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Pro comparisons for the 2017 NFL Draft’s best pass rushers

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The Saints need help getting after the quarterback, and big-time NFL draft prospects like Derek Barnett, Taco Charlton, and Carl Lawson have fans excited. But what are realistic expectations for the next generation of sack artists?

ATHENS, GA - Tennessee Volunteers pass rusher Derek Barnett (9) forces a sack-fumble out of Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jacob Eason (10) at the goalline at Sanford Stadium.
ATHENS, GA - Tennessee Volunteers pass rusher Derek Barnett (9) forces a sack-fumble out of Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jacob Eason (10) at the goalline at Sanford Stadium.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been widely said that the 2017 NFL Draft class is most-talented at the pass rusher positions, and there’s no doubting the quality and quantity of options. There’s maybe a dozen prospects who could be selected as highly as 11th overall or as low as 62nd and produce at similarly high clips. That’s not counting the cream of the crop - guys like Myles Garrett, Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, and Solomon Thomas - who will go in the opening selections of the draft and likely hit the ground running. New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton has repeatedly driven home the need for a game-changing pass rusher, so now is a good time to get familiar with their options.

But we should wait to anoint these rookies as the successors to all-time greats like Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith, DeMarcus Ware, or Rickey Jackson. I don’t like player comparisons because every person is unique in their build and play style, but they can be a good tool for giving fans a concrete idea of what draft prospects could look like some day. So don’t take this too seriously.

COLLEGE STATION, TX - Tennessee Volunters defensive end Derek Barnett (9) bends the edge around Texas A&M Aggies left tackle Avery Gennesy (65) at Kyle Field.
COLLEGE STATION, TX - Tennessee Volunters defensive end Derek Barnett (9) bends the edge around Texas A&M Aggies left tackle Avery Gennesy (65) at Kyle Field.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Derek Barnett, Tennessee

A popular pick in Saints mock drafts by fans and analysts alike, Derek Barnett has a great college resume and looks ready-made for the NFL. He made an impact on running and passing downs at Tennessee en route to breaking Reggie White’s sack record - a year earlier than it took White to set it. Barnett’s flu-stricken Scouting Combine outing verified some issues I’ve taken with his game like an average first step, but hopefully he improves his timed drills at Tennessee’s pro day.

This one is going to hurt, but I like Rob Ninkovich as an example of the low-end career Barnett may see. Ninkovich obviously bombed in New Orleans as “the one that got away” from a 2006 draft class that included Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief, and Marques Colston. But since entering the New England Patriots’ starting lineup in 2010, Ninkovich has been a model of consistency and averaged six and a half sacks per year. He is a three-down player who gets after quarterbacks while defending the run well, and routinely sees snap counts north of 900. Ninkovich and Barnett bring a similar skills set of high football IQ, lateral movement through contact, and bend around the edge.

If all goes well for Barnett’s transition to the NFL, look to Terrell Suggs as a rare example of excellence from someone with their height/weight/speed profile. Like Barnett, Suggs had a bad combine and bombed his timed workouts like the 40-yard dash (Suggs ran an official 4.84-second time, while Barnett ran 4.88-seconds). But the Ravens stuck with their film evaluation of Suggs and he became one of the NFL’s most-prolific pass rushers, logging eight or more sacks in ten of his thirteen seasons. If anyone can experience a similar career path to Suggs, it might be Barnett.

ANN ARBOR, MI - Michigan Wolverines defensive end Taco Charlton (33) celebrates after sacking Rutgers Scarlet Knights quarterback Hayden Rettig (11) at Michigan Stadium.
ANN ARBOR, MI - Michigan Wolverines defensive end Taco Charlton (33) celebrates after sacking Rutgers Scarlet Knights quarterback Hayden Rettig (11) at Michigan Stadium.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Taco Charlton, Michigan

If you drew up prototype size for a base end in a four-man front, Taco Charlton would fit the bill. He’s got crazy length for the position, standing 6-foot-6 with 34 1/4-inch arms and tipping the scales at 277-pounds. That’s very similar to what Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan weighed in at during the 2011 Scouting Combine, but my preferred comparisons for Charlton shared his more pedestrian athleticism. Despite his huge frame, Charlton profiled as an average athlete for his size. Still, that passes any benchmarks an NFL team may have for the position. I think he’ll be fine.

Kyle Vanden Bosch was a longtime NFL defensive end who played 155 games (combined regular and postseason games) for the Tennessee Titans, Arizona Cardinals, and Detroit Lions. Venden Bosch started 140 of those games, then finished his career with 58 sacks. Vanden Bosch averaged between five and six sacks per year, and that’s a very solid projected floor for Charlton. In the right situation - playing alongside guys like Ndamukong Suh and pre-payday Albert Haynesworth - Vanden Bosch had flareups of eight, 12, and 12.5-sack seasons.

On the high end of Charlton’s NFL projection, check out Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson. Johnson has been an anchor on the Panthers’ line for a decade, enjoying eight to nine sacks per year and breaking the double-digit mark three times. This is the best case scenario for Charlton: an average athlete with ideal height, weight, and length who can wreck havoc on the edge. If you’re drafting him 11th overall, this has to be the expectation for Charlton’s development.

PASADENA, CA - UCLA Bruins outside linebacker Takkarist McKinley (98) celebrates after sacking USC Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) at the Rose Bowl.
PASADENA, CA - UCLA Bruins outside linebacker Takkarist McKinley (98) celebrates after sacking USC Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) at the Rose Bowl.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Takkarist McKinley, UCLA

The definition of “better athlete than football player” might well be Takkarist McKinley, who has just over a year of starting experience. McKinley was a rocket in his senior year, flying off of the edge and into quarterbacks with abandon. That recklessness is concerning, though, and while it can pay dividends (he logged ten sacks and three forced fumbles last year) it can also get you burned by frequently overrunning the pocket and letting the quarterback find easy yards on the ground. The talent is there with McKinley, but are you comfortable investing in a project early in a draft flush with options?

