The nature of defense in the NFL is changing.
Just a decade ago, we knew the difference between 4-3 defensive linemen and 3-4 outside linebackers. “Tweeners,” the players who didn’t quite fit into either category were shunned, no matter how well they played in college.
Former Giants’ GM Jerry Reese went out on a limb in drafting “tweener” Clint Sintim, who was the best pass rusher in college football, but was too small to be an NFL defensive end, and was too much of a “downhill” player to fit as an outside linebacker.
As it turns out, he was just ahead of his time.
Since then, the nature of college, and NFL, offenses has changed, and so too have defenses. Now many defenses are “multiple,” freely mixing and matching looks and concepts from a variety of schemes to match up with varied, unpredictable, and fast spread-based offenses. The shift in philosophies has created an important role for these players, who have gone from being “tweeners” to “EDGE” players.
The definition of an “edge” is still somewhat subjective, however. Personally, I use the term to define a player who can play either 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker depending on down, distance, package, and situation. These players are primarily pass rushers who specialize in knifing into the backfield and blowing up plays.
Here are the top 10 EDGE players in the 2018 NFL Draft class.
- Harold Landry (Boston College) - Landry will likely slip in the draft thanks to a down senior campaign marred by nagging injuries. However, his 2016 season was simply monstrous (50.0 tackles, 22 tackles for a loss, 16.5 sacks, 7 forced fumbles). He should be able to play both defensive end and rush linebacker and has explosive quickness off the snap and plenty of bend around the corner. Landry will need to improve his hand usage and play with more power, but as a speed rusher, he should be feared.
- Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (Oklahoma) - Okoronkwo dealt with injuries and played on a bad defense, but he is downright disruptive behind the line of scrimmage. He will likely be at his best as a rush linebacker in a 3-4 front, but he has the ability to put his hand on the ground in nickel situations.
- Marcus Davenport (Texas-San Antonio) - Davenport is being hyped up as a potential Top 10 pick by the media, and he certainly has the athletic upside for it. However, he isn’t yet the sum of his parts and needs to learn the finer points of being an edge rusher. At 6’6,” 260 pounds he looks like a defensive end, but at this point he is better playing standing up than in a 3-point stance. If he can add that to his arsenal, a defense could have a versatile, and freakishly athletic, weapon to use.
- Uchenna Nwosu (USC) - Nwosu is built to play down-hill. At 6’2,” 245 pounds, he isn’t going to be an every-down defensive end at the next level, but he can certainly play the “Elephant” linebacker role as a stand-up defensive end in a 3-4 front who puts his hand on the ground in nickel situations. Nwosu also brings power in the run game as well as great instincts for batting down passes (13 passes defensed in 2017).
- Lorenzo Carter (Georgia) - The Giants were (reportedly) smitten with Leonard Floyd in the 2016 draft. The long, lean, flexible outside linebacker from Georgia used his length and athleticism to get after passers, but was also capable of dropping in coverage. Carter is out of the same mold. He has a similar build and game, with the versatility to get after passers or drop in coverage, and could prove to be a value on the draft’s second day.
- Arden Key (LSU) - Key is another long, lanky defender with plenty of athleticism. Like Landry, he had a monster 2016 season with 55 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss, and 11 sacks, but he too missed time and saw a precipitous drop in production. There are also questions about his mentality and drive after he left the team for four months last spring. If his mind is “right” Key has talent that belongs in the top half of the first round, but there is risk.
- Jeff Holland (Auburn) - Holland will probably be a rush linebacker at the next level, and could be a very good one once he puts it all together. His 6’1,” 245-pound frame combines the power and a fluid athleticism to be a serious problem for blockers, but he needs to continue to hone the finer points of being a pass rusher.
- Josh Sweat (FSU) - Sweat would likely be higher on this list, but he suffered a devastating knee injury in high school (torn ACL and dislocated knee), that the NFL will need to evaluate thoroughly. If his knee holds up, he is has the power, agility, and hand usage to be a ready contributor in the NFL.
- Herculese Mata’afa (Washington State) - Mataafa is a player that teams will have to have a plan for when they draft him. He doesn’t fit easily into the NFL’s mold of a defensive end or linebacker, but he is good at what he does — disrupting offenses behind the line of scrimmage. He will need to go to a team with a creative and aggressive defensive scheme, but if the right team falls in love, he could go higher in the draft than some of the players above him on this list.
- Kemoko Turay (Rutgers) - Turay is a case of measurables and potential exceeding production. He has all the tools NFL scouts look for at 6’5,” 250 pounds, with long arms, agility, quickness, and flexibility. However, the production just isn’t there at this point, with just 19 tackles for a loss and 14.5 sacks in four years at Rutgers. If a team can unlock that potential, however, the result could be impressive.