— theScore (@theScore) April 19, 2017
Writer’s Note: This is the latest in a series, and I’ll do as many positions as I can before the draft at the end of the month. As I mentioned before, I don’t try to pretend to know what order guys are going to be drafted. I only know what’s in Bill Belichick’s heart and have predicted at least a half a dozen of his picks over the years. But with the Patriots not having a pick in the top 70, instead of doing a Patriots-centric preview like I’ve done in the past, here’s more of an overview and I’ll be The Belichick Whisperer at the end. Today, it’s the edge.
Positional overview: “Edge,” in case you haven’t heard it used in this context before, is the 2017 hotness among all your draft publications, who got tired of trying to differentiate 4-3 defensive ends from 3-4 outside linebackers. It was always a headache back when teams played one system or the other. But now that you’ve got teams playing a base nickel and a 220 lb. Deone Bucannon is essentially an outside ‘backer, it’s a nightmare. So now, much like gender, it’s now non-binary and fluid and all guys who are expected to play outside the offensive tackle and get to the passer are jumped into the same classification. Because progress.
Whatever you call them, the position is stacked this year. Arguably as good a position group as you’ll find, with depth, as many as five potential first rounders and the top overall prospect in the entire draft.
The Man Who Broke the Combine:
Myles Garrett, Texas A&M. 6-4, 272 lb, 4.64
Compares to the active ingredients in: Demarcus Ware
Simply put, the consensus No. 1 overall pick who, if he’s not chosen first, will confirm once and for all that of all the Cleveland Browns in the world, they’re the Cleveland Browniest. Garrett was already the prohibitive top pick before he went to the Indianapolis Kennel Club and won Best in Show. Across the board. Like I said at the time, he posted a 40-time that was not only tops among D-linemen, only three linebacker ran faster. He was only the second 270+ pounder ever to jump 40 inches. He benched 33 reps. And broad jumped 128.0 inches. The only guy I could compare him to on the measurables is Beasley. And Garrett has 2 inches and 40 pounds on him. But Combine numbers aside, he plays explosively. He’s got the size to have defensed five passes and blocked three kicks in his career. He’s flat out the best tackler in this group. He excelled against competition as good as La’el Collins and Laremy Tunsil. In short (and I know that’s no longer possible) he’s a more athletic Jadaveon Clowney.
The Next Great Tweener:
Solomon Thomas, Stanford. 6-3, 273 lb, 4.69
Compares to the active ingredients in: Aaron Donald
Like Donald, there’s no one claiming this kid can’t play tackle football. Or his athleticism, since his dad played college basketball and his mom was a tracklete and he was genetically engineered to be a pro athlete. Where scouts part company is on the question of “Where?” He’s generally listed among the edge players. But Stanford had him play mostly inside, like Donald. Personally, I’m riding into battle under the sigil of House Inside. He strikes me as a 4-3 one gap player who’s quick off the line and has great hand-fighting technique, but not so great out in space. He also shows non-stop hustle and will excel in that confined spaces role that made Warren Sapp a millionaire, hooker-beating Hall of Famer.
The Next Level Down:
Taco Charlton, Michigan. 6-6, 277 lb, 4.92
(Note: This is not Taco Charlton.)
Compares to the active ingredients in: Chandler Jones
Charlton is less flexible than Jones, but much more powerful. He’s the guy who’ll come at a blocker with a violent initial punch to knock him off balance, as opposed to finessing or quick-footing him around the edge. Which means he could stand to work on developing a Kellogg’s Variety Pack of moves. But that’s what you can expect from a guy with such limited experience. As a freshman, he was miscast as a 3-4 end, until Don Brown took over, converted to a 4-3 and put Charlton back in his natural habitat on the outside. And still only had 15 carrrer starts. He’ll likely go in the first round to a team that’s comfortable with sticking him out on the edge, giving him the flight hours and letting him develop.
Crimson Red Flags:
Tim Williams, Alabama. 6-3, 244 lb, 4.68
Compares to the active ingredients in: Bruce Irvin
Simply put, Williams is the best pure pass rusher in this position group. He times the snap better than anyone. He’s got a variety of moves to the inside or out, giving him the option of two ways to get to the quarterback on every drop back. In Nick Saban’s pro-style system he rushed from upright and from a 3-point stance. The problem is his production didn’t match the athleticism. In his first three seasons at Bama he had a grand total of 27 tackles, 19 of those in his junior year. But 12 of those tackles were sacks. And as a senior he added 31 tackles, 16 for a loss and 9 sacks. Despite only two starts in 2016 he made All-SEC. So some team that loves a pure, “pin your ears back” specialist, will fall in love with his production in that one area. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention he had gun charges and failed drug tests. But for the potential to get a true QB killer? Some GMs would sell their families to human traffickers. And someone will gladly risk a first rounder on him.
