After looking at the NFL offensive tackle class a few days ago, it's now time to shift focus to the defensive side of the ball.
This group includes 4-3 defensive and 3-4 outside linebackers, while some of them may offer versatility to slide inside on passing downs. With the NFL moving to a hybrid, sub-package defensive approach, there is not much of a need to differentiate anyway.
I already dissected the edge rushers in this year's NFL draft class on my Youtube channel a few days back for a comprehensive analysis.
This particular NFL draft class may not be perceived as great because of the absence of clear frontrunners like Chase Young, Nick Bosa or Myles Garrett. But I think the top name should get more hype, as he is close to an elite defensive prospect.
Top ten edge rushers in the 2021 NFL Draft:
This NFL draft class is actually very deep, and it also includes plenty of developmental edge rushers. Most of these players could be drafted on day three, depending on the team that choose to develop them.
For me, the top three NFL draft prospects absolutely deserve to go in the first round; the three names after that could also be drafted in the first two rounds.
Just for clarification – I haven't included Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo or Tulane’s Cameron Sample because I believe they fit better inside. So, without further ado, let's get started:
#1 Jaelan Phillips, Miami
6’ 5”, 265 pounds; RS JR
Once the top overall recruit in the country, according to 247Composite and ESPN, Phillips started his career at UCLA, where he only played ten games due to multiple concussions before he was forced to retire prematurely owing to medical reasons.
However, almost two years later, NFL teams started contacting him, enquiring if he was willing to join them.
Jaelan Phillips eventually decided to head to Miami, where he became one of the most complete defensive ends in the country. Coming into the season with Gregory Rosseau projected to be a top-ten pick in the NFL Draft (even though he opted out) and Quincy Roche transferring to Miami as the AAC Defensive Player of the Year, it was Phillips who turned into the star of the show.
He was named in a second-team All-American for recording 15.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, three passes knocked down and an interception.
It doesn’t take a great scout to see Phillips' talent. Put on his tape and you see everything you need to after the first quarter: explosiveness of the snap, length, flexibility and the ability to put it all together.
He is a man among boys out there and plays with a ton of energy. Phillips has a firm base and utilizes his long arms really well to set the edge and lock out, but he is at his best in a penetrating role, often back-dooring zone blockers. He squeezes down space in the run game, keeps his hands busy to disengage, and he usually shows good awareness of the ball.
Phillips's pursuit speed for a guy his size is outstanding. He shows good discipline when unblocked on the backside, closing down the distance to the nearest blocker and deciphering the mesh-point.
The 2021 NFL Draft prospect also has quick bursts of running down whoever gets or keeps the ball. Phillips displays great change of direction and mobility in the hips to redirect against shovel options and reverses. As he has proved on several occasions, Phillips cannot be unblocked on speed sweeps, as that often results in TFLs.
Phillips’ upside as a pass-rusher is through the roof. He accelerates through those long strides and has the flexibility and leanness to flatten the quarterbacks, which is highly impressive for a big D-end. For somebody who barely played college ball before last season, he was pretty much forced to sit out two years; his hand usage is pretty advanced, especially his cross-chop move.
The way he pins the reach of the tackles with his inside arm and the reach of his other arm allows Phillips to get his hands on a lot of quarterbacks, where other guys would get pushed past the passer. Moreover, he has a much better shake than one would expect.
The 2021 NFL Draft prospect is nearly unstoppable on up-and-under. When tackles open up their hips on the outside of his feet, Phillips follows through with the arm-over and makes it all in one fluid motion. And he is very sudden on his delayed loops as part of games up front and has head-fakes almost like a wide receiver.
Phillips slid inside quite a bit on passing downs and partially took on the role of what Gregory Rosseau did the year before. But this year’s number 15 got way more of those instant wins, with the high swim more often ending up with clean-up sacks. Overall, he provided pressure on 14.7% of pass-rushing snaps.
The 2021 NFL Draft bullied Virginia Tech’s right tackle and was the biggest reason they won that game. Phillips is also very challenging for quarterbacks to throw over or around on those slide protections, where he is left unblocked, and there’s a tight end or running back slipping into the flats. He was dropped into the flats on multiple occasions every game.
As far as negatives go, Phillips loses containment at times when the offense tries to seal him on the backside of runs and he wants to peak inside. I would like to see him use his power more when offensive tackles raise their pads and try to take away the corner. The 2021 NFL Draft prospect still has room to improve with adjusting on the fly as he reads pass-sets (even though he showed signs of improvement in that area).
Overall he presents too much of his frame as blockers try to land their punch, and he is still learning to be more consistent with the aiming points of his chops and clubs to the outside hand. The big question with the NFL Draft prospect, though, is his fitness; he played just 700 total snaps, with over three quarters of them coming last season.
For me, Jaelan Phillips is pretty clearly the top edge in this NFL Draft Class. The ability to use his upper and lower half, the length, short-area quickness and hustle he displays are all highly impressive. He might have looked a little rusty at the start of the last season, as he hadn’t put on pads in a long time.
The 2021 NFL Draft prospect got better during the year, and if you watch the tape in its entirety, there’s really not much to complain about other than the fact that he has to continue to work at the stuff he has already shown improvement at. He can mold his body to play defensive end in an odd or even front as well as a rush linebacker.
His concussion history is something that could be concerning for a lot of NFL teams, though.