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Evaluations

Thor's EDGE Rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: April 21, 2020, 3:05 pm ET

My previous entries in this scouting series examined the quarterbackrunning backwide receivertight endtackleinterior OL and interior DL classes. Spiderweb graphs sourced from mockdraftable.com, SPARQ scores from Three Sigma Athlete, adjusted SPARQ from Rotoworld's Hayden Winks and RAS from Kent Lee Platte


1. Chase Young (Ohio State) | 6'5/264

young

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: N/A

RAS: N/A

Comp: Julius Peppers (Lance Zierlein)

Chase Young’s family business is law enforcement, not football. His father and uncles are cops, and Young himself was a criminal justice major at Ohio State. In fact, when the former five-star recruit chose the Buckeyes over home-state Maryland, he cited OSU’s criminal justice program as one of the major reasons why. He reportedly has plans to consider a career in law enforcement after his playing days are over. First, we’ll get to watch him lay down the law on NFL offensive tackles. 

Young is coming off a truly dominant season – 16 sacks, 21.5 TFL and six forced fumbles despite missing two games to a suspension for accepting a loan – that would have gotten more Heisman buzz had Joe Burrow not posted the greatest season in college football history. Young settled for the Bronko Nagurski award instead, given to the nation’s best defender. Young’s 96.5 PFF pass-rushing grade last season was the highest-ever for an edge defender. The year before, as a sophomore, Young posted an insane 75 quarterback pressures.

Young is one of those rare “built in a lab” prospects, with perfect factory specifications for length, build and athleticism. He’s extremely flexible, bending edges like origami and getting skinny like Slender Man when needed to knife through cracks. Young is one of the most agile edge defenders we’ve seen in years, capable of not only making linemen miss their mark but reversing directions quickly and fluidly to return to top-speed at max efficiency. His get-off is like a gunshot, and he plays with power and leverage from the second his hands find you.

An underrated element of Young’s game is feel and preparation. He uses his hands and arms masterfully on the attack, with offensive tackles falling under a barrage of clubs and chops and stabs and rips. Young converts speed to power in a flash and with a boom, with the hand-to-hand combat games used to seal the win or as a changeup off his fastball. And he’s strong against the run – not elite, but stout and extremely reliable.

There isn’t much to nitpick here. Young sometimes has a tendency to play a little high, which can bite him in the run game when he gets out-leveraged and pushed back. Outside of that, you’re talking more about things that he can add, like more pass-rushing moves and further technical refinement. Young is a game-changer of an EDGE prospect. And he’s only going to get better.


2. A.J. Epenesa (Iowa) | 6'5/275

epenesa

SPARQ percentile: 15.1

Adjusted SPARQ: 0.17

RAS: 4.3

Comp: Cameron Jordan (Lindy’s)

Kirk Ferentz is known for identifying and developing three-star recruits. He signs a couple four-stars every class. Over his 22-year career, he has inked seven five-stars. AJ Epenesa may have been the most highly-sought of the seven. So how did Ferentz seal the deal? With an enormous assist from his mentor Hayden Frye. Rewind more than 20 years, and Frye was adding a young Polynesian pass-rusher named Epenesa Epenesa – nicknamed “Eppy” – to the roster as a walk-on. With black and gold in his blood, AJ grew up an Iowa fan, making it a little easier to turn down Alabama and Ohio State when they came calling.

Despite his pedigree, Epenesa began his career off the bench behind guys like Matt and Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse. Epenesa didn’t start even once through his sophomore year. But he was a pass-rushing menace whenever he entered, collecting 15 sacks, 22 TFL and five forced fumbles over 738 snaps those two years. For context, Nick Bosa started seven games his first two seasons at Ohio State and posted 13.5 sacks, 23 TFL and one forced fumble in 897 snaps. Finally installed as a starter as a junior, Epenesa produced 11.5 sacks, 14 TFL, four more forced fumbles and 58 pressures for an 87.8 PFF pass-rushing grade.

The prevailing wisdom on Epenesa is that he’s a “safe” mid- to late-first rounder who doesn’t have the highest ceiling due to athletic limitations. Two things on that. One, his power is a special trait. It’ll be a trump card against NFL linemen same as it was against college ones. Epenesa’s hands are forceful and ruthless. He controls what he gets he gets his hands on. You have to account for that, setting up the various hand techniques that Eppy no doubt taught AJ out of the crib, the clubs and swipes. Two, while I think he projects best to remain at DE, Epenesa has the versatility to kick inside on passing downs. That gives his NFL team an edge enforcer on early downs against both the run and pass as well as an extra pass-rusher on money plays. Situational versatility is a superpower unto itself.

