7 pass-rush specialists in the 2016 NFL draft class
Our data gives us unique insight into the natural strengths and weaknesses of every prospect. In this year’s draft class, there are a number of defenders with huge pass rush grades that did not show NFL-level production against the run in college.
Five years ago, the league may have overlooked many of these players altogether, but the specialization of the modern game and the priority placed on rushing the passer has significantly upgraded the viability of many of these one-dimensional prospects.
These pass-rush specialists are littered throughout the draft class and attainable in every round. Here is a list of seven of our favorite EDGE talents and the round values we project for them:
Round 1: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
Calhoun finished the college season with our second-highest pass rush grade off the edge (+44.0). Possessing the frame, length and athleticism to play DE in a 4-3 scheme or OLB in a 3-4, he is one of the best pure speed rushers, as he can win with first-step quickness to the edge and his impressive ability to bend and dip around the corner.
While his 11 sacks and 67 total pressures in 2015 are impressive figures, he seemed to disappear for stretches, and did not hold up well against the run (+1.5). At 6-foot-4 and 251 pounds (measurements are from this year’s scouting combine) he will need to add at least another 10-15 pounds to his frame to hold the line of scrimmage more consistently on run plays, but his body type should allow him to do so.
If Calhoun bulks up to a better playing weight and plays with more snap-to-snap consistency, he has the potential to be a productive player in every phase of the defense — not just rushing the passer as he did at Michigan State.
Round 2: Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State
Ogbah frustrated on run plays in 2015 (ranked 73rd in the EDGE class), but was third on pass rushes as he posted 12 sacks and 69 total pressures. He plays with good strength on the edge, showing the ability to win to the outside with rips and bull rushes, although his agility turning the corner is not at the level of Calhoun (as was verified by his unimpressive combine short-shuttle of 4.50 seconds and 3-cone of 7.26 seconds).
One of the main concerns with Ogbah’s game is his inconsistent pad level. Especially on run plays, he tended to get too upright at the snap, allowing blockers to get into his framework and drive him down the line of scrimmage, making him a frequent directional target of opposing offenses. When he did display proper leverage (normally on pass rushes), he flashed the ability to get movement off the ball.
In order to become the rusher he is capable of being in the NFL he will not only need to show more consistency in terms of not getting too high at the snap, but also demonstrate the ability to diversify his attack with countermoves. He has the length and size to play the run at the next level, but Ogbah is likely to be a purely situational player during the early years of his career.
Round 3: Kamalei Correa, Boise State
Correa is a unique prospect because despite his clear skill set as a pass rusher, he saw 234 snaps in coverage over the past two seasons. While 3-4 OLB is the best fit for him in the NFL, he needs to be attacking the QB and not defending the pass, as his +16.3 pass rush grade over just 250 rush snaps in 2015 would put him with the top edge rushers in the class if averaged out to a full workload.
He gets washed out of run plays far too often (+3.2 in 2016), but plays like the one above display his explosiveness and versatility as a pass rusher. He has an outstanding first step which allows him to consistently take the edge, and when aggressive with his hands can translate speed to power effectively in order to collapse the pocket.
Eight sacks was a solid total in 2015, but he left too many plays on the field and does not appear to have the closing speed needed to finish consistently. Despite this, and his struggles against the run, his athletic skills at the snap are virtually unmatched in the draft class, and because of this he is worth selection on Day 2 despite clearly being a situational player at this stage.
Round 4: Yannick Ngakoue, Maryland
With 13 sacks and 45 total pressures, Ngakoue was highly productive rushing the passer last year, but his porous run defense (-10.4) will almost certainly push him to Day 3. He doesn’t flash the same explosion off the snap that Correa does, but he does flash heavy hands, which allows him to bull effectively and set up a variety of moves.
Unfortunately, that skill set he demonstrates on the edge has yet to translate to the run game, and considering how poorly he graded (sixth-worst in the EDGE class), his NFL team simply can’t leave him on the field on run downs. Ngakoue is one of just three EDGE draft prospects with a negative run grade and a pass rush grade of at least +20, but the ways in which he wins when attacking the QB suggest he has the capacity to learn the run game as long as his NFL team is patient with his development.
Round 5: Dadi Nicholas, Virginia Tech
Nicholas is one of the other two aforementioned EDGE players in this class with a negative run grade (-2.9) and an appreciably higher pass rush grade (+21.9). His pressure numbers (three sacks, 49 total pressures) are particularly impressive because he so often rushed from the interior despite weight only 235.
He has the athletic profile of a 3-4 OLB, but as he showed throughout Senior Bowl week, his transition to playing off the ball is not going to be natural or smooth. He lacks the length and natural strength to shed blockers, and needs to rely on his athleticism to free himself.
When he does have space, which playing on the EDGE will naturally give him, he flashes the burst, agility and motor to consistently make plays in the backfield. Nicholas, our No. 161 overall prospect, is clearly a player who can’t be rushed on the field for a variety of reasons. However, considering his skill as a pass rusher as well as his athleticism and high energy, he can be used to attack the QB and will likely be effective on special teams.
Round 6: Alex McCalister, Florida
McCalister measured 6-foot-6 and 239 pounds at the combine, which immediately flags him as a player that will need to add significant weight for the next level. His workout numbers suggest he has the physical ability to transition to off the ball in a 3-4 (4.01 second 3-cone time), however, and those numbers match what he showed on film at Florida.
His ability to dip low on the edge is impressive for a player of his height, and it will serve him well at the next level as long as he learns to integrate countermoves into his arsenal.
While his potential as a pass rusher is apparent, he is at this stage a liability against the run because he lacks the strength to hold up at the point of attack. If he can add significant weight to his frame and improve his playing strength he could develop into a more complete player, but as he is now he’d be a gamble if taken any higher than our ranking of him (No. 169) suggests.
Round 7: Ian Seau, Nevada
Seau (the nephew of the late great Junior Seau) is the third and final EDGE prospect in this year’s class with a huge pass rush grade (+30.0) and negative run grade (-2.4). His play against the run was particularly disturbing because he was too often literally tossed around by Mountain West-level talent, showing that he clearly needs time with an NFL weight program if he is to have any hope of stacking up to NFL talent.
He also did not display impressive athleticism relative to the level of competition he faced, but his excellent hand usage allowed him to keep edge defenders off balance in pass protection.
Seau is another late round candidate (our 219th overall prospect) that could see the field on special teams, as well as the pass rush. Regardless of his athletic and strength deficiencies, his hustle and ability to set up an assortment of moves at the college level was impressive, which makes him worth trying to develop.