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NFL Combine Prospect Preview: Edge Rusher

The biggest need for the Falcons in the draft is at EDGE, particularly after the announcement that Vic Beasley wouldn’t be returning in free agency. We take a closer look at the top EDGE prospects participating in the 2020 NFL Combine.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Combine officially kicks off on February 24, and all eyes will be on Indianapolis to see which draft prospects are able help or hurt their stock with their performance. We’ve already covered the wide receivers and tight ends. Now we move on to the defensive side of the ball, which starts with the defensive linemen and linebackers. These groups will officially participate in on-field workouts starting on Saturday, February 29.

To prepare everyone for the flurry of activity that is the NFL Combine, I am back to once again provide you with my Combine Prospect Previews—brief summaries of some of my favorite prospects in each position group. These are players who I believe the Falcons will be most interested in come draft day. Hopefully, these names will give you a little bit of guidance about who to watch when the players hit the field.

If you missed any of the other prospect previews, you can find them below:

WR | TE | RB | C/G | EDGE | DT | LB | CB | S

For added context, I’ll be incorporating player rankings from The Draft Network. This way you can have a general idea of where a current consensus of scouts ranks a particular player. Today’s preview details the EDGE group, which is undoubtedly the biggest need on the Falcons roster after the announcement that the team would not be re-signing Vic Beasley in free agency.

Bradlee Anae, Utah

6’3, 257 | 41 total tackles, 14.0 TFL, 13.0 sacks, 1 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 81 (3rd Round)

If the Falcons wait to add an EDGE until later on Day 2, or want to double-dip on the position to build depth, Utah’s Bradlee Anae could be a possible target in the third round. At 6’3, 257, Anae has plenty of bulk to play on all three downs but is a bit lacking in his length. He put out strong production while at Utah, with 14.0 TFL and 13.0 sacks in the 2019 season. His burst off the ball is impressive and I love his ability to convert speed-to-power with his pass rushes.

Anae is a hard worker with a motor that consistently runs hot. He’s physical as a run defender and is excellent at using his hands to deconstruct blocks. As a pass rusher, Anae wins with a variety of pass rushing moves, quick burst off the snap, and—most of all—terrific effort on every play. His lack of ideal length and high-end athleticism likely cap his ceiling as a complementary/rotational EDGE player, but Anae can be very productive in the NFL if utilized properly. At the end of Day 2, that would be a pretty good value for a Falcons team that is in desperate need of quality depth.

Zack Baun, Wisconsin

6’3, 240 | 75 total tackles, 19.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PD, 2 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 33 (2nd Round)

A unique EDGE prospect who will require a creative defensive coordinator to get the most out of him, Wisconsin’s Zack Baun was undeniably productive in college. Splitting time at defensive end and off-ball LB, Baun piled up TFLs and sacks and even added an INT to his resume. At 6’3, 240, Baun has enough mass to survive with his hand in the dirt, but his lack of ideal length can limit his effectiveness as an early-down EDGE. What he lacks in frame he makes up for with his technical ability. Baun has the eyes—and change-of-direction skills—of a LB, and is adept at diagnosing plays and breaking on the ball.

He’s fluid enough to survive off-ball and explosive enough to pass rush with his hand in the dirt. I love his extensive arsenal of pass rush moves, which are quite advanced for a college player. Above all, Baun has a non-stop motor and brings the heat on every single play. He’ll need to be given a hybrid EDGE/LB role to maximize his talents and ability, but he’s got the football IQ and athletic traits to handle that role well. Baun could be an option to fill two needs with a single player—he could take LB snaps that would’ve gone to De’Vondre Campbell, then put his hand in the dirt in pass rushing situations.

