Part 6, Edge: It's a do-or-die decision
The 2022 NFL Draft is defined by a paramount position. Aidan Hutchinson is the safest bet, Kayvon Thibodeaux is this year's ultimate boom-or-bust and, no, the scouts do not hold back.
This is the 38th year in which Bob McGinn has written and NFL draft series. Previously, it appeared in the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1985-’91), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1992-’17), BobMcGinnFootball.com (2018-’19) and The Athletic (2020-’21). Until 2014, personnel people often were quoted by name. The series reluctantly an all-anonymous format in 2015 at the request of most scouts … The 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test was not administered at the NFL scouting combine this year, possibly for the first time. Therefore, players generally took the test at spring timing days in 2021 or at pro days in the past two months. The NFL average score is about 19.
Today: Edge rushers.
No position in the draft can match the edge rushers for its number of blue-chip prospects at the top, its outrageously deep middle class and its talented though troubled individuals that will tempt teams in the second and third day.
Other than quarterback, pass rush is the name of the game in the NFL of today. Strike it rich in this area and your defense, possibly your entire team, might improve swiftly. Miss and, well, your team will have blown a wonderful opportunity.
“It’s the entire draft right there,” said an executive for an NFC team that is among the multitude seeking to upgrade its rush.
In the last five drafts, a total of 59 edge rushers, 11.8 per year, has been selected in the first three rounds. That number could approach 20 this week.
“It probably is the best position,” said an AFC executive, “and it’s an important position. It’s where the money’s being spent. It’s affecting games more than some other positions are affecting games.”
There likely aren’t radical variances in the way teams rank the edge rushers. They have the same names the general public does. The winners are those that consistently choose wisely between what often are two closely rated players.
“What it’s all about,” the AFC exec said.
Laughing, another AFC personnel man added, “No pressure at all.”
In 2017, the Falcons were coming off an appearance in the Super Bowl and weren’t picking until No. 31. With a pass rush ranked 26th, GM Thomas Dimitroff engineered a deal with Seattle in which Atlanta advanced five slots to No. 26 in exchange for third- and seventh-round choices.
His choice was edge rusher Takk McKinley when T.J. Watt was available and would go four picks later to the Steelers. McKinley became a bust and the rush didn’t improve, Watt became a star and Dimitroff, for many reasons, was fired 3 ½ years later.
In 2019, the Raiders were looking pass rush at No. 4. Their choice was Clelin Ferrell, another bust. On the board were three players that have become top-notch rushers: Josh Allen (No. 7 to Jacksonville), Rashan Gary (No. 12 to Green Bay) and Brian Burns (No. 16 to Carolina). Again, the awful miscue on Ferrell by GM Mike Mayock (in coordination with coach Jon Gruden) didn’t get Mayock fired in January, but it certainly didn’t help.
Late at night in the spring of the year, a GM might stand alone gazing upon his painstakingly arranged draft board just as Richard Nixon gazed (and spoke) at portraits of his presidential predecessors in the White House almost 50 years ago. Football decision-makers can feel so magnificently prepared, but when the human element is at play they can never be 100% which of those player cards affixed to that board will help save his job and which of those player cards will get him fired.
“There’s a lot of intriguing (edge) guys,” a veteran evaluator of many drafts said. “But half of them will (bust). You know it for sure. You can ignore it, but some of these guys aren’t going to make it.”
But try the GMs must, the value at the position demanding it be so.
So which players should GMs be especially wary of this year? Michigan’s David Ojabo, a one-year wonder if there ever was one and, since March 18, a player dealing with a torn Achilles’ tendon, demands extra attention.
In a poll of 17 scouts seeking the answer to which of the leading players has the best chance to bust, Ojabo led with 7 ½ votes. He was followed by Kayvon Thibodeaux (three), Drake Jackson (two), George Karlaftis (two), Travon Walker (1 ½) and Boye Mafe (one).
Conspicuous by his absence in the vote was Aidan Hutchinson, a player often described as the safest of picks.
The panel also was asked for their choice as best pure pass rusher in the draft. Five players received mentions, including six each for Hutchinson and Thibodeaux, three for Jermaine Johnson and one each for Jackson and Walker.
“Kayvon and Aidan are not like Myles Garrett or Von Miller or Khalil Mack from a pass-rushing standpoint,” an AFC personnel man said. “Some of them this year may be more physically talented than the Bosa brothers but they’re not as gifted with their hand use. This is not a very strong draft.”
Finally, the 17 evaluators rated the edge rushers 1-2-3-4-5, with a first-place vote worth 5 points, a second-place vote worth 4 and so on.
Hutchinson, with 78 points and 13 firsts, was the runaway winner. Following, in order, were Walker (51, two), Thibodeaux (45, one), Johnson (31, one), Ojabo (18 ½), Karlaftis (16), Jackson (7 ½), Josh Paschal (four), Arnold Ebiketie (two), DeAngelo Malone (one) and Mafe (one).
“There’s the top four, then there’s about eight guys beyond that that will be drafted (high),” said an AFC exec. “You’re just going to have to be fortunate to (pick) the one that turns out to be the best.”
