It has been a long time since the NFL draft failed to produce a single edge rusher in the top five picks. The last time it happened was in 2012, when the Seahawks made Bruce Irvin the first edge rusher off the board at pick No. 15. That is likely to happen again this year, as most onlookers agree that no available edge rusher is worthy of a top-five pick.
Although this year's group of edge rushers may lack the elite prospects of past drafts, it is certainly an interesting and eclectic group. One top prospect had a single season of double-digit sacks as a sophomore and then declined to play in 2020. Another top prospect may have the record for the greatest disparity between his on-field production and workout performance.
In light of this year's unusual edge rusher prospects in an unusual draft, SackSEER—Football Outsiders' system for projecting college edge rushers—could be helpful in cutting through some of the noise. SackSEER uses pre-draft workout data along with college statistics to project the NFL pass-rushing prospects of defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers.
SackSEER is based on a statistical analysis of all edge rushers drafted in from 1998 to 2019, and measures the following:
- the edge rusher's projected draft position—specifically, the rankings from ESPN's Scouts Inc.;
- an "explosion index" that measures the prospect's scores in the 40-yard dash, the vertical leap, and the broad jump in pre-draft workouts;
- the prospect's score in the three-cone drill;
- a metric called "SRAM" which stands for "sack rate as modified" and measures the prospect's per-game sack productivity, but with adjustments for factors such as early entry into the NFL draft and position switches during college; and
- The prospect's college passes defensed divided by college games played.
Jaelan Phillips, Miami Hurricanes
SackSEER Projection: 30.5 Sacks Through Fifth Season
SackSEER Rating: 97.0%
Similar Historical Prospects: Shawne Merriman, Jadeveon Clowney
Jaelan Phillips is a sneaky good edge rusher prospect. In pre-draft coverage, Phillips has been somewhat overshadowed by his slightly more highly regarded teammate, Gregory Rousseau. However, SackSEER actually thinks that Phillips is the stronger prospect, and indeed, the best edge rusher prospect in this draft. A consistent theme of Phillips' projection is that he does not excel or break records in any one area, but all of his SackSEER numbers are good, making him a solid prospect overall.
Phillips' production is not quite as good as that of some of the more dominant edge rushers of drafts past, but it is still well above average. Phillips had only 12.5 career sacks in college, but he also only played in 20 career games (including 10 at UCLA). He also recorded an interception and five pass breakups, resulting 0.3 passes defensed per game, which is approximately twice as good as the passes defensed rate of the typical edge rusher prospect.
Phillips also had good workouts. Phillips ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds, recorded a 36-inch vertical jump, and recorded a 10-foot, 5-inch broad jump at his pro day. Again, none of those numbers are records for edge rusher prospects, but they are all very good.
Overall, SackSEER puts Phillips at a projection of just over 30 sacks, which is nearly identical to the projection of last year's top prospect, Chase Young. Truth be told, you would probably prefer a prospect such as Young over Phillips—after all, Phillips played in only 20 career games and his best season was the bizarre 2020. That said, over half of historical edge rusher prospects with 30-sack projections have gone in the top 10 in the draft. Phillips, by contrast, is slated to go in the middle of the first round, which would make him a great potential value pick if he performs similarly to other top SackSEER prospects in the past.
Jayson Oweh, Penn State Nittany Lions
SackSEER Projection: 24.5 Sacks Through Fifth Season
SackSEER Rating: 90.9%
Similar Historical Prospects: Danielle Hunter, Kamerion Wimbley
The easy hot take on Jayson Oweh is to discount him as the latest in a line of "workout warriors" who are over-drafted and destined to disappoint. Although teams would be smart to take Oweh's lack of production seriously, they should not be quick to disregard Oweh's uniquely amazing athleticism.
There have been so many edge rusher prospects in past drafts who have been hyped for their workouts that it is easy to miss how truly special Oweh's workouts were. Owen ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds, which is faster than all but the fastest wide receivers. To put Oweh's time in perspective, the fastest 40-yard dash time in SackSEER's database belongs to Nevada's Dontay Moch (a third-round draft pick by Cincinnati in 2011) at 4.40 seconds. However, Moch ran his dash at only 248 pounds, while Oweh ran his at 257. Oweh's 11-foot, 2-inch broad jump was better than all but three edge rushers (Jamie Collins and Bud Dupree beat him out while Ben Banogu ties him). Oweh's 39.5-inch vertical leap is not quite as impressive as his 40-yard dash and his broad jump, but it is still great.
However, Oweh had only seven career sacks, including exactly zero sacks in the seven games he played last year. Oweh also had only two career passes defensed, which makes his passes defensed rate a bit below average as well.
It might seem unlikely that a player with so little sack production would be likely to succeed in the NFL—but it does happen! The most recent example is Danielle Hunter. Danielle Hunter had only 4.5 college sacks in three seasons at LSU, but he ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash. Hunter has recorded 54.5 NFL sacks to date. There are a handful of players with a similar profile, such as Michael Johnson, who had solid but not spectacular edge rusher careers.