The Most Physical:
Derek Barnett, Tennessee. 6-3, 259 lb, 4.88
Compares to the active ingredients in: Robert Ayers
Barnett is that tough, nasty, sand-in-the-pants edge-setter that I still love to think has a role in an ever-increasingly finesse league. He’s flat out the best run defender in this group. He’s powerful. He’ll use good techniques like leverage and good hand-fighting to extricate himself from offensive tackles and obliterate tight ends. He anticipates run plays and will flow to the ball (good Deadpool), but in doing so draws a lot of offsides penalties (bad Deadpool). The consensus is that Barnett is one of those guys who lacks all the measurable skills and the ideal traits, but simply has a knack for making plays.
The Most Explosive
Takkarist McKinley, UCLA. 6-2, 250 lb, 4.59
Compares to the active ingredients in: Whitney Mercilus
McKinley is the Flash of this Justice League. The one with the speed, upfield burst and natural quickness to make him stand out. He’s a sudden mover-type who uses his speed to wear out offensive lines. As you might deduce from a guy who once posted a 10.58 in the 100 meters as a high schooler, he’s got a long stride and a great get-off. But as you’d expect even from a meta-human, all that comes at a price. What he has in speed he lacks in punch, bulk and leg drive. He’s tireless worker who makes effort plays. But somewhat limited since, at his size, you can’t ever put him on the inside.
An Interesting Choice for the Right System:
Ryan Anderson, Alabama. 6-2, 253 lb, 4.78
Compares to the active ingredients in: Ahmad Brooks
At Bama, Anderson toggled between the 3-4 and 4-3. (All Hail Saban.) And he’s considered the most coachable of this years edge rushers class. At times he lets his natural aggressiveness take over, which makes his technique sloppy. And due to his lack of size, when a play goes to the opposite side, he can get caught in the wash. But for a team that plays values speed over size, say Pittsburgh or Tennessee under Dick LeBeau, he can be a terrific fit.
The Perfect Patriot:
T.J. Watt, Wisconsin. 6-4, 252 lb, 4.65
Compares to the active ingredients in: Clay Matthews
Every year the Patriots go into the draft and the pundits say their top priority is a [opens the Cliche Generator App] “an edge rusher who’ll move the quarterback off his spot and help the secondary.” And miss the point of what kind of player they look for. [Stares at the Patriots Football Weekly crew and nods.] The rule on an edge in Patriots’ system is now, as always, “6-4, 4-6.” Meaning a guy who’s 6-4 or bigger, 4.6 or faster. They would no sooner put a Dwight Freeney or James Harrison out there than Dwight Shrute or Kevin James. Period. Rob Ninkovich is the rare exception, at a tiny 6-3 ½. But he plays a half inch bigger. And while I’m on the subject of Ninko, he turned 33 just before Super Bowl LI. Making him, after the quarterback and the kicker, the third oldest player on the team. Meaning the time to draft the next generational edge defender is upon us. Which brings us to Watt.
I say this with a heavy heart: Watt is the best fit here among the DE/OLBs with a reasonable expectation to be on the board. Which is not a knock on him. It’s me dreading a life where his brother J.J. gets even more hype than he already does, with his unique brand of Alpha Male/Media Darlingness. But there’s no getting around it. Watt the Younger just fits in New England. He’s often listed at the “Most Coachable” in this class. He’s versatile enough to have played Joker and 3-4 OLB for the Badgers. His quickness and play speed show up on his game tape. He was productive, with 63 tackles, 15.5 for loss and 11.5 sacks. He’s functional dropping into coverage. He comes into the league with a few NFL-caliber pass rush moves. A couple of knocks on him is the obvious fact that he’s only been a starter for one year and could stand to put some mass on that frame. But his intangibles are there. They’ve worked him out. And they can give him a year or more to develop behind the veteran ends they have. I’ll tolerate the insufferable J.J. references if it means getting this Watt.