(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)
It has become its own position. Not big enough for the traditional defensive end position, but too one-dimensional for the traditional outside linebacker position. But the guys who fell into this tweener category were too athletic to ignore – or keep on the sideline – and so coaches created a new position.
Edge rusher. And the pioneer very well could have been Jevon Kearse.
Kearse, was 6-foot-4 and probably weighing in the 250s when he entered the NFL in 1999 as a first-round pick of the Tennessee Titans. In his first 48 NFL games, Kearse posted 36 sacks and earned himself the nickname, "The Freak."
The Steelers bypassed Kearse in the first round of the 1999 NFL Draft, in no small part because he didn't fit into their 3-4 scheme, either as a defensive end or as an outside linebacker. But as the sport is evolving, so must schemes, and the Steelers have indicated they are as well.
When the 2016 version of the NFL Draft begins on Thursday night, there will be several teams doing a bit of Freak-hunting, because guys who can get to the quarterback consistently are valued, no matter what you want to call the position they play.
He is the son of former Dolphins defensive end John Bosa, and the nephew of former Dolphins defensive end Eric Kumerow. Joey Bosa, 6-5, 269, has been called one of the safest players in this draft, meaning his bust-quotient is lower than most. It's not easy to get onto the field right away for the Buckeyes, but Bosa finished his freshman season of 2013 with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He exploded in 2014 – the season that ended with Ohio State winning a national championship – with 13.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Bosa was suspended for the 2015 opener for violating team rules, and then his stats dipped to five sacks and 16 tackles for loss, but he's still being seen as a top-10 pick in the first round. Bosa's body won't need as much work to become NFL-ready as will be the case with a lot of others in this draft, and he also will enter the league already making good use of his hands as a pass rusher. A 4.77 in the 40-yard dash indicates Bosa might lack the speed to be an elite pass rusher coming off the edge in the traditional way, but he has compensated with hand usage and an effective bull-rush. If he lands with a team willing to move him around within the formation, that could boost his production.
Here are some of the top edge rusher prospects in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft according to NFL.com.
Spence, 6-2, 251, is a guy who won't even be on every team's draft board. Spence was voted first-team All-Big Ten after his sophomore season of 2013, but then things started to fall apart as a result of failed drug tests. After failing drug tests in 2013 and 2014, Spence was banned from the Big 10 Conference and reportedly underwent treatment for an addiction to Ecstasy. He was arrested in May 2015 for alcohol intoxication and second¬-degree disorderly conduct, but that incident was expunged from his record after community service. NFL teams will have to weigh Spence's past against his potential as a player, and his game isn't without negatives. He isn't as tall or as fast as Jevon Kearse, for example, and there are concerns about his ability to defeat the caliber of offensive tackle he will find in the NFL. In one way, Spence is the opposite of Bosa in that he can win coming around the edge, but he lacks the bull-rush/inside game that Bosa already possesses. It's very possible that Spence will be most effective if his first NFL uses him as a weakside outside linebacker in a 3-4.
Ogbah, 6-4, 273, and his family moved from Nigeria to the Houston area when he was 9 years old, and by the time he was a senior in high school he was a finalist for the greater Houston high school defensive player of the year award. He chose Oklahoma State partially due to his appreciation of Russell Okung, another native of Nigeria who attended Oklahoma State on the way to being a No. 1 draft pick in the NFL. Ogbah (AWG-buh) played in every game as a redshirt freshman in 2013, and then in 2014 he posted 11 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. Voted Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2015, Ogbah posted 17.5 tackles for loss and a conference-best 13 sacks. Ogbah is too much for tight ends to handle one¬-on-¬one vs. either the run or in pass protection, and he can get around the edge with a combination of speed/power, while also showing some ability to get to the quarterback with a bull-rush. He finished his college career with a full sack or more in 16 of his last 21 games, but he did get blanked by Mississippi's Laremy Tunsil in a bowl game.
In this age of hybrid players, Smith, 6-2, 235, could be the ultimate movable piece for an NFL defensive coordinator. In the business of college recruiting, these kinds of players are labeled as "athletes" until their new coaches best figure out how to utilize their skills. Smith has the athleticism, speed, and physical makeup to play any linebacker spot in either a 3¬-4 or a 4-¬3 scheme, and some scouts believe his best position might be 4¬-3 outside linebacker, while others see him as more of a 3-¬4 outside linebacker who is utilized in both rush and coverage. But all of that now will have to be re-considered, because Smith reportedly will miss the entire 2016 NFL season after tearing his ACL and MCL in the Fiesta Bowl. Does a team pull the trigger on a potentially dynamic player without a defined position based on what he showed before having to rehabilitate a serious knee injury? That will be one of the interesting sidebars to the 2016 draft.
Floyd, 6-6, 244, is the closest thing to a physical match for Kearse when he came into the NFL back in 1999. After spending a year at Hargrave Military Academy, Floyd headed to Georgia in 2013, where he started eight of 13 games as a freshman and totaled 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. In 2014, Floyd was voted Georgia's Defensive MVP and finished with six sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. In 2015, Floyd led the Bulldogs in sacks for the third straight season (with 4.5) while adding another 10.5 tackles for loss. One of the issues with Floyd is that there are wide receivers in the NFL who look more stout than him. Floyd will struggle to counter the strength of NFL players, but he's going to be a difficult matchup in space.