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Reading the Defense: Edge Player Draft Preview

Contrasting the consensus studs, discussing new metrics, drooling over prospect depth, and more

NOTE: Sigmund Bloom, Matt Waldman and I -- along with Cecil Lammey and a host of other great guests -- will be providing live analysis of the draft on Thursday, Friday and Saturday again this year. Produced as a Google Hangout, you'll be able to join and watch the live feed (we'll tweet the direct link while we're live). We'll have all the shows available for on-demand replay on our Hangout page (video), on our podcast page (audio), and via whatever application you access your podcasts from early the following week.

A WORD ON CATEGORIZING DRAFT PROSPECTS

In recent seasons, I’ve chosen to split the front seven positions into three categories – edge, off-the-line-of-scrimmage (off-LOS) linebacker, and defensive line. I think it fits the player types we’re seeing come out of college and the trend toward multiple defenses in the NFL much better than the traditional defensive end, defensive tackle and linebacker designations of old.

The term "tweener" has fallen out of favor in recent years and rightly so.

Tweener once carried a negative connotation: This player may be too small to survive as a 4-3 defensive end but may not be quick enough to work as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

But it didn't take long for the college game to evolve and begin producing a new kind of tweener – a player athletic and strong enough to play many techniques in many fronts well. This new class of tweeners can play the run well enough to be effective as a base defensive end, but are fluid enough to rush from a two point stance or drop into coverage when asked.

These players aren't tweeners. They are scheme versatile. They shouldn't be lumped in with traditional base defensive ends, who aren’t athletic enough to play from a two point stance. And they shouldn't be grouped with linebackers who don’t have edge rushing skill.

Classifying players this way allows us to discuss the defensive ends who can play multiple line techniques together. More than ever, we’re seeing 275-290 pound athletes who can play anywhere from a 3-technique to a 7-technique. Classifying players this way also easily separates  linebackers who can play multiple linebacker positions but aren't edge rushers. That’s becoming an ever more interesting group, too.

I’ll write more about both classes of non-edge rush players in their respective previews.

COMPARING AND CONTRASTING CONSENSUS TOP EDGE PLAYERS

While this season’s group of edge rushing talents is deeper than any in recent memory, there are five players who are regularly discussed as elite talents likely to interest teams in the first half of the first round.

Let’s start this comparison with a quick table of measurables. I’ll list them in alphabetical order.

Name Team HT WT ARM 40-YD 10-YD SHUTTLE 3-CONE VERT BROAD BENCH
Vic Beasley Clemson 6-3 246 32 1/2 4.53 1.59 4.15 6.91 41 10-10 35
Bud Dupree Kentucky 6-4 269 32 5/8 4.56 1.60 4.47 7.49 42 11-6  
Dante Fowler Florida 6-3 261 33 3/4 4.60 1.56 4.32 7.40 32.5 9-4 19
Randy Gregory Nebraska 6-5 235 34 4.64 1.60 4.16 6.79 36.5 10-5 24
Shane Ray Missouri 6-3 245 33 1/8 4.64 1.65 4.52 7.70 33 10-0 21

While we can group these five players as "edge rushing talents," each of them are unique in their own way.

Those of you who have followed #DraftTwitter (an affectionate term for those outside the NFL inner circles who put in countless hours of thought and tape study) and #BigDraft (a not-so-affectionate term for media members, anonymous scouts, and any front office with a closed-minded draft process) know that there are strong feelings about whether each of these players can be successful. At one point, every one of them has been discussed as either the darling or the ugly duckling of this class.

After watching these five players extensively using cutups on DraftBreakdown and considering how each fares in some newer metrics, here's how I see the top five. This is a loose ranking only. I'll have a more definitive ranking as part of the combined rookie draft board in early May.

vic beasley: cannon with power and maturity

I think Beasley is the most well-rounded, mature edge rusher in the draft.

Edge rushing is about more than the ability to generate an untouched pressure by beating the offensive tackle around the corner. That's a critical skill to have, of course. If you can't translate speed and explosiveness well enough to make offensive linemen nervous or force the offense to account for you with more than one blocker, you're really not an edge rusher.

