The 2021 interior defensive linemen and edge rusher class is perhaps the most interesting group in the NFL draft. Both positions are littered with high-ceiling, low-floor players who are physically gifted.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve delved into my favorite landing spots for PFF’s top ranked wide receivers, offensive linemen and defensive backs. And today, I am going to do the same with our top defensive linemen.
EDGE KWITY PAYE, MICHIGAN: LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
Ever since the Raiders traded away star edge rusher Khalil Mack before the start of the 2018 season, the franchise's pass-rush unit has ranked last in PFF grade. Both head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock know the team needs defensive playmakers, and I imagine both are intrigued with the idea of taking the uber-athletic Kwity Paye to jumpstart that process.
Paye was a force in only four games this past season, posting 22 pressures and an 87.1 pass-rushing grade. At 6-foot-4, 270-plus pounds, Paye is an athletic freak. Don’t believe it? Check out his sub-6.5–second three-cone. That landed him at No. 1 on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List this past year. He has the get-off and the strength for the next level; now, he just needs some technical refinement. While he showed some modest growth there in 2020, Paye still has a ways to go.
He’s only scratching the surface of what he can become in the NFL.
Minnesota needs an overhaul in the trenches on both sides of the ball. There are a lot of avenues they can take with their No. 14 overall pick, but the best one may be securing a brand new 3-technique. Christian Barmore fits the bill as the clear-cut best interior defensive lineman in the class.
Barmore wasn’t as dominant on a weekly basis as his predecessor Quinnen Williams back in 2018, but he still put together a solid year, including notable performances in the College Football Playoff. In fact, I would go as far as saying Barmore’s outings against Notre Dame and Ohio State were the best we have seen from a defensive player in the College Football Playoff era.
Against the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish — who had two of the better offensive lines in the country — Barmore posted a 91.3 pass-rushing grade, 12 pressures, a 23% win rate and 10 defensive stops.
The 6-foot-5, 310-pounder has the size, burst, length and flexibility you want at the position. Sure, a few dud performances showed up this past season, but the Barmore we saw in January is the player NFL teams should expect at the next level.
Indianapolis’ edge unit ranked 25th in pass-rushing grade this past season, and the team's two most productive players at the position, Justin Houston and Denico Autry, are hitting free agency. The Colts need a fresh young face to play wide nine along their defensive front, especially considering at least one of either Autry and Houston will depart and neither 2018 second-rounder Kemoko Turay nor 2019 second-rounder Ben Banogu has shown much to get excited about. Look no further than Jayson Oweh, a man with absurd explosiveness.
The former Penn State Nittany Lion reportedly ran a 40-yard team in the low 4.3s. Now, we all know to take that with a grain of salt, but watching the tape, it wouldn’t be surprising if the 6-foot-5, 252-pound edge defender pulled it off. Oweh’s get-off is truly remarkable.
The physical tools are clearly there with Oweh, but the pass-rush toolbox and production to back it up are not. He did look like a completely different player against the run this past year, raising his grade in that facet from 59.5 in 2019 to 89.7 in 2020, but he was inconsistent as a pass rusher.
Oweh carved up Indiana’s tackles in his season-opener for 10 pressures. He then proceeded to record just 10 pressures over the next six games combined, and those same Indiana tackles would go on to produce some of the worst pass-blocking grades in the FBS.
That said, Oweh's tools are too good for Indianapolis to pass up. With the right coaching, he can be a monster in the NFL. He’s worth the risk.
Continuing the trend of physically gifted edge prospects with lacking production is Miami’s Gregory Rousseau. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound defensive lineman checks the size, length, athleticism, bend and versatility boxes, but consistency and production remain question marks.
Yes, he notched 16 sacks in 2019, but that's a noisy number. Over half of those sacks were charted as either unblocked or cleanup, and Rousseau ranked outside the top 50 in the FBS in pass-rushing grade and win rate. And when he did find success, most of it came when he was rushing inside.
It's worth noting that Rousseau did this in his lone full year of action at the collegiate level. He showed up to Miami as a three-star recruit who played defensive end, safety and wide receiver in high school before being hurt for most of his true freshman campaign in 2018. He then logged just 280 pass-rush snaps in 2019 at 19 years old before opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Like Paye and Oweh, he’s just scratching the surface. The tools are clearly there with Rousseau for him to become an impact pass rusher at the next level. New York needs a whole lot of help in the pass-rush department, and Robert Saleh will give Rousseau the opportunities he needs to rush inside.
EDGE AZEEZ OJULARI, GEORGIA: BALTIMORE RAVENS
Ojulari may not be the biggest nor the strongest defensive line prospect, but he wins with his athleticism and is the most polished pass rusher in the class. Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, who has his five-most played edge rushers set to hit free agency, would perk right up if he read that. Ojulari’s profile is precisely what the blitz-heavy Ravens are looking to add.
The speed rusher broke out in a big way in 2020, raising his 71.4 pass-rushing grade to 91.7, second in the FBS. Ojulari also forced three strip-sack fumbles and generated a 24.3% pass-rush win rate, ranking top five at his position in the FBS.
Head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht have each publicly voiced their desire to retain the Buccaneers' key impending free agents, including edge rusher Shaquil Barrett. That will require some creativity, as they have just under $12 million in cap space. If anyone’s going, Barrett is the most likely. Phillips would be able to slide right into his stand-up role on the edge. If Tampa Bay somehow manages to keep Barrett, this pick would still be great for both parties.
Phillips was the No. 1-rated recruit of the 2017 class before committing to UCLA. During his true sophomore campaign, a car hit him and he decided to retire after the subsequent injuries and a concussion after the fact. But Phillips opted to come out of retirement, transferring to Miami, where he had one of the biggest breakout years in the country this past season.
Over the course of his final six games, Phillips looked like that top-rated recruit from years ago, with a 90.0 PFF grade and a whopping 30 pressures. His injury history is obviously of some concern, but with a clean bill of health, he’s clearly one of the best pass rushers in this class.
Dallas needs an interior defender who can hold his own at nose tackle and won’t be a liability against the run. And there just might be a great one on the board when they are picking at No. 44 in Round 2: the beefy and explosive Alim McNeill.
The 6-foot-2, 320-pound interior defensive lineman has a ridiculous get-off that few interior offensive linemen can handle. After playing primarily as a defensive tackle in his 2018 true freshman season, McNeill moved to 0-technique in 2019 and produced a 79.4 PFF grade.
He then broke out to elite status in 2020 with a 90.7 grade in the same role. He was a constant force against the run, earning a 92.1 grade in that facet. Despite playing almost solely at heads-up nose, McNeill was a fairly productive pass rusher in 2020 (77.5 pass-rush grade). However, he doesn’t have much in his pass-rush toolbox and is fairly raw. He still managed to dominate from his role, though.
I can almost envision Jerry Jones smirking and dialing this pick in from his yacht.
Cleveland lost out on the J.J. Watt sweepstakes, so the team will still likely pursue an edge rusher this offseason to start opposite Myles Garrett. Perkins would be a quality option for that job if he manages to slide to the Browns in Round 2.
Perkins is an explosive and flexible edge defender who was uber-productive in 2020 after an early-season suspension. He finished 2020 as the only player at his position in the FBS with 90.0-plus grades in run defense and as a pass rusher. The only question is: Will he be able to hold up against NFL tackles at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds?
He played bigger than his size suggests in college and, as stated in PFF’s 2021 NFL Draft Guide, worked speed to power as well as anyone in the country. Perkins should hold up just fine at the next level.