Epenesa’s results at the NFL Combine lagged behind many of his peers in the edge-rusher class, with a 5.04 40-yard dash, 1.78 10-yard split and 7.34 3-cone. The showing was panned, and started Epenesa on a little slide in mock drafts. But Epenesa was the biggest EDGE to test, and his game is built on superhuman power, rather than receiver athleticism. Kent Lee Platte’s RAS system scored Epenesa 4.43 as an EDGE, but 9.08 as an iDL. You aren’t drafting Epenesa for twitch and bend. You’re drafting him for two-way power. And he’s a solid athlete for the type of player he is – he’s not a stiff plodder.

Epenesa will allow his NFL team to do things along the front that they are currently not doing. That’s value added. I think it’s a disservice to call him “safe” rather than “versatile” and “unique.” Athletic limitations lower the ceiling somewhat, but don’t go overboard.


3. K'Lavon Chaisson (LSU) | 6'3/254

chaisson

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: N/A

RAS: N/A

Comp: Andre Carter (Joe Marino)

As a sophomore in high school, Chaisson didn’t even try out for the football team. He was a basketball player, he thought, and so he decided to focus on the hardcourt. The summer after his sophomore year, he went with a friend to LSU’s football camp, mostly for support, not bringing cleats or equipment. “He was going to just come hang out,” said Garrett Cross, one of Chaisson’s high school coaches who drove Chaisson and his buddy there. “We told him, ‘Go out there and show them what you've got.’” 

Within two hours, having never played a snap of varsity football, Chaisson was offered a scholarship by the LSU Tigers. The Houston product dominated the following season on the field, and was pegged a consensus top-150 overall recruit. Texas was the frontrunner for his pledge. But Ed Orgeron doesn’t give up that easy. Chaisson told Coach O that he didn’t have time to fit him in for an in-home visit, in part because he had to take an early-morning flight to Florida’s campus for a visit. So Orgeron knocked on the Chaisson family door at 4 AM that morning to begin his pitch. “He literally followed me to the airport and walked me all the way through TSA and was like, ‘Bro, we got to have you. Please. I know what to do with you,’” Chaisson said

Chaisson made an immediate impact for the Tigers as a true freshman, collecting two sacks and 4.5 TFL in part-time duty in 2017. Expectations were sky-high for a national coming out party with full-time reps in 2018, but Chaisson tore his ACL in the opener. In his return to the field, Chaisson collected 6.5 sacks and 13.5 TFL in 13 starts for the national champs last fall. He’s a freaky athlete who came on like a lightning bolt at the end of the season after a slow start, with 4.5 of those 6.5 sacks coming over the final four games. There are two different ways of looking at that.

On the one hand, Chaisson posted only two sacks in the first nine games despite holding a talent advantage over basically every opponent he played against. On the other, he was a raw, inexperienced player coming off a major injury whose dominant stretch occurred when it mattered most – against A&M, Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson as LSU locked down the title. Perhaps Chaisson’s considerable toolbox of skills was finally being unlocked? His dominant run also happened to coincide with the absence of Michael Divinity, whom LSU used as a pass-rusher.

Chaisson won’t give you much against the run – he’s a pure pass-rusher. He’s long and athletic, with tremendous flexibility, agility and balance. Chaisson’s first steps off the snap are so quick that he forces offensive tackles to exaggerate their initial step outside to account for the berth. He’s quick enough to beat them with speed, anyway. But because they’re so terrified of it, it opens up inside counters and the bull rush, which is a more dangerous weapon for him than you’d think given his size.

He’s still raw and unseasoned. It would be nice if he could add a few more pass-rushing moves. Bulking up a little might also help in the run game. And he has durability concerns with the ACL injury and a nagging ankle issue last year that knocked him out for two games.  But Chaisson is an exciting athlete whose developmental arrow is shooting straight up. He’d be an instant upgrade to any team’s pass rush.


4. Yetur Gross-Matos (Penn State) | 6'5/266

yetur

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: 0.68

RAS: N/A

Comp: Ziggy Ansah (Eric Edholm)

Perhaps no prospect in this class has had to overcome as much adversity. Gross-Matos lost his father at the age of two to a boating accident while saving the child from drowning. Nine years later, Gross-Matos’ older brother by one year, Chelal, died when he was struck by lightning during a baseball game. 

Gross-Matos overcame these tragedies to become a top-150 overall recruit. He spurned programs like Clemson and Alabama to sign with Penn State. He flashed pass-rushing chops in part-time snaps as a true freshman, and then collected eight sacks as a sophomore the next year when he entered the starting lineup. Still, his pressure rate percentages those first two years left plenty to be desired and PFF grading panned his pass-rush. 

