The 2015 NFL Draft has already been pegged by some as “The Year Of The Edge Rusher.”
That’s good news for the Bears, who will need to find a pass-rushing outside linebacker as they transition to a 3-4 defense. Will they address that need with the seventh overall pick? It’s possible, but they should be careful. After evaluating this group of edge rushing prospects, I only believe two (maybe three) are worth taking that early in the first round.
Here’s my list of the top 10 edge rushers available for the Bears in April’s NFL Draft:
1. Shane Ray, Missouri (6-3, 245)
No pass rusher in this year’s draft has better film than Shane Ray, who runs with a high motor that never stops. He’s not the fastest guy, but he might be the quickest, possessing good change-of-direction and polished pass rush moves. Ray has a great first step and he ends up finding a way to get into the backfield on every snap. The tape shows good instincts, as he rarely stays blocked and always seems to find a way to weave through traffic to get to the ball.
I’m just not sure where to put him in a 3-4. Ray was a 4-3 defensive end at Mizzou and got experience kicking inside to a 3-technique. That doesn’t sound ideal for a 3-4 edge rusher, except for that he’s probably too small to be an every down 4-3 defensive end at the NFL level. I think he’s best suited for a hybrid system, where he can move around, playing from both a two-point stance and three-point stance.
Where I would draft him: Top 10. Ray is one of those rare talents where you just draft him and figure out exactly how to use him later. He’s seems perfect for Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who has a knack for plugging players like Ray into his system.
2. Vic Beasley, Clemson (6-3, 246)
Clemson’s all-time sack leader checked off a lot of boxes at last week’s NFL Combine. He played light at Clemson, but has added 10-15 pounds since the end of the season and didn’t sacrifice any speed or athleticism in Indianapolis with the added weight. Of course, there isn’t any tape of Beasley playing at the heavier weight, so teams will still be projecting him at the next level. That’s why I have Ray ranked ahead of him. Beasley’s Pro Day will be important to see where the weight and agility are at.
Still, Beasley shouldn’t have much of a problem succeeding at the next level. He primarily played as a hand-on-the-ground right end at Clemson, but his athleticism will allow him to adjust to being a true 3-4 outside linebacker. He has an extremely fast get-off and already possesses good hand-technique. Beasley was a big reason why Florida State left tackle Cameron Erving moved to center mid-season. He abused Erving in the first half and the Seminoles had to bring double teams in the second half.
I still have questions about Beasley’s ability to set the edge, and he’ll have to learn how to cover, but if his Combine performance was any indication, he’ll be just fine.
Where I would draft him: Top 10. Beasley joins Ray as the only two edge rushers I’d have no hesitation taking with the seventh overall pick.
3. Owamagbe Odighizuwa, UCLA (6-3, 267)
Chances are I’ll have O-DIGGY-ZU-WA ranked higher than most, but for a guy labeled as a “run-defender” his tapes against USC and Utah showed one hell of a pass rusher. He’s a lot like Shane Ray in that he’ll probably have to be moved around in a 3-4, but that kind of versatility is an asset.
UCLA used Odighizuwa anywhere from a 3-technique to an edge rusher in a two-point stance and he was comfortable in every spot. He’s a powerful guy with good length and huge hands, which he uses to shed blocks. Like Ray, he’s a high-motor guy with a good first step.
So why isn’t Odighizuwa ranked higher? He has had surgeries on both hips, which cost him the entire 2013 season. Hip injuries are major red flags and I wouldn’t be surprised if some teams have him completely off their draft boards.
Where I would draft him: Top 10, maybe. Look, unlike NFL teams, I don’t have a team of doctors able to perform a full medical evaluation at the Combine. But if I did, and they cleared him, I would be willing to draft Odighizuwa seventh overall if Ray and Beasley are already gone.
4. Nate Orchard, Utah (6-3, 250)
Here’s another guy I probably have ranked higher than most. I didn’t have a chance to study Orchard before the Senior Bowl and it was there where he caught my eye. On one particular play, he showed good instincts, athleticism and hands by reading a bubble screen and intercepting Baylor’s Bryce Petty. Orchard isn’t the fastest guy, but he’s fast enough and his closing speed is evident on tape. He’s definitely someone who plays faster than he times (ran a 4.80 40 at the Combine).
The issue here might be his desire to transition to a 3-4, where he projects better. At Utah, he was primarily a hand-on-the-ground 4-3 right end and prefers playing that way. “I’ve been doing it for 10 years. It’s where my heart is at,” Orchard told me at the Senior Bowl. However, he also said a move to outside linebacker “wouldn’t be a problem.”
Orchard is sort of a one-year year wonder, but he had 18.5 sacks as a senior, which was second in the nation. He has above-average get-off, but wins with his polished pass-rush moves. He’s not a very violent player taking on blocks against the run, but he can set an edge and has shown the ability to bounce off blocks to make the tackle. He’s a smart player with good instincts and has a knack for weaving through traffic. His motor never stops.
You’re also not going to have any off the field problems with Orchard. He’s already married with an infant daughter. “I’ve got a very stable life,” he said.
Where I would draft him: First round. Orchard probably isn’t worth a Top 10 pick and many actually believe he’ll slip into the second round. If he’s available with the 39th overall pick, the Bears would be getting tremendous value.
