The 2022 NFL Combine is fast approaching, with workouts kicking off on Thursday, March 3. To prepare fans and fellow draft enthusiasts for the “underwear olympics”, I’ll be breaking down the top players to watch at every position heading into the event. In case you missed any of my previous entries, you can find them all listed below:
DEFENSE: EDGE | DT | LB | CB | S
OFFENSE: QB | WR | TE | RB | OT | C/G
We kick things off with arguably the most important position for the Falcons and the team’s biggest need: edge rusher. Atlanta got precious little from their EDGE group in 2021, with poor play against the run and pass along with the lowest sack total in the league. Luckily, this is a great year to need an edge rusher—or two to three, in Atlanta’s case—as the class is stacked with talent. From top-5 elite guys like Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux to strong Day 2 contributors like Kingsley Enagbare and Arnold Ebiketie, this group has it all.
Read on for some of the top edge rushers to watch in Indianapolis.
Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma
A versatile linebacker/edge hybrid, Oklahoma’s Nik Bonitto has a lot to gain from a strong performance at the Combine. He looks like a great athlete, and his measurements will be important to determine his best NFL fit. Here’s how I described Bonitto’s skillset in a previous mock draft:
Oklahoma’s Nik Bonitto isn’t your typical EDGE—at 6’3, 240, he’s a 3-4 OLB only and is best rushing from a stand-up position. But Bonitto also offers more than a traditional hand-in-the-dirt player, as he’s an asset in zone coverage and even offers ability as an off-ball linebacker. Bonitto is a dynamic athlete who also plays well above his weight as a run defender. He sets the edge very well and has impressive strength and tackling ability. As a pass rusher, Bonitto has excellent bend and explosiveness off the snap. He has a variety of pass rush moves and is technically advanced with his hands and football IQ. It’ll take a creative, flexible DC to use Bonitto to his full potential—and I think Dean Pees’ multiple, attacking front is a perfect fit.
Arnold Ebiketie, Penn State
I’ve always been a little higher on Ebiketie than consensus—I really like his film and think he’s a great fit at 3-4 OLB for the Falcons. He had a quiet Senior Bowl and was outshined by several of the top performers, but is still high in my rankings. Impressive testing at the Combine could bolster his stock even more. Here’s how I described Ebiketie in my Senior Bowl preview:
Looking for an explosive speed rusher? Arnold Ebiketie is one of the best in this class. Comfortable rushing standing up and with his hand in the dirt, Ebiketie is a fiery competitor with a strong 6’4, 250 frame. After transferring from Temple to Penn State, Ebiketie responded to the jump in competition by having his best season ever. I like Ebiketie as a Day 2 target for Atlanta.
Kingsley Enagbare, South Carolina
One of the biggest standouts at the Senior Bowl, Kingsley Enagbare demonstrated his talent and consistency very well against top competition. There are no questions about size or length, but how he tests athletically could determine whether he has a high enough ceiling to flirt with first-round consideration. Here’s how I described Enagbare’s skillset in my Senior Bowl preview:
Enagbare is a versatile, 6’4, 265 edge rusher who can play in both a 3-4 or 4-3, though he is most comfortable rushing from a stand-up position. While there are no glaring issues with Enagbare’s game, he does lack the ceiling of the top prospects. He’s above-average or better in most areas and has room to grow, but I think he’ll be best served as a complementary piece across from a true EDGE1. This is the type of player who has a long, productive NFL career but might not ever make a Pro Bowl.
Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan
The Falcons aren’t likely to have much of a shot at drafting Aidan Hutchinson, but fans should be watching his Combine performance nonetheless. One of three or so players in contention for the #1 overall pick, Hutchinson is a prototypical edge rusher with terrific size, athleticism, and competitive toughness. He’s going to test really well, the only question is how well?
Drake Jackson, USC
I seem to be lower on Drake Jackson than the consensus, and the reason for it is his lack of physicality. Jackson is a 3-4 OLB only who offers a long frame and enticing traits as a speed rusher off the edge, but struggles to play the run or win with strength. As a space player, Jackson is one of the best in the class and even offers some upside in zone coverage. But I’m concerned about his weaknesses at the point of attack—is it a weight-room issue, or a want-to issue? Jackson’s Combine testing could help answer some of these questions.
Jermaine Johnson, FSU
I’m all-in on Jermaine Johnson as the #3 edge rusher in this class, and I’ve already mocked him to the Falcons at 8th overall in my most recent mock draft. Johnson was the best player at the Senior Bowl, hands down, and measured in with terrific length. The only question left to answer is his athleticism, where a strong Combine performance could cement his status as a likely top-15 pick. Here’s how I described Johnson in my latest mock draft:
Johnson is a prototypical edge rusher at over 6’4, 260 with an elite near 83 inch wingspan. He’s got length and strength, and pairs it with some of the best athletic traits in the class. Johnson can beat you with bend, with explosiveness, and with power. He’s also one of the smartest players I’ve scouted in this class. Johnson rarely makes mistakes and doesn’t fall for play-action or other eye candy in the backfield. He’s got an advanced toolset as a pass rusher and plays both the run and the pass at a high level.
