The biggest takeaway from our latest set of NFL draft position rankings is the fact that not all "edge rushers" are built the same. The top 10 list below features a mix of pass-rush specialists, gifted all-around defenders and strong run-stuffers with the ability to get after the quarterback. They will not fit the same roles uniformly, across the board.
But each one of them should be selected before Day 2 of the draft wraps. Our top 10 edge rushers this year:
1. Randy Gregory, Nebraska: The Nebraska coaches clearly recognized the special talent they had in Gregory, which is why they went out of their way to create mismatches with him. Gregory played with his hand in the dirt, out of a two-point stance off the edge and even shifted to a blitzing ILB role at times.
"In many ways," wrote TheMMQB's Greg Bedard in his scouting report on Gregory, "Gregory is a superior athlete to 2014 first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, who was widely considered a once-in-a-generation athletic freak."
The on-field knocks on Gregory stem from his weight (235 pounds at the combine, but around 220 during last season) and an overall rawness to his game. But it's the off-field concerns that could drive him down the board. Gregory failed two drug tests at Nebraska and was nearly dismissed from the team, then he failed an NFL-mandated test prior to the combine. As such, he will enter the league already in stage one of the league's substance-abuse program.
Gregory is a gamble with immeasurable upside. More from Bedard: "Yes, there is definite 'boom or bust' to him. But if he lands with a 3–4 team that can keep him focused away from the facility, he could be the NFL’s next great edge rusher."
Draft projection: Top 15
2. Dante Fowler, Florida: "The toughest rusher I faced was probably Dante Fowler from Florida this year," said Missouri OT and 2015 draft hopeful Mitch Morse. "He’s got an incredible motor at his size. It’s remarkable to see at times."
Fowler is another defender who can come a quarterback from just about anywhere—his size (6'3", 261 pounds) even makes him a threat inside as a pass-rushing DT. He started off as an end for the Gators before eventually shifting to their Buck linebacker spot. A 2014 first-team All-SEC player, Fowler has the physical look of a true edge hybrid, capable of sealing the edge or pushing the pocket.
Draft projection: Top 10.
3. Vic Beasley, Clemson: Around, oh, January or so Beasley found himself caught up in the draft analyst tides, and seemingly from out of nowhere questions about his game began surfacing. "Is he big enough to succeed in the NFL? Will he be fast enough if he adds weight?"
The answers so far: Yes and yes. Beasley's frame (6'3" and 246 pounds, as of the combine) did nothing to slow him down en route to 33 career sacks and 52.5 tackles for loss at Clemson. An explosive combine performance, complete with the bulk he'd added in training for the event, quieted any remaining critics. Beasley ran a 4.53-second 40, did 35 bench-press reps and more than held his own in other drills.
As a pass-rushing OLB, either in the traditional sense for a 3–4 scheme or a Von Miller-like role for a 4–3, Beasley could be a double-digit sack man this coming season.
Draft projection: Top 10
4. Shane Ray, Missouri: "Burst" is one of those buzzwords that gets thrown around quite a bit come draft time, and it has pinned itself to Ray's scouting reports. For all the talent that the 6'3", 245-pound Ray possesses, his ability to get a jump on offensive linemen at the snap is what helps set him apart.
"I just kinda key the ball, and get a good step," Ray explained. "I learned as a defensive lineman that’s the best thing you can do. Most of the time, you get a good enough (first step), you’re able to beat offensive linemen out of their stance."
Ray set a Missouri single-season sacks record with 14.5, in 2014. He is scheme-versatile, with experience as a hand-in-the-dirt end and a stand-up rusher.
Draft projection: Early to mid-first round
5. Arik Armstead, Oregon: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder with Armstead. Some teams will see the massive, athletic 6'7", 292-pound prospect and envision a day, not all that far down the road, where he is a dominant end—perhaps not a J.J. Watt-caliber defender but cut from the same mold. Others will be scared away by how much of Armstead's perceived potential has yet to be uncovered. His lack of production at Oregon (2.5 sacks last season) is reason for pause. Still, the clay is there from which to mold Armstead into a star, if a team has the patience.
Draft projection: Mid- to late first round
6. Bud Dupree, Kentucky: When Dupree flips the switch, he is hypnotizing to watch. One play, he'll blow through a block at the line and chase down the quarterback. The next, he will come seemingly from out of nowhere to make a play near the sideline. Turning those flashes of brilliance into consistent production will be Dupree's challenge in the NFL. He has the size (6'4", 269 pounds), speed (4.56 40-yard dash) and athleticism to be a star.
Draft projection: Mid- to late first round
7. Owa Odighizuwa, UCLA: Odighizuwa could be a premier edge defender, but can he become more of a pure rusher? Working in his favor is the fact that he already looks as if he's been in an NFL weight program for years—Odighizuwa stands 6'3" and a sculpted 267 pounds. Between that build and the power he generates from it, he ought to step right in as at least a two-down end for a 4–3 scheme. (He did say at the combine that some 3–4 teams have talked to him about being an OLB.)
The pass rush will have to be a later-developing skill, though he did have six sacks for UCLA last season. Right now, Odighizuwa simply does not have the technique nor the natural ability to bend his way around tackles wide.
Draft projection: Early second round
"I think of myself as a versatile athlete," Odighizuwa said. "I was able to do a lot of things at UCLA."
8. Preston Smith, Mississippi State: There are some similarities in the scouting report on Smith and that of the guy ahead of him, Odighizuwa. Namely, that it remains to be seen if either guy can be a three-down player in the NFL.
Doesn't that unknown preclude Odighizuwa and Smith from an "edge rusher" list? Not necessarily. Like his UCLA counterpart, Smith did produce against the pass in college—he had 9.0 sacks last season, to go with his 15 tackles for loss. And Smith's size (6'5", 271 pounds with 34-inch-long arms) fits the bill for an NFL DE. He'll need to develop his repertoire of moves, but even without massive improvement Smith is a player capable of creating havoc from an end spot.
Draft projection: Early to Mid-second round
9. Nate Orchard, Utah: How's an 18.5-sack season sound? Orchard produced that number in his second and final year with the Utes, establishing himself as one of the better pure pass-rushers in this draft. So that takes us 180 degrees from Odighizuwa and Smith, who are stronger against the run and developing vs. the pass—in a perfect world, a team hunting edge help might nab an Orchard and a Smith-type performer. Orchard closed his Senior Bowl week with a strong game, but he talked after practices about having to learn how to play an OLB role for his NFL future. The 6'3", 250-pounder expressed confidence in being able to pull it off, but how effective will he be against the run? Can he drop in coverage vs. running backs and tight ends?
Jury's out on both questions. As it stands, Orchard projects as a dynamic pass-rushing specialist, albeit a darn good one.
Draft projection: Late second round
10. Eli Harold, Virginia: Harold is not all that ready to be a great coverage linebacker or to stymie the run, either. He does, however, show the type of quickness to be effective in those roles. And Harold absolutely offers upside as a rush linebacker. His available counter-moves form a longer list than several of the players above him in this top 10, and when he mashes the turbo button when he sees the opportunity to finish a play.
Draft projection: Early third round