3 Edge Defenders That Should Be on Patriots' Radar in 1st Round

Max McAuliffe

With Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins departing in free agency, it's no secret that the New England Patriots have some holes to fill on their front seven . If New England plans on running a 3-4 scheme moving forward, they will need to find more talented edge defenders in order to utilize that scheme to it's fullest potential. Along with that, the only defensive end signed through next offseason is Chase Winovich. Needless to say, New England must address the EDGE in this year's draft. 

Because of all the talented offensive players in the draft this year, there's an opportunity for some of the top-tier edge rushers to be available in the latter half of the first round. That presents an opportunity for the Patriots to draft one of those edge rushers with the 23rd overall pick in April. 

Let's take a look at three edge defenders New England should be keeping an eye on in the first round:

AJ Epenesa

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Let's get into A.J. Epenesa first, as he will be a defensive end at the next level. It might even be better to call him a defensive lineman as he can play inside three-technique too.

A defensive end duo of Winovich and Epenesa could contend for one of the best young pairs at that position in the NFL. While Epenesa would probably not be the playmaker-type that the next two players on this list would hopefully become, he would hold down the fort for New England and fit their scheme really well. 

Epenesa's pro comp by many is Trey Flowers. Both have really strong hands and lots of versatility along the defensive line. They can both rush the passer and play the run real well. Both are very solid, very well-rounded defensive lineman that fit the mold of a Patriots defensive end perfectly and can serve as chess pieces for New England's defensive coaching staff. There is a lot to like about the idea of Epenesa in the Patriots' system. 

However, frankly, I am a little concerned about his production in Year 1 in the league. The difference between the lineman he was going up against in college compared to in the NFL is going to be a big jump. He got use to throwing lineman around with his strength and violent hands in college. He will likely not find the same success in the pros. The technique is a lot better in the NFL than what he was seeing at the collegiate level, along with players overall being bigger, better and stronger. Couple that with some bad technique habits that needed to be sifted through, and it might take some time to adjust on his part.

This pick would really solidify the defensive line with two stud defensive ends on rookie deals and Beau Allen locked away through next offseason. The question mark at outside linebacker would still be floating in the air. If the Patriots go with Epenesa in Day 1, expect the starting outside linebacker core to consist of John Simon and someone like Shilique Calhoun or Brandon Copeland, which would be less than ideal and a dramatic step down from Collins and Van Noy. 

Zack Baun

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The possibility exists for the Patriots to trade down, acquire a couple later-round picks, while also having the opportunity to pick Wisconsin outside linebacker Zack Baun closer to the end of the first round. 

Baun can do a lot of the same things Van Noy did in New England's defense. He can be the strong-side outside linebacker and the team's No. 1 pass rusher with explosiveness off the edge. The idea of possibly replacing Van Noy with a Van Noy-like player should be appealing to everyone in the Patriots' draft room. 

Baun is freakishly athletic, which is how he generally wins one-on-one blocking matchups. He is a really strong open field tackler, which bodes well for a team like New England that really values tackling a lot. He plays the run very well, which is helpful for a Patriots team that got gashed by the run at times last season. He can also cover effectively thanks to his speed, explosiveness, and fluid turning ability. 

He is a really talented pass rusher, who the Patriots could get creative with. His pass rush ability and, once again, his explosiveness are things that NFL teams will have to constantly account for and will force NFL quarterbacks to distinguish him pre-snap. 

A lot of people seem to overthinking Baun a slight bit. There are questions about his size his strength. It reminds me a little bit of a prospect from last year's draft that draft folks seemed to be lower on then they should have: Chase Winovich. He was questioned for his physical traits, and despite the fact that he received a first round grade from PFF, others mocked him more in the third or fourth round because of his physical traits. Winovich ended last season as the second ranked edge defender among rookies (only behind Nick Bosa, the reigning AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year) despite being the seventh edge defender selected in the 2019 draft. If draft folks and NFL teams continue to undervalue Baun and overthink his traits, he could end up falling into the Patriots' arms, just like Winovich, at the expense of the rest of the league. 

Baun can do a lot of things well, which would allow Bill Belichick and Jerod Mayo to have a lot of fun moving around chess pieces to set up some ideal one-on-one blocking matchups for Baun. The sky would be the limit for him in the Patriots' defense, and he could potentially be an improvement over Van Noy down the road. 

Cozy up to the name Zack Baun, because he very well could be this year's first round pick for the Patriots.   

K'Lavon Chaisson

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Last week, in my seven-round mock draft, I went in with the intention of trading down, gettin a fourth-round pick, and then getting Baun. Instead, magically, LSU's K'Lavon Chaisson appeared. He is the kind of guy that if he is on the board at No. 23, you cannot - I repeat - cannot pass his talent up. With Baun, I used the word explosive a lot. With Chaisson, the word changes to disruptive. 

Now, Chaisson is extremely explosive, but what makes him so disruptive is his quickness out of his stance, off the edge and into the backfield. Although his sack total is not where many expected it to be, the pressure he puts on the quarterback shows on the film. He is a disruptive force that can manhandle some of the top offensive tackles in college football. 

Other things that really impress are his bend and his balance. There are some plays with him that he gets so low going around the corner that he has no business staying on his feet. Yet, he somehow does and picks up a sack for it. He also uses every pass-rush move in the book and is deadly on stunts.

The list goes on and on for what Chaisson does well. He simply has all the tools to be a successful pass rusher in the NFL. He can also hold his own in coverage and play the run extremely well. He can do a little bit of everything. 

However, question marks do surround Chaisson, as his production was not where it really should have been for a guy who is an absolute physical specimen. It was a little too inconsistent for many people's liking. While that is a reasonable concern that should be addressed, some risks come along with every pick. In this case, the upside greatly outweighs the risk. 

Here is Chaisson selling himself at the combine:

With a guy like Chaisson, he has so many tools to become a top pass rusher in the league. Throw him into a room with brilliant defensive minds and let him be the strong-side outside linebacker. Chaisson should flourish in the NFL and could be the first, real dangerous, premier pass rusher the Patriots have had since Chandler Jones. 

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