Lions 2020 Combine Preview: EDGE Rusher
The Lions had a horrible time getting to the quarterback in 2019. One of the reasons was injuries in the interior, and another was the failure to be aggressive enough.
Lastly, Detroit simply did not have any big-time threat on the edge.
Yes, the addition of defensive edge Trey Flowers helped in terms of pressure, but Flowers has never been an elite pass-rushing specialist.
Now, the Lions do have their top-four edge players under contract for 2020. Flowers, Devon Kennard, Romeo Okwara and last year's fourth-round pick in Austin Bryant will all be back this upcoming season.
That's not to say the position group couldn't be upgraded, though.
There are plenty of EDGE prospects throughout the draft, and the NFL combine will help separate some of the better athletes at the position.
Not that measurements are everything, but almost all of the best pass rushers in the league have high-end athleticism.
Here is a breakdown of the EDGE defender class that will be at the combine:
Chase Young, Ohio St.
Jr. | 6-foot-5 | 265 pounds
It is reported that Young will not do the drills at the combine and why should he?
He won't fall past the third pick and has nothing to gain from testing.
Young is this year's version of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. If the Lions would be so lucky to have a quarterback-needy team trade up to pick No. 2, Young would have to be the selection...right?
A.J. Epenesa, Iowa
Jr. | 6-foot-6 | 280 pounds
Epenesa is definitely a Bob Quinn/Matt Patricia type of defender. Big, long, can play against the run and gets after the quarterback with his strength.
He unlikely would be taken at the third pick -- but in a trade down scenario, I could see the Lions targeting Epenesa.
The one interesting part would be where he would line up with the Lions already having Flowers at down defensive end. With versatility upfront, both Epenesa and Flowers could slide to the inside on passing downs.
Per Pro Football Focus, "his 91.5 career pass-rushing grade is one of the highest of any edge prospect in the class."
K'Lavon Chaisson, LSU
So. | 6-foot-4 | 250 pounds
Chaisson will likely improve his draft stock at the combine. His physical gifts and room for growth are unmatched. He would be a bendy yet powerful JACK linebacker in the Lions defense.
There are some injury concerns with Chaisson (ACL tear in 2018), but he flashes when on the field. Another aspect of worry, you never saw great production from Chaisson while at LSU.
His career-high in sacks was 6.5 last season.
If the Lions wanted a true pass rusher across from Flowers, Chaisson would be a great option -- just not likely at the third overall pick.
In my opinion, Chaisson is going to be a great pro due to high motor, athletic profile, variety of pass rush moves, and the pure ability to get around the corner.
Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State
Jr. | 6-foot-5 | 264 pounds
Gross-Matos has the looks of a prototypical 4-3 defensive end. Still needs a little polish, he has a great initial burst and flexibility for a big man -- probably his best traits.
Based on his size/flexibility combo, he is likely a late first-round pick. The one aspect of his game the Lions probably won't like is his hand usage. It is something that can be coached up, though. Controlling the line of scrimmage with hand technique is super important in Patricia's scheme.
Needless to say, Gross-Matos has a very high ceiling if he can put it all together.
Terrell Lewis, Alabama
Jr. | 6-foot-5 | 252 pounds
Lewis is a bit of a polarizing prospect. Limited to just 685 career snaps at Alabama due to injuries in 2017 and 2018, it makes his evaluation a bit more difficult. The talent is there for him to be a first-round pick.
He has the frame and hip fluidity to give opposing offensive tackles fits. The Lions will really like how he uses his length to control offensive linemen. He is also athletic enough to drop into coverage at times, likely an ideal fit at the JACK backer spot in Detroit.
Lewis could be stronger holding the edge at the point of attack, but that concern would be a little more mitigated in the "Kennard role" in the defense.
Curtis Weaver, Boise State
Jr. | 6-foot-3 | 265 pounds
Weaver is one of the most productive pass rushers in the entire class. He finished with a pass-rushing grade above 92.0 in two consecutive seasons, according to PFF -- the only player PFF has ever graded with multiple such seasons.
In the early mock drafts, he was consistently penciled in around the mid-late first round. Since his hype has cooled down a bit. Mostly due to athletic limitations, there are questions surrounding his bend around the edge. The combine will be very important to alleviate those concerns.
Weaver is a powerful player who wins a lot with technique and high football IQ -- two traits that Quinn highly covets.
Zack Baun, Wisconsin
Sr. | 6-foot-3 | 240 pounds
Baun is a very intriguing player. Is he more of an edge rusher or off-ball linebacker? Or Both? He sure looked comfortable at the Senior Bowl in either position.
Baun was arguably the best pass rusher when they lined him up against offensive tackles during one-vs-one practices. His explosion out of his stance was impressive. The main reason he isn't solely considered an edge defender is because of his small frame. There will be some limitations with his size on the edge. He also might not have the bend of the top-end pass rushers, but he makes it work with his great first step.