That changed in 2019, when Gross-Matos put up 9.5 sacks and saw his 67.7 PFF pass-rushing grade leap to 81.8. With 35 TFL over the past two years, he’s been one of the nation’s most disruptive edge defenders. The foundation of Gross-Matos’ game is built on length, athleticism and a non-stop motor. He has Inspector Gadget arms, with a crazy 82 ¼ wingspan. And while Gross-Matos needs to work on his hand usage, he has natural grip power. 

Between that and his quick jump off the ball, you can imagine the puzzle he presents for tackles: He can touch you before you can touch him, and he has a deep well of pass-rushing moves to show you. Gross-Matos was a great run defender in college, but he’ll need to work on lowering his pads to prevent NFL tackles from stealing his leverage. 

He also must become a more consistent pass-rusher. His counting stats are great, but as PFF noted, Gross-Matos still ranked just No. 85 in the country in pressure rate last season. Because of his technical deficiencies, Gross-Matos can get stymied for stretches and disappear, elevating the risk profile slightly. 


5. Curtis Weaver (Boise State) | 6'2/265

weaver

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: 0.68

RAS: 7.13

Comp: Jabaal Sheard (Mike Renner)

A three-star recruit, Weaver chose Boise State over a number of Power 5 offers, including Boston College, Wazzu and Virginia. He was one of the nation’s most disruptive edge rushers from the moment he stepped on the blue turf, piling up 34 sacks and 46.5 TFL across three seasons. He was under-appreciated in college and the lack of respect has followed him into the draft process.

Weaver has a doughy-looking body, and I think that’s in part why he gets overlooked. He’s been dogged by athleticism questions. While he didn’t run the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine, Weaver acquitted himself well in his other tests, running a strong 7.0 3-cone and 4.27 short shuttle for a 265-pounder. On tape, he changes direction smoothly but lacks closing speed and acceleration, explaining the ducked straight-line sprint.

Weaver is quick off the snap, plays with good power and is a very crafty pass-rusher who uses his hands exceedingly well. PFF graded Weaver over 92.0 in pass-rushing in each of the past two years, with exactly 31 hurries in each campaign. That’s serious heat off the edge. And Weaver proved last year that he could chip in against the run a little bit as well. There’s obvious risk in the profile due to a dearth of quicks – which cap his ceiling – but between his agility, power and cunning, I think Weaver will figure it out.  


6. Julian Okwara (Notre Dame) | 6'4/252

okwara

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: N/A

RAS: N/A

Comp: Lance Johnstone (Zierlein)

Okwara lived in Nigeria until he was eight before moving to the United States. He came to Notre Dame as a somewhat under-the-radar four-star recruit from the Charlotte prep ranks. After working in a backup rotational role his first two years on campus, Okwara leveled up for 12.5 TFL, eight sacks and 21 hurries while starting 12-of-13 games in 2018. He would manage just nine games played in 2019 before a broken leg sustained against Duke ended his collegiate career.

Okwara moves off the snap like he spent the previous minute plugged into a high-voltage charger. He bolts out with big strides, getting on blockers in an instant and hitting with the strength of a concussion grenade. Okwara is a sublime athlete, but not a finesse one. He loves to break through people rather than go around them, using his length and those power mitts to bully his way into the backfield.

Okwara would have starred at the combine had he been healthy. There’s no questioning his physical ability. It’s on display in everything he does, in the way he can snap back and reset when he’s thrown off, the way he pursues the ball and the way that his speed converts to pure punch at the point of contact. Okwara recorded a pass-rush win rate of 23% during his injury-shortened 2019 season, per PFF. That mark was better than those of Yetur Gross-Matos, Curtis Weaver and A.J. Epenesa.  

That he’s already so effective, so terrifying as a pass-rusher is made all the more impressive by the fact that Okwara needs considerable polish if he is to reach what is a very high ceiling. As good as Okwara is charging forward, his game currently lacks nuance. When his initial plan is foiled, lacking plausible counters, he generally gets twisted into a wasted rep. And sometimes his natural athleticism is staggered by degrees on the move, when he guesses wrong and has to change his framework all at once. 

Imagining him with the jagged edges smoothed should keep offensive coordinators up at night. The brother of Lions DE Romeo Okwara, Julian gets overlooked a bit because of his thin build, the broken leg, and the raw elements of his game. But boy is he an athlete, top-10 on Bruce Feldman’s last Freak’s list, with 21 mph tracked speed. And boy is he disruptive. Going back to 2018, per PFF, Okwara had the highest pressure rate of any player in this class at 19.1%. He’s being undervalued.


