NFL News & Analysis

3 most impressive under-the-radar young edge rushers in NFL

2M9X8HY Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) is sacked by Dallas Cowboys defensive end Sam Williams (54) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)

  • Can Sam Williams turn his Year 1 flash into Year 2 consistency?: The Dallas Cowboys‘ young edge defender flashed high-end talent as a rookie, but he's missing one key detail that will enable him to become a consistent nightmare for opposing blockers in Year 2.
  • James Houston IV goes from practice squad to immediate impact rookie: After being selected in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft, Houston spent the first 11 weeks on the Detroit Lions‘ practice squad, and he supplied two sacks in his four Week 12 pass-rush snaps. Houston remained on the active roster the rest of the season, which proved to be wise as he recorded a sack in each of his next three games as well.
  • Josh Uche flying under the radar despite already being one of the NFL's most efficient pass-rushers: Uche's 19.2% pass-rush win rate in 2022 ranked seventh among NFL edge defenders (min. 100 pass-rush snaps) while his 20.7% pressure rate ranked third.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The ability to consistently generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks is one of the most coveted skill sets in the NFL. Therefore, teams that can identify and acquire pass-rushing talents on team-friendly contracts gain a significant advantage from a team-building standpoint, as they get an expensive skill from a player on a cheap contract.

The NFL is littered with emerging edge-rushing talents, but these three are the most impressive that are younger than 25 years old and were picked outside of the first round.

Sam Williams, Dallas Cowboys

Known by many as Micah Parsonsdoppelgänger, Williams is an exciting young edge-rusher who is fresh off an incredibly impressive rookie season, where he finished second among rookie edge defenders in pass-rush grade (70.9). 

While Williams was stuck behind Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong and even Dante Fowler on the Cowboys' depth chart, the Ole Miss product consistently flashed an exciting pass-rush skill set that should enable him to earn more playing time sooner rather than later. 

Given the 4.46-second 40-yard dash on his resume, it shouldn't be a surprise that Williams' electric get-off consistently put him in a prime position to attack opposing offensive tackles when he was able to pin his ears back and rush the quarterback without fear of run action. However, it was a bit surprising how physically imposing Williams proved to be while rushing the passer, as it showcased an improved speed-to-power pass-rush series as a rookie compared to his time with Ole Miss.

Nonetheless, Williams' inconsistent footwork, pace and hand technique caused him to deal with numerous bouts of inconsistency throughout his rookie season:

The key to Williams' unlocking his true pass-rush potential to become a feared pass-rusher instead of an impressive up-and-comer is incorporating more deceptive footwork into his rushes. Williams was often too straightforward during his approach to opposing offensive tackle, which is why the savvier offensive tackles were able to easily stymie his pass-rush attempts, especially early in the year.

However, Williams provided glimpses of his true ceiling as a pass-rusher on the rare occasion he utilized deceptive footwork. Here's an example when aligned inside against the Green Bay PackersElgton Jenkins, who only allowed three sacks the entire season:

Williams' stutter step gets Jenkins to narrow his pass set and slow his feet, which effectively shortens the corner for Williams, providing him with an easier path to beat Jenkins by his outside hip. Once Williams lands his two-hand swipe, Jenkins' only option to swing open the gate and essentially tackle Williams in an effort to prevent the sack. Unfortunately for Jenkins, Williams was still able to bring down Aaron Rodgers for the sack.

To further reinforce the point, Williams used deceptive footwork so rarely that opposing blockers were often completely surprised when the rookie whipped it out of his tool bag, as evidenced by this pass-rush win against the Philadelphia EaglesJordan Mailata:

Here, Williams uses a euro step like he's Giannis Antetokounmpo, causing Mailta to completely whiff his attempt to block Williams on the edge. Unfortunately, the Eagles were able to get the ball out quickly, preventing Williams' quick win to end in the sack that it deserved to be.

If Williams starts incorporating deceptive footwork more consistently in combination with his electric get-off and speed-to-power rushing ability, he should become a much more consistent pass-rush threat, enabling his unimpressive 9.8% pass-rush win rate from his rookie year to improve to the 15% range in Year 2.

