Current roster: Kyle Van Noy, Matt Judon, Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, Tayshawn Bower
Positional overview: The draft gods bless whoever it was who came up with the all-encompassing term of "edge" to describe anyone who plays at the end of the line of scrimmage, typically in a 2-point stance. In a league that has pretty much taken an eraser to the great metaphorical white board coaches used to operate from and smeared the line between the traditional 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends, it was becoming a nightmare to classify the species as they came out of college. Besides, we've got more an more teams playing 5-2 schemes and "tilted" fronts with three down linemen bunched to one side and a wide-9 tackle on the other, it's become another of the increasingly positionless positions. That's especially true in New England, where they're not only game plan specific, but switch to different fronts from play to play, regardless of down and distance. I mean, I included Kyle Van Noy in this group even though he's listed as among the off the ball linebackers on the Pats unofficial depth chart, because he'll line up outside as the Will in their base nickel as often as not. It's an amorphous position in Bill Belichick's front, which makes "edge" an easier, more descriptive term to work with.
What hasn't changed (much) is the requirements of the job. I say this every year and I'm not about to stop now. The ideal Belichick edge player can be summed up with "6-4, 4-6." Meaning he needs to be 6-foot-4 or bigger, 4.60 or faster. You can make some allowances, but not by much. For instance, Winovich and Uche are both 6-3, like Rob Ninkovich before them. But for a prototype, consider Willie McGinest. They need to have the size to disrupt passing windows, the speed to drop into coverage and chase sideline-to-sideline, the strength to set an edge against the run and the brains to not bite on run action inside and leave their side of the field open on boot action. It's never, ever about being able to pin your ears back on every drop back and rack up high sack totals. If it was, Chandler Jones would be looking at his third contract in New England. Belichick considers sacks to be the most overrated stat in the game. And would be perfectly content with a guy who has none but is among the league in pressures while meeting all the other job descriptions. Which is why a versatile player like Judon (according to Pro Football Focus, 632 total snaps, 188 in run defense, 337 pass rushes, 107 in pass coverage) was brought here. He's a perfect system fit. (Also at 6-3.)
Judon's addition and the emergence of Winovich and Uche makes this position less of a priority than it's been in the recent past. Which is a good thing, because this is not the greatest year ever for edge defenders. There aren't any of the mortal lock Top 10 game changers we've seen in recent history, like Chase Young, Nick Bosa, Clelin Ferrell, Josh Allen or Myles Garrett. Generally speaking, the draft sites are giving this position the kinds of grades I pulled at Weymouth South High when I finished 55th in my class. Still, it's always an area of need. Winovich's playing time roller coastered throughout last season. And as a rookie, Uche looked like a very promising specialist, and not an every down player. Stay tuned on them. But the Pats can always stand to develop the next capable guy (who can then go make $90 million from the Lions). There is no consensus whatsoever about the draft order of this year's group, so take the randomness with which I talk about these guys in that in mind.
The Probable 1st Rounders:
Jayson Oweh, Penn State. 6-foot-5, 257 pounds, 4.68 40-timeIt says everything you need to know about the Class of 2021 that one of the most highly graded edge rushers didn't record a single sack last year. The reason he projects so high is because he's got all the traits and work ethic to develop into a potentially elite NFL defender. His length, strength, speed, power, bend, burst, change of direction and athleticism are what you'd create in a lab if you didn't learn a lesson from all those SyFy Original Movies and decided to just go ahead and play God. What Oweh is not at the moment is maxed out on his ability to produce. He's not a fully developed pass rusher, using his speed/power advantage to bull rush blockers, rather than winning hand-fighting battles or having an arsenal of moves. He could stand to add some mass, and reportedly has the frame for it. And he's got a reputation on campus for being a gym rat and playing with his tachometer always on the red. He's an intriguing prospect who is only some better stats away from being takien up in that Young/Bosa area.