7. Terrell Lewis (Alabama) | 6'5/262

lewis

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: 0.79

RAS: N/A

Comp: Montez Sweat (Eric Edholm)

A top-25 overall recruit in the class of 2016, Lewis, the Washington D.C. Gatorade Player of the Year, signed with Alabama over nearby Maryland, Penn State and Florida State. Much was expected. But Lewis barely saw the field the next three seasons. He played 54 snaps as a part-timer off the bench as a true freshman (with an impressive eight pressures in 34 pass-rushing snaps). The next year, an arm injury wiped out 10 games. And his 2018 season ended before it began when he tore his ACL over the summer. 

Through three years on campus, Lewis had played only 202 snaps. That made 2019 crucial. Lewis did what he’d done as a freshman last fall, but at scale: He piled up 35 hurries in 259 pass-rushing attempts. Per PFF, his 19.8% pressure rate ranked No. 3 among edge rushers in this class. Lewis, at this point in his development, is a one-trick pony – a quick, agile edge rusher with an eagle’s wingspan who harasses quarterbacks off the edge. 

That’s super exciting, but boy is Lewis a risky prospect. You’ve got the two serious injuries in his recent past. You’ve got the fact that he only played 685 career snaps. And you’ve got the fact that he hasn’t proven that he can be more than a pass-rusher and will need to add weight and improve technique to be a factor in run defense. Do you feel lucky?


8. Josh Uche (Michigan) | 6'1/245

uche

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: N/A

RAS: N/A

Comp: Haason Reddick (Matt Miller)

Uche piled up 25 hurries, 13 hurries and eight sacks in 206 pass-rushing attempts last year. That was good for an elite 91.4 PFF pass-rushing grade. Per PFF, Uche ranked No. 2 among edge rushers in both pressure rate and win rate last season. Uche will drop a little due to size limitations and the tweener EDGE/LB line he’s straddling because of them, a foot fracture and torn meniscus in his past, his inability to hold his ground against the run, and a game that is overly-reliant on athleticism compared to technical know-how. But athletes who are proven commodities dropping the quarterback always have sex appeal. Uche, who only played 667 career snaps and doesn’t defend the run, is sort of like a mini-me Terrell Lewis in that regard. LIke Lewis, Uche is a boom-or-bust prospect. 



9. Jabari Zuniga (Florida) | 6'3/264

zuniga

SPARQ percentile: ~85

Adjusted SPARQ: .9

RAS: 9.74

Comp: Matt Judon (Danny Kelly)

Zuniga is a late-bloomer to football, a former hoopster who played just one season on the gridiron in high school before landing with Florida as a three-star recruit in 2015. A freshman developmental redshirt year followed. Zuniga worked his way into the starting lineup in 2017, before working a full slate of starts in 2018. He was named preseason first-team All-SEC in 2019, but a high-ankle sprain limited him to six games.

Zuniga packs punch -- Bruce Feldman’s No. 29 Freak List-er last summer is capable of benching 460 pounds -- and lion-on-gazelle burst, as well as sideline-to-sideline speed. Only Stanford’s Casey Toohill posted a higher SPARQ score among edge defenders in Indianapolis. As a pure athlete, Zuniga offers everything you could ask for. His highlight reel is a thing to behold. If only he knew what he was doing out there – there’s little consistency in his game. 

For every stunning rep where he bursts into the backfield, Zuniga will just as often be flummoxed by lunch pail technique, without counters in his back pocket to fall back on. He mutes his own supreme athleticism with a stiff rigidity – strength gives him fits because of his upright tendencies – and a wholesale flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants lack of strategy. If Zuniga booms, it’s going to be loud. But for all of his athletic upside, Zuniga’s instincts and technique must be honed before he’s ready for a primetime role.


10. Alton Robinson (Syracuse) | 6'3/264

robinson

SPARQ percentile: 71.4

Adjusted SPARQ: .65

RAS: 8.92

Comp: Jason Babin (Marino)

Robinson was all set to attend Texas A&M – choosing the Aggies over Alabama and Baylor, among others – before he was hit with second-degree felony robbery charges days after signing his NLI, following an incident in which he stole his girlfriend’s cellphone. A&M cut him, sending Robinson down the JUCO path. Robinson was a revelation at that level, and after the robbery charges were dismissed, Dino Babers and Syracuse gave him a second chance.

Robinson’s breakout came in 2018, with 10 sacks, 17 TFL and 56 pressures. Last year, he fell off to five sacks and six TFL. The drop-off in production combined with his previous robbery charge may conspire to make Robinson available at a discount. It’s an exciting package. His game combines speed with power, and Robinson’s motor never quits. He has a sprinter’s first step off the blocks.

Robinson needs to improve against the run to become more than a situational pass-rusher. At 6-foot-3 with a sub-80-inch wingspan, he lacks length, allowing linemen to get into his frame, and he also loses his power in this phase due to sloppy technique and footwork. And because he isn’t very fluid, he can’t be relied upon to corral runners in space.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is NBC Sports Edge’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!