The floor of possible pro production for McKinley would be Marcus Smith, who had a bizarre early career of position switches and weight fluctuation for the Philadelphia Eagles. Smith still hasn’t really settled in at outside linebacker as hoped and struggles with technical aspects like pad level and hand usage, but his athleticism is clear. Like McKinley, he is shot out of a cannon on every down and plays with violence. Smith’s career is still in its early days, but the struggles he has seen should caution fans about McKinley’s immediate future.

On the other hand, consider DeMarcus Ware. Talk about boom or bust potential. Ware was two inches taller than McKinley and had a better vertical jump coming out, but otherwise they are very similar athletes. McKinley shares Ware’s all-around athleticism and ability to fire off the snap with hands swinging. Ware developed an incredible array of pass-rush moves as he matured, figuring out complex attacks like delayed spins and push-pull moves. If a talented defensive line coach like new Saints assistant Ryan Nielsen sees McKinley for what he is and is willing to be patient, someday McKinley might be honestly comparable with an all-time great like Ware.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - Auburn Tigers outside linebacker Carl Lawson (55) gets a hand on scrambling Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA - Auburn Tigers outside linebacker Carl Lawson (55) gets a hand on scrambling Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Carl Lawson, Auburn

First round buzz has swirled for Carl Lawson for months, and it’s clear to see why after watching his game tape. Lawson collected sacks at a quick rate as a junior (9.5 in 12 games) after seeing his sophomore year derailed by hip and ACL injuries. That’s the problem with him as a project: Lawson’s talent is without question, but how often will he suit up for you? Lower-body injuries are critical for edge rushers like Lawson and Saints third-year linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, and someone with too intense of an injury history may not be worth investing in.

On the low end of Lawson’s career spectrum, check out Dallas Cowboys defense end Anthony Spencer. Spencer collected 36 sacks in the combined regular and post-seasons for the Cowboys, but it took him 109 games to get there. To take it a step further, Spencer started just 69 of those contests after missing stretches of his career to microfracture and bone bruise injuries. 30 of Spencer’s sacks came in a stretch from 2009 to 2012 in which he missed just three games. That has to be the lesser scenario for Lawson, in which he doesn’t really get going until he’s past some early-career injuries and can hit his stride.

On the high end of career projections for Lawson, check out Houston Texans quarterback hunter Whitney Mercilus. Mercilus has thrived in their defense as a pass-rushing outside linebacker who can line up on the line of scrimmage as a true defensive end at times. He started his career working into the rotation behind established pass rushers like Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, then seized a starting job in his second year and hasn’t looked back. Mercilus hasn’t missed a game since and has posted five to seven sacks in each year, except for a breakout 11-sack 2015 seasonacks in each year, except for a breakout 11-sack 201. Lawson shares Mercilus’ violent hands and great functional strength out on the edge, which has translated into on-field success for them both. Should Lawson’s injury concerns prove overrated, this may be the high end of hopes for him.

MANHATTAN, KS - Kansas State Wildcats defensive end Jordan Willis (75) draws a holding penalty while pursuing Oklahoma State Cowboys running back Justice Hill (27) at Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium.
MANHATTAN, KS - Kansas State Wildcats defensive end Jordan Willis (75) draws a holding penalty while pursuing Oklahoma State Cowboys running back Justice Hill (27) at Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Willis, Kansas State

Jordan Willis is a perplexing evaluation, which may explain the Saints’ sustained interest in him. They met with Willis privately during the week of Senior Bowl practices and conducted another private meeting around Kansas State’s pro day. It’s very clear what Willis does well: he fires off the snap with abandon, easily beating opposing blockers with a dynamic first step and sustained leg drive. But that strength - his sudden movement and conversion of speed to power into a bull rush - is also Willis’ weakness. He hasn’t shown many counter-moves when that initial rush is defended well, and too often is he allowed to run himself out of the play and harmlessly fly past the quarterback. He’s got to improve at turning the corner and bending through contact, which he showed he could do at the Scouting Combine with impressive showings in the flexibility drills. But now the question is: why wasn’t that ability clear in his game tape?

If you’re not a believer in Willis’ ability to develop as a pro, Buffalo Bills draft bust Aaron Maybin is your cautionary tale of choice. Though they played slightly different positions in college - Maybin was often a stand-up pass rusher occasionally asked to drop into coverage at Penn State, Willis is firmly a hand-in-the-dirt end - their athletic traits are very similar in a great first step and short-area speed. But Maybin had the same issues that Willis may be feared to see in transitioning as a pro. A lack of counter-moves when the initial rush is foiled and poor awareness when closing in on the quarterback - or flashing past them in an impotent blur - is what made Maybin’s brief career difficult and led to an untimely ending. If Willis doesn’t take to NFL coaching and develop as a pro, busting like this is the worst-case scenario.

Counterpoint: Connor Barwin is a great example of the kind of player Willis might become. They’re both terrific athletes who combine electric speed off the edge with an incessant engine to wear opponents down. Like Willis, Barwin has been just as effective in the fourth quarter of games as the first. Barwin has found a way - with pro-level coaching - to harness that energy and turn it loose onto opposing quarterbacks in a way that Willis’ fans should envy. Barwin’s 51 career sacks in an eight-year career are nothing to sneeze at, and a similar track record from Willis would be a welcome sight for Saints fans.