Draft preview: Edge rushers in early, middle rounds
When the Green Bay Packers signed outside linebacker Julius Peppers last offseason, they had high expectations for a player who likely will end his career in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But it would've been hard to foresee Peppers having as much impact as he did in his first season. He was moving from defensive end to outside linebacker for the first time in his career. He was 34 years old, not an ideal age to start playing a more athletically demanding position.
Peppers handled the transition well, finishing with seven sacks and returning two interceptions for touchdowns.
His production was especially valuable because of Clay Matthews' midseason move to inside linebacker. With their top pass rusher playing off the line of scrimmage, Peppers ensured the Packers still had a consistent edge rush.
With Peppers returning, the Packers have a solid pass-rush foundation. But Peppers is now 35. The Packers could look to add more edge rushing early in the draft, especially if they plan to keep Matthews at inside linebacker in 2015.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock forecasts an average pass-rushing class in the upcoming draft, which means several edge rushers likely will be taken in the first round. A couple of prospects with major talent could slip to the end of the first day because of off-field concerns. Missouri defensive end Shane Ray (toe injury) and Nebraska outside linebacker Randy Gregory (failed marijuana test) were projected as top-10 picks, but both have been sliding in draft boards.
It's especially difficult to project where Gregory will be drafted.
"I have no friggin' idea," Mayock said. "In all honesty, in my head he could go Nos. 13 or 31 to New Orleans, but these are the kind of deals where teams keep it real quiet. They don't let anybody know, they get their owners to buy off, and if he's there at whatever number — 24 to Arizona, 31 to New Orleans, pick a number. But everybody's doing their homework in case he gets to them."
Chances are remote Gregory or Ray will be available when the Packers' first pick arrives at No. 30. That might not prevent the Packers from using the pick to draft an edge rusher.
UCLA defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa could be an option at the end of the first round after testing well at the NFL combine. Odighizuwa ran a 4.62-second, 40-yard dash, the second-fastest time among defensive linemen. It was impressive athleticism from a player who missed all of 2013 recovering from two left hip surgeries.
Odighizuwa answered questions about his durability in 2014, finishing with a career-high six sacks and 111/2 tackles for loss. Still, his time away from the field shows up with underdeveloped pass-rush moves.
"I think he can be a good rotational player for somebody almost right away," former Cleveland Browns general manager and current Senior Bowl director Phil Savage said. "I do worry that when you watch him during the season, he has a tendency to try to rush down the middle of people. He's not real edgy in terms of getting on the corner of the blocker's pads.
"So, can he learn that? Yes, but I think it might take some time with him to really develop a counter move and max out his true pass-rushing potential."
The Packers took their chance on an athletic UCLA defensive end in the first round two years ago, drafting Datone Jones. In 29 games the past two season, Jones has only five sacks and 27 tackles.
Savage said he would rate Jones ahead of Odighizuwa at this point in their development.
"I don't know exactly how he's played there," Savage said of Jones, "but I know he hasn't set the world on fire."
The Packers could find value when they pick No. 62 overall in the second round if Washington outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha is available. On film, Kikaha appears to be an immediate NFL starter. He's among the most productive prospects in the class, amassing 32 sacks and 401/2 tackles for loss the past two seasons.
Unlike Odighizuwa, poor NFL combine results have hurt Kikaha's projected value. He ran a 4.93-second, 40-yard dash, failing to show the athletic burst that appears on film.
The poor test results fed into other doubts with Kikaha. He's seen as the classic tweener, too small to play defensive end but too slow to handle all the duties demanded of an outside linebacker. He also tore his left ACL twice, forcing him to miss most of 2011 and all of the 2012 season.
But Kikaha rebounded and was productive enough in his final two seasons to set Washington's career sacks record.
"I love this guy," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "So I'm probably — I don't want to say biased — I just don't care about the (test) numbers sometimes. You know, it's good to have numbers to back up what you see on tape, but I'm going to take the tape over the numbers every time. … In 2013 and 2014, the tape is just outstanding. He plays physical, he's tough. He will set the edge versus the run.
"I personally hope he lands in a good place that has a need for a 3-4 outside 'backer, because I think that's what he is. What he does best is get up the field and counter move when reached."
If Kikaha passes medical checks, he'll probably be drafted before the Packers have a chance in the late second round. With substantial defensive needs elsewhere, the Packers could wait until the middle rounds to target pass rushing.