K’Lavon Chaisson, LSU

6’4, 250 | 60 total tackles, 13.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 2 PD, 1 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 14 (1st Round)

The biggest riser in the 2020 EDGE class, LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson is attempting to do something that very few college EDGE players have ever done successfully: get drafted highly in the first round with very limited college production and improve significantly at the NFL level. If anyone can do it, however, it would be Chaisson, who presents a truly exciting athletic profile. I had the Falcons selecting Chaisson in the first round of my Senior Bowl mock draft, and here’s how I described his game:

Chaisson certainly looks the part of a prototypical NFL pass rusher at 6’4, 250. He’s an incredible athlete with explosive burst, excellent flexibility, and surprising ability to convert speed-to-power. While he’s been an elite speed rusher in college, Chaisson is also one of the most technically sound and consistent run defenders in the class—something that Vic Beasley was never able to add to his game. Like most college pass rushers, Chaisson still needs to add more moves to his arsenal. At just 20 years old and coming off a vastly improved 2019 season, all signs point to Chaisson’s best years coming in the NFL. Chaisson could be the player that Vic Beasley was supposed to be—and unlike Beasley, Chaisson can play effectively on all three downs.

A.J. Epenesa, Iowa

6’6, 280 | 49 total tackles, 14.0 TFL, 11.5 sacks, 3 PD, 4 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 18 (1st Round)

The player most commonly mocked to the Falcons in the first round at this point in the offseason, Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa has actually seen his stock fall somewhat after spending the majority of 2019 as the consensus #2 EDGE behind Chase Young. The reason? He’s not an eye-popping athlete like Young or the previously mentioned K’Lavon Chaisson. Teams too often get seduced by the siren’s call of “upside”, however, and ignore the potentially great but less flashy player sitting right in front of them. I’ve had the Falcons selecting Epenesa in multiple mock drafts, but here are my thoughts on his skillset:

At 6’6, 280 and with very good movement skills for a player of his size, Epenesa checks all the boxes for a team in need of a dominant, 3-down presence on the outside. He can anchor against the run and features a powerful bull rush that is capable of completely overwhelming weaker opponents. Epenesa has the athleticism to win with speed and bend, too, but he hasn’t quite learned the technique yet. In a season or two, he could be the complete package, and he could also potentially offer some interior rush ability in pass rushing packages.

Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State

6’5, 264 | 40 total tackles, 14.5 TFL, 9.0 sacks

TDN Prospect Rank: 30 (1st Round)

If the Falcons miss out on the top prospects at EDGE—whether by choosing to pass at 16, trading down, or simply having their guy drafted in front of them—the next tier of players starts with Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos. He’s not as flashy or as consistently productive as any of the top-tier players, but he’s an impressive EDGE prospect in his own right. I had the Falcons taking Gross-Matos in my first mock draft of the year (all the way back in Week 10), and here’s how I described his game:

Gross-Matos has the build you want from a top-tier EDGE defender: 6’5, 242 with plenty of room to add muscle. He’s also a special athlete with excellent burst off the line and agility in space. Gross-Matos lacks the incredible production of Curtis Weaver, but has a superior frame and much better bend. His pass rush plan and counter moves still need development, but Gross-Matos has all the traits to become an impact pass rusher at the NFL level.

Terrell Lewis, Alabama

6’5, 258 | 31 total tackles, 11.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks, 2 PD

TDN Prospect Rank: 45 (2nd Round)

If the Falcons want to take a chance at hitting a home run on an EDGE prospect in the second round, Alabama’s Terrell Lewis is the best chance for a huge return on their investment. He certainly looks the part of a high-level starter on the edge at 6’5, 258, and he’s got incredible athletic talent to go along with it. His burst and length are undoubtedly his best traits, and they’ve produced some dominant reps for Lewis on film.

Lewis also has some considerable red flags. He’s missed extensive time over the 2017 and 2018 seasons due to injury, and that has significantly hindered his development as both a pass rusher and run defender. His technique in both areas is notably lacking at this point, and he’ll need a capable DL coach to get him up to speed in the NFL. Lewis is naturally talented enough to come in and produce as a complementary piece right away, but he may not reach his ceiling until Year 2 or 3.

Julian Okwara, Notre Dame

6’4, 248 | 19 total tackles, 7.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 2 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 42 (2nd Round)

Another of the second-tier pass rushers who could potentially be had in the second round, Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara is a speed rushing specialist with dynamic athletic traits and fairly advanced pass rushing technique. He’s got nasty burst off the line of scrimmage and is capable of blowing past slower OTs with his raw speed. Okwara pairs speed with exceptional bend and quick hands to get underneath blocks and reliably establish a half-man relationship with his opponent.

