CFF Overview: Edge – Top of the Crop
A deep position in the draft, the top of the edge defenders list is broken down by Ben Stockwell.
CFF Overview: Edge – Top of the Crop
A deep position in this year’s draft class, the edge rushers will surely be highlighted early and often as names are called. This ggroup has sorted themselves to the top of our ranks by their work done in their final college season. A mix of abilities and fits will have them as attractive options for a number of reasons and to a number of teams and here’s what stood out about their games to us:
Vic Beasley, Clemson
Though not the most productive pass rusher in this class during the 2014 college season, what Vic Beasley displayed was the foundation skills and production to be an elite pass rusher in the NFL. Beasley and Ray stood apart as the most explosive pass rushers in the class with their ability to get up the field and challenge pass protectors with their first step off the line of scrimmage. Huge games against the likes of North Carolina, NC State and South Carolina show Beasley’s potential to be a destructive threat, but he was consistent too, only grading below 0.0 as a pass rusher three times all season, with one of those coming against the triple option offense of Georgia Tech.
What Beasley must develop to go with his explosive outside rush (which accounted for 27 of his 40 pressures on the season) is a more rounded game as both a pass rusher and run defender. He flashed the ability to counter off his outside rush to inside and bullrush moves, with one sequence against Cameron Erving in Week 4 particularly impressive, but needs to do so more consistently with only seven pressures coming to the inside of blockers all last season. He has shown the ability to do it, but needs to do so more consistently to fulfil his potential to be an elite pass rusher in the NFL.
Signature Stat: Recorded multiple pressures in nine of 13 games during the 2014 NCAA season.
Dante Fowler Jr., Florida
Versatility was the name of Fowler’s game at Florida this season and he might be the most complete edge defender in this draft, able to jump in immediately and contribute on all three downs. Moved around a lot on the Gators’ defense last season we rarely got to see him settle on one position and really go to work against an opposing tackle over a series of pass rushes. In spite of that, Fowler was still able to be an extremely productive pass rusher, getting multiple pressures from a number of alignments similar to how the Ravens used Pernell McPhee in sub-packages.
Far more than just a pass rusher, Fowler is one of the best run defenders right now in the group of edge defenders available at the top of the draft, able to work unblocked to close on ball-carriers but also holding up to and working through blockers to find the runner and disrupt the play. Only twice all season did Fowler earn a negative game grade in run defense, finishing above +2.0 in five games over the course of the year.
Signature Stat: After being held without a pressure against Missouri, Fowler finished the season on a tear, recording 32 pressures in his final six games as a Gator.
Randy Gregory, Nebraska
There is so much to like about Randy Gregory as a player from his college tape, but the biggest question mark is whether he can add weight, maintain that weight and still be an explosive athlete while carrying it. Gregory displayed explosion at Nebraska on occasion, but most of his pressures came from engaging with pass protectors and reading their movements to counter off of the block rather than being let loose to put the tackle in a stressful situation with speed off the edge. In spite of that, Gregory was still a consistently productive pass rusher and added to that with some excellent work in run defense. He’s strong, not just for his size, and uses that to overpower pass protectors (as he did with a bullrush on Ereck Flowers in Week 4) and in run defense as well, consistently standing up and throwing off blockers.
The big question (on the field) for Gregory, however, all comes back to his weight, there were occasions in run defense where his quick first step got him into a good position but that he was surrendering at least 50 pounds to the offensive tackle (and more in a lot of cases) simply saw him moved off of the line of scrimmage and out of that good position. If Gregory cannot add weight, then a Von Miller-esque role as a base strong side linebacker and a situational pass rusher may have to be his future.
Signature Stat: Gregory was more productive standing up; he picked up 20 pressures on 91 rushes from a 2-point stance compared to 33 pressures on 226 rushes from a 3-point.
Shane Ray, Missouri
Off-field concerns have started to overshadow Ray in the days running up to the draft, but on the field his production is absolutely unquestionable. As revealed on our NBC Draft Show earlier this week Ray was the most productive pass rusher in this draft class and his explosive first step is right there with Vic Beasley’s. Ray’s explosion was so great this season at Missouri that the oft-quoted term of a pass rusher’s ability to “bend the edge” and “turn the corner” to the quarterback was moot. So often this season Ray was so much quicker off the snap than his opposing tackle was that he was almost able to just take a straight line to the quarterback.
Aside from the off-field concerns Ray does however have some concerns over his ability to change direction which was raised by his time in the three-cone drill at his pro day but was evident on tape both as a pass rusher but also changing direction to get to outside runs. However Ray’s explosion and work rate are key points on his side to see him turn into a quality NFL player. His desire to succeed and help the team was perhaps shown no better than his rushes at 3-tech against South Carolina, stepping into a position that doesn’t necessarily suit him but putting the work in to help the team and be productive nevertheless.
Signature Stat: Ray dominated in third and extra-long situations; on 51 pass rushes Ray racked up 12 pressures (8 Hu, 4 Sk).
Trey Flowers, Arkansas
You might have expected to see the first four names in this article but Flowers might be a surprise addition. One of our highest-graded edge defenders in this class, Flowers brings an all-around game that will allow him to contribute immediately as both a run defender and pass rusher. Though he only racked up six sacks for Arkansas this season, he posted a class-best 46 hurries including three of the four pressures that La’el Collins of LSU surrendered in the entire season.
While the other players here might be expected to jump in and be explosive threats wide off the edge, Flowers brings a different but very complete and still valuable game. A powerful threat over the tight end, he’s a strong run defender able to control the edge to disrupt ball-carriers as well as shedding to make stops. What we need to see more of from Flowers is his ability to generate pressure from the interior to ensure he stays on the field as a three-down player. We saw it against LSU to suggest that he can do it, but this was a rare foray to defensive tackle in college that may be more of a feature of his game in the NFL.
Signature Stat: More productive off the left side of the defense, Flowers picked up 35 pressures on 163 pass rush snaps off the left side compared to 26 pressures on 184 rushes off the right side.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.