Compares to the other leading brand: Bud Dupree
Jaelan Phillips, Miami. 6-6, 260 lb, 4.60
Phillips is the flat out consensus best pure pass rusher in this group. He was one of the most heavily recruited prospects coming out of high school, played two years at UCLA before transferring, sat out a year then tore it up in Miami, with eight sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss. A speed-to-power guy who plays with suddenness, explosion and balance, with a strong lower body and a Kellogg's variety pack of inside hand moves. He'll also set the edge against the run and is a solid tackler. The reasons he is not an automatic Top 5 player is he's had issues with concussions and was reportedly considering leaving the program. That and the fact everything I've just described has only shown up in one season. So he's a boom-or-bust type of prospect. And will likely only go to some team willing to spin the Wheel of Fortune on a high pick and hope it doesn't land on "BANKRUPT."
Compares to the other leading brand: Ryan Kerrigan
Azeez Ojulari, Georgia. 6-2, 249 lb, 4.66
As pass rushers go, Ojulari is the 1B to Phillips' 1A. A smaller, more elusive type with some power, but lacking in Phillips' sudden burst. While he's not as big as some of the others on this list, he makes up for it some with a wingspan like that wooden plane that Howard Hughes built. A four-star recruit, he made Georgia glad they landed him this year with 9.5 sacks, 12.5 TFLs and four forced fumbles. He possesses a violent, powerful hand punch for gaining separation from blockers, as well as a closing burst, thanks to a long stride once he gets going. Maybe the single most impressive thing about Ojulari is that when his rookie season begins? He won't be old enough to get past the bouncer at a club. Unless he knows a paper company worker who stole a laminating machine from a sheriff's office.Compares to the other leading brand: Joey Porter
New England Local Hero Who Could Go in the 1st:
Kwity Paye, Michigan. 6-3, 261, 4.57
Paye is such a rare combination of athletic traits that he's over 260 lbs and was still a tracklete at Bishop Hendricksen in Rhode Island, helping his 4X100 relay team reach the state championships. He's got enough of the sand-in-the-pants lower body power that he could possibly move inside and play with his hand in the recycled rubber turf in the pros. And in fact, slid all along the LOS in Michigan DC Don Brown's front. He's one of those guys who showed all the potential when he was in there, but wasn't always in there. He had two sacks in his first game last year, but they were his only two of the season because he got injured. As a sophomore in 2019 he was limited with a groin injury, but still finished with 50 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 12.5 TFLs. He's not so much a rusher who'll blow by you as much as he'll beat you with strength, core flexibility and leverage. And on the inside he's shown that weird, hard to explain ability some bigger dudes have to make themselves skinny and get through gaps. (Think the Knight's Bus in Harry Potter. Or don't. I'm not here to tell you what to do.) The question with Paye is whether he'll get pushed around by longer NFL tackles who can extend their arms and control him and will NEED to move inside. Nevertheless he's a versatile guy who could produce in a defense that puts him in a position to win battles. Most importantly for Pats fans who miss the Combine as much as I do, his coaches at Michigan claim Paye ran a 4.57 in the beloved and all-important 3-cone.
Compares to the other leading brand: Shaq Lawson
Likely 2nd Rounders:
Gregory Rousseau, Miami. 6-7, 266 lb,
You wouldn't know it to look at his size, but Jaelen Phillips' former teammate played a lot of 3-technique and even nose tackle at the U. And he was as productive as he is freakishly athletic. A former prep school wide receiver, he's the best tackler at his position in the draft, as his 2019 totals of 15.5 sacks and 19.5 TFLs would indicate. I cite those numbers for the simple fact that he opted out last year. And in 2018 he misses all but two games with an ankle injury. So the tape from his one season is all anyone has to go on. Other than his insane combination of size and speed. He's raw. His techniques are not refined. He'll need the pro equivalent of a redshirt freshman year to learn and develop. But it's hard not to see his raw materials and imagine what you could build with them.
Compares to the other leading brand: Jason-Pierre Paul
Joe Tryon, Washington. 6-5, 262 lb, 4.74Tryon is likely another developmental type, with just 14 starts in college. But in the time he has played, he's shown he can be moved around the front, play in a 2- or 3-point stance, and demonstrated the relentless, high motor desire you look for in a disruptive pass rusher, with 12.5 sacks and a lot more time spent in the backfield than that. He's no stranger to facing double teams and has the power and flexibility to fight them off. He's got a natural bend for getting low and turning the corner around tackles. What he lacks is the experienced, Kung Fu master-level hand fighting techniques he'll need to be effective as a pro. But he has all the tools. They just need to be sharpened for a year or so. With time and the right coaching, I could see him being that guy who moves around the formation in the Patriots "Elephant" role that McGinest perfected.
