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Arden Key, Harold Landry lead top CFB edge rushers to watch


Editor's note: analyst Lance Zierlein will reveal the top CFB players