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PFF 2021 College Preseason Ted Hendricks Award Watch List: Best defensive end in college football

Nov 21, 2020; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Nik Bonitto (11) reacts at the end of the first half against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

College football award watch season has finally arrived, which means it’s time for PFF to reveal preseason picks for the most prestigious honors in the game.

Today, we dive into the Ted Hendricks Award, given each year to the best edge defender in college football.

With the help of PFF’s College Football Preview Magazine, PFF grades, advanced stats and, of course, the tape, here is a look at PFF’s favorites and a list of other names to watch.

Editor's note: This is a PFF preseason award watch list that is in no way affiliated with the Hendricks Award.

PFF's 2021 College Football Preview Magazine offers a one-of-a-kind deep dive into every team and every conference in the FBS. You'll get PFF grades, position breakdowns, betting predictions, accuracy data and more, making it the only resource you'll need to prepare for the 2021 college football season.

1. NIK BONITTO, OKLAHOMA

Bonitto might be the most underrated player in college football. The rush-end led all FBS edge defenders in pass-rush grade (93.6), pass-rush win rate (28%) and pressure rate generated (25.7%) in 2020. Bonitto ranks in the top five in all three metrics among Power Five edge defenders since PFF began grading college football seven years ago.

Bonitto’s explosiveness and athleticism caused headaches for every offensive tackle he faced in 2020, and no lineman could shut him down. His lowest win rate in a single game this past year sat at 17.6% — a pretty solid day for most FBS edge rushers.

2. KAYVON THIBODEAUX, OREGON

Thibodeaux’s 2020 campaign started slowly, but he looked like an elite edge defender over his final four games (out of seven on the year). Thibodeaux ranked as one of the best players at his position over that span, boasting an 87.2 PFF grade that included a 12-pressure performance against USC and Alijah Vera-Tucker — a first-round pick in 2021 — in the Pac-12 championship game.

If you were to build a perfect college pass rusher among those playing next year, Thibodeaux’s get-off and bend would be precisely what you'd want. He is an elite talent who is bound for a monstrous 2021. Circle his Week 2 contest against the best tackle duo in college football — Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere — as the Ducks take on the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio.

3. DEMARVIN LEAL, TEXAS A&M

Leal has a lot of power in his 6-foot-4, 290-pound frame, and it showed routinely this past season. He notched an 80.0-plus grade as both a run defender and a pass rusher in 2020, something only four other Power Five edge defenders accomplished. Leal displayed improved hand usage and a deadly push-pull all season, but they were especially prevalent in his performance against the Florida Gators, which earned him a career-high PFF grade (89.1).

He was a consistent performer in 2020, recording an 88.3 season PFF grade and a single-game PFF grade north of 70.0 in nine of his 10 outings. Leal may be 290 pounds, but he sure doesn’t play like it with his athleticism. Needless to say, he is living up to his five-star recruiting status.

4. AIDAN HUTCHINSON, MICHIGAN

Hutchinson played only three games in 2020 before suffering a season-ending leg injury, but the Wolverine seemed to be on his way to taking that next step forward on a mere 149 snaps (82.5 PFF grade). With a clean bill of health, he is quite easily one of the best all-around defensive linemen in college football.

The 6-foot-6, 269-pounder is versatile, has incredible power behind his hands and is one of the more polished players at the position. Hutchinson produced an 83.6 run-defense grade and 27 run stops along with a 76.0 pass-rush grade and 46 total pressures in 2019. He never really put together a dominant performance from start to finish in 2019 like others on this list, but he was consistently good throughout the year. We need to see more elite outings in 2021, and Hutchinson easily has the potential to make that happen.

Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) throws the ball under pressure from Oregon Ducks defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) in the second quarter during the Pac-12 Championship at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

5. MYJAI SANDERS, CINCINNATI

Sanders broke out as a true sophomore in 2019 with an 82.8 pass-rushing grade before taking his play to elite status in Year 3. The 6-foot-5, 258-pound speed rusher posted a 90.1 pass-rushing grade in 2020 that featured four or more pressures in all but one of his games played (he had three in his worst pass-rush outing of the year).

He’ll see quite a few tackles with middling athleticism in the AAC, and most of those guys simply cannot handle his short-area quickness. Sanders also possesses the length desired on the edge, which helped him get his mitts on five batted passes last season. Cincinnati boasts a monstrous defense again in 2021, with Sanders among the many reasons why.

