News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft edge defender rankings

Nov 2, 2019; College Park, MD, USA; Michigan Wolverines defensive lineman Kwity Paye (19) and linebacker Jordan Glasgow (29) prior to the snap during the 2g against the Maryland Terrapins at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

We could very well look back on the 2021 NFL Draft edge defender class in a few years as an all-timer. That’s the type of pure physical talent these players possess. As it stands, however, it’s a group with far more questions than answers.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.

1. Kwity Paye, Michigan

Paye is a caliber of athlete that I’m not sure the NFL has ever seen. His sub-6.5 three-cone at over 260 pounds is nothing short of unprecedented for a man that size.

That type of turning ability is precisely what is needed to win at the edge defender position. Combine that with his explosive get-off and elite play strength, and you have the makings of a true freak at the position. But none of that matters if he can’t translate it to a football field.

That may have been true early in his career, but Paye has made massive strides in recent seasons. In only four games in 2020, he racked up 22 pressures and 11 run stops. As a result, he saw his overall grade leap from 80.9 in 2019 to 86.3 this past year.

Showing that continued improvement is necessary when buying into the possibility of Paye figuring it out in the NFL.

2. Jayson Oweh, Penn State

If Paye is the freakiest edge rusher in the class, Oweh is a close second. In fact, he’s made the top-10 on Bruce Feldman’s annual Freak’s List twice because of his out-of-this-world explosiveness. At over 250 pounds, the redshirt sophomore reportedly runs a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash. Just watch how quickly he closes in space.

Once again, that all means nothing without on-field production. And even though Oweh didn’t register a single sack this past season, he was a much more complete player than the sub-package guy we saw in 2019.

His run-defense grade jumped from 59.5 in 2019 to 89.7 this past season after he played with much better leverage consistently. Showing those type of seminal improvements is key because this is a guy who started playing football only in 2016. You can forgive him for being a little raw.

3. Gregory Rousseau, Miami (FL)

After opting out in 2020, Rousseau is an enigma in this edge class. He obviously has the sack production — 16, per PFF’s charting in 2019 — but his down-to-down effectiveness wasn’t nearly as dominant as that sack total would suggest. His 80.7 pass-rushing grade in 2019 was almost the exact same as Jayson Oweh’s this past season, and Oweh didn’t register a single sack.

The biggest reason why? Rousseau actually struggles as a true edge rusher. The vast majority of his production came inside against guards and centers. When lined up outside of offensive tackles, he earned only a 71.3 pass-rushing grade. For a player whose incredible length and frame give him a leg up as a pass rusher, it's concerning that it hasn’t translated yet. With only 546 career snaps to his name, there’s not much to go off, either.

4. Azeez Ojulari, Georgia

Ojulari is quite easily the most polished pure pass-rushing prospect among the top of the class. “If you beat the hands, you beat the man” is the mantra he lives by, and it shows repeatedly on his tape. It’s why he earned a 91.7 pass-rushing grade this past season.

Unfortunately, he’s also the one with the biggest physical question marks. At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Ojulari is so dang skinny for the position. You don’t see too many reps of him playing through opposing offensive linemen.

While having more ways to win becomes more important against athletic tackles in the NFL who can match his speed, it’s not necessarily the end-all, be-all. Rushers such as Yannick Ngakoue and Brian Burns have been productive with similar skill sets. With Ojulari’s bend and explosiveness, I’d bet on him figuring it out.

5. Jaelan Phillips, Miami (FL)

Of all the physical anomalies in the draft class, Phillips may be the one with the most ideal all-around set of physical tools when it comes to projecting to the edge in the NFL. Size, length, burst, bend — you name it, Phillips has it. It’s why he was an all-world recruit when he signed with UCLA way back in 2017.

After putting it all together with an 83.0 run-defense grade and an 86.7 pass-rushing grade this past season at Miami, Phillips’ concerns are mainly injury-related. UCLA forced him to medically retire already because of concussions, and he had played only 420 snaps in three seasons prior to 2020. If you could guarantee he’d be on the field for his entire rookie deal, Phillips would be in the EDGE1 conversation.

6. Ronnie Perkins, Oklahoma

Perkins was a bit of a surprise to declare after he dealt with a suspension to open the 2020 season and played only six games all year. It’s hard to blame him, however, given how dominant he was in those contests. He’s the only edge in the class who boasts run-defense and pass-rushing grades over 90.0. He racked up 31 pressures in his final five games this season after knocking off the rust.

Perkins has a ton of juice behind him and wins often with his get-off. Listed at only 247 pounds, he has none of the concerns you usually see from undersized rushers. Arguably the most encouraging thing about his tape is that he wants to play a physical game. Here he is going right through the chest of likely first-round offensive tackle Teven Jenkins.

That’s special.

7. Carlos Basham Jr., Wake Forest

Basham was one of our favorite edge defender prospects going into the 2020 season. Over the course of the fall, however, he steadily fell down the board after failing to not only take a next step in his production, but to also even match what he did in 2019.

Basham earned only a 77.2 pass-rushing grade in 2020 after a 90.6 mark in 2019. For a 280-pound man, he has some special agility. His go-to move is the inside swim, and he displays it to perfection here.

The problem is, special agility for a 280-pounder is still average for a 250-pounder. And he played like he weighed the latter all too often. Basham could easily be a down-to-down pocket pusher with his physical skill set, but that’s not the player you see on tape.

8. Payton Turner, Houston

Turner has about as ideal an edge frame as you’ll ever see at 6-foot-5, 270 pounds with 35-inch arms and an 84-inch wingspan. While we saw that frame for only 201 snaps in 2020, Turner still produced an impressive 90.0 pass-rushing grade.

Unlike Basham, Turner often wants to play that physical game, and you saw him living in offensive tackles' shoulder pads on tape. While he certainly qualifies as a one-year wonder — his 2018 and 2019 seasons didn’t come close to matching what we saw in 2020 — Turner’s tools are worth buying into.

9. Joseph Ossai, Texas

Ossai is a loose and limber edge rusher who possesses the sort of flexibility and coordination that wins on the edge. After playing an off-ball hybrid role in 2019, Ossai thrived while staying on the line of scrimmage in 2020. He earned an 81.1  run-defense grade and an 80.5 pass-rushing grade even though he almost never came off the field, averaging 65.3 snaps a game.

Despite a game-winning sack in the Oklahoma State game, Ossai’s performance against Teven Jenkins in that outing also highlighted his biggest worries. His play strength is a concern, and when he gets locked up, he can get moved off the ball too easily.

10. Joe Tryon, Washington

Tryon is about as pure a physical projection as you’ll see at the edge position. He has the size, length and explosiveness that the NFL covets. That’s about it. He earned only a 71.9 pass-rushing grade and a 62.0 run-defense grade in 2019 before opting out in 2020.

If you’re buying into Tryon, it’s because of the high-level flashes. While there are some far more productive edge rushers ranked below him on our big board, those guys aren’t capable of reps like this that we saw from Tryon against likely top-five pick Penei Sewell.

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