So you cannot just expect Oweh to star or flame out; he is just as likely to fall somewhere in between. Oweh's projection, which is in the mid-20s, suggests that nearly anything could happen.
Kwity Paye, Michigan Wolverines
SackSEER Projection: 21.7 Sacks Through Fifth Season
SackSEER Rating: 55.6%
Similar Historical Prospects: Rashan Gary, Dion Jordan
Kwity Paye is an average edge rusher prospect who reaches third on this list mostly due to his high projected draft position. With 11.5 sacks in 28 games, Paye simply does not have the production of top edge rusher prospects in the past. He is certainly not the least productive edge rusher who has been drafted in the first round, but his sack rate is below average for someone of his projected draft position. Paye also had only one pass defensed, which is also below average.
Paye's workouts were above average. However, he really needed to stand out to make up for this sack production, and his workouts were not quite good enough. Paye had a 4.52-second 40-yard dash, which is definitely great for a 261-pound player. However, his vertical leap and broad jump scores were only slightly above average. The 40-yard dash, vertical leap, and broad jump all equally correlate to success at the NFL level, so when you average Paye's numbers together, you have an above average workout, but not an exceptional one.
Paye has enough going for him that it would not be surprising to see him succeed. However, his SackSEER profile suggests that he is somewhat more likely to bust than the typical first-round prospect.
Gregory Rousseau, Miami Hurricanes
SackSEER Projection: 21.3 Sacks Through Fifth Season
SackSEER Rating: 59.3%
Similar Historical Prospects: Nick Perry, Whitney Mercilus
Gregory Rousseau is probably the highest rated edge rusher prospect in this year's draft class. He had a great season as a sophomore, recording 15.5 sacks in 13 games. So why is Rousseau's projection so low?
First of all, SackSEER adjusts Rousseau's sack production for regression to the mean. 15.5 sacks is an impressive total as a sophomore, but it is also true that many edge rusher prospects have had fast starts to their college careers and then faded considerably. You may not remember Ricky Sapp or George Selvie. Both had double-digit sacks as sophomores but faded and ultimately dropped to the fifth and seventh round, respectively. That could have been the case for Rousseau as well, and for that reason, Rousseau was incredibly smart to opt out of the 2020 season and preserve his draft stock.
Second, Rousseau's workouts were below average overall. Reports place his 40-yard dash in the 4.70-second range, which is firmly average. However, his vertical leap (30 inches) and broad jump (9 feet, 7 inches) were below average, meaning that his SackSEER "explosion" numbers are below average overall.
Third, while Rousseau's sack production was good, he only had one pass defensed.
Overall, it adds up to SackSEER being less bullish on Rousseau than the conventional wisdom. Because he and Jaelan Phillips are so similarly rated by draftniks, a team with the option to do so might want to take a hard look at Phillips instead of Rousseau.
Carlos Basham Jr., Wake Forest Demon Deacons
SackSEER Projection: 20.7 Sacks Through Fifth Season
SackSEER Rating: 88.8%
Similar Historical Prospects: Chandler Jones, Carlos Dunlap
Carlos Basham Jr., despite being rated solidly in the second round, is only a hair's breadth away from overtaking the more highly rated Paye and Rousseau. Basham was a reasonably productive player at Wake Forest, recording 10 sacks in 13 games as a junior and five sacks in only six games as a senior. Unlike many of this year's top prospects, Basham was productive on the passes defensed front, recording eight pass breakups.
Basham also has a great size-speed combination. At 274 pounds, he managed to run the 40-yard dash at 4.64 seconds, which is quicker than an average edge rusher prospect. His vertical leap was just average, but his 10-foot, 2-inch broad jump was very good.
A team that needs pass-rushing help but misses out on Phillips might be smart to pass an edge rusher in the first round and look at selecting a player such as Basham in the second round.
Joseph Ossai, Texas Longhorns
SackSEER Projection: 19.7 Sacks Through Fifth Season
SackSEER Rating: 89.2%
Similar Historical Prospects: Kyle Van Noy, LaMarr Woodley
Joseph Ossai is a similar prospect to Basham. The two players were equally productive, recording similar sack and passes defensed totals. However, Ossai is smaller at 256 pounds, but had better workouts. In particular, Ossai had a phenomenal vertical leap of 41.5 inches, which bests all but five edge rushers in past drafts—Davis Tull, Bud Dupree, Dontay Moch, Mark Anderson, and Jamie Collins.
Ossai's SackSEER projection lags slightly behind Basham's because Scouts Inc. projects Basham as a second-round pick and Ossai as a likely third-rounder.
Azeez Ojulari, Georgia Bulldogs
SackSEER Projection: 18.7 Sacks Through Fifth Season
SackSEER Rating: 62.1%
Similar Historical Prospects: Anthony Spencer, Jason Babin
Azeez Ojulari was a productive player rushing the passer at Georgia, recording 15 sacks in 23 games. However, Ojulari had only two passes defensed, which loses him some points with SackSEER.
