NFL Draft: Top-10 pass rushers

The pass rush is the lifeblood of Jim Schwartz’s defense, and we know the Eagles are likely looking to add some juice in the Draft. Here are the top 10 defensive end prospects in the class that make sense for the Birds.

(Note: any prospect who profiles better in a stand-up role in a 3-4 defense was left off this list; for example, Zach Baun is my third rated overall EDGE player, but 3-4 defenses will rate him higher than the Eagles, which makes it highly unlikely he ends up here)

1. Chase Young, Ohio State

Chase Young is the best overall prospect in this class and I’m not sure it’s close. He’s a chiseled 6’6” 260 pound athletic freak with a combination of speed, power, and bend that we probably see once in a decade.

He has the most developed arsenal of pass rush moves of any prospect in recent memory, and his technique is as buttoned up as can be. Simply put, Chase Young is built different—16.5 sacks and 58 QB pressures in 12 games is proof of that.

2. K’Lavon Chaissan, LSU

K’lavon Chaissan has the versatility that a 3-4 team would get more out of than Schwartz would, but his potential as a pure defensive end is high enough that 4-3 teams won’t value him any less.

Despite less than ideal size (6’3” 250) Chaissan is really strong against the run—something I overlooked when I covered him back in March. He has long arms and heavy hands that allows him to set the edge and maintain good leverage. His technique is well developed in this area and he shows the sort of instinct and awareness that coaches should fall in love with.

As a pass rusher he’s less developed with his hand placement than he shows in the run game, but he has a rare set of physical tools that will allow him to develop into a sack artist. His burst and bend are both considered elite, and his short area quickness and ability to convert speed to power should leave a coordinator like Schwartz drooling.

He has the skillset to make an impact right away with the capability to post double-digit sacks sooner than later. The aspect of his game that has me sold the most is his motor—he reminds me of Derek Barnett in the way that he fights to stay in every play.

3. Yetur Gross-Matos, PSU

Yetur Gross-Matos is the prototypical developmental pass rusher; all the physical tools are there—speed, power, length, quickness—but the fundamentals and overall skillset is lacking.

Outside of a few processing lapses he should be able to contribute on early running downs in year one—he has an excellent motor and his tackle radius and ability to finish plays are impressive. At just 22 years old he has plenty of room to grow, and the right coaching staff should turn him into a weapon as pass rusher by year two or three.

I wouldn’t take Gross-Matos at 21 but if the Eagles trade back he could be on their radar.

4. AJ Epenesa, Iowa

AJ Epenesa isn’t the most thrilling prospect nor does he have much of a ceiling, but his floor is high and he’s a safe bet to be an instant impact edge defender.

Iowa grows ‘em tough and fundamentally sound and that’s pretty much Espenesa in a nutshell. The athletic gifts or flexibility just aren’t there, but his effort and technique should allow him to be a plus run defender who might pitch in six to eight sacks a year if used properly.

There’s some speculation that he might be best utilized playing inside on passing downs and only playing end in obvious run situations—which would require him gaining 10-15 pounds. He shouldn’t be in play at 21, but if he somehow falls to 53 he might be worth the value.

5. Jonathan Greenard, Florida

I’ve written about Jonathan Greenard a couple times in the pre-draft process and I think he makes a ton of sense at 53 overall, or somewhere in the top-80 if the Birds find a way to add another pick in that range.

I’m high on Greenard and I like his upside as a pass rusher under Jim Schwartz. He’s fairly explosive off the ball, and his ability to anticipate the snap makes his above-average first step appear elite—the type of ‘get-off’ Schwartz loves. He has excellent length/size for the position to go pair with impressive quickness and polished technique.

He doesn’t waste movement as a rusher, and works hard to get involved in every play. He’s not the twitchiest athlete with the gaudiest numbers, but I have a hard time finding something I don’t like about Greenard. He’s strong against the run, as he has a great understanding of leverage, and his tackle-radius is incredible—he uses great body extension and long arms to corral any ball carrier flowing in his direction.

While it’s unlikely he’ll be a double-digit sack guy as a pro (though I don’t rule it out) multiple seasons with 6-8 sacks and 15-20 TFL seems likely. He’s as NFL-ready as they come and has a solid floor as a well-rounded end with good upside as a pass rusher. The Birds could use him in the rotation in 2020 and beyond.

6. Khalid Kareem, Notre Dame

If the Eagles are looking for someone to come in and lockup first and second down then Khalid Kareem is their man. He’s extremely powerful at the POA and plays with exceptional leverage to set the edge. Ball carriers rarely slip through his rangy grasp, and he does well finishing plays with authority.

He’s not a twitchy or dynamic athlete but he’s also not some stiff—combine the right work in the weight room with the right development of pass rush moves and he could truly develop an all-around skillset that could make him a steal.

A projected third-rounder, Khareem makes a ton of sense to slot right into Schwartz’s rotation, as his strength will allow him to kick inside in certain sub-packages.

7. Darrell Taylor, Tennessee

Darrell Taylor is a bit of an enigma to most evaluators—some can’t figure out why he’s considered a top-100 prospect, and others are saying he’ll be one of the biggest “risers” before the Draft comes around.

I think the truth (this may be a cop out) is somewhere in the middle. He has the requisite physical traits and athleticism to excel as both a pass rusher and run defender, and he did produce at Tennessee—so what’s the catch? He’s not very fundamentally sound or polished in stringing together pass rush moves, and isn’t very instinctive in the run game—he mostly got by in college with elite physicality and athleticism.

He’s a major project for whoever drafts him, but he has the sort of tools worth taking the time to develop.

8. Kenny Willekes, Michigan St.

If you’ve seen my mock drafts you’ve likely read about Kenny Willekes—he’s undersized but has the motor, get-off, quickness, bend, technique, killer-instinct, etc… that compensates for a lack of 5-star physical traits.

He’ll be available in round three and has a solid floor as a rotational pass rusher that can develop into more. Willekes can’t do anything about his length, but if he can adequately add 10 lbs. without losing his speed/quickness then he’s being severely undervalued.

9. Alex Highsmith, Charlotte

Alex Highsmith is a small school prospect which makes him a little difficult to peg given the level of competition in the A-10. Nonetheless he produced at a high level over the past two seasons—15 sacks 21.5 TFL.

He’s quick off the line with a great first step and good snap anticipation. His flexibility and ability to maintain speed and power while staying low to the ground is a great foundation for a pass rusher, and his current arsenal of moves is fairly diversified (though technique could use some honing).

His struggles setting the edge and lack of girth in his lower-half limits his ability stopping the run, but his clear potential as a pass rusher is why you take him—and also why he might go higher than most expect.

10. Curtis Weaver, Boise St.

The level of competition he faced combined with his less than ideal athleticism makes me a little worried about a prospect like Curtis Weaver. However, it would be pretty hard to ignore his production (34.5 sacks, 47.5 TFL over 3 seasons) if he was available in the third or fourth round.

While he’s nothing to write home about in terms of explosion or twitch, he’s as developed as they come. The Eagles should know as much as anyone that the ability to produce is just as, if not more important than impressing in the weight room or being a SPARQ-freak. Weaver has an impressive go-to move (speed rush), the proper motor, and the baseline athleticism that should serve as more than a solid foundation for an NFL team to believe in.

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