(Editor’s note: This is the second of several positional previews of the 2022 NFL draft)
While there is considerable skepticism about the quality of the quarterback crop in next spring’s NFL draft, there is no skepticism at all about the group whose job it is to sack the quarterback.
The 2022 draft will feature one of the deepest edge-rusher and hybrid defensive end/tackle groups in recent memory. NFL scouts and draft analysts think as many as 15 edge rushers could go in the first three rounds, including as many as seven in the first round and four in the top 10.
“It’s definitely one of the deeper and more versatile position groups in this draft,” said Ben Fennell, a draft analyst for the NFL Network. “There’s a lot of shapes and sizes. Ability at the top.
“I could easily see 15 of these guys going in the top 100 picks. And I would have no problem saying 10 are going to go in the top 50 and at least a handful in the first round, and possibly as many as four in the top 10 depending on how many quarterbacks get pushed up.”
Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux and Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson are the top two edge-rushers in the draft, both are serious December candidates to be the No. 1 pick in the draft, or at least the first non-quarterback taken.
The last edge rusher/end to be taken with the first overall pick was Myles Garrett by the Cleveland Browns in 2017. Garrett already has 56 ½ career sacks, including 14 in 12 games this year.
Defensive ends were taken with the second pick in 2020 (Chase Young by Washington) and 2019 (Nick Bosa by the San Francisco 49ers). Bosa had nine sacks as a rookie and has 11 in 11 games this year. Young had 7 ½ sacks last year.
Right here, right now, Fennell gives the 6-5, 258-pound Thibodeaux an ever-so-slight edge over the 6-6, 270-pound Hutchinson, mainly because of his versatility, which is going to allow him to be used in a lot of different ways at the next level.
“He checks all of the boxes with his height, weight and speed,” Fennell said. “He’s explosive. He’s loose. He’s rangy. He makes plays. And he does it in a variety of ways, whether it’s playing through contact and off a block, or whether he’s out in space.”
At Oregon, Thibodeaux has played a variety of spots. He’s lined up at end and as the SAM linebacker. He’s been detached out in space in the slot from time to time.
“He’s a really productive player with kind of a hybrid skill-set,” Fennell said. “So as much as I want to compare him to Khalil Mack because he’s loose and strong and active, I also could comp him to (Minnesota Vikings linebacker) Anthony Barr, who can be an off-ball guy, a SAM and a d-end.”
Hutchinson’s stock has been rising. He has 12 sacks this season, including six in the last three games and three in Michigan’s big 42-27 win over Ohio State last week.
“Hutchinson is a power player,” Fennell said. “A bit of a poor man’s J.J. Watt or Maxx Crosby. What Crosby is to the Raiders, the team that drafts Hutchinson will be getting that same style of power player.
“He’s a brute-strong defensive end. A good run-defender. Just relentless. Not a run-around type. Not a first-step guy. He’s not a speed-rusher, which is OK because he’ll just go right through you. He’s a powerful three-down player. Really impactful.”
Georgia’s Travon Walker and Texas A&M’s Demarvin Leal are bigger hybrid end/tackles that may appeal more to teams like the Ravens, Saints or Steelers that favor bigger ends. Fennell thinks Walker could be the third defensive end off the board, like Thibodeaux and Hutchinson, in the top 10.
“He is a stout SOB,” Fennell said of the 6-5, 278-pound Walker. “He can play end, three-tech, nose. He’s a run-defender first. Very heavy-handed. Not a twitchy guy. Not a speed-rusher. But he has really good agility for his size. He runs down on kickoffs for Georgia and just blasts people.
“He has a basketball background. He’s a strong lower-half guy. This is the first year he’s been a full-time player, but he’s been getting better and better every week. He’s one of those guys that, at the beginning of the year, people were thinking he was a late Day 2 guy. Then it was the second round. Then it was, OK, maybe he’s a late first-rounder. Then a mid-first. Now, he’s a legitimate top 10 guy heading into the playoffs and offseason workouts.”
The 6-4, 290-pound Leal is in the mold of the Saints’ Cam Jordan and Washington’s Jonathan Allen. Fennell thinks he could go in the middle of the first round.
“He’s not a sexy, flashy player,” he said. “But I just think he’s going to be a really good piece for a team that plays with a little bit of a diverse front, like the Ravens or Steelers or Saints.”
The other edge-rushers that Fennell thinks have the best chance to go in the first round are Purdue’s George Karlaftis, Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson II and USC’s Drake Jackson.
On Karlaftis: “Like Hutchinson, he’s a through and through power player. He’s relentless. He’s strong. A good run-defender. He wants to just blast through shoulders once he gets on a half-man. He’s a perfect clone of another Purdue Boilermaker, Ryan Kerrigan.’’