George Karlaftis, Purdue
Purdue’s George Karlaftis has seen his stock fall in recent weeks, but not because of anything he’s done. It has had more to do with players impressing at the Senior Bowl—like Jermaine Johnson—and Karlaftis’ “unsexy” skillset. I still think he’s a good starting EDGE, but I’m not sure how well he fits in Atlanta’s scheme. Karlaftis could still reclaim a spot in the top-10, but he needs to prove his athleticism to keep ahead of some of the risers. Here’s how I described Karlaftis in a previous mock draft:
At 6’4, 275, Karlaftis is a big-bodied edge rusher who is more than capable of holding his own against OTs in the run game. However, he’s athletic enough to play as either a stand-up or hand-in-the dirt rusher and has plenty of experience in both roles. Karlaftis is primarily a power rusher, and his strength and burst off the snap are capable of immediately dominating opponents. Combine that with his hand usage, impressive arsenal of moves, and tremendous football IQ and you’ve got a Day 1 impact starter on your hands. His ceiling isn’t as sky-high as the top two prospects in Kayvon Thibodeaux and Aidan Hutchinson, but his floor might be the highest in the class.
Boye Mafe, Minnesota
Boye Mafe answered a lot of questions for scouts at the Senior Bowl, proving he’s more than just a raw ball of clay with incredible athletic traits. He’s lifted himself firmly into the Day 2 conversation, but if he tests as good as advertised, Mafe could even sneak into the late-first round range. Here’s how I described Mafe in a previous mock draft:
Mafe is mostly traits at this point—although he had his most productive season in 2021 with 10.0 TFL and 7.0 sacks—but those traits are enticing. His athleticism is exceptional, with the ability to turn the corner, explode off the ball, and chase down plays from the backside. You also have to love his non-stop motor and relentless style of play. Mafe is still very raw in most facets: he can have trouble diagnosing plays and biting on play-action, and lacks an arsenal of counters and block-shedding moves. It’s going to take time for him to find his footing in the NFL, but the ceiling of a starter is clearly there for Mafe.
David Ojabo, Michigan
In a lot of ways, David Ojabo reminds me of Boye Mafe. Both are special athletes with great size, and both have a long way to go in terms of technique and growing their skillsets. However, right now Ojabo is flirting with top-10 consideration while Mafe is still in Day 2. Other than Ojabo’s better production—which is definitely worth something—what separates him from Mafe and makes him deserving of a much higher pick? I think Ojabo is further along in his development, but I’m interested to see how the two compare in terms of athleticism at the Combine.
Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati
I was down on Myjai Sanders going into the Senior Bowl. To me, he looked too light on tape and struggled to play with enough physicality. However, Sanders impressed me in Mobile both with his play and his weigh-in at a respectable 242. He clearly worked on adding mass and physicality as a rusher and run defender this offseason, and it showed. Sanders has an opportunity to continue raising his stock with impressive testing at the Combine.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon
The other edge rusher vying for the #1 overall pick, Kayvon Thibodeaux has perhaps the highest ceiling of all the pass rushers in the class. A truly special athlete with excellent length and a prototypical frame, Thibodeaux certainly looks the part of a top pick. He had a little bit of a down year by his standards with “only” 7.0 sacks and 12.0 TFL in 2021, and is getting the “anonymous sources question his love of the game” treatment. I don’t care about any of that, and if he tests as well as expected at the Combine, NFL teams won’t either. If he happens to fall to 8, Atlanta shouldn’t hesitate.
Travon Walker, Georgia
A player who got more and more impressive as the 2021 season went on, Travon Walker came on strong in the CFP for Georgia and put himself firmly in the first-round conversation. He’ll need a versatile NFL role due to his inside/outside build, but Walker has tremendous upside as both a pass rusher on the interior and a run defender on the outside. Here’s how I described Walker in a previous mock draft:
Walker has been a bit of a late bloomer, but he’s having an excellent season on a loaded defense. He’s a unique edge prospect, with a massive frame at 6’5 and 275 pounds but the athleticism to play as both a hand-in-the-dirt and stand-up rusher. Walker is explosive and powerful, with a hot motor and the tenacity to chase down plays from all over the field. He needs more technical refinement as a pass rusher, but his floor as a strong run defender should make him an instant three-down starter.
I hope you enjoyed this NFL Combine prospect preview! Stay tuned for our next position group tomorrow.