But offenses can account for players who are one-trick edge rushing ponies. What Beasley has shown on tape is the ability to win on the edge, win with a hard inside-to-outside move and a hard outside to inside move. All of those are setup by an elite and explosive first two-three steps. There's some speed to power in his game and even a spin move sprinkled in. It can take just one successful primary move and one successful counter move to wreak havoc in the pocket. Beasley may be successful with multiple counters. If he translates, he's essentially matchup independent.

He's more of a get-skinny-and-disrupt run defender, so I see him as a weak side player primarily (either 4-3 DE or 3-4 OLB). I'd like to see Beasley stay off the ground more by improving his footwork on pure edge rushes and be a more violent finisher at the quarterback. 

I don't see Beasley getting out of the top five.

Before moving on to Gregory, Dupree and the rest, a quick note on some new and exciting metrics in the draft community:

FORCE, SPARQ, and SPIDERWEBS: USING METRICS TO COMPARE EDGE ATHLETICISM

I always wonder if I'm missing something as a January-April tape watcher.

Is this player dominating against vastly inferior competition? How does this player's athleticism compare to prospects before him? Bottom line: Will what I'm seeing on tape -- athletically and technically -- translate to the bigger, stronger, faster NFL game?

I've been excited to see newer, compelling ways to break down a player's combine and pro day testing. And while I'm firmly in the camp that some players will never translate their athleticism into on-field football skills, the converse is also true: If a player does not have a baseline level of athleticism, a high motor and precise technique may not be enough to overcome his relative lack of athleticism.

Here is one example of a mathematical model to show where edge players fall on the athletic spectrum.

#FORCE

Developed by Justis Mosqueda, the term #ForcePlayer seeks to identify the combination of athletic traits that make an edge rusher most likely to succeed. Mosqueda's hypothesis is based in simple physics, i.e. F = ma. Force = mass x accleration. Elite edge rushers must have an elite combination of explosive metrics but must also have good density.

Sounds simple and intuitive, right? But look at how Mosqueda's metric split players in recent seasons and you wonder if evaluators see things on tape that may not translate to the NFL.

What's also striking to me -- #ForcePlayer or not, there aren't many edge rushing hits, especially after the second round.

Check out Mosqueda's #ForcePlayers Twitter feed and a soon-to-come feature at Rotoworld for a full discussion of the 2015 #ForcePlayers. Of the consensus top edge rushers I'm profiling, Vic Beasley, Randy Gregory and Bud Dupree make the cut. Dante Fowler and Shane Ray do not.

For much more on the evolution of Mosqueda's work, check out this extended piece on DraftBreakdown. For the latest on this year's #ForcePlayers and discussion, follow him @JuMosq and @forceplayers. And I cannot recommend his discussion with Josh Norris' podcast enough.

Zach Whitman's reverse engineering of SPARQ scores and Marcus Armstrong's unique visual presentation of combine and pro day results are also great ways to compare athleticism. They're profiled in the section on draft resources at the end of the main feature.

randy gregory: more than meets the eye

Randy Gregory isn't the next Optimus Prime, but I'm reminded of the Transformers commercials of the 1980s when I try to reconcile what I see on film with the size and power concerns I hear on him.

I get those concerns. He measured 6-5 and 235 pounds. He was coached to read and react at the snap of the ball at Nebraska and there aren't many snaps where you see Gregory's full potential shine through. In fact, if you only watch a cutup or two of Gregory, you could easily be left with the impression that Gregory is the next Aaron Maybin.

He's not.

First, the metrics. His vertical jump (82nd percentile amond defensive ends in recent years per mockdraftable.com) and broad jump (94th percentile) demonstrate well above average explosiveness. His short shuttle (92nd percentile) and three cone drill (99th percentile). 24 reps on the bench isn't shabby either.