I like Okwara’s flexibility and change-of-direction skills—he’s a fluid mover who can run sideline-to-sideline and close quickly on opposing ball carriers. However, I have significant concerns about Okwara’s play strength and ability to stop the run. He’s a liability as a base end and will get blown off the ball by power. He can tackle well and his range and natural feel for dropping into short-area zone coverage may set him up for a role as a SAM on base downs, but he’ll struggle mightily in a more traditional role.

Joshua Uche, Michigan

6’1, 241 | 33 total tackles, 10.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 1 PD, 1 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 54 (2nd Round)

A huge riser from the Senior Bowl and one of the most intriguing prospects in the entire 2020 class, Michigan’s Joshua Uche is a challenging projection for scouts. On the one hand, Uche is clearly too small for any sort of full time EDGE role at only 6’1, 241. On the other hand, Uche is an undeniably talented pass rusher with truly rare athletic gifts. His incredible explosiveness and unbelievable bend proved to be too much to handle for just about every OT at the Senior Bowl. Uche pairs that pass rushing prowess with natural coverage ability and sideline-to-sideline range as an off-ball LB.

He’s been deployed all over the field while at Michigan, and has experience playing multiple spots. That versatility has also led to a lack of well-developed technique at any one position, however, and Uche is going to need to be coached up to reach his potential in the NFL. His tackling and ability to finish on the QB are also two areas that require development. A smart NFL defensive coordinator will understand that Uche is a high-level chess piece for a defense that can be deployed in a lot of different ways, but isn’t going to be nearly as good if limited to a single role. Uche could fill two needs at once—an off-ball LB on base downs, and a pass-rushing specialist otherwise—but can Quinn and Raheem Morris actually utilize him effectively?

Curtis Weaver, Boise State

6’3, 265 | 52 total tackles, 19.5 TFL, 13.5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 PD, 1 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 57 (2nd Round)

Another one of the most commonly mocked players to the Falcons—particularly if the team passes on EDGE in the first round—Boise State’s Curtis Weaver is a player built more in the style of A.J. Epenesa than someone like K’Lavon Chaisson. He’s big, explosive, powerful, and technically refined for a college pass rusher. That led to impressive production, and it’s easy to see why. I sent Weaver to the Falcons in the second round of my most recent mock draft, and here’s what I had to say about his skillset:

Weaver isn’t the flashiest player on tape, but he’s undeniably productive. He’s versatile and can rush from multiple spots, though I believe his best NFL fit is probably at 5T. Weaver lacks ideal lateral mobility, but he’s a very smart player with good physical traits. He uses his length well and already has a variety of pass rush moves at his disposal. Weaver could stand to get stronger and may eventually find himself playing more of a Michael Bennett inside/outside role in the NFL, but I like his ability to contribute right away for the Falcons. I wouldn’t expect Weaver to consistently put up 10+ sacks in the league, but he’s an EDGE who can play all three downs and produce from Day 1.

Chase Young, Ohio State

6’5, 265 | 46 total tackles, 21.0 TFL, 16.5 sacks, 3 PD, 7 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 1 (1st Round)

A franchise-changer. A once-in-a-generation prospect. Elite pass rusher and the top player in the class. These are just some of the phrases used to describe Ohio State’s Chase Young, who has taken on an almost mythical status within the scouting community. His 6’5, 265 frame is what you’d get if you went into a lab and attempted to create the prototypical pass rusher. His explosiveness is off the charts, his strength is uncanny, and he’s an incredibly fluid mover for his size.

It’s obvious why Chase Young is the top prospect in the entire class, and perhaps one of the best pass rushers we’ve seen in recent years. There just aren’t many holes to his game on tape. I could knock his lack of ideal leverage, his slightly annoying tendency to telegraph his rush with his stance, or his underwhelming pursuit on some run plays. But those are all minor footnotes on a player who has the traits, frame, and production to immediately inject pass-rushing life into a defense. Unfortunately for Atlanta, he’s all but unobtainable outside of a massive, Julio Jones-esque trade-up—and I think we can all agree that is unlikely to happen.

What are your thoughts on the EDGE group that is attending the 2020 NFL Combine? Do you prefer a more well-rounded, versatile prospect like A.J. Epenesa, or and elite athlete like K’Lavon Chaisson for the Falcons in the first round? Who are some of your favorite later picks at the EDGE position?