This is another deep position group. It isn’t quite at the level of the receivers, but many of the players in this class will become quality starters. Unlike most of my lists, this one is pretty conventional to other opinions that are out there. I have one guy higher than most people.
1) Chase Young Ohio State
One of the most decorated defensive players in history enters the draft as one of the top players of the class. Chase Young won the Ted Hendricks award, Chuck Bednarik award, and Bronko Nagurski award. Young was a first team All American after recording 16.5 sacks.
There was no reason for Young to participate at the combine because his film speaks for itself. With double digit sack numbers in back to back seasons, he is clearly the best pass rusher of this class. He makes the most of his quick feet and amazing hands. He makes even the best tackles look bad as he swipes their hands and runs past them.
There isn’t much to not like about Chase Young. He can get taken out of plays once the blockers locks his hands on him. This is especially true on run plays as the blocker looks to attack. At the next level, he will end up as a 3-4 OLB which will maximize his abilities.
2) K’Lavon Chaisson LSU
Another pass rusher who sat out the combine, K’Lavon Chaisson is a dominant player. Like Young, there was no need for him to work out. In normal years, Chaisson would easily be the top edge rusher in the draft; nevertheless, he will be a top-10 pick.
The stat line only shows 6.5 sacks, but he brings much more to the table than that. He is capable in zone coverage as he constantly tracks the quarterback’s eyes. Not only that, he is great against the run. He tracks the running backs and fills their holes before they get there. He’s a very smart, instinctive player.
He’s a dominant defensive talent who will start right away. Unfortunately, there are some injury concerns that surround him. It might benefit him to gain a little weight which might help his durability. It will mainly help him size up against the larger players in the NFL.
3) Yetur Gross-Matos Penn State
Penn State is known for creating quality defenders, and here is another one that is about to have a great NFL career. Yetur Gross-Matos earned the nod as a member of the first team All Big 10. He recorded nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for a loss.
Gross-Matos doesn’t quit. His high motor keeps him running after the ball. I saw multiple examples of him making tackles down field on receivers. He’s not chasing them down, but he is still there hustling after the ball. His skill set isn’t finished, but the moves he currently uses are effective. New ones can be learned.
I feel like this is another day one starter, but he will need to add some things to his repertoire. First thing, I’d like to see another 10-20 pounds. His best move is his bull rush, and a little more weight will polish his “A” game. More effective hands would also go a long way to make him a pro bowler.
4) Jabari Zuniga Florida
Jabari Zuniga is my guy who isn’t on most of the top 5 lists for edge rushers. This season is mired by a high ankle sprain. It limited him to only six games; however, he put on a show at the combine. Zuniga ran a 4.64 forty, put up 29 reps in the bench press, and jumped 127” in the broad jump.
Despite a lack of film from this season, there is absolutely no way Zuniga should fall out of the first round. He played everywhere on the line for the Gators using his exceptional athleticism to push his way into the backfield. He tracks down the ball and makes his way to it no matter what.
His injuries are the only things that will make him fall out of the first round. Not only did he miss most of this season, but he missed nearly all of his sophomore year. These injuries also cost him valuable experience on the field. Someone will get a steal in the draft if Zuniga falls out of the top 20.
5) AJ Epenesa Iowa
Second team All American, AJ Epenesa put on a great performance this season with 11.5 sacks. He couldn’t have been happy with his combine performance, but Epenesa will still go early due to his film and stat line.
Epenesa’s burst off the snap is very quick. He blasts into the line and knows how to overpower lesser opponents who can’t keep their base. Despite his athletic measurables (which were not good at the combine), he was highly productive as a pass rusher.
I’m really concerned that he is a one trick pony. His burst and drive style is all he has, and it isn’t nearly as effective against quality opponents. Watching him against Michigan and Purdue, he looked like two completely different players. A little weight gain might move him to DT as an inside pass rusher.