6. WILL ANDERSON JR., ALABAMA

Anderson came to Alabama as a five-star recruit who ranked in the top 20 of the 2020 class, according to 247Sports. He finished his first season in Tuscaloosa with a whopping 60 pressures, more than double that of any other true freshman and the most in the entire FBS. Sure, the 13 total games he played helped, but Anderson's 17.4% pressure rate still ranked eighth in the FBS, and his 19.5% win rate ranked 24th.

Anderson has the requisite flexibility and bend for an edge rusher. He also blew up several run plays en route to an 81.1 run-defense grade. Very few true freshmen come close to those kinds of numbers.

The sky’s the limit for Anderson in 2021. He put up crazy numbers for someone of his age and still has room to grow with his technique. I’d bet on him producing at an elite level for the Crimson Tide this fall.

Jan 1, 2021; Arlington, TX, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Kyren Williams (23) is brought down by Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (31) during the first half in the Rose Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

7. DEMETRIUS TAYLOR, APPALACHIAN STATE

Taylor decided to make use of his “super senior” season and return to Appalachian State for a fifth and final campaign, a welcome sight for the Mountaineers. Taylor sat among the few players to earn a 90.0-plus pass-rushing grade in 2020, and he came away with an impressive 20.6% pass-rush win rate (15th in the FBS). The 6-foot-1, 295-pound defensive end is one of few players capable of catching Myjai Sanders for No. 1 Group of Five pass rusher in 2021.

8. TYREKE SMITH, OHIO STATE

Smith came to Columbus as a top-35 recruit in the 2018 class, according to 247Sports, but didn’t see the field on a consistent basis until the 2020 season. The 6-foot-4, 267-pound edge rusher looked as good as many had hoped, posting an 85.1 pass-rushing grade, a 25.3% pass-rushing win rate (fourth in the FBS) and a 22.3% pressure rate generated (second in the FBS).

Smith routinely showed an ability to attack with quickness and win with power. He essentially played only half a season in 2020 (seven games) and was in the midst of a big-time breakout. Expect that to continue in 2021 and for Smith to end up in the elite tier of pass rushers by the campaign's conclusion.

9. BRENTON COX JR., FLORIDA

Cox began his college career in Athens as a Georgia Bulldog but transferred to Gainesville after his 2018 true freshman campaign. He was a highly sought-after five-star recruit and certainly looked the part in Year 1 with Georgia as a key reserve, though he didn’t do significant damage as a pass rusher.

That changed in his first season with Florida. After sitting out the 2019 season due to transfer rules, the outside linebacker posted an 80.8 pass-rush grade, an 18% pass-rush win rate and 48 total pressures. He never single-handedly took over a game but was a consistently impactful player week in and week out going up against the toughest competition in the SEC. Cox is bound to be a handful again in his second year with the starting job.

Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Florida Gators linebacker Brenton Cox Jr. (1) during the game against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

10. ADAM ANDERSON, GEORGIA

Anderson has yet to start a single game in his three years on the field for the Bulldogs, but he has produced incredibly well on just under 200 pass-rush snaps. He recorded a 90.9 pass-rushing grade, 24.5% win rate and 23.7% pressure rate on those reps. His win rate ranks second-best among SEC edge defenders in the seven years of PFF College’s existence, over three percentage points ahead of the next bunch — Leonard Floyd, Myles Garrett and Carl Lawson.

11. BOYE MAFE, MINNESOTA

Mafe has yet to stay healthy over the course of a full season, but we have seen enough from him to know he’s a monster pass rusher. He landed on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List last year for his absurd 40.5-inch vertical jump and sub-4.6-second 40-yard dash time at 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds. His first step gives offensive linemen nightmares.

He has rushed the passer 324 times in his college career — about a normal season's worth for a starter — and recorded an 89.6 pass-rushing grade. Taking screens, RPOs and play-action passes out of the equation to feature only Mafe's true pass rushes, his career pass-rushing grade jumps to 91.1 and his win rate sits at 21.7%. That pass-rush grade ranks sixth among Power Five edge defenders with 200 such pass rushes since 2018.

12. ZACH HARRISON, OHIO STATE

Harrison was rather quiet as a true freshman in a limited role in 2019, but the consensus five-star recruit stepped up in the middle of Ohio State’s shortened 2020 season. Over the course of his last four games, he notched a 90.0 PFF grade and 19 pressures on 102 rushes. He’s only scratching the surface of what he can become.

Zach Harrison was a top-15 prospect in the 2019 recruiting class coming out of Olentangy Orange. Credit: Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch

OTHERS TO WATCH (ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

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