5. Dante Fowler Jr., Florida (6-3, 261)
At this point, Fowler seems to be a consensus Top 10 pick, but I just don’t see it on tape. When he’s blocked, he’s blocked. The strength was already a concern for me and he didn’t help his case by only benching 19 reps at the Combine (for comparison, Beasley benched 35 reps). This is even more alarming considering he’s a former five-star defensive end who actually lost 25 pounds while at Florida (did he lose all muscle?). I see the potential, as the length and speed is evident on tape, but there’s just not enough production. Even when he gets a free rush, he’s a little out of control and fails to finish his tackles.
On the plus side, Fowler can set the edge and has more experience than others when it comes to dropping into coverage. I like how Florida used him, as he got experience playing inside and outside with both his hand on the ground and from a two-point stance. The Gators would have him rush every gap within a single game.
Where I would draft him: Late first round. You’re drafting on potential here (and there’s a lot of it), but the lack of production (only 8.5 sacks in 2014, three of which were against East Carolina in the bowl game) scares me. The tape just isn’t good enough to warrant a Top 20 pick, but someone will probably reach and take him in the Top 10.
6. Alvin “Bud” Dupree, Kentucky (6-4, 269)
Like Beasley, Dupree is a freak athlete, but he’s not as polished of a pass rusher, and the length (only 32 5/8 inches) doesn’t match the height. In fact, his pass-rush moves are virtually non-existent. Whoever drafts him is going to have to give him a ton of coaching. That said, the potential is there, as the quick get-off and speed is evident on tape. He also shows great power and appears to already be a good edge-setter against the run. It also helps that Kentucky used him as a 3-4 outside linebacker, so he won’t be making a transition.
Where I would draft him: Second round. The tools are there, but whoever drafts Dupree is gambling on their coaching staff developing him into a real pass rusher. I’m not willing to risk a first round pick.
7. Randy Gregory, Nebraska (6-5, 235)
The 19 TFLs and 10.5 sacks Gregory posted in 2013 made him a hot commodity in NFL circles and he’s apparently still getting by on his debut performance. The reality is — much like Fowler — his 2014 tape doesn’t match the hype. To be fair, Gregory did miss two games due to knee and ankle injuries, so that should be factored into the final numbers (10 TFLs, seven sacks), but the big picture does not warrant the No. 2 overall pick as some have suggested.
Gregory has good length, but a thin base and lack of strength worries me. He struggles to get off blocks and he doesn’t fight with his hands. Sure, his speed is very evident on tape, but he has a slow get-off. Playing the Big Ten, I expect more, and his tapes against the better teams — namely Michigan State and Wisconsin — are unimpressive. Some have said he was “invisible” against Wisconsin, but I’d argue he was very visible as Melvin Gordon ran by him for a then-NCAA record 408 yards.
The medical evaluations will be important for Gregory as he had an old knee injury flare up early in the season (it had to be cleaned out) and there will also be fair questions about his intelligence, as he originally failed to qualify academically at Purdue and had to go the JUCO route before ending up at Nebraska.
Where I would draft him: Second round. Tons of potential here, but too many red flags to use a first round pick on him. Of course, like Fowler, he’s probably destined for the Top 10.
8. Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington (6-2, 253)
Kikaha is a prototypical edge rusher who led the nation in sacks as a senior. He wins with his hands and shows off nice, quick pass rush moves. He’s not the fastest guy, but he’s polished and runs with a high motor.
The issue with Kikaha is that he’s a high-floor, low-ceiling player who has had two ACL surgeries. Granted, he was a very productive player after the ACL issues so that’s not a huge concern, but any team that drafts Kikaha has to know they aren’t getting a player who will end up in Canton.
Kikaha is also not great against the run and tends to get stuck on blocks. He needs space to be effective. A 3-4 will give him that space.
Where I would draft him: Second round. Worst case scenario you’ll be getting a very good special teams player, but I believe Kikaha will be a very solid starting edge rusher.
9. Eli Harold, Virginia (6-3, 247)
Harold flashes eilte athleticism and good versatility, but I don’t think he possesses enough essential tools as a pass rusher to be worthy of a first round pick. He has average get-off and doesn’t win with his hands. He tends to be sloppy finishing plays and I question his strength. His instincts were also exposed against UCLA as Brett Hundley read him with ease on the read-option. When facing bigger offensive tackles, Harold goes nowhere and seems to prefer rushing inside against smaller guards.
Where I would draft him: Third round. Harold needs a lot of coaching to reach his potential. I think he’s too much of a project to take before the third round.
10. Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville (6-4, 259)
Mauldin is a high-character guy you root for after a tough upbringing. He went through 16 foster homes as both his parents were in jail. He’s not the flashiest prospect in the draft, but he’s someone who is going to work his ass off for you.
As a player, Mauldin has great size, but he’s not very thick. He lacks power and explosiveness and could be vulnerable against the run. That said, he stood out at Senior Bowl practices as a very good player when moving forward. I questioned his ability to turn and run in coverage, but he looked much better in the game than in practices.
His Combine numbers aren’t going to impress anyone (4.85 40-time), but he plays better than he tests and he’ll be an overachiever at the next level.
Where I would draft him: Third round. This is where I had Mauldin in Bears Mock Draft 1.0 and it really wouldn’t be too surprising to see him in end up in Chicago given that he said at the Combine that he considers Bears outside linebackers coach Clint Hurtt “a father figure.” Hurtt coached Mauldin at Louisville and even went back last year on Senior Day to walk Mauldin onto the field.