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2019 NFL Combine: EDGE prospects to watch for the Falcons

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The Falcons have a big need at EDGE heading into the 2019 offseason, with Brooks Reed already cut and Vic Beasley’s status uncertain. We take a closer look at some of the top EDGE prospects for Atlanta participating in the 2019 NFL Combine.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Combine is nearly here, which means that we’re about to witness the top NFL Draft prospects in the 2019 class compete in the on-field workouts that we playfully refer to as the “Underwear Olympics”. It’s pretty good fun if you’re a fan of the NFL draft—although we can certainly the debate the usefulness of some of these metrics in evaluating prospects—and hopefully it will help complete the picture on some of the more polarizing players.

I’ve been breaking down each position group by giving you the top-10 players that might be of interest to the Falcons. If you’ve missed the previous entries, you can find them below:

Offense

Defense

Today’s report concerns the EDGE group, which is one of the Falcons’ top needs this offseason. The team has already parted ways with Brooks Reed, and Vic Beasley’s $12.8M price tag almost certainly means that he’s gone in 2019. Add all that up and we know that Atlanta will be looking closely at the EDGE players competing in the 2019 Combine, and I’d expect the team to invest at least one early pick in the first two days in the position.

Below are ten of the top EDGE prospects that I expect the Falcons to be interested in. I’ve left out Nick Bosa and Josh Allen, who I expect to be top-10 locks, in order to focus on more of the Day 2 options should Atlanta decide to go in a different direction with their first round pick.

Let’s begin.

Zach Allen, Boston College

Listed Size: 6’5, 285

2018 Production: 61 total tackles, 26 solo, 15.0 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 1 INT, 7 PD, 1 FF

Dan Quinn’s best defenses have always featured an inside-outside player that was capable of causing havoc as a run defender on the edge, and as a pass rusher from the interior. In Seattle, he had Michael Bennett—in his first two seasons in Atlanta, he had Adrian Clayborn. It’s not a coincidence that the pass rush hasn’t been as potent since Clayborn left, and you can bet that Quinn has been eyeing potential replacements for some time.

Boston College’s Zach Allen could be that player. At 6’5, 285, he’s got great length and is very difficult to move as a run defender on the edge. Despite his high weight, Allen is a very capable athlete with some impressive burst to his game. Allen’s best traits, however, are his hand usage and high-level football IQ. He’s never going to be an elite pass rusher off the edge, and he won’t be able to hold up against the run consistently on the interior. He’ll require creative usage to maximize his talents—but Quinn’s scheme already has a defined role for him. Allen is a Day 2 option if the Falcons elect to go elsewhere in the first round.

Brian Burns, FSU

Listed Size: 6’5, 232

2018 Production: 52 total tackles, 31 solo, 15.5 TFL, 10.0 sacks, 3 PD, 3 FF

Behind Nick Bosa and Josh Allen, Brian Burns is my #3 EDGE rusher in the 2019 class. I know fans are worried about his low weight, but the weight is a lot less important than the height. He’s a phenomenal player and I expect he’ll test through-the-roof at the NFL Combine. I mocked Burns to the Falcons in my first mock draft, and here’s how I described him:

Brian Burns from FSU has one negative trait: he’s light for an edge player, at only 232 pounds. He’s also 6’5, however, which should allow him to add 10-15 pounds to his frame without any issues. Look past that initial flaw and you’ll see an elite pass rusher just waiting to be unleashed on the NFL. Burns is far more polished than Beasley ever was, with a variety of pass rushing moves, well-developed counters, and a physical mean streak as a run defender.

Clelin Ferrell, Clemson

Listed Size: 6’5, 260

2018 Production: 55 total tackles, 29 solo, 20.0 TFL, 11.5 sacks, 2 PD, 3 FF

Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell provides an interesting test for draft analysts. Do you prefer the high-upside, ultra-athletic pass rushers like Burns and Polite? Or do you prefer the high-floor, three-down instant starter in Ferrell? While most would chase the upside, it may very well end up being wiser to select the “sure thing” in Ferrell.