RANKING THE EDGE RUSHERS
1. AIDAN HUTCHINSON, Michigan (6-6 ½, 268, 4.76, 1): Finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy after setting the school single-season record with 14 sacks. “I wouldn’t say he has the biggest upside,” one scout said. “But I would trust him the most for having a consistent impact. Some people say Jared Allen. Some people brought up Michael Strahan. If that’s what he is, he might be a Hall of Famer. It will be hard for him to bust unless he just gets hurt.” Was also compared by scouts to Maxx Crosby, Nick Bosa and Joey Bosa. “Kind of like a big windup toy,” a second scout said. “Good get-off and relentless chase for a big man. Little tightness in his back. Has strong arm punch and leg drive to walk back the left tackle. Also has a dip and rip running the hoop to beat them at the top of the rush.” Was a defensive lineman in a 4-3 from 2018-’20 before moving to OLB in a 3-4 last year. “In a normal NFL draft, where a couple quarterbacks are going in the top 5, Hutchinson is a fringe top-10 guy,” said a third scout. “The downside is what you see is probably what you’re going to get. There’s not a lot of upside left for him. He’s definitely a little maxed out. He played well this year. You cannot deny that. He played hard, worked hard. He’s got a lot of hand action. He’s a polished pass rusher. But, man, there are times you see him get blocked, and he’s going to get blocked a lot. He’s got a hard-charging style. He’s a culture guy.” Returned from the broken ankle that he suffered in Game 3 of 2020 for a final season and led Wolverines to a victory over Ohio State, a Big Ten championship and a berth in the CFP semifinals. “I saw his interview after the Big Ten Championship Game and I said to myself, ‘I’m taking him,’” said a fourth scout. “This kid is so confident, so mature. If his new coach says, ‘I want you to take over the locker room,’ I think he can.” Didn’t run particularly well and his arms measured merely 32 1/8 inches, alarmingly the shortest of the top 25 edge rushers. However, his short shuttle (4.15) and 3-cone (6.73) times led the position. His Wonderlic score was 23. “He’s got self-awareness and knows he’s not the greatest athlete,” said a fifth scout. “He doesn’t have things maybe the top athletes do so he compensates with other elements to make himself this really good player. That’s how he’s gotten to where he is. If you just said, ‘Go win this one-on-one rush,’ I could give you the Oregon kid or the other Michigan kid.” Finished with 160 tackles (28 for loss), 18 ½ sacks, four forced fumbles and nine passes defensed. “I know what he is,” said a sixth scout. “But you know what? In the National Football League today you’ve got to have a degree of athleticism or else you’re not going to win. You can be tricky dicky all you want but he’s not the Bosa boys.” From Plymouth, Mich.
2. TRAVON WALKER, Georgia (6-5, 270, 4.59, 1): Third-year junior, one-year starter at DE in a multiple-front defense. “He’ll be a 4-3 D-end, especially if he goes in the top 10,” one scout said. “A 4-3 team will take him. You’re not going to take him as a 5-technique or try to stand him up. He had five (actually six) sacks this year, then showed up at the combine and had a phenomenal workout. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by that … Georgia is a little bit more of a two-gap scheme than get up the field. There’s a theory among coaches that run 4-3 that this guy is going to thrive in an attack front. He very well might. There are clips where he’s super impressive chasing the ball. He can run for a big man. But when I see him going second, first, third or fourth, I’m, like, ‘Wow, he’s going to go higher than his sack total.’ That’s unheard of. People of this generation have forgotten about Mike Mamula. If he goes (high) you might be saying, ‘OK, maybe this guy is Mike Mamula.’” Started all 15 games in 2021 after playing in 21 games in 2019-’20. “He excites you,” another scout said. “Loved watching his tape. He’s not even close to his potential. He played zero, 3-tech, 5-tech and rushed from 7. If they just ever turn him loose he’s going to be a problem. He plays his ass off. His upside is incredible. With his motor, it’s going to be hard for him to fail unless there’s something in his makeup that allows him to.” His arm length (35 ½) and hand size (10 ¾) led the position. Wonderlic of 11. “He’s a D-end that when you rush the passer he can rush inside,” said a third scout. “He could be (Za’Darius Smith). He doesn’t have the most ideal rush productivity but the guy’s disruptive. Pressures, hits, knockdowns … those things are just as important. He needs to be going forward. They get drafted to go get the quarterback.” Finished with 65 tackles (13 for loss), 9 ½ sacks, one forced fumble and four passes defensed. “I just don’t see a guy that’s going to make a clear-cut difference in your football team,” a fourth scout said. “Is he a Bosa? No. He has more twitch than Hutchinson. He’s not Von Miller by any stretch. I don’t see a well thought-out arsenal of pass rush. I’m not sure that 3-technique isn’t where he belongs.” From Thomaston, Ga.
3. KAYVON THIBODEAUX, Oregon (6-4, 256, 4.63, 1): Played both up and down on the outside in a 3-4 defense. “He’s the best pure pass rusher if he plays hard all the time and acts like he likes football,” said one scout. “Does he like playing in the NFL, or like the NFL lifestyle and what that entails? If you put Hutchinson’s heart in Thibodeaux’s body then you’d have Myles Garrett.”