Missouri outside linebacker Markus Golden is a potential steal if he falls to the draft's third day. While Ray overshadowed him at Missouri, Golden finished his junior season with 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. Savage said he's impressed with Golden's arsenal of pass-rush skills.
"Very physical hands," Savage said. "He's a finisher, plays with great effort. He's either going to win early with a hand swat and swim or some sort of initial move, or he's going to win late because he just doesn't give up.
"Is he a super elite edge rusher that's got the whole package? Probably not. He's not as good as Shane Ray, he's not as physically imposing as Tony Ealy (a second-round pick from Missouri in 2014), but he's better than (former Missouri defensive end) Michael Sam. So to me he's probably in that mid-round range as a good rotational, substitute-type player."
Rising stock: Clemson outside linebacker Vic Beasley matched a highly projective senior season with impressive workout results at the NFL combine, and he's soared up draft boards since February.
Falling stock: Nebraska outside linebacker Randy Gregory started the pre-draft process as arguably the top edge rusher, but a failed marijuana test at the combine has his stock plummeting.
Sleeper: Washington outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha won't be drafted in the first round, but on tape he appears to be an immediate starter with a chance to develop into an impact player.
Top 10 edge rushers
1. Dante Fowler Jr., Florida
Height: 6-3. Weight: 261. Class: Junior. 40-yard dash: 4.6. Stats: 81/2 sacks, 15 tackles for loss. Projection: Round 1 (top 10).
» Fowler has the explosive athleticism that could make him a sack artist.
2. Vic Beasley, Clemson
Height: 6-3. Weight: 246. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.53. Stats: 12 sacks, 211/2 tackles for loss. Projection: Round 1 (top 10).
» Beasley isn't the most powerful athlete, leading to questions about his ability to defend the run, but he could be a dominant pass rusher with explosion off the edge.
3. Randy Gregory, Nebraska
Height: 6-5. Weight: 235. Class: Junior. 40-yard dash: 4.64. Stats: 7 sacks, 81/2 tackles for loss. Projection: Round 1.
» A positive drug test at the combine has Gregory falling down draft boards, but he is the third-best edge rusher in this class.
4. Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Kentucky
Height: 6-4. Weight: 269. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.56. Stats: 71/2 sacks, 121/2 tackles for loss. Projection: Round 1.
» Dupree may be the most athletic edge rusher in the draft, but many skills will need to be further developed.
5. Shane Ray, Missouri
Height: 6-3. Weight: 245. Class: Junior. 40-yard dash: 4.68. Stats: 141/2 sacks, 221/2 tackles for loss. Projection: Round 1.
» Great blend of speed and power and highly productive at Missouri, Ray is the final member of the draft's elite rushers.
6. Eli Harold, Virginia
Height: 6-3. Weight: 247. Class: Junior. 40-yard dash: 4.58. Stats: 7 sacks, 141/2 tackles for loss. Projection: Rounds 1-2.
» A fringe first-rounder who probably will go early in the second round, Harold has the athleticism to be a solid pass rusher but must improve as a run defender.
7. Owamagbe Odighizuwa, UCLA
Height: 6-3. Weight: 267. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.62. Stats: 6 sacks, 111/2 tackles for loss. Projection: Rounds 1-2.
» Tested well at the combine with one of the fastest 40 times among defensive linemen, but must develop a counter move to maximize his athleticism as a pass rusher.
8. Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington
Height: 6-2. Weight: 253. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.93. Stats: 19 sacks, 25 tackles for loss. Projection: Round 2.
» Kikaha did not test well and doesn't have ideal measurables for an edge rusher, but he was a beast on the field at Washington with 32 sacks the past two seasons.
9. Danielle Hunter, LSU
Height: 6-5. Weight: 252. Class: Junior. 40-yard dash: 4.57. Stats: 11/2 sacks, 13 tackles for loss. Projection: Round 2.
» Lacks bulk for a defensive end prospect, but he ran the fastest time among defensive linemen at the combine.
10. Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville
Height: 6-4. Weight: 259. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.81. Stats: 61/2 sacks, 13 tackles for loss. Projection: Rounds 2-3.
» Not as athletic as some of the rushers on this list, but a solid football player who could add value in a pass-rush rotation.
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