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Patriots 2020 NFL Draft Preview: Edge

Positional Overview: As time goes on and our social institutions evolve, so does the language. Our nomenclature must change with the times. Even when words are not patently offensive, they often fall out of common usage. Like putting "WWW" before a web address. And terms like "phone booth," "like a broken record," "TiVO" or "group hug" are all now things of the past. 

So it is with the designation of guys who play standing up on the line of scrimmage at the end of a defensive formation. For generations they were segregated into two types: Your 4-3 defensive end and your 3-4 outside linebacker. Then the line was blurred with the rise of spread offenses and base nickel defenses and they were grouped together into DE/OLB, in the way the Allies created Czechoslovakia at the end of WWII. Until a few years ago when our civilization made a tacit agreement to simply unite this diverse group of citizens all under the all-purpose name, "edge" defenders.

With the Patriots, that line is especially blurred. The depth chart on their own official team site doesn't really make a clear delineation, probably due to the fact that they play so many varied front and rely on position versatility to the point players are sliding inside and out from one down to the next. To the point they list 315 lb interior tackle Lawrence Guy at the same position as 260 lb John Simon. But regardless of what they're called, the requirements of playing on the edge of the Patriots defense haven't really changed since they were lining Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel out there for three championships. 

Simply put, the rule remains: 6-4, 4-6. Meaning players who are 6-foot-4 or bigger, 4.6 in the 40 or faster. There have been some exceptions. Rob Ninkovich was 6-3 but played bigger. James Harrison certainly didn't fit the mold, but he was here on an emergency basis. But for the most part, that is still the requirements of the job. In addition to being smart enough to know the concepts and assignments of all 11 defenders, being able rush the passer, contain a scrambling quarterback, set the edge against the run, and drop into Seam/Curl/Flat coverage on occasion. Which is why there have been so many who simply didn't pack the gear to succeed here, from a high draft pick like Shawn Crable or last year's most promising free agent signing, Michael Bennett. You come across a lot of edge players, college and pro, whose whole football life has been spent going "see ball, get ball." They don't last in New England. And finding one that will is the challenge. Having lost Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts this offseason alone and Trey Flowers last year, finding the next edge player who can stick around through his rookie deal and beyond is mission critical. Chase Winovich seems like a real steal and was their best non-punter rookie last year. We'll need more where he came from. 

Current Roster: Simon, Winovich, Deatrich Wise, Jr., Derek Rivers, Keionta Davis

Best in Show:

Chase Young, Ohio State. 6-foot-5, 264 pounds, 4.55 40-time

It seems like every draft this position produces The Guy. The freakishly athletic unstoppable force on the outside who's going to change the world forever. Nick Bosa. Bradley Chubb. Myles Garrett. Chase Young is this year's The Guy. With the ideal athletic traits for the position. A size/speed combination that makes him a matchup horror show for offensive line coaches. Quick enough to beat you around the corner with an elite closing speed, strong enough to put his hand in the fieldturf and out-muscle your interior linemen and double teams. And all the technique you could ask for when it comes to hand fighting and freeing himself from blocks. He's Nick Saban's One That Got Away, as he chose Ohio State over Alabama because they gave good visit. He was the runner up to Joe Burrow for the Heisman, on the strength of 16.5 sacks, 21 tackles for a loss and seven forced fumbles, even though he was getting double teamed more than Joe Exotic and was suspended two games for the unpardonable sin of borrowing money. And for all this, his reward will be getting selected No. 2 and being stuck on the Redskins until he can force a trade or leave as a free agent in five years. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Any given Bosa brother

Other Likely First Rounders:

K'Lavon Chaisson, LSU. 6-3, 254 lb, 4.63

Chaisson was just a red shirt sophomore on the Tigers' National Champions. As you'd figure with a guy who hasn't even hit legal drinking age (which believe it or not is 21 even in Louisiana; thanks, Nanny State) Chaisson's game needs some experience and refinement. But it's not going to take a lot heavy lifting for whoever drafts him to turn him into a pro bowl candidate. Think the guy who puts the hood ornament on the Benz before it rolls off the assembly line. Because he's already shown he can do it all and takes to coaching. He's primarily been a standup OLB with experience dropping into coverage. And who has the wheels to have once chased down first round WR prospect CeeDee Lamb from behind. What he needs to do is develop a second move when his first one gets sealed off, but that'll come with time as he adds a bend and flex and some more mass on a long frame. The most explosive edge player in this year's class. If he makes it as far as the 20s, someone is getting a steal. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Aldon Smith

Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State. 6-5, 266 lb, 4.70

The Nittany Lions sort of misused Gross-Matos last year, moving him inside to 0-technique nose at time, some 5-tech and containment. Still, over the last two seasons he was able to produce 35 TFLs and 17.5 sacks. His best asset are his quick-twitch get off (which is a lot better than his 40-time and overall unimpressive Combine showing would indicate) and a Whitman's Sampler of counter moves to fight off blocks in the pass rush. He could still use a little sand in the pants and his lanky frame could probably handle a good 10 pounds to add to his punch. Also, if intangibles could be charted, his would be off those charts. Before he was 11 years old his father drowned and his brother was killed by lightning and he's dedicated himself to working with underprivileged kids. Which counts for a lot. 

