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NFL Scouting Combine 2023: Edge defenders for Giants to watch

Will Big Blue get a dynamic rusher to match Thibodeaux?

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Texas A&M Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2022 NFL Draft, the New York Giants found the next face of their defense in rookie outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux, selecting the Oregon standout fifth overall. Despite a slow start, Thibodeaux’s tremendous speed and pass-rushing ability led him to become arguably one of the most intriguing young defenders in the NFL, totaling 48 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles, and a touchdown. Starting alongside him is fellow 22-year-old and former Georgia Bulldog Azeez Ojulari. Ojulari consistently flashed his intriguing upside but has struggled to stay healthy, playing in just six regular season games and only taking 22 snaps across Big Blue’s two postseason games.

On paper, the Giants have their edge duo of the future, coupled with solid rotational pieces such as Oshane Ximines and Jihad Ward. In his positional review, though, BBV’s Nick Falato notes that the team may look to add new names to the positional group, citing a need for more depth and Ojulari’s injury concerns. With the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine fast approaching, today we’re breaking down some of the best edge rushers who will be in attendance and on Big Blue’s radar ahead of this year’s draft.

Edge rushers to watch

Nolan Smith, Georgia

A two-time national champion with the Georgia Bulldogs, Nolan Smith is one of the defining faces of Kirby Smart’s elite defensive unit. Like Thibodeaux, Smith’s play is defined by his explosive speed, run-stopping ability, and using his tremendous strength pressure against opposing quarterbacks. Playing in the SEC, Smith faced off against the likes of the Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU Tigers, and Tennessee Volunteers, receiving a crash course in NFL prep and facing off against some of the nation’s most dominant institutions for offensive line development. Coupled with learning from one of the brightest defensive minds in college football in Smart, Smith has the talent and tutelage that should make him a reliable and serviceable piece in the NFL for years to come.

Despite Smith’s intriguing upside, there are concerns. After totaling 14 tackles and three sacks in eight games, Smith was sidelined for the remainder of the 2022 season after tearing his pectoral muscle, forcing him to miss out on Georgia’s College Football Playoff run. In addition, Smith’s skill in pass coverage leaves much to be desired, with his awareness and play recognition being a concern despite his impressive body of work on the line. Smith is projected to be a late first-round pick based on his upside — if he’s on the board at 25, Joe Schoen and company may find the prospect of pairing him with Thibodeaux too good to pass up.

Derick Hall, Auburn

In a conference known for its edge rushers, Derick Hall proved to be one of the best in the SEC in 2022. Out of Auburn, Hall was sensational in his senior year, totaling 41 tackles, 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception. Players and coaches alike took notice of Hall’s impressive output, rewarding him with First-Team All-SEC honors at the season’s conclusion. Coming in at 6’3 and 235 pounds, Hall possesses tremendous skill as an edge rusher, using his speed and strength to routinely bulldoze offensive tackles on his way to sacks and run stops in the backfield. In addition, Hall’s status as an Auburn team captain this past season adds even more upside to his already impressive arsenal of raw power, speed, and dominance at the SEC level.

While Hall’s pass-rushing ability is undeniable, there are a few holes in his game. In coverage, Hall has struggled to keep up with faster wideouts and tight ends, and can sometimes struggle with play recognition in instances where he’s dropped back. Furthermore, he is at times over-reliant on his physical strength, prompting him to be erratic on certain rush attempts and not employ a diverse set of moves off the edge. A projected Day 2 selection, Hall could be a prime target for Big Blue.

BJ Ojulari, LSU

Earlier in the article, we discussed that the Giants will be looking for an edge rusher in part due to injury concerns regarding Azeez Ojulari. What if the man who joins him is his younger brother?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds, as BJ Ojulari has cemented himself as a premier threat in college football over the past three seasons. In his junior year at LSU under first-year coach Brian Kelly, Ojulari was a force, totaling 36 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and one forced fumble en route to earning First-Team All-SEC honors. A team captain, Ojulari possesses a quick first step and a dangerous hesitation move, routinely throwing opposing linemen off and leaving himself a clear path into the backfield. Ojulari is particularly dangerous against read-option plays, with tremendous recognition on ball fakes, and his speed on blitzes constantly left opposing quarterbacks scrambling for their lives within seconds of the ball being snapped. Ojulari was also used as a linebacker in certain packages, showing off skill in coverage in a dangerous SEC.

While Ojulari’s speed and technique are impressive, his frame may prove to be a concern. At the next level, he will likely need to add on more muscle to match up against tougher tackles, as well as polish his ability to attack the ball on pressures and run plays. Projected as a late first/early second-round pick, Ojulari could be in contention to hear his name called by the Giants with the 25th pick, reuniting him with his brother and making the 2023 campaign a family affair in East Rutherford.

Others of note

  • Felix Anudike-Uzomah, Kansas State: a quick pass rusher whose greatest strength is against the run
  • Dylan Horton, TCU: with an imposing frame and impressive hand technique, he throws offensive linemen to the turf with ease on first contact
  • Will McDonald IV, Iowa State: a lengthy, high-motor rusher with loads of upside
  • Byron Young, Tennessee: possesses great play recognition and ability to stop the run
  • KJ Henry, Clemson: an early-down rusher who excels in blitz packages
  • Andre Carter II, Army: a raw prospect with an enticing physical arsenal and promising rushing ability