If he is asked to be more of an off-ball linebacker, he has the juice to cover running backs and tight ends.
In the Lions scheme, even for a linebacker, Baun is on the lighter end of what they look for but doesn't preclude them from taking a chance on him in the second round if he is there.
Julian Okwara, Notre Dame
Sr. | 6-foot-4 | 248 pounds
Okwara is the younger brother of Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara. Julian doesn't have the same size as Romeo and has a little bit different play style as well.
At this point, Julian is a raw prospect and could use some refinement to become more consistent when rushing the quarterback. While Romeo is a solid defender against the run in Detroit, Julian has struggled in that department -- likely moving him down the Lions' board.
Some team will likely take a chance on Okwara early on Day 2 due to his pass-rushing potential.
Josh Uche, Michigan
Sr. | 6-foot-1 | 241 pounds
Much like the aforementioned Baun, Uche is a "tweener" due to his size.
Uche made some money at the Senior Bowl with his pass-rushing prowess and ability to stick to tight ends in coverage. His production was never off the charts while at Michigan, which will also make some teams question if he is a full-time player on the edge.
The athleticism is definitely there for Uche to be a chess piece. He just needs to land in the right situation. If he moved to an off-ball role, he will likely need some time to develop.
Jonathan Greenard, Florida
Sr. | 6-foot-4 | 262 pounds
Greenard was a graduate transfer from Louisville and had a very productive 2019 season with the Gators. He ended up being selected as a first-team All-SEC player after 15.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. Despite the stats, he doesn't possess the bend or explosive first step that many teams look for in a prospect.
He did play standing up on occasion and moved inside as well which gives him a little more versatility than most men his size. In saying that, he did his best work with his hand in the dirt.
Due to his strength and length, the Lions could target Greenard in the middle rounds.
Bradlee Anae, Utah
Sr. | 6-foot-3 | 257 pounds
The Lions coaching staff got a good look at Anae during the Senior Bowl. With three sacks in the game and plenty of wins in the one-on-one drills, Anae knows how to get to the quarterback. His long-arm move and non-stop motor will have Anae high on the Lions board for a JACK backer.
One reason he isn't being talked about more is due to his athletic limitations and relatively average length for a down defensive end.
He has shown the ability to rush the passer standing up, though -- which is likely where the Lions would use him.
Darrell Taylor, Tennessee
Sr. | 6-foot-4 | 259 pounds
From an athletic bend standpoint, Taylor shows the traits of a top-tier edge rusher. Despite the look of a great prospect, he has a ton of work to do against the run and learning how to use his God-given gifts when rushing the passer.
It sounds simple, but he appears to be late off the snap and lacks the counter moves that are a necessity at the next level to win consistently.
Important to note, Taylor was suspended in 2017 for kicking a teammate in the face during a practice. That probably doesn't fit well in Quinn's high-character prospect requirement.
You don't always find a player of Taylor's athletic profile in the mid-round portion of the draft. However, someone will take the chance on him due to his upside.
Alton Robinson, Syracuse
Sr. | 6-foot-4 | 259 pounds
Robinson checks all the boxes from a physical standpoint.
He has the prototypical size, length, power, and explosiveness that Quinn desires in an edge defender. Unfortunately, Robinson disappointed overall wise in 2019, as well as during practices at the Senior Bowl. He lacks secondary moves, and struggled to disengage from linemen once they got their hands on him. If he can be coached up, there is definitely some untapped potential.
The Lions will need to do their homework in terms of his character, though.
After initially committing to Texas A&M, he was forced to go to Syracuse after a second-degree robbery charge. Reports are that he changed his ways. Yet at the very least, it is worth noting given how much of an emphasis Quinn puts on character.
Anfernee Jennings, Alabama
Sr. | 6-foot-2 | 252 pounds
Quinn and Patricia love Alabama defensive linemen. They are well-coached, and run a similar scheme to what Detroit deploys.
Jennings is a strong man who is difficult to move in the run game. He isn't a great athlete, and did his best work holding up at the point of attack.
His high-football IQ and team captain status will pique the interest of Quinn -- just hopefully not in the early rounds. Given his frame, he could be a stand-up player, but he doesn't have the athleticism necessary to play there on a consistent basis.
Other EDGE combine prospects:
Nick Coe, Auburn
Kendall Coleman, Syracuse
Carter Coughlin, Minnesota
Marlon Davidson, Auburn
Tipa Galeai, Utah St.
Jonathan Garvin, Miami
Trevis Gipson, Tulsa
LaDarius Hamilton, North Texas
Alex Highsmith, Charlotte
Trevon Hill, Miami
Khalid Kareem, Notre Dame
James Lynch, Baylor
Chauncey Rivers, Mississippi St.
Qaadir Sheppard, Mississippi
James Smith-Williams, N.C. State
Derrek Tuszka, North Dakota St.
Kenny Willekes, Michigan St.
D.J. Wonnum, South Carolina
Jabari Zuniga, Florida