After showing the flash as a rookie, more consistency will provide Williams will more opportunities and thus more production in his sophomore season. And given his size and athleticism, Williams could become the new Robin to Parsons' Batman once Lawrence ages out of the role in a year or two.

James Houston IV, Detroit Lions

While everyone was rightly impressed with Aidan Hutchinson‘s rookie season, it was the Lions' other rookie edge rusher that led all rookies in pass-rush grade (88.2) in 2022. While it only came 140 total snaps (92 pass-rush snaps), bringing sample size concerns into consideration, it still illustrates how spectacular Houston was in limited opportunities this past season. 

After being selected in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft, Houston spent the first 11 weeks of the season on Detroit's practice squad before getting called up to the active roster in Week 12 for a Thanksgiving Day contest against the Buffalo Bills. After supplying two sacks in his four pass-rush snaps, Houston remained on the active roster the rest of the season, which proved to be wise as he recorded a sack in each of his next three games as well.

Altogether, Houston finished the season with 17 total pressures and eight sacks on the back of a splendid 19.3% pass-rush win rate — the latter of which ranked tied for sixth among all edge defenders with Micah Parsons.

Given his short stature (6 feet and 244 pounds), Houston's ability to bend low to the ground to corner around offensive tackles is excellent for such a young player, as he's able to dip below opposing tackles' waistline, reducing his lockable surface area and forcing 300-pounders lower their pad level — a winning combination.

Nonetheless, the most exciting portion of Houston's pass-rush repertoire given his age and previous draft status is his ability to manipulate pace to lull offensive tackles to sleep before exploding with speed, flexibility and balance around the corner in combination with his deadly effective cross chop to generate pressure.

Nonetheless, as he earns more pass-rush snaps in Year 2, it will be important for him to expand his pass-rush repertoire to limit the predictability of his pass-rush plan from snap to snap. While he uses deceptive footwork well, Houston tends to go to his outside speed rushes over and over again. It wasn't a problem given his limited snap count as a rookie, but it will become one once opposing tackles see him enough to pick up on Houston's pass-rush patterns.

Incorporating more inside and speed-to-power moves will be enough to keep tackles guessing, which prevents them from cheating to defend Houston's speed up the edge.

Unfortunately, Houston's lack of size will likely limit him to being a pass-rush specialist for the foreseeable future, but if he broadens his pass-rush repertoire, the former sixth-rounder could graduate from an efficient speed-rusher to an all-around feared pass-rusher who will receive more opportunities to get after opposing quarterbacks.

Josh Uche, New England Patriots

Saving the best for last, if it weren't for his part-time role, Uche would likely already be regarded as a top pass-rusher in the NFL, as he is fresh off a season when he ranked seventh among NFL edge defenders (min. 100 pass-rush snaps) in pass-rush win rate (19.2%) while his 20.7% pressure rate ranked third.

Unfortunately, Uche's 6-foot-1 and 250-pound frame will likely always relegate him to a pass-rush specialist role in Bill Belichick's defense; however, there may not be a player who dominates that role better than the Michigan product.

Uche's ability to win multiple ways puts opposing offensive tackles in quite a pickle, as they have to be ready to defend a variety of moves on any given snap when lined up across from the former second-round pick. Uche can win with speed around the corner, convert speed-to-power and counter inside with equal effectiveness. Moreover, he doesn't an excellent job of manipulating pace — similar to Houston —in addition to utilizing a ton of deceptive footwork — unlike Williams — which enables him to maintain consistency as a pass-rusher.

And despite his size, Uche does a great job absorbing and bending through contact at the apex of his rush as well (as illustrated above).

Uche's 87.8 pass-rush grade is helped by the fact that he's essentially playing in a part-time role; however, don't get it twisted, that “part-time” role is incredibly valuable for the Patriots defense, and luckily for New England, Uche's pass-rush production shouldn't slow down anytime soon given his advanced skill set.

If New England can figure out ways to get Uche more opportunities to rush the passer without allowing opposing offenses to pick on him as a run defender, it will only make the defense that much more dangerous. Moreover, if Uche can improve his run defense and earn an every-down role, don't be surprised if his volume production reaches the top of the NFL.




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