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2017 NFL Draft: Pass rusher rankings

What players bring it the best from the edge?

Tennessee v Texas A&M Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

In recent years, I’ve committed to the concept of an NFL Draft “target board.” The idea is to narrow my scope down to 100 prospects, grouped into tiers that indicate where I’d look to select them in an actual draft. Instead of ranking every single player I’ve watched and graded, these are prospects I feel most confident in from a tape, measurables, production, and athletic testing standpoint. In the following days leading up to the draft, I’ll post my board position by position, and to help everyone understand the methods behind my madness, I’ll even include some handy charts and stats to give some insight into which players “checked all the boxes,” and which ones made the cut despite falling short in one area or another.

The cells in the accompanying charts are color-coded based (liberally) on NFL scouting combine averages per position:

  • Green = Significantly Above Average
  • Blue = Above Average
  • Yellow = Average
  • Orange = Below Average
  • Red = Significantly Below Average

Check below for this year's EDGE targets

Myles Garrett Texas A&M 6’5” 272

  • DOB: 12/29/1995
  • 2016: 33 TKL (18 solo) 15 TFL 8 SCK 2 FF 1 PBU 1 kick BLK
  • Career: 145 TKL (84 solo) 48.5 TFL 32.5 SCK 7 FF 1 INT 4 PBU 3 kick BLK in 36 games

I incorrectly speculated that Garrett wouldn't live up to his billing as an athletic marvel, and when he did meet those expectations it just left me wondering why he wasn't more dominant last season. The easy answer is the ankle injury suffered against Arkansas. For the most part he battled through a painful sprain, and apparently wasn't even 100% by the Aggies' bowl game.

But even before the injury I had openly wondered if Garrett's tape matched the hype. I saw quite a few unblocked sacks, and not a great array of counter attacks. And now Garrett has been criticized by former NFL linemen Stephen White, Booger McFarland, and Warren Sapp. Despite his freakish testing numbers, Garrett is not a perfect prospect. Still, I've never really heard his most vocal critics suggest who should go number one overall instead. My take is that Garrett has all of the size, strength and athleticism that can't be taught, coupled with a fair amount of production. Teammates and coaches swear by his work ethic, so he should be able to improve his technique. I've been convinced now that Garrett will be the first player selected Thursday, and for all of my bristling about the effusive praise he's received, he probably should be.

Grade: 1st Round

Solomon Thomas Stanford 6’3” 273

  • DOB: 12/20/1995
  • 2016: 62 TKL (41 solo) 15 TKL 8 SCK 1 FF 1 TD
  • Career: 101 TKL (65 solo) 25.5 TFL 11.5 SCK 1 FF 2 TD in 27 games

Thomas was being discussed as an interior lineman until he came in weighing around 270 pounds with the testing numbers of an outside linebacker. This secures him as an edge defender in my mind, and similarly to Garrett, I'm comfortable betting on a player who's only 21 years old, with a high-end athletic profile and strong production. Thomas' run defense has been his weakness, but he's also a player that can slide to the interior and whip a guard in passing situations. He created havoc in these situations against North Carolina in the bowl game, and there may still be NFL teams interested in asking Thomas to add weight and settle on the interior more regularly.

Grade: 1st Round

Takkarist McKinley UCLA 6’2” 250

  • DOB: 11/2/1995
  • 2016: 61 TKL (50 solo) 18 TFL 10 SCK 3 FF 6 PBU
  • Career: 101 TKL (81 solo) 29 TFL 17 SCK 6 FF 10 PBU 1 kick BLK in 33 games

Poor shuttle times at the combine have soured many analysts on McKinley, and the UCLA pass rusher is also recovering from shoulder surgery, so there's already some question about when he'll make his NFL debut. I still hold McKinley in high regard. He plays like a bat out of hell, and when he connects with his target he will try to run through that poor soul. McKinley is a straight-line athlete, but he has such great burst off the line, and he's got long arms to help make up for some lack of flexibility. The injury is a concern, but he toughed through a full season and made sure to complete his combine workout before having surgery. Seems like a determined player to me.

Grade: 2nd Round

Carl Lawson Auburn 6’2” 261

  • DOB: 7/3/1995
  • 2016: 30 TKL (15 solo) 13.5 TFL 9 SCK 1 FF
  • Career: 67 TKL (34 solo) 24 TFL 14 SCK 3 FF in 34 games

Lawson was hampered by injuries throughout his college career, but he managed to put together a full campaign in 2016. He's another guy who looks like he's shot out of a cannon, he's strong as an ox, and Lawson also displays a good variety of moves in his approach. His arms are shorter that I'd like, and I worry about change of direction and injury history, but if I'm looking for pass rush upside then Lawson is a player I'd start to consider around mid-Day Two.

