long arms, he has the size and frame to play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. I expect Fowler will be gone long before the first round hits the 10th pick. 2) Vic Beasley – Clemson I thought Beasley was going to enter the draft a year ago and I had him rated as a first rounder then. He has been a consistently productive player for Clemson for his whole career. For his career, he has 33 sacks which is the best production in this group. He is explosive with power and moves. He has quick hands and good hand use. When rushing the passer he can bull rush or use moves and he is very quick with his counter moves. Some people were down on him until he went to the Combine, but when he had the best work out of the group those same people back on board. His numbers are rare for the position, running 4.53, doing 35 reps in the bench, a 41” vertical and 10’10” in the long jump. His agility times were off the charts also. Come draft day, it would not be a surprise if Beasley gets drafted before Fowler. It really will depend on how each club sees him in their scheme. 3) Shane Ray – Missouri While I understand that some may have Ray rated higher than the other two, my reason for ranking him third is 2014 was his first year as a full time starter. In 2014, Ray played in a rotation with Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. When he got the chance to be “the man”, he shined. What stands out about Ray is his outstanding competitive nature. He goes snap to whistle every play. While he is a bit undersized a 6’3 – 245, he plays with strength and explosion. Ray played down at Missouri but will have to be a 3-4 OLB in the NFL. He will never have the bulk or power to play down in the NFL. He got overpowered at times while at Missouri in the run game. It won’t get any easier in the NFL. Because Ray didn’t work out at the Combine, his pro day will be very important. He has to show that he can drop and play in coverage. How well he does in those drills could determine if he is a top 10 or top 20 player come draft day. 4) Randy Gregory – Nebraska I can already hear some of you arguing as to why I have Gregory ranked fourth. The reason is simple…size! Gregory was 6047 – 235 at Indy and weighed 238 earlier this week at the Nebraska pro day. At that size, he will never be able to play as a 4-3 end. His narrow frame will not allow for much growth potential. Another concern is durability, as he has missed some time with injuries. Still, he is a productive pass rusher and can be disruptive in the run game. Over the last two seasons he has 17.5 sacks and 29 tackles for loss. When rushing the passer, he has a quick first step and the flexibility to dip and stay under his opponent. He has speed off the edge and does a good job with counter moves. He doesn't have the bull rush that some of the others have. Gregory is a lock to go in the first round, the question is how high? He may not go as high as some draft analysts think. 5) Eli Harold – Virginia This name might come as a surprise to you, but in NFL draft rooms around the country, Harold is held in high regard. Like Fowler, Harold is young. He will be a 21 year old rookie. He also has ideal 3-4 OLB size at 6’3 – 246. His Combine numbers were excellent running 4.53, jumping 35” in the vertical and 10’3 in the long jump. His agility drills were also excellent, going 4.16 in the 20 yard shuttle and 7.16 in the 3-cone. On tape, there is some inconsistency in his play but he is a natural pass rusher with hand use, moves and a closing burst. Over the last two seasons he has 15.5 sacks and 31 tackles for loss. Where Harold needs to improve is with his ability to shed blocks in the run game. Better technique and added strength in the upper body will help achieve that. Harold is a very solid high second round pick, but some teams must be considering that with his age and upside, is he worth taking in the first? Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe        

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