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2022 NFL Draft Preview: Ben Fennell’s Top Edge Rushers

2022 NFL Draft Preview: Ben Fennell’s Top Edge Rushers
This is the seventh part of our 11-part positional breakdown of the April 28-30 NFL draft. Today: the interior edge rushers.
Ben Fennell is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor and analyst across several sports and media platforms. He has been involved in the production of the last eight drafts for NFL Network and also is a producer for the NFL on CBS. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenFennell_nfl

This is a lousy year to find a franchise quarterback in the draft, but a great year to find an antidote for one.

This month’s draft will feature one of the deepest edge-rushing classes in several years. Three could go in the top 10, six could go in the first round, and as many as 15 could be claimed in the first three rounds.

“There are tons of good edge-rushers in this draft,” NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell said. “And they come in all different shapes and sizes. You’ve got even-front edge guys that can slide inside, odd-front stand-up linebackers that can maybe even play off-ball on early downs and spy the quarterback on third down.

“You have 260-265-pound guys like (USC’s) Drake Jackson and (Florida State’s) Jermaine Johnson. And then you have smaller guys like (Oklahoma’s) Nik Bonitto who is just 230, and (Cincinnati’s) Myjai Sanders who played at 225 this past year and is 6-5 and looks like Leonard Floyd.

“This class is good at the top and good through the middle. There isn’t a lot of intriguing guys on the back end of Day 3. But there are a lot of guys in this draft who are going to be able to contribute right away.”

Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson has a chance to be the first player taken in the draft. If it happens, it will be just the fifth time this century that an edge rusher has gone No. 1, and the first time since 2017, when the Cleveland Browns selected Myles Garrett with the first pick.

At one point, Oregon’s athletic 6-4, 254-pound Kayvon Thibodeaux also was in the first-pick conversation. But his stock has dropped a bit since the end of the season. He still is expected to be a top-10 pick, but No. 1 isn’t likely.

“There are a lot of questions about his attitude, his enthusiasm for the game, his work ethic and things like that,” Fennell said. “He’s had a couple of weird interviews that have scared teams.

“But when he’s on the field, he’s incredible. A defensive end/SAM linebacker type. Super quick and explosive. He’s not as strong as someone like Khalil Mack, but he can be that type of player.’’

Another player who has slid since the end of the season is Michigan’s David Ojabo. Ojabo, who was projected by many to go somewhere in the middle of the first round, tore his Achilles tendon at his Pro Day in March. He is expected to make a full recovery, but 2022 essentially will be a redshirt year for him.

“He could slide out of the first round now,” Fennell said. “Then again, maybe not. I don’t think a lot of people were expecting him to be a high-level contributor as a rookie anyway, so somebody might be willing to take him at the end of the first round even with the Achilles.

“Much like Odafe Oweh last year, who was taken by the Baltimore Ravens with the 31st overall pick, Ojabo has explosive traits, but still is a bit of a project. He’s very thin in the lower half. He doesn’t play the run particularly well. He’s just going to be a pass-rush specialist early on in his career until he gets stronger and figures out the game.”

Fennell’s top 5

1—Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan, 6-7, 260, Rd. 1

2—Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon, 6-4, 254, Rd. 1

3—Jermaine Johnson II, Florida St., 6-5, 254, Rd. 1

4—George Karlaftis, Purdue, 6-4, 266, Rd. 1

5—David Ojabo, Michigan, 6-4, 250, Rd. 1-2

The Best

Aidan Hutchinson

Michigan

6-7, 260

Arms: 32 1/8 inches

40 time: 4.74 seconds

Vertical jump: 36 inches

Ben’s take: “He’s heavy-handed with brute strength. A well-rounded defensive end. Good run player and really stout as a pass rusher. He’s a power rusher. He’s not looking to run around anybody. He ragdolls tight ends in the run game. Plays with a high motor. Is violent, tenacious.

