Inside information is gold for NFL teams as they plan for the 2021 NFL Draft, especially in a year where the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted the normal scouting and evaluation process. If the Giants want the scoop on Georgia edge rusher Azeez Ojulari, who many think is the draft’s best edge rusher, they don’t have to look far.
All they have to do is talk to Ojulari’s college roommate. That just happens to be Andrew Thomas, the player the Giants took No. 4 overall out of Georgia a season ago.
Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning got to watch Ojulari and Thomas square off day after day in practice.
“Whenever it got between the grass, man, they weren’t roommates anymore. These guys competed,” Lanning said. “There’s a mutual respect, but there was a competition every single day between those two.”
Lanning said the mano-a-mano tests between Thomas and Ojulari “went back-and-forth.”
“Both those guys are elite players,” he said.
If the edge rusher-hungry Giants were to select Ojulari in Round 1 it would be the third straight year in which the Giants chose a former Bulldog in the first round. Last year it was Thomas. In 2019, DeAndre Baker. GM Dave Gettleman has also chosen two other former Georgia players for the Giants, linebacker Tae Crowder in Round 7 last year and edge Lorenzo Carter in Round 3 of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Lanning said the Giants were “A great place for all those guys to land. I certainly hope Azeez can get up there with them.”
Does Ojulari deserve to be the 11th overall pick and perhaps the first edge rusher selected in the 2021 NFL Draft?
“I’ll say this. I don’t know who’s a better edge player than Azeez Ojulari in this draft. I spend all of my time looking at our players. Is he as good an edge player as I’ve ever seen? Yeah. He’s really talented,” Lanning said.
“I just think he’s a can’t miss, from the standpoint of I know how hard he’s gonna work wherever he goes when he gets there to earn his keep. What a pleasure he’ll be for whatever coaching staff he goes to.
“For all those reasons I think he’s definitely a first-round talent. Let’s put it this way — if I was in an NFL team I’d be begging to draft Azeez just because I know what you’re gonna get, the return on investment.”
Giants GM Dave Gettleman said recently that the Giants are looking for an immediate impact from whoever they take at No. 11.
“It’s really hard to take a guy at 11 that you’re betting on the potential,” Gettleman said. “In the NFL, I’ve got to be really cognizant of the coaches. They’re under the pressure to win all the time. Every Sunday is a referendum on their skills as coaches and you’ve got to be really careful when you start taking guys that high that you love the physical skills and the potential, but how long is it going to take for it to show on the field? So that’s kind of the balance I have to get to, to answer your question.”
Ojulari doesn’t turn 21 until mid-June. At that tender age and with just one fully-developed, signature pass move in his arsenal it’s fair to ask if Ojulari can give the Giants the early contribution they are looking for in a first-round pick.
“There’s not a lot of times you can say a guy’s going to contribute and you know what he’s going to be at the next level,” Lanning said. “To me, you know what you’re getting with Azeez. He’s very consistent, he’s very deliberate in what he does from a work ethic standpoint. I know there’s no such thing as a ‘can’t miss,’ but he’s as close as you could get in my opinion.”
Draft analyst Dane Brugler of The Athletic has Ojulari as his top-ranked edge rusher. He recently told the ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast why he believes Ojulari would be a good choice at No. 11.
“Azeez Ojulari, he is the top guy for me. Twenty years old and coming off a season where he led the SEC in sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles. There’s a lot to like about the raw talent,” Brugler said.
“There’s a lot to like with Azeez Ojulari, just the natural tools, but then you also factor in he has the instincts. He can play the run and the pass. He’s not just a one-trick pony. With Azeez Ojulari I do not think 11 would be too early. I think in a lot of ways that makes sense.
“If he were the pick at 11, hat tip to the Giants. I think they would get the best pass rusher in the draft and I think they get a good player.”
Lanning also said he thought Ojulari would be a “great fit” for Patrick Graham’s multiple defense, one which requires edge defenders to do a multitude of things beyond rushing the passer.