If you search all of the Nebraska cutups for clear passing down reps -- third and long in particular -- you'll see the first step his jumps suggest he should have. You'll see the quick footwork his cone times suggest he should have. It's not perfect. I really don't see a pure edge rush yet, but his heavy hands and footwork give him inside-out and outside-in moves and combination rushes that develop extremely quickly. 

There's a bust risk here, but I think he'll translate well as a weak side edge player.

bud dupree: athleticism vs technique

Dupree is a bit of an enigma to me.

His jumps are unparalled. A vertical leap of 42 inches and a broad jump of 11-6 are frighteningly impressive. On tape his first step is laughably quick. His second and third step are blurry, even at half speed. It's a level of explosiveness that cannot be taught.

And it comes in a 6-4, 270 pound package.

But I watched every Kentucky defensive cutup I could find. On nearly every play in which Dupree destroyed an offensive tackle with his early explosiveness, he didn't get near the quarterback due to poor technique. He struggled terribly to dip his shoulder and use the proper footwork to turn the corner. There were times where he was even with the offensive tackle by his second step but wasn't moving toward the pocket until ten yards past the line of scrimmage.

I reached out on Twitter and asked, "Is edge rushing technique a learnable skill?" Two responses resonated with me.

First, Ryan Riddle, a successful former edge rusher, answered my question with one of his own. "Can you be taught to moonwalk respectably?" That's a variation of a something I use every day in lots of situations daily -- as a parent, as a coach, and mostly importantly as a pediatrician trying to decide whether a toddler has development delays -- "Can he?" or "Will he?" If your child cannot physically form words due to problem with his anatomy or because he has a larger issue like autism, there's a lot of work to be done to improve his speech. If your child has everything she needs to speak well and won't, you may see her blossom in another 3-6 months with continued teaching and encouragement. I don't know which category fits Dupree.

Second, Alen Dumonjic, who is one of the most underrated and underappreciated writers in the football industry, told me he likes to look at a player's feet and ankles. If a player can't get them turned, it's a sign their frame and joints may not support the flexibility needed to pull off a successful pure edge rush. That's not athleticism necessarily, but I wonder if it can be measured in the cone drills.

Dupree's short shuttle was 4.47. His three cone time was 7.49. That short shuttle time is in the 34th percentile. The three cone time is around the 10th percentile. And the three cone drill involves a turn.

Dupree is a #ForcePlayer (see sidebar) on the strength of his impressive jump times and size. I'd bet on him to be successful in the NFL. Even if he never learns an elite edge rush, his first steps will set up a speed-to-power move and other counter moves he can win with.

Whatever happens, he's going to be one of the most interesting edge rushers to track in years.

To see video examples of these impressive attributes and why I'm concerned, check out this film room hangout with Matt Waldman.

dante fowler: bad intentions

I'm a fan of defensive football. I love seeing the blur that is Bud Dupree. I get why Nebraska wants Randy Gregory to play read and react. (Well, not really.) But what I love most is watching football players with bad intentions.

Fowler's tape is full of bad intentions. He never, and I mean never, quits on a play. It's underlined and typed throughout my notes. He knocked a pulling offensive lineman out cold on a run play with only two steps to gather himself. Most of his pass rush successes are punctuated with a wince-inducing chop. He's the most violent finisher in this class.

Unfortunately, his film (and testing results) suggest he's a straight line player with average explosiveness. His timed dashes are 90th percentile or better. His jumps (i.e. explosiveness) are 40th percentile and below. His lateral agility is only slightly above average overall (shuttle is much better than cone). He was fairly easily handled by La'el Collins, albeit in a limited sample.

I'm hearing comparisons to Von Miller (which is the comp du jour this year) and Khalil Mack. I don't see that level of athleticism here. Miller is a total freak -- don't forget what Miller was before his ACL injury and may be again this year. Mack is significantly more athletic and shined in college against his toughest competition.

What I see here is somewhere in the Mack --- Dont'a Hightower continuum. And I don't see that as a knock on Fowler. On that continuum lies a player who can defend the run well, won't hurt you in coverage and can rush the passer effectively. But I don't know if he's a true edge player in the Miller-Mack sense. I think he's more of a 4-3 SLB who you can move around on nickel downs and try to exploit matchups.

