2021 NFL draft: Eagles’ pass rush needs help, and the draft might be the answer
A look at the edge-rushing class in this month's NFL draft. NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell breaks down the class.
This is the seventh of an 11-part series on the 2021 NFL draft in which, for the third straight year, Ben Fennell breaks down the draft for The Inquirer. Ben is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor, and researcher across several media platforms, most notably NFL Network and ESPN College Football. This will be his seventh draft for the NFL Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @benfennell_NFL.
The Edge Rushers
The edge-rushing class in the 2021 draft, is, to borrow a famous line from Winston Churchill, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
On the surface, it appears to have a number of quality players with the ability — or at least the potential — to help sackmeister-needy teams like the Eagles improve their pass rush.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has made the evaluation process a little more difficult this year. For starters, a couple of the top edge rushers — Washington’s Joe Tryon and Miami’s Gregory Rousseau — opted out last season and didn’t play.
Rousseau had 15½ sacks in 2019. While some have projected him as a first-round pick, the fact is he played slightly more than 500 college snaps at Miami.
“This is the equivalent of drafting a kid out of high school,” said Ben Fennell, who has a third-round grade on Rousseau. “He’s very long. He looks like Chandler Jones with his long limbs, and can engulf people. But he’s got no power to his game. He’s a complete finesse player.
“He’s very raw and lacks experience.”
Some others, including Penn State’s Jayson Oweh and Florida State’s Janarius Robinson and Joshua Kaindoh, look and test better than they play.
On top of all that, the February scouting combine was canceled, depriving scouts of an up-close-and-personal opportunity to scrutinize these players.
“This edge-rush group is really, really tough to sort out and figure out because you’ve got a mixture of guys who were opt-outs, and then a bunch of guys who look like they should be able to play, but weren’t particularly productive,” NFL Network senior draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.
Oweh highlights that second group. The 6-5, 257-pounder lit up his school’s Pro Day, running a 4.37 forty. But he didn’t have a single quarterback sack in eight games last season. That’s hard to do.
“He’s a dynamic athlete,” Jeremiah said. “But you’ve got to figure out the production part.”
If someone is willing to overlook Oweh’s lack of production and take a chance on his incredible athleticism and potential, as many as four edge-rushers could go in the first round. The three that definitely are expected to go among the first 32 picks are Azeez Ojulari of Georgia, Jaelan Phillips of Miami and Kwity Paye of Michigan.
“Overall, I think it’s a good class,” Fennell said. “It’s not the deepest class. I don’t think there are going to be a lot of Day 3 guys. But I think there’s some really interesting Day 2 contributors that have some versatility and can line up inside and outside.
“And there’s a lot of different types of bodies. You can have a 265-pound edge-rusher or a 235-pound one. Chris Rumph of Duke, whose dad is the outside linebackers coach for the Houston Texans, might be the best pass rusher in this class.
“But he played last year at 225. He was up to 244 at Duke’s Pro Day, but you literally aren’t going to be able to use him on early downs. So he’s going to be a situational pass rusher. I have no idea where to project him.”
The Eagles definitely are in the market for edge-rushing help. They signed Brandon Graham to an extension in March, but he’s 33. And Derek Barnett’s long-term future with the team is uncertain. The Eagles didn’t release or trade him, but they haven’t signed him to a contract extension either.
The 2017 first-round pick is in the option year of his rookie contract and is scheduled to receive $10 million this season. He can become a free agent after the season.
The only edge rusher currently on the roster that you can say with any real certainty still will be with the team in two years is Josh Sweat.
Ben’s Top Five
1. Azeez Ojulari, Georgia, 6-2, 249, Round 1
2. Jaelan Phillips, Miami, 6-5, 260, Round 1
3. Kwity Paye, Michigan, 6-2, 261, Round 1
4. Carlos Basham, Wake Forest, 6-3, 274, Round 2
5. Gregory Rousseau, Miami, 6-6, 256, Round 2-3
Arms: 34½ inches
40-time: 4.61 seconds
Vertical jump: 30 inches
225 bench: 26 reps
Fennell’s take: “Ojulari is the loosest, most flexible pass rusher in the class. He’s a speed-rushing demon. He’s got a quick first step. He’s surprisingly strong in the run game. Because of his looseness in the pass game, people think he’s not a strong player. But he actually is.
“He had an ACL tear as a senior in high school, but he made a complete recovery. He’s not a guy who is going to line up inside very often as a 3-tech (tackle). But he’s a guy who will be a demon off the edge. Yannick Ngakoue is a good comp for him. He’s that type of player.
“It’s also worth noting that he was voted by his Georgia teammates as a captain when he was a redshirt freshman. That’s unheard of. Kirby Smart, Georgia’s coach, was blown away by that. He said he triple-asked the team if they wanted to do that. But the way he worked from the second he got on campus was so infectious. He’s a redshirt sophomore and isn’t even 21 yet.”
Round projection: 1
Arms: 33¼ inches
40-time: 4.57 seconds
Vertical jump: 36 inches
225 bench: 21 reps
Fennell’s take: “He was the No. 1 player coming out of high school in 2017. A five-star recruit who went to UCLA. But after two injury-plagued seasons, including concussion issues, he quit the game. He eventually had a change of heart after sitting out a year and transferred to Miami, where he reemerged last season. He seems to be healthy now and showed it off last year. His best stuff looks like Nick Bosa. He’s as complete a pass rusher as I’ve seen since the Bosas. He can win with speed and win with power. He has counter moves and spin moves. He can line up inside or outside. He has really good flexibility, really good play-temperament. He chases the ball really well and plays off contact really well. He can take on offensive linemen effectively in the run game.
“He’s a very loose pass rusher. A more tempered comparison than Nick Bosa would be Houston’s Whitney Mercilus when he was coming out of Illinois. The big thing with him is going to be the medical stuff, specifically the concussion history. He also has some off-field interests (music) that seem to worry some NFL people as far as his commitment to the game. He’s just in this high-variance group where he could go in the first round and I’ll say yep, or he could fall to the fourth round and I’ll say yep. But he’s probably the best pass-rusher in this class.”
Round projection: 1-2
Arms: 34½ inches
40-time: 4.37 seconds
Vertical jump: 39½ inches
225 bench: 21 reps
Fennell’s take: “Like Ojulari, Ohweh is only a redshirt sophomore. But he’s not nearly the player at this point that Ojulari is. He’s an intriguing height-weight-speed player. You knew he was going to test out of this world. He ran a 4.37 at 257 pounds. Vertical-jumped nearly 40 inches.
“The issue with him is production. He didn’t have any sacks last season in eight games. None. He plays very average on tape. He’s a very raw player. He just started playing football late in high school. But all of the stuff that you want a raw prospect to do, he doesn’t do it, in my opinion. If you’re a height-weight-speed guy like him and you don’t really know what you’re doing, just play hard. But he doesn’t play hard. Which is very concerning in my opinion.
“I also think the lower half of his body is very stiff. So there are some things working against him. He also doesn’t play a lot of special teams. Every now and then he flashes. Had nine quarterback pressures against Indiana last year. Best-case comps for him might be Washington’s Montez Sweat and New Orleans’ Marcus Davenport. But Sweat’s got 16 sacks in his first two NFL seasons. We’ll see what he turns out to be. But like Phillips, he’s another high-variance player.”
Round projection: 2-3