He may only have an 8-10 sack ceiling in the NFL, but Ferrell is an elite run defender with a versatile skillset and tons of experience. His athleticism—while not off-the-charts like some of the top prospects—is above-average, and he can still win with burst and bend on occasion. Ferrell plays with excellent power and physicality, and he’s a polished technician. He doesn’t have many weaknesses to his game outside of a lack of top-end athleticism. Paired with the power and pass rushing of someone like Takk McKinley, Ferrell could help form one of the most well-rounded duos in the league.

Christian Miller, Alabama

Listed Size: 6’4, 243

2018 Production: 34 total tackles, 16 solo, 11.0 TFL, 8.0 sacks, 1 PD

Alabama’s Christian Miller is a bit of a one-year wonder. He didn’t get an opportunity to start on the Crimson Tide’s stacked defense until 2017, when he suffered a season ending injury. Miller returned in 2018 and had a very good final season, generating a fair amount of hype heading into the Combine. Watching Miller, I kind of came away thinking of him as the “poor man’s Clelin Ferrell”.

I don’t mean that as an insult, but it’s a good way to think about his skillset. He’s not a great athlete, but Miller still manages to win with a combination of physicality, technique, and football IQ. Miller can play on all three downs—he’s a tenacious run defender, and has plenty of size to hold up as a base end. He doesn’t have the prototypical frame like Ferrell, and he’s not quite as physical or athletic. But he offers a lot of the same things: high-floor production, versatility to play the run and pass, and early starting potential. I think Miller’s best fit is as the third EDGE in a rotation. For Atlanta, he could be a long-term replacement for Brooks Reed that could be had on Day 2.

Anthony Nelson, Iowa

Listed Size: 6’7, 271

2018 Production: 45 total tackles, 23 solo, 13.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks

Another player in the Adrian Clayborn mold, Iowa’s Anthony Nelson has a tremendous frame at 6’7, 271. Physically, he’s a beast, capable of overwhelming smaller linemen with his length. His run defense might be his best trait, as Nelson dominated at the point of attack as a base end. Despite a lack of ideal athleticism, he also put together an impressive season as a pass rusher, showcasing a variety of moves and getting into the backfield with regularity.

Nelson isn’t exactly what I’d call explosive, and his ability to bend the edge is a big cause for concern. That’s why his best NFL fit is likely to be a base end and interior pass rusher. You can play Nelson on early downs outside to stuff the run (and provide serviceable pass rush ability), and kick him inside in the nickel where he can use his length and technique to dominate interior linemen. His lack of a clear fit in the NFL could cause Nelson to fall a bit, where he could be a great pickup for the Falcons late on Day 2.

Charles Omenihu, Texas

Listed Size: 6’6, 275

2018 Production: 45 total tackles, 3 solo, 18.0 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 1 PD, 1 FF

A player that has really grown on me throughout the draft process, Texas’ Charles Omenihu is basically a high-ceiling version of Anthony Nelson. They both feature the prototypical frame and stout run defense, but Omenihu has a lot more potential as a pass rusher. He’s also likely to go earlier in the draft—the second round is probably his floor. I mocked Omenihu to the Falcons in my fourth mock draft, and here’s what I had to say about his skillset:

Omenihu is physically imposing at 6’6, 275, and was a bit of a late bloomer at Texas. He exploded in 2018 with 18 TFLs and 9.5 sacks, and I’d expect his stock to continue to rise over the offseason. Omenihu is ridiculously quick and flexible for a player of his size, and has demonstrated the ability to win at just about any spot on the defensive line. Technique wise, Omenihu still has plenty of room for refinement, but you can’t teach his ferocity and natural athletic gifts.