In short, I believe Fowler is the opposite of Dupree: A fascinating case study on whether just enough athleticism and a whole lot of football player is enough to make an elite edge player.

shane ray: which one of these is not like the other?

First, Transformers and now Sesame Street. I'm a pediatrician. Deal with it.

Ray's pro day testing knocked him out of most discussions of the elite pass rushers, but he's still being mocked as a first round target in many places. Put on some of Ray's greatest hits and there's a lot to like. If he gets off the ball quickly or gets into a blocker with good hand placement, he's successful. There's some maturity to his pass rush moves and his motor is well above-average.

But there are red flags everywhere. They include a measure of inconsistency on tape, which had me looking forward to his pro day to find out if I was watching a player who needed to clean up his technique and could thrive in a year or two or a player who may too limited to have success without a lot of help.

I'll preach size doesn't matter every season, but it matters if you're short (6-2) and relatively slight (245) AND are missing some critical athletic traits. Ray has a 24th percentile shuttle and a 3rd percentile cone time. The cone time is so far at the end of the bell curve, it's even worse than the percentile suggests. His broad jump is 79th percentile, but a 44th percentile vertical. His ten yard dash is 35th percentile. He's a below average athlete for the NFL.

This combination of size and athleticism should worry any NFL evaluator. Compare Ray to the other two players in this group with "size" concerns.

Name HT WT 10-YD SHUTTLE 3-CONE VERT BROAD
Vic Beasley 6-3 246 1.59 4.15 6.91 41 10-10
Randy Gregory 6-5 235 1.60 4.16 6.79 36.5 10-5
Shane Ray 6-3 245 1.65 4.52 7.70 33 10-0

All I needed to know I learned on Sesame Street. 

Where Ray did shine was in a handful of reps he saw at 3-technique. That's not a place a 245 pound player will thrive in the NFL, but the first step and quick hands and footwork played better against big SEC guards than they did more athletic tackles. I'm not sure this is a good thing.

Finally, at the Senior Bowl in January, multiple scouts told me they liked his linemate Markus Golden better than they did Ray. Golden is a nice player, but he didn't stand out much in Mobile and he's not exactly screaming up the draft boards now. 

None of this means Ray can't evolve into a solid rotational player or even more. But I don't see a promising comp for him on the list of non-#ForcePlayers who were successful in spite of their genetics.

and that's not all...

The depth of this class is tremendous. We'll be spending a lot of our draftcast on Thursday and Friday discussing edge prospects. I won't break them down in the same level of detail, but here's a quick one-liner on those I think have 1st and 2nd day potential.

Owa Odighizuwa UCLA 6-3 267 Wanted to see him win more in Mobile but has speed and power in all-around package
Preston Smith Mississippi State 6-5 271 Quick and violent hands w/ good feet, size/speed ratio above-average, plays run well
Danielle Hunter LSU 6-5 252 #ForcePlayer sets edge well w/ quick hands/feet, but slow off ball w/ no pass rush savvy
Eli Harold Virginia 6-3 247 Not sure I see the fuss over him, measures well but so-so first step and transitions
Hau’oli Kikaha Washington 6-2 253 Can bend and bull and shed and close but coverage will be an issue
Trey Flowers Arkansas 6-2 266 More power than speed, sheds and plays run well
Nate Orchard Utah 6-3 250 Most successful one v one edge player in Senior Bowl practice, good all-around player
Za’Darius Smith Kentucky 6-4 274 Clean pass rusher but athleticism may limit his ability to close and finish
Zach Hodges Harvard 6-2 250 Looked quick and athletic on film but not as much at Senior Bowl, may not project

WHO HAS THE MOST FANTASY FRIENDLY DRAFT NEED?

The short answer: Everyone.

