In an effort to get through all of the positions before the draft, I’ll be just shortly naming some of the prospects to watch in this draft class, as well as some potential sleepers and maybe busts. This isn’t nearly as in depth as I’d prefer to go, but for the sake of getting them done, they’ll be pretty concise.
Ever since the 3-4 defense has risen to popularity, we have struggled to collectively group the position, now referred to as EDGE players. These are the 4-3 Defensive Ends and the 3-4 Outside Linebackers. More simply put, the players who play on the edge of the line of scrimmage. These are team’s primary pass rushers, and usually some of the highest paid players on defense. I’ll also be ranking and discussing what are now being called “Off-Ball Linebackers”, or the two inside Linebackers in a 3-4, or all 3 Linebackers in a 4-3.
This class offers you a bit of everything for both positions, and are headlined by some of the bigger names in the draft. The EDGE guys will dominate the headlines though, as the group is led by Vic Beasley, Shane Ray, Dante Fowler and Randy Gregory, four of the top prospects in this class. Linebacker leaves a bit to be desired at the top, but there is some definite talent in this class.
Top EDGE Prospect: Vic Beasley Clemson 6’3” 246
If we’re talking about the EDGE position as strictly a pass rusher, Beasley is as good as there has been since Von Miller, and many have compared their playing styles. Beasley has elite burst off of the line of scrimmage and that paired with his 4.53 speed gives Offensive Tackles nightmares of 3rd and longs. Beasley’s arms are a little short at 32 and a half inches long, but that hasn’t stopped him from producing at a big time level at Clemson the past two seasons, so it shouldn’t hamper him in the NFL either. Beasley best projects as a 3-4 OLB or as a LEO position, like Seattle, Jacksonville, and now Atlanta will employ.
Top LB Prospect: Shaq Thompson Washington 6’0” 228
I struggled to come up with the answer for this prompt, because the Linebackers at the top of the list are so diverse. Ultimately Shaq Thompson’s versatility and playmaking won me over, but I’m still torn. In his career at Washington, Shaq played Safety, Linebacker, and Runningback, playing well at each spot. Thompson makes plays, simply put. And I don’t know if there’s a quantifiable value to place on that, but Thompson just always seems to make things happen. He can disappear from time to time, but Thompson is a football player, a human chess piece if you will. He’s not great at any particular thing, but he’s good at so many things that he’s hard to avert your eyes from. I think he has to play the Weak Side Linebacker, or Will, in a 4-3 to be most effective, but he’s the type of player that; if he doesn’t fit your scheme, you need a different scheme, but truthfully he’s an athlete without a definite position.
Biggest Bust Potential: Shane Ray Missouri 6’3” 245
Missouri fans are probably sick of hearing this, but their most heralded and successful pass rusher is the subject of a lot of angst again this year. Shane Ray is a pass rusher who put up very impressive production, but where he wins won’t bring him as much success in the NFL. His strongest asset is probably his snap anticipation, which is a valuable skill to have, but it’s something that’s tough to rely on for success at the next level. Ray is also below average in certain athletic categories. Right now I’m going to plug Justis Mosqueda’s “#ForcePlayers#” Player Metric, and it basically uses a mathematical formula adjusted for each player to see the potential success rate for the player, and Ray struggles in many aspects of the formula that have given Draft Twitter reason to not want Ray on their team for a high selection. Ray could very well have a good NFL career, but he was being mocked by some in the Top 10 before his marijuana arrest the other day, and he just shouldn’t be selected that high, for his own sake, as well as the drafting teams’.
Biggest Sleeper: Hau’Oli Kikaha Washington 6’2” 253
Washington boasted one of the best pass rushes in the nation a year ago, and the nation’s sack leader and leader of the Huskies’ pass rush was Kikaha. Despite the big sack numbers, many are skeptical of the EDGE technician, pointing to his 4.9 40 yard dash and beat up knees as reasons to shy away from him. I, however, would love to add his pas rushing prowess to my team, at the right juncture of course. Once thought to be a 1st round pick, Kikaha has seen his stock slide, but I’d definitely be interested at the end of the 2nd round. With a background in Judo, Kikaha is elite at hand-fighting, and can make up for his lack of impressive athleticism with great fundamentals.
Ben Heeney Kansas 6’0” 231
The antithesis of a “run and hit” Linebacker, Heeney was all over the field for the Jayhawks, who could use all of the help that they could get. Although he can struggle to shed blockers due to his size, Heeney’s instincts usually lead him to the ball. Heeney led Kansas in tackles the past two seasons, and that type of production usually doesn’t happen by accident. He’s pretty scheme limited, with only possessing the frame to play in a 4-3, but Heeney’s effort and motor could lead him to being a solid special teams contributor also.
Small School Stud: Kyle Emanuel North Dakota St. 6’3” 255
Emanuel led the FCS in sacks last season, and was a huge reason that the Bison won their 4th straight national championship. The senior posted 19 ½ sacks last year, and although he won’t wow you physically, he simply outworks his opponents. He had a solid week at the Shrine Game, and displayed an array of pass rushing moves that he’ll need to be successful in the NFL as a Day 3 pick. Almost only a 3-4 OLB, Emanuel will be hampered by his very short arms (31 inches). His motor never stops, and Emanuel will probably make a practice squad and use his work ethic to make a roster and have a productive career as a special teamer that can rush off of the edge in Nickel packages.
My EDGE/LB Rankings:
- Vic Beasley Clemson 6’3” 246 Top 10
- Dante Fowler Jr. Florida 6’3” 261 Top 15
- Randy Gregory Nebraska 6’5” 235 Top 15
- Owa Odighizuwa UCLA 6’3” 267 1st Round
- Shane Ray Missouri 6’3” 245 1st Round
- Preston Smith Mississippi St. 6’5” 271 1st Round
- Nate Orchard Utah 6’3” 250 2nd Round
- Trey Flowers Arkansas 6’2” 266 2nd Round
- Eli Harold Virginia 6’3” 247 2nd Round
- Hau’Oli Kikaha Washington 6’2” 253 2nd Round
- Shaq Thompson Washington 6’0” 228 1st-2nd Round
- Stephone Anthony Clemson 6’3” 243 1st-2nd Round
- Bernardrick McKinney Mississippi St. 6’4” 246 2nd Round
- Eric Kendricks UCLA 6’0” 232 2nd Round
- Denzel Perryman Miami (FL) 5’11” 236 2nd-3rd Round
- Paul Dawson Texas Christian 6’0” 235 3rd Round
- Mike Hull Penn State 6’0” 237 3rd Round
- Ben Heeney Kansas 6’0” 231 4th Round
- Trey DePriest Alabama 6’0” 254 4th Round
- Hayes Pullard USC 6’0” 240 4th Round