“We have a great respect and admiration for Pat and the system he runs, but I think he also respects what we do here at Georgia and how we play on defense and understands that our guys will come in with a little bit of an understanding of what they’re doing [in New York] already,” Lanning said. ‘When you take a guy from our program there’s going to be a lot of mutual carryover from both of our systems. It would be great if he ends up there.”
Appearing on the ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast himself a couple of months ago, Crowder also praised Ojulari.
“Man, I love playing with Azeez. He’s going to give you everything he’s got, comes to work each and every day, student of the game, wants to be great, wants to win every play,” Crowder said. “You can’t ask for another teammate like him. He tries to do all the right things, pays attention to the small things. I think he’s going to keep improving.”
Ojulari was named a team captain at Georgia as a redshirt freshman, a year after he spent his true freshman season on the scout team until playing while rehabbing a torn ACL. In Kirby Smart’s six seasons as Georgia head coach, Ojulari is the only freshman (eligibility-wise) to be voted a team captain by his peers.
“Because of the way he works,” Smart said at the Georgia Pro Day. “It says a lot of credit when you take votes from your team and everybody gets to vote for their captain — he received the most votes of any kid we’ve ever had.
“The reason he did that, he didn’t lobby for votes, he got it because of the way he works. It speaks for itself. The players see it. We see it as coaches, and he’s earned that.”
Smart, for what it’s worth, was on Nick Saban’s Alabama coaching staff with Joe Judge.
Here is an Ojulari scouting report from The Ringer:
Ojulari has a rugged, muscled-up frame with long arms. Playing out of both two- and three-point stances, he has a quick first step off the line, can turn the corner, dip his shoulder, and bend to the quarterback. He plays with excellent balance and agility and has a varied arsenal of pass-rush moves, including an effective pull-rip move and a bounding cross-chop/club move, like he used on his game-winning sack-safety in the Peach Bowl against Cincinnati (a game in which he had three sacks and was named the defensive MVP). He has a strong motor and always plays to the whistle. Ojulari is experienced dropping back and playing in space in zone coverage, and even runs with pass catchers in man at times. He’s alert to get his hands up into passing lanes (two pass deflections in 2020), and has a knack for dislodging the ball from offensive players (four forced fumbles last season). He finished with an SEC-best 8.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss in 2020, leading his team with 35 QB pressures. He grabbed 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 2019.
Ojulari is a disciplined run defender. He stacks offensive linemen and keeps his eyes in the backfield to maintain his leverage and stay in position. He strings runs out and holds the edge, pushing the runner back inside and to his help. He’s smart and shows awareness of screens. The Bulldogs standout is versatile, and capable of rushing with his hand in the dirt or standing up. He always plays with great effort and to the whistle. Ojulari is a bit undersized and needs to develop a few more counters to his outside rush. He’s such a good threat to the outside that he could really make some hay with a few more inside moves.
The “he doesn’t have enough pass rush moves” criticism is one you hear constantly in regards to Ojulari. “I just kinda laugh” about it, said Lanning.
He pointed out that Jason Taylor of the Miami Dolphins made the Hall of Fame based off one pass rush move, a long arm. Dwight Freeney compiled 125.5 sacks and was named All-Pro three times based mostly off a devastating spin move. Giants fans will remember that Osi Umenyiora made a pretty good living and won the Giants a lot of games as a pure speed rusher.
“That’s what I kinda hammer home with Azeez. Why would you try to have 15 pass rush moves when you have one that’s really effective, one that works. And then you have a complement off of that where you can counter rush off of that,” Lanning said. “That’s what I think Azeez has done a good job of.”
Lanning believes that Ojulari does have the ability to develop and display more pass rush moves. He’s just not completely sure Ojulari will actually need them.
“Ultimately, why would you not do something that works? It’s obviously been very effective for him,” Lanning said.
“You go look at the Pro Bowl. Every elite pass rusher has a signature move. Whether that be Dwight Freeney on the spin move, Jason Taylor on the long arm. That’s what I think makes Azeez special is he has a signature move, but why would you not want that?”
We will find out soon enough if Ojulari’s skillset is something the Giants value enough to make him their first pick in the draft.