“Probably not as elusive or as creative a pass rusher as somebody like Maxx Crosby. Hutchinson is more of a no-nonsense type. I don’t know if I want to call him a Jared Allen or Kyle Vanden Bosch type. But that’s kind of the style of player you’re getting. A guy who wants to go through you rather than around you.

“He’s got a lot chop and club moves and arm-overs. Just not going to run around you with his speed very often. He’s not going to beat you with quickness. A guy who is going to punch you in the face and kick you in the cajones on the way to the quarterback.

“Michigan’s been pumping out edge rushers every year. Kwity Paye in 2020, Josh Uche the year before and Rashan Gary the year before that. So Hutchinson didn’t have great production before last year. He was finally the guy last year, though, and really showed up and proved that.

“I don’t know if he’s going to be a double-digit sack guy on a yearly basis. But he’s got a chance to be that kind of guy. Two of the most productive edge rushers in the NFL the last two seasons have been the Steelers’ T.J. Watt and the Bengals’ Trey Hendrickson. Neither of them do anything explosive. Neither are particularly fleet of foot. They just beat your butt for the entire game. You hold the ball and they’re going to keep coming after you and being relentless. Hutchinson is going to be that type of player. He’ll never wow you with a speed rush. He’s just going to be a really well-rounded player.’’

Projected round: 1

The Riser

Jermaine Johnson II

Florida State

6-5, 254

Arms: 34 inches

40 time: 4.58 seconds

Vertical jump: 32 inches

Ben’s take: “He spent two years at Georgia after JUCO. Was buried behind a really deep front seven at Georgia. Couldn’t get on the field enough so he transferred to Florida State for his last year of eligibility and ended up being not only a full-time player there, but the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year.

“You can really see a lot of the impact of the time he spent at Georgia on him. He is a technically sound run-defender. Very stout on the edge. Very willing and enthusiastic about playing the run. As a pass rusher, he has the three-way game. Can beat guys inside, can beat them outside with speed and also can go right through them. Very technical as well.

“He went to the Senior Bowl, practiced for two days, tore through everyone and then said, ‘I’m outta here.’ It reminded me of Deion (Sanders) when he ran a 4.2 forty at the combine years ago and dropped the mic. He took a cab to the airport and left.

“Johnson had the most impressive two days of Senior Bowl practice I’ve ever seen. Showed spin moves and an outside spin. At the end of practice, they picked two guys to do reps together. One of the guys was big Darian Kinnard of Kentucky, the guy everybody is converting into a guard. He’s 340. Johnson ran right through him. Chucked him right on his ass.

“The more you watch his tape the more impressed you get. He reminds me a lot of John Abraham. He’d look pretty good in that Falcons uniform, just like Abraham. I don’t think he makes it out of the top 10.’’

Projected round: 1

The Sleeper

Boye Mafe

Minnesota

6-4, 261

Arms: 32 5/8 inches

40 time: 4.53 seconds

Vertical jump: 38 inches

Ben’s take: “Mafe is an explosive, rocked-up type of edge rusher who is still learning how to play football the right way. He’s gotten better each year and has a lot of things you just can’t coach. Being 255-260 and running in the 4.5s are two of the things you can’t coach.

“He’s gotten so much better his last two years at Minnesota, particularly in the running game. Taking on blocks, shedding blocks. Just understanding the game of football and things like block awareness and misdirection. Tested off the charts and had a really strong week at the Senior Bowl where he beat guys up in one-on-ones. A little stiff in the lower half. A bit stiff-hipped. He’s not a guy that can really clear the corner very well. But because of that, he beats you up with his hands to get the corner.

“He’s slowly working his way into the first-round conversation in a very deep edge class. He may not play his best football in his first year or two in the NFL. If he stays on the trajectory he’s on, has a chance to be a really productive player. When you go back and look at the guys his size who also ran a sub-4.6, it’s like a who’s who of NFL ass-kicking QB hunters. Those guys have a very, very high hit rate.”

Round projection: 1-2