Compare to the Other Leading Brand: Demarcus Lawrence 

AJ Epenesa, Iowa. 6-5, 275 lb, 5.04

Epenesa is quite simply the best run stopper in this group. As a freshman (I'm not getting into an existential debate as to whether as a freshman he was true or not) on a stacked defensive unit, he still managed to stand out, and by the next season was racking up 37 tackles, 16.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks, four batted balls and four forced fumbles. And his numbers were better last year. As a pass rusher, he's not going to blast by protectors with his burst and change of direction; he's going to Kool-Aid Man his way through blocks with power, leverage and a pretty developed set of hand-fighting skills. With his size and strength you could use him on three downs, maybe moving him inside on passing downs to match him up against interior O-linemen. 

Compare to the Other Leading Brand: Carlos Dunlap

Potential First-Rounder the Patriots Met with in Indy:

Marlon Davidson, Auburn. 6-3, 303 lb, 5.03

Obviously you look at that number staring up at Davidson from between his feet on the bathroom scale every morning and it's hard to picture him standing up on the end of the Patriots line the way he did for Auburn. But he could definitely be a fit as a movable piece both as a Ty Warren type 5-tech 3-4 DE or as the weakside end on the four-man "under" fronts they use quite a bit. He could've been in the draft last year, but kept a promise to his mom that he'd finish his degree, which is something that probably makes Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio bite their lower lips and go "Awww." Because it's both touchingly sweet and a sign he's coming in the pros as a more polished, plug 'n play player. (Side note: Plug 'n Play was the worst concert I went to in the 80s and I was so glad when Play settled his creative differences with Kid.) Davidson has the size to match up with anyone. And even if he lacks the explosiveness to blow around the corner on pass rushes, his hips are pretty fluid for a 300 lber. And in the best conference in the nation he totaled 175 tackles, 29.5 for loss, and 17 sacks over four years. He's projected to go late in the first and therefore should be on the metaphorical board when the Patriots are on the proverbial clock. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Vinny Curry

The Next Tier/Day 2 Prospects:

Terrell Lewis, Alabama. 6-5, 262 lb, 4.65

The former Terrell Hall was a five-star recruit who went through a lot of injuries for the Tide, missing 10 games as a sophomore with  an arm injury and all of his junior year with a torn right ACL. But he still managed an impressive final season with six sacks, 11.5 TFL and 16 QB pressures. He's got a big stride that gets him by blockers and enables him to change direction. He's got advanced field awareness for a guy who's missed so much playing time. And he's flashed what he's capable of for not insignificant stretches of time. Athletically, he's got exactly the edge player specs you'd have the architect draw up for the zoning board's approval. But he hasn't been able to stay on the field long enough or often enough to judge if he can deliver. Therefore he could drop beyond even the second round into that sweet spot where the Patriots have all their picks. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Tyus Bowser

Julian Okwara, Notre Dame. 6-4, 252 lb, 4.65

Okwara is the kind of story the Patriots love. He moved to the States from Nigeria in third grade. He was a Top 300 prospect coming out of high school who got accepted to Notre Dame and worked his way up from subpackage player to two year starter and team captain. He's also got NFL bloodlines as his brother Romeo plays for Matt Patricia in Detroit. And he's coming off a broken leg that cost him the end of his career in South Bend, so he might be a mid-round bargain. Prior to that he'd produced 18 tackles, six for loss, four sacks, two forced fumbles, one blocked kick. The thing about that block is, Belichick has talked before about evaluating defensive players based on how much effort they put into kicks. Like you just played hard for however many downs, you make a stop and then do you let up? Take that play off? Or do you keep making the effort to keep points off the board? Anyhoo, he's tall and rangy, with the broad shoulders and upper body of a manly man. He's technically sound with a good bend and lateral quickness. And obviously makes impact plays.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Lance Johnstone

Sleepers:

Bradlee Anae, Utah. 6-3, 257 lb, 4.93

Anae was first team All Pac-12 two years in a row and third team All American last year. The Hawaiian native was good for 29.5 sacks in his career, with 12.5 coming last year. His measurables are less than ideal but he's one of those guys whose game tape is better than how he looked competing on Lucas Oil Ninja Warrior. He's not going to out-athletic left tackles the way Young or Chaisson will, but nobody in this group times the snap the way he does but he has a Swiss Army knife of swim moves, rips and clubs to keep himself from getting high-handed by blockers. And he also plays with a general pain-in-the-ass bitchiness you can't teach. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Dee Ford

Jabari Zuniga, Florida. 6-3, 264 lb, 4.64

I admit it's a little odd to say a guy from Florida might sneak up on people, but Zuniga only played six games as a senior due to a high ankle sprain. As a junior though, he played the whole season for the Gators, posting 45 tackles, 11 for a loss and 6.5 sacks. He's played pretty much anywhere on the line they have a number for, from 3-tech all the way out to wide-9 and everywhere in between. He's flashed explosiveness and athleticism from all over the formation with a stronger game than his size would lead you to believe, but sometimes only in flashes. In fairness to Zuniga though, he only played basketball until his senior year of high school, so there's still a lot of development ahead of him. Basically he's a project with all the ingredients to be a good to very good rotational player with coaching and time. Injury worries over last year shouldn't be a concern after the way he blew scouts' stopwatches off at the Combine. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Trey Flowers

The Perfect Patriot: Young, but that's because he's the perfect everybody. But I'll take a more realistic choice and say Lewis

Whom the Patriots Will Take: Lewis. I'm very torn between him and Okwara because they're very similar players and both coming off injuries that could see them fall. And I will not rule out later round flyers on Anae or Zuniga. But ultimately the 'Bama connection wins the day, as we learned in "Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching" that GM Bill is one of the few NFL guys who reaches out to Saban to get his take on his players. Since Saban has been at Alabama, the Pats have taken five of his guys. And three while he was at LSU. Terrell Lewis makes an even nine. 

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