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Top edge rushers to watch at the Senior Bowl

With the Senior Bowl kicking off next week, we begin our preview series with the biggest roster hole on defense: edge rusher.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Cal at UCLA Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2023 NFL season is over for most NFL teams—our Atlanta Falcons included—and that means it’s time to turn our attention to 2024. With free agency fast approaching and the 2024 NFL Draft close behind, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover over the coming months. The first big event on the offseason calendar is the Senior Bowl: a massive scouting event collecting some of the top prospects from college football in Mobile, AL for a week of practice and interviews. This year’s event takes place from Tuesday, January 30 through Saturday, February 3.

I’ll once again be on-site in Mobile to cover the event for The Falcoholic and the Dirty Birds & Brews podcast, and will be providing daily updates here on the site. Before we get down to Mobile, I’ll be previewing some of the most critical positions for the Falcons and giving you a breakdown of some players to watch heading into the week.

Let’s start with the biggest roster hole on the defense: edge rusher.

Laiatu Latu, UCLA

Without a doubt the biggest riser in the EDGE class, UCLA’s Laiatu Latu has come a long way since 2019. After being forced into a medical retirement due to a neck injury in 2020, Latu transferred from Washington to UCLA and was cleared to play in the 2022 season. What followed was an encouraging return that season, and a downright dominant 2023 where Latu led the NCAA in TFLs with a whopping 21.5 and finished fourth in the NCAA in sacks with 13.

What immediately stands out about Latu (6’4, 261) is his technical refinement for a college pass rusher. He has a variety of moves and counters and deploys them effectively in a variety of situations. It’s extremely rare to see this level of polish from a college pass rusher, and shows how hard of a worker he is both on and off the field. Latu has a ferocious motor that makes him an effective finisher, as he can get pressure instantly or clean up a play with a coverage sack.

He’s clearly a Week 1 starter as a primary pass rusher, but questions about his length and overall athleticism—and what NFL medical evaluations will say about his previous injury—could potentially hold him out of the top-10 of the draft. I expect Latu to put on a show in Mobile.

Chris Braswell, Alabama

While Dallas Turner has largely stolen the headlines on Alabama’s defensive line, there’s another edge rusher on that defense who is steadily climbing draft boards: Chris Braswell. Braswell is a denser and more traditionally-built edge rusher than Turner at 6’3, 255, but possesses some of the same explosive traits. Unlike Turner, Braswell is more of a straight-line power rusher as opposed to someone who can be expected to bend and corner off the edge.

Braswell is a dominant power rusher and strong player against the run, but there are some concerns about lack of ideal length and his lateral agility. He’ll have a chance to address those concerns against a very good tackle class at the Senior Bowl.

Adisa Isaac, Penn State

One of the more intriguing developmental pass rushers in the class, Penn State’s Adisa Isaac offers an enticing toolset for a good defensive staff to develop. Isaac has strong athletic traits mostly stemming from his lateral mobility and change-of-direction ability. He’s got a good first step and is capable of a pretty effective bull rush, but the rest of his pass rush moves are lacking.

Isaac is currently a work-in-progress against the run and needs time before being trusted as an early-down base package defender, but his upside as a pass rusher is worth keeping an eye on. He’s got a lot to gain with a strong week in Mobile.

Marshawn Kneeland, Western Michigan

Western Michigan’s Marshawn Kneeland is a high-motor lineman with a big frame (6’3, 275) who will be able to fit in to almost any defensive scheme. Kneeland is an top-end run defender with experience stuffing rush lanes from a variety of techniques and stances. He’s incredibly strong and has better-than-expected lateral mobility for someone of his size, giving him the option to play from a two-point stance. As you’d expect, Kneeland primarily wins with power and a non-stop effort as a pass rusher and has some relatively advanced counters and moves for a college rusher.

His size does carry the risk of him being labeled an inside/outside tweener, and there are questions about his overall athleticism. I ultimately think Kneeland ends up as a Day 2 player and will turn heads with his style of play at the Senior Bowl.

Darius Robinson, Missouri

Missouri’s Darius Robinson reminds me of Kneeland in many ways, but while Kneeland’s calling card was versatility and better-than-expected lateral mobility, Robinson’s calling card is prototypical size (6’5, 296) and strength. Robinson is also an elite run defender, but he gets the job done from a more traditional 5T alignment and with his hand in the dirt. He’s an elite power player with excellent hand technique and the ability to set the edge and disrupt plays consistently.

Robinson is less athletic than Kneeland is much more of a straight-line player, but also offers a superior size and strength profile. With no insight at this stage into what type of defense the Falcons will be running, it’s hard to say what direction the team will prefer.

More players to watch

Brandon Dorlus, Oregon
Javon Solomon, Troy
Jalyx Hunt, Houston Christian