Eagles NFL Draft Preview: Edge Rushers

The Eagles will likely try to bolster their pass rush in the first two days of the draft
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PHILADELPHIA - The Eagles value edge rushers more than most positions on the roster and there is an obvious need as the draft approaches with Brandon Graham turning 33 earlier this month, Derek Barnett and Josh Sweat both entering contract years, and Vinny Curry returning to his native North Jersey with the New York Jets.

Typically that would mean edge rusher would be in play at No. 12 overall and perhaps even the clubhouse leader for an organization that has taken either a quarterback, offensive lineman, or defensive lineman every time it has been in the top half of the first round over the past two decades.

On the other hand, the current need at defensive end is not immediate because Graham is still playing at a very high level and worked out a one-year extension that keeps him under contract essentially through 2022, while Barnett and Sweat have proven to be effective players when healthy.

Roster building is never about one year, though, so reinforcements are needed if only to replace Curry's role in the rotation because the depth after the top three reads just Joe Ostman and International Pathway Program player Matt Leo after the new coaching staff moved Genard Avery back to linebacker.

There are some players in the 2021 draft class with real upside like the Miami duo of Jaelen Phillips and Greg Rousseau, Michigan's Kwity Paye, and perhaps the two most explosive athletes at the position: Georgia's Azeez Ojulari and Penn State's Jayson Oweh.

That said, no potential edge rusher has captured the imagination of the league as a whole, an almost stunning development because the goal in the NFL is typically "get the quarterback or get to the quarterback."

Ultimately it's a good bet some of the edge rushers will get pushed up the board because of their perceived value with Ojulari, who patterns his game after Tampa Bay star Shaq Barrett, inching ahead of the field.

Under the old defensive regime the 6-foot-2, 249-pound Georgia product would likely be too undersized but new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has been a part of systems in the past that have utilized lighter pass rushers.

"I just feel like my versatility and the way I use my hands the way I can bend," Ojulari said when asked what sets him apart from the rest of the class. "I feel like I'm the most bendy and versatile, and I've got an explosive first step. And I can also drop in coverage, too. So you're not just getting a pass rusher out of me, you're getting all three downs. I can play all three downs for sure."

Paye is probably more of a traditional Eagles fit with the versatility to kick inside in a NASCAR package and more size to do a better job setting the edge in run support.

Rousseau, meanwhile, looks straight out of central casting for an edge at 6-6 and 270 pounds and was wildly productive in 2019 before opting out last season due to COVID-19. Most scouts consider him to be one the biggest boom-or-bust selections in the entire draft after a less-than-stellar pro day.

"I don’t have a lot of film, but I feel like I showed a lot in the time that I did play," Rousseau said. "... I feel like I proved a lot. I also feel like I’m a very versatile athlete and I fit into a lot of schemes and I’m just going to be somebody who’s hard-working from Day 1. I’m ready to get to the next level."

Phillips is immensely talented but nearly quit football over a concussion issue so his long-term viability might scare some teams away and it's conceivable he's not even on Philadelphia's draft board come April 29.

As for Oweh, he's the physical freak who couldn't finish at the QB with the Nittany Lions last season, piling up plenty of pressures but no sacks.

"I’m very athletic, sometimes I tend to lean on it a little too much" Oweh, who ran a sub-4.4 at nearly 260 pounds during his pro day, admitted. "That can be bad because people can watch if you’re rushing too fast and you don’t have a counter move."

The goal for Oweh is to hone his technique and his evaluation says he'll be a better pro than college player.

"I’m an unorthodox guy and can get things done my way but when you’re on the next level you gotta do things a specific way and be effective with it," Oweh said. "So just tightening up the technique and my general knowledge of the game [is needed]."

The Eagles will likely come out of the first two days with an edge somewhere along the way.

"I can't see them leaving the first two rounds without a big," said lead NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Eagles' scout.

Because of the question marks surrounding the potential first-rounders, Jeremiah defaulted to the second round at No. 37 overall.

"An edge rusher like a Joe Tryon from Washington there at the top of the second round, I think that one would make some sense," Jeremiah said. "I've talked about Payton Turner as an interesting player. It may be a little bit early from him out of Houston, but he kind of factors in there.

"Ronnie Perkins I think would be a home run pick there in the second round. Those edge rushers to me would make some sense there."

EAGLES DEPTH CHART:

RDE: Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, Joe Ostman

LDE: Brandon Graham, Matt Leo

BUILDING THE PERFECT EDGE RUSHER

Pass rusher - Jaelen Phillips, Miami-Florida: A former 5-star recruit who started at UCLA before two injury-plagued seasons spawned a medical retirement and a shift toward music producer/rapper, Phillips has all the tools but many will question his loyalty to the game whether that's fair or not.

Run defense - Carlos Basham, Wake Forest: At 6-3 and 275 pounds, Basham is the closest thing you will see to an old-school base left end.

First step - Kwity Paye, Michigan: As far as get-off goes, Paye is like a track athlete launching out of the blocks and the Michigan staff had Paye at a 6.37 three-cone time.

Hustle - Joseph Ossai, Texas: Ossai's calling card is a relentless pursuit.

Strongest - Kwity Paye, Michigan: Paye put up 225 pounds 36 times at his pro day. That's a top-tier offensive lineman number.

EAGLES MAVEN TOP 10:

1. Azeez Ojulari, Georgia

2. Kwity Paye, Michigan

3. Jaelen Phillips, Miami-Florida

4. Greg Rousseau, Miami-Florida

5. Jayson Oweh, Penn State

6. Carlos Basham, Wake Forest

7. Joe Tryon, Washington

8. Joseph Ossai, Texas

9. Ronnie Perkins, Oklahoma

10. Payton Turner, Houston

Sleeper - Jordan Smith, UAB

Boom or Bust - Jaelan Phillips/Greg Rousseau, Miami-Florida

John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s EagleMaven. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.