Jachai Polite, Florida

Listed Size: 6’2, 242

2018 Production: 45 total tackles, 27 solo, 19.5 TFL, 11.0 sacks, 4 PD, 6 FF

Many fans have compared Brian Burns to Vic Beasley, but I think that Florida’s Jachai Polite is much more similar. It’s true that Polite lacks an ideal frame, and he’s probably a better fit as a 3-4 OLB. The Falcons have shown that they don’t mind smaller EDGE players, however, and Polite could have the highest pass-rush ceiling of all of them. I mocked Polite to the Falcons in my second mock draft, and here’s how I described his talents:

Polite doesn’t possess the biggest frame at 6’2, 240, but he more than makes up for it with fantastic athleticism and a nasty, physical disposition. He’s far more developed technically than Vic Beasley ever was, and despite Polite’s smaller frame he’s more than capable of holding his own against the run. His hand usage and ability to knife into the backfield translated into more plays against the run than you might think (19.5 TFL in 2018), and he has the upside of a double-digit sack player at the NFL level.

Montez Sweat, Mississippi State

Listed Size: 6’5, 245

2018 Production: 53 total tackles, 27 solo, 14.5 TFL, 12.0 sacks, 1 FF

Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat is pretty much the opposite of players like Jachai Polite and Brian Burns. Where those players are flashy speed rushers with great bend, Sweat is a physical powerhouse that is much more likely to beat you with his pure bull rush than try to run past you. He’s also a dominant run defender, showcasing incredible strength and skill at dominating the point of attack.

Sweat has excellent burst off the line of scrimmage and is a more polished technician than you’d think, but I have concerns about his overall athletic ability. He was simply more powerful than most of his competition at the college level, and rarely had to bend the edge to find success. In the NFL, everyone is strong—and players of his archetype have traditionally struggled to replicate their college success. Sweat’s Combine testing will go a long way in solidifying his stock: if he tests well, expect him to rocket up draft boards. If he struggles, he could find himself falling out of the first.

D’Andre Walker, Georgia

Listed Size: 6’3, 245

2018 Production: 45 total tackles, 23 solo, 11.0 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 3 PD, 4 FF

A late-Day 2 option for the Falcons if they elect to pursue other needs early in the draft (or if they add a high-end EDGE in free agency), Georgia’s D’Andre Walker is a stout run defender with the traits to become a more consistent pass rusher at the NFL level. I love his motor and fiery on-field demeanor—Walker doesn’t give up on plays and relentlessly pursues the ball carrier. He’s strong and powerful at the point of attack, with an excellent understanding of leverage and the football IQ to quickly process opposing blocking schemes.

Walker is very underdeveloped as a pass rusher, however, and I’m not sure how useful he’ll be in that area early in his career. I love his ferociousness and I think the athleticism is there to improve into someone who can contribute on third down, but his ceiling is likely in the 6-8 sack range. Walker projects best as a base-package end that can potentially develop into a more well-rounded player in time. As a 3rd or 4th EDGE in a rotation, I think Walker can eventually provide a good return on his likely third round price tag.

Chase Winovich, Michigan

Listed Size: 6’3, 255

2018 Production: 59 total tackles, 33 solo, 15.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 1 PD

I feel like there’s a player similar to Chase Winovich in every draft class. He’s a classic high-floor, limited-ceiling prospect that endears himself to analysts with polished technique and phenomenal competitiveness. Winovich has a solid NFL frame and has shown off impressive ability at the point of attack. Despite a lack of ideal athleticism and power, Winovich manages to find ways to win with his tenacious style of play and advanced technique. I don’t mean to say that Winovich is a bad athlete or doesn’t have strength—he’s merely average in both areas, which will limit his ceiling in the NFL a lot more than it did in college.

Still, you can’t teach his attitude, and I’m sure scouts will love his competitive fire and high football IQ. I believe Winovich has the upside of a rotational EDGE player that can start early in his career and provide solid production. I don’t think he’ll ever be a huge difference-maker, but his consistency and versatility will make him an attractive prospect for teams that need more depth on the edge. His stock is currently hovering in the Day 2 range—I’d definitely consider him with the Falcons’ third round pick, but I don’t know if he’s really worth a second rounder.


What are your thoughts on the EDGE class at the 2019 Combine? Any prospects you’ll be watching closely? Who are some names that you’d love to see the Falcons pursue?