Ojulari's workouts were similarly mixed. Ojulari had a poor 30-inch vertical leap, but he did have a very good 10-foot, 7-inch broad jump. It's somewhat uncommon for a player to be below average on the vertical leap and very good on the broad jump, so the discrepancy is somewhat curious.
Joe Tryon, Washington Huskies
SackSEER Projection: 17.4 Sacks Through Fifth Season
SackSEER Rating: 45.0%
Similar Historical Prospects: Calvin Pace, Shane Ray
Joe Tryon is an OK prospect, but SackSEER does not quite see why he is projected as high as the end of the first round. Tryon played only two full seasons for the Huskies and recorded 9.0 sacks and two passes defensed. As was the case with Rousseau, SackSEER fears that Tryon's production could have dropped off if his career continued.
Tryon's workouts were not particularly noteworthy either. Tryon's 40-yard dash time and vertical leap were slightly above average, but his broad jump and three-cone were both below average.
The bottom line is that SackSEER thinks Tryon is an average prospect, and the "average" edge rusher prospect goes in the third or fourth round, not the bottom half of the first. Accordingly, although Tryon is not a terrible prospect, he may be the most overrated edge rusher prospect in this draft.
Elerson Smith, Northern Iowa Panthers
SackSEER Projection: 13.9 Sacks Through Fifth Season
SackSEER Rating: 95.5%
Similar Historical Prospects: Jared Allen, Robert Mathis
Most late-round gems at the edge rusher position are productive players from small schools. The most notable examples are Jared Allen and Robert Mathis, who were extremely productive at Idaho State and Alabama A&M, respectively. They were both average or worse during pre-draft workouts, so teams (erroneously) concluded that their production was the result of poor competition.
Cue Elerson Smith, who was a productive player from Northern Iowa. Smith had a nice junior season with 14 sacks in 15 games. Smith also batted away eight passes in his three-year career, which gives him one of the top passes defensed rates in this edge rusher draft class.
Although Smith posted good numbers, he was not as dominant as either Allen or Mathis. However, Smith had a much better workout than either Allen or Mathis. Smith had an average 40-yard dash but had an amazing 41.5-inch vertical leap and a great 10-foot, 7-inch broad jump. Smith also ran the three-cone in 7.0 seconds, which is an excellent time.
Of course, the odds are that Smith will not be the next Allen or Mathis. For every Allen or Mathis, there is a David Bass or a Davis Tull—two productive small-school edge rushers who never made much of an impact at the NFL level. Accordingly, due to Smith's low projected draft position, SackSEER projects Smith at 13.9 sacks instead of 30. However, the chances of Smith becoming a star are not zero, and he is SackSEER's second-highest projected player (behind Phillips) if you disregard projected draft position. Indeed, even accounting for the wide gulf between their respective projected draft positions, SackSEER rates Smith as only 3.5 sacks behind Tryon. Sixth-round picks have a very low success rate, so it should be worthwhile for some team to select Smith and see if he can realize the potential that his statistical profile suggests.
The following table lists the SackSEER projections and ratings of all of the 2021 edge rusher prospects who received invites to the NFL combine. SackSEER projection considers forecast draft position; SackSEER rating represents the player's position among all historical edge rusher prospects in our database, regardless of projected draft position.
|SackSEER Projections 2021|
|Jayson Oweh||Penn State||1-2||2.7||0.22||0.10||24.5||90.9%|
|Carlos Basham Jr.||Wake Forest||2||0.7||0.49||0.19||20.7||88.8%|
|Elerson Smith||Northern Iowa||6-7||1.5||0.59||0.21||13.9||95.5%|
|Chris Rumph II||Duke||2-3||0.4||0.56||0.14||13.6||45.5%|
|Shaka Toney||Penn State||4-5||1.9||0.50||0.10||12.8||80.0%|
|Hamilcar Rashed Jr.||Oregon State||4||1.4||0.37||0.17||11.1||58.4%|
|Patrick Jones II||Pittsburgh||2||-1.0||0.49||0.10||10.6||13.6%|
|Daelin Hayes||Notre Dame||3||0.2||0.19||0.13||8.8||14.4%|
|Ade Ogundeji||Notre Dame||3||0.1||0.29||0.00||7.9||17.2%|
|Janarius Robinson||Florida State||5||0.5||0.20||0.09||5.8||30.4%|
|Josh Kaindoh||Florida State||UDFA||1.0||0.22||0.10||3.6||43.8%|
|Wyatt Hubert||Kansas State||7||-0.9||0.64||0.09||2.6||32.5%|
|Earnest Brown IV||Northwestern||UDFA||-1.0||0.24||0.31||2.0||22.8%|
An edited version of this article originally appeared on ESPN+.