One can never have enough pass rushers. Any talented edge player can generate enough statistics to have fantasy value. And fit matters. All of which will become more clear after the draft. If you're hoping for a good match of edge skill and opportunity, however, look to these predominantly 4-3 front teams:

  • Jacksonville ~ Gus Bradley could use an anchor edge rushing talent to make his scheme more effective
  • Oakland ~ No threat on the defensive end depth chart, a talent opposite Khalil Mack could be huge
  • Atlanta ~ Floundering with a poor pass rush for two seasons, depth chart wide open for edge rusher
  • Carolina ~ Charles Johnson had mini-renaissance, Kony Ealy still developing, but room to improve
  • Tampa Bay ~ Jacquies Smith and William Gholston project as 800 snap players right now

There will be fantasy value for those players who land major roles as 3-4 rush backers. It just won't be as fantasy friendly for those in tackle-heavy systems.

SMART WAYS TO PREP FOR THE DRAFT

DraftBreakdown.com ~ There's no substitute for your own eyes. The guys at Draft Breakdown make scouting college games easy with 7-10 minute videos edited down to include every snap taken by a player in a single college game with the player highlighted for easy reference on each snap. Most prospects has a library of five games (and sometimes as many as 10-12).

Matt Waldman's Rookie Scouting Portfolio ~ I'm clearly biased, since Matt (along with Sigmund Bloom) are my closest friends in the business. But you won't find a more detailed draft guide that stays true to process. You may not agree with every conclusion Matt makes, but you owe it to yourself to consider them. You should also check out Matt's work at Football Outsiders and his new Film Room hangouts -- both include good defensive discussion.

Dane Brugler's Draft Guide PDF ~ Clean, easy to follow, packed with details and information and film study, this PDF rivals anything a long time draft lover like me enjoyed about the guides put out by Jerry Jones, Frank Coyne and Russ Lande over the years.

Sigmund Bloom's On The Couch podcasts ~ I'm continually amazed at how much depth Bloom gets out of his guests each week. This show runs nearly year-round, but the months of March and April are dedicated to draft talk you shouldn't miss. The warehouse link to the Audible podcast feed will also take you to a handful of great draft interviews by Cecil Lammey.

Josh Norris' Process the Process podcast ~ It's getting harder and harder to find time to listen to all the great audio and video content produced around the web. You must make Josh's weekly podcast a priority. It's a fresh take at how those inside the draft industry and those working in its ever more populated suburbs come to evaluate draft prospects.

Mockdraftable.com ~ If you’re a visual person, Marcus Armstrong’s database is for you. If you’re interested in combine and pro day results but don’t know how good a broad jump of 10-4 or a 6.97 three cone time may be, Marcus Armstrong’s database is for you. Armstrong’s unique way of presenting testing data involves a large spideweb shape, with the points representing the top results for each test of athleticism. He then superimposes a player’s own test results. What you get to see is a spider web that stretches and shrinks to show how a player compares to his peers over the years. 

3sigmaathlete.com ~ Home of the SPARQ score, aka Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction, Quickness. Formerly a standardized test developed by NIKE to distill a player’s athletic ability to a composite score, SPARQ is likely being used by multiple NFL teams as part of their draft prep. Zach Whitman, in conjunction with some astute folks at FieldGulls.com, back calculated the formula. Whitman publishes pSPARQ scores on his website for all positions and players.

Positional interviews with Greg Cosell ~ The two best series here are the podcasts with Ross Tucker and those with Doug Farrar. There will be some overlap here, but both are good listens. Farrar also has a show with former NFL defensive end Stephen White, whose NSFW player profiles on SBNation are a joy to read.

Doug Farrar's SI 64 ~ The Shutdown 50 has become the SI 64, with Doug (along with Chris Burke) profiling their top draft prospects.

Twitter follows ~ I'm hesitant because I know I'll miss somebody I shouldn't here, so the safest thing to do is subscribe to Bloom's draft list.

Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel. Reading the Defense will be a regular feature this offseason with free agent commentary, draft prospect previews, tier discussion, links to our offseason IDP roundtable podcasts and much more. Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our IDP podcast here