Compares to the other leading brand: Robert Quinn
Small School Sleepers:
Chris Rumph II, Duke. 6-3, 235 lb, 4.65
A former USA Today Freshman All-American, Rumph made third team All ACC in 2019 with only one start. They bumped him up to second team last year thanks to 53 tackles, 12.5 for a loss and eight sacks. He's kind of lanky for the position and will have to hit the league-approved supplements pretty hard for a while to bulk up. He's a bit of a tweener who would probably fit the Patriots in more of a hybrid LB/safety role until he adds the mass to play on the line full time. For what it's worth, his dad is a defensive line coach with the Bears, having been on Bill O'Brien's staff in Houston, before the purge.
Compares to the other leading brand: Samson Ebukam
Malcolm Koonce, Buffalo. 6-2, 249 lb, 4.79
A guy who's career took a while to develop, Koonce worked his way up to first team All-MAC, was the Defensive MVP in Buffalo's first ever bowl game, and got a Senior Bowl invitation for his effort this year, before opting out of the Bulls' second ever bowl. He's agile and has the balance to get low and around tackles, then turn the corner and attack the passer. He's got a fairly developed swim move and could find a role as a rush specialist. I just can't see it being in New England unless it involves him being another hybrid defender and special teamer.
Compares to the other leading brand: Harold LandryEdge Player the Pats Met With:
Daelin Hayes, Notre Dame. 6-4, 261 lbs, 4.84
You know a guy is not all that highly regarded a prospect when someone hasn't taken the time to post a highlight reel of him set to Hip Hop music on YouTube. But he is literally the only edge defender the Patriots have used one of their visits on. Still, he was a Top 100 recruit despite missing most of his last year of high school with a separated shoulder. He was in and out of the starting lineup over his career in South Bend before being named captain as a senior. He was expected to be in last year's draft but another shoulder injury in 2019 made him take a redshirt year and come back. He's not going to outrace a lot of quarterbacks leaving the pocket or keep up with a lot of running backs slipping into the flat. But he's built powerfully and has an explosive punch. Plus the Patriots traditionally love to fill their locker rooms with experienced former team captains and allow these sorts of super-captains to emerge. Hayes will likely come late, in that 5th or 6th round sweet spot where they struck gold on Michael Onwenu last year. Which could very well happen with this guy since edge is not such a high priority need right now.
More Red Flags Than 36 Holes at the Beijing Country Club:
Jordan Smith, UAB. 6-6, 255 lb, 4.64I want to be clear. The "red flags" I'm referring to have nothing to do with anyone questioning Jordan Smith's work ethic. Whether you have issue with him or not has to do with your level of concern regarding him being implicated in a credit card fraud scam. That and coaching changes are why he left Florida, went the JUCO route for a year before transferring to UAB. And pardon me if my Pats fan bias is showing, but if a guy can't cut it at Florida … OK, Moving on. In his first year he recorded 10 sacks, and last year added 4.5 more with 9 TFLs in eight games. He's a bit of a one-trick magician at this point as a pass rusher, using his speed and stride to blow past blockers. But he's capable when it comes to fighting off blocks in the run game, though he could stand to stop skipping leg day as he can get blown up by O-linemen with leverage. Still, Smith has an unmistakable combination of size, length and athleticism to deserve a flyer, probably with a mid-round pick over the weekend.
Compares to the other leading brand: Dion Jordan
The Perfect Patriot: Kwity Paye. Maybe it's just my local bias, since I'm probably an hour away from where he was doing relay races and long jumps. (And I say that as someone who agrees with Dan Jenkins that the only thing more boring than Track is Field.) Or it could be my recency bias, because I've liked the last two Michigan products. (I'm sure I'd feel different right after they blew a 2008 3rd rounder on Shawn Crable.) I just think that Paye's athleticism, versatility and experience make him a great fit in Foxboro.
Whom the Patriots will take: Paye. Presuming he falls somewhere into that fertile hunting ground where Belichick likes to move up and down the board, into the mid-to-late 2nd. Failing that, I'd love to see them get Tryon later, and use a late pick on Hayes. But Paye it is. The Belichick Whisperer [tm] has spoken.