Dougherty: Three edge rushers who could be too tempting for Packers to pass up
About a month ago, Brian Gutekunst signed outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith for a combined average of $29.5 million a year.
But if you think that means outside rusher isn’t still a draft priority for the Green Bay Packers general manager, think again.
For one, neither of the Smiths is a field-tilting rusher. Preston Smith has averaged 6.1 sacks a season in his four-year NFL career, and that’s without having missed a game. Za’Darius Smith has averaged 4.6 sacks in his four seasons though he’s coming off a career-high 8½ last year.
Gutekunst saw upside and good overall play when he signed them, but the Packers still don’t have a pass rusher offenses have to game plan around.
Second, the strength at the top of this year’s draft is defensive line in general and outside rushers in particular. There’s a real chance the best player on the board when the Packers pick at No. 12 will be an outside rusher.
Why would Gutekunst even think twice about taking one if he’s the best player on the board? You can’t have enough good pass rushers in this league, and there are always ways to get them all on the field. If Gutekunst can add a prospect with some thoroughbred qualities that the Packers’ lack at that position, he has to take it.
That said, it’s safe to say two edge rushers will be off the board before Gutekunst’s turn comes up: Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Kentucky’s Josh Allen.
That leaves probably three others who would be viable at No. 12 and have any chance of being available: Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Florida State’s Brian Burns.
Following is a thumbnail look at all three based on recent conversations I’ve had with two NFL scouts and one defensive line coach in the league.
After putting up 22 sacks the last two seasons followed by exceptional testing at the NFL scouting combine in February, he’s the least likely of the three to be on the board at No. 12.
“It’s going to be very close,” one of the scouts said.
Sweat, who ended up at Mississippi State after getting kicked off the team at Michigan State for marijuana use, has a prototypical build for an outside rusher (6-5 5/6, 260 pounds, 35 ¾-inch arms).
Then at the scouting combine he ran an all-time 40 (4.41 seconds) for a defensive end and had performances in the vertical (36 inches), three-cone drill (7.0 seconds) and short shuttle (4.29 seconds) that rank in the top 77th percentile or better for edge rushers dating to 1999, according to Mock Draftable.
Looking at Sweat’s sack numbers and 40 – that 40 time was no fluke, because his second try was only a hair slower at 4.45 seconds – you’d think he’s a top-five prospect. But he’s not.
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“I don’t make a lot of the ridiculous 40 time,” the other scout said. “He’s very straight line. (His 40) is incredibly impressive, don’t get me wrong. (But) if you watch the film you wouldn’t think that. He’s more of a power player. He’s got excellent arm length. That’s really how he wins his rushes, with length and power. If he’s got a free run on the back side against the run he does pretty well.”
Chances are Sweat won’t make it to 12, but if he does, could Gutekunst pass? You’d have to think not.
“(Sweat) is long, he’s athletic, and he can run,” one of the scouts said. “I think his upside is bigger than Bosa’s. … I think he’s a real guy.”
One of the hardest top prospects to make sense of, because he looks and tests like a top rusher but doesn’t sack the quarterback like one.
In the junior entry’s final two seasons at Michigan he had only nine sacks total, including 3½ in nine games last year. The most recent outside rusher who had such little production in college but went on to a good rushing career in the NFL is Frank Clark, who never had more than five sacks in a season at Michigan but has had 32 sacks the past three years for Seattle and this offseason was tagged as the Seahawks’ franchise player.
“(Gary) looks like a good player, but how can you take this guy (high in the first round)?” the defensive line coach said. “I thought he must be a bad ass, but he had (3½) sacks (last year). If you haven’t ever sacked the quarterback in college you’re not going to be a big-time sacker in the NFL.
Still, Gary generally is regarded as a top talent.
He’s big for an outside rusher (6-4 3/8, 277 pounds), and his best position is a 4-3 end, not the 3-4 outside linebacker position he’d probably play for the Packers. Despite that size, though, his 40 (4.58 seconds) and vertical (38 inches) rank in the top 97th percentile of edge rushers at the combine since ’99, so he has elite traits in an oversized body.
“He’s a power player,” one of the scouts said. “He plays really hard. He’s good against the run, he’s explosive. He’s got stiff hips – if he’s doing a speed rush around the edge he can’t plant and turn real fluidly, which is why he struggles to finish some rushes at times. But he’s right up there with (Sweat and Burns). I don’t expect him to be there at 12, but you’d be happy if he was.”
He’s the only pure 3-4 outside linebacker of the three, so in that way he’s a better fit for the Packers’ scheme.
Burns played last season at close to 225 pounds, then built up to 249 pounds for the combine and still ran a fast (4.53) 40. He had 23 sacks in three seasons at Florida State, including 8½ in eight games as a freshman and 10 last year as a junior.
He’s a speed rusher with upside but from a school with a history of outside rushers who have underachieved in the NFL, including the Packers’ first-round pick (No. 10 overall) in 2001, Jamal Reynolds.
The defensive line coach rated Burns and Sweat as tied for the third-best edge rushers in this draft, behind Bosa and Allen. One of the scouts didn’t like Burns in the first round because of the Florida State bust factor; the other rated him just behind Sweat and Gary.
“I don’t think it’s too rich for (Burns) at 12,” the second scout said. “All these guys are real guys. Some of them are more polished, some of them are more potential. Bosa to me doesn’t have potential. He is exactly what he is, and he’s damn good, but he’s not getting better once he gets to the pro level. He’s not going to get any bigger. Some of these other guys have a chance to get bigger and learn more.”
This draft might not have the next Von Miller and Khalil Mack, but for quality prospects in the first half of the first round, the edge rushers probably rank as the best position.
It doesn’t mean they’ll all pan out. But it could mean one of them will get his shot in Green Bay.