On Johnson: “He was a Last Chance U guy. Then he went to Georgia and couldn’t get on the field. He transfers to Florida State and becomes one of the most productive edge-rushers in the country. He’s tall and lean and explosive. He’s technical. He has a really long stride. He might be the best-looking ‘normal’ defensive end. By that I mean, Thibodeaux played off-ball some of the time. Hutchinson and Karlaftis both are 280-pound power players. Johnson is that tall, long, loose edge-rusher that the NFL is looking for.”
On Jackson: “He hasn’t really lived up to the hype at USC. He doesn’t have the production that some of the guys that are rated higher than him have. He’s a loose, standup player. Has tons of spin moves. A gap-shooting rusher. Really relentless. Chases plays from the back side. I’m kind of interested to see how he tests at the combine and his Pro Day. He might be a guy who ends up being a better pro than he was a college player at USC.”
BEN’S TOP 10 EDGE RUSHERS
1) Kayvon Thibodeaux
Ben’s take: “An explosive, loose, rangy playmaker. Plays through contact well. Excellent in space.”
NFL comp: Khalil Mack
2) Aidan Hutchinson
Ben’s take: “A top-10 pick, maybe even top-5. A strong, stout, powerful defensive end.”
NFL comp: Maxx Crosby
3) George Karlaftis
Ben’s take: “Mid-first-rounder. Strong. Relentless. Heavy hands. A productive run/pass defender. A power rusher.”
NFL comp: Ryan Kerrigan
4) Jermaine Johnson II
Ben’s take: “Mid-to-late first-round. Tall, lean, long, explosive. Excellent technical hand-usage. Long strides.”
NFL comp: Chandler Jones
5) Drake Jackson
Ben’s take: “Late first round/early second round. Loose, stand-up DE/LB type. Flexible. Good spin move. Gap-shooter.”
NFL comp: Whitney Mercilus
6) Nik Bonitto
Ben’s take: “Day 2 guy. Stand-up speed rusher. Excellent first-step quickness and snap-jumping.”
NFL comp: Bruce Irvin
7) Kingsley Enagbare
Ben’s take: “Day 2 guy. An explosive, relentless, hair-on-fire type of defensive end. Violent collisions. Destroys tight ends in run game. Rangy.”
NFL comp: Rashan Gary
8) Arnold Ebiketie
Ben’s take: “Day 2. Long, loose outside linebacker. Tough against the run. Long arm moves. Productive. Transferred from Temple and has 9 1/2 sacks.”
NFL comp: Shaq Barrett
9) Myjai Sanders
Ben’s take: “Day 2. Tall, lean, light stand-up d-end. Snap-jumper. Good inside moves. Game/twists. Long limbs. Questionable whether he can hold up against the run.”
NFL comp: Markus Golden
10) Cam Thomas
San Diego State
Ben’s take: “Day 2. Powerful-through-contact type of d-end. A Mountain West Conference version of Aidan Hutchinson. Good arm-over swim move. Can slide inside in sub-fronts. Productive. Good first step.”
NFL comp: Kyle Vanden Bosch
TOP 5 HYBRID DE/DTS
1) Travon Walker
Early projection: Early first round.
2) Demarvin Leal
Early projection: Mid-to-late first round.
3) Zachary Carter
Early projection: Day 2
4) Josh Paschal
Early projection: Day 2
5) Isaiah Thomas
Early projection: Early Day 3
David Ojabo, 6-5, 250, Michigan
Ben’s take: “First-round talent. Has 11 sacks this season, but is a raw player. New to football. Similar mold to Jayson Oweh, who was taken at the end of the first round by the Ravens this year.”
Ali Gaye, 6-5, 250, LSU
Amare Barno, 6-6, 245, Virginia Tech
Will McDonald IV, 6-4, 245, Iowa State
Dominique Robinson, 6-4, 252, Miami (Ohio)
Adam Anderson, 6-6, 225, Georgia
Ben’s take: “Skinny, explosive pass-rush specialist. Currently being investigated (not yet charged) for a pair of sexual assaults.”
BEN’S BEST OF THE REST
Isaiah Foskey, 6-4, 257, Notre Dame
Zach Harrison, 6-6, 268, Ohio State
Sam Williams, 6-4, 265, Ole Miss
Tre’ Williams, 6-5, 255, Arkansas
Micheal Clemons, 6-5, 270, Texas A&M
Jeffrey Gunter, 6-4, 260, Coastal Carolina
Brenton Cox Jr., 6-4, 253, Florida
Mitchell Agude, 6-4, 245, UCLA
Ochaun Mathis, 6-5, 247, TCU
Boye Mafe, 6-4, 265, Minnesota