Grade: 2nd-3rd Round

Daeshon Hall Texas A&M 6’5” 266

  • DOB: 6/14/1995
  • 2016: 50 TKL (28 solo) 13 TFL 4.5 SCK 2 FF 1 PBU
  • Career: 162 TKL (71 solo) 36.5 TFL 16 SCK 4 FF 3 PBU in 52 games

I feel like I'm on an island with Hall. His name rarely seems to come up in this class of edge defenders. But I'm drawn to speed, burst and change of direction he shows at nearly 270 pounds. Hall played opposite of Garrett at A&M and while he didn't match Garrett's production, I honestly thought Hall mixed up his moves more consistently than his more highly-touted teammate. He also has a ridiculous wing span to get his arms up into the passing lane even if he can't quite get to the quarterback. Hall feels like a guy who will be more popular in NFL draft rooms than he is on twitter. I don't think he makes it out of the top 75 picks.

Grade: 2nd-3rd Round

Jordan Willis Kansas State 6’4” 255

  • DOB: 5/5/1995
  • 2016: 52 TKL (34 solo) 17.5 TFL 11.5 SCK 3 FF 3 PBU
  • Career: 114 TKL (75 solo) 40.5 TFL 26.5 SCK 7 FF 7 PBU 1 kick BLK in 48 games

Willis impressed in the bowl game and the Senior Bowl, but when I went back to review his tape he nearly lulled me to sleep. It seemed like he charged upfield and tried to beat the tackle outside on every single play of every game. And then, finally, inevitably, he would get a late sack, or reach a paw out there and strip the ball on a crucial drop back. I didn't expect Willis to have one of the best combines in the edge defender class like he did, but I respect the relentless approach and the production. With seven forced fumbles and seven pass breakups in his career, he didn't need sacks to make an impact in the game. Now it's looking like some teams have fallen in love and that he won't make it out of the first round.

Grade: 2nd-3rd Round

Derek Barnett Tennessee 6’3” 259

  • DOB: 6/25/1996
  • 2016: 56 TKL (40 solo) 19 TFL 13 SCK 2 FF 1 INT 5 PBU
  • Career: 197 TKL (131 solo) 52 TFL 33 SCK 3 FF 1 INT 6 PBU in 39 games

Barnett has been wildly productive despite average athleticism. He makes up for limited speed by anticipating the snap, and while that cost his team an occasional five yards, he was able to make enough big plays to mitigate those mistakes. Barnett is going to win with his bend, strong hands and relentless motor. If he can't get to the QB he's going to get a hand into the passing lane, or swipe at the ball. There's not much about his game that's pretty, but he's effective and tough by all accounts. He worked out at the combine despite illness, and at his pro day while dealing with a sore hammy. Coaches will appreciate his overall effort. He'll probably be drafted way earlier than I value him, but if he's there mid-Day Two I'd take him on my team.

Grade: 2nd-3rd Round

Derek Rivers Youngstown State 6’3” 244

  • DOB: 5/9/1994
  • 2016: 58 TKL (44 solo) 19.5 TFL 14 SCK 1 FF 1 PBU
  • Career: 173 TKL (120 solo) 56.5 TFL 37.5 SCK 3 FF 1 PBU in 49 games

I'm seeing Rivers finding his way into the first round of mock drafts, and I understand that defensive line aficionados appreciate his pass rushing technique. There's no questioning Rivers' production, but it's fair to wonder how he will adapt to the jump in competition. Not to mention he's small, which isn't a deal-breaker for me, but it leaves me wondering about his role and playing time early in his career.

Grade: 3rd-4th Round

Tarell Basham Ohio 6’4” 269

  • DOB: 3/18/1994
  • 2016: 49 TKL (29 solo) 15 TFL 10.5 SCK 1 FF 2 PBU
  • Career: 156 TKL (74 solo) 39 TFL 27.5 SCK 5 FF 6 PBU in 51 games

I like Basham's NFL size and high-effort approach. Like several other guys on this list, he's a straight-line type athlete, but enough athleticism to make the cut. It's no secret that I value production, and Basham was his conference Defensive Player of the Year. His floor is as a quality rotational defensive end, and that's a solid value if I'm taking him between picks 75-to-100 or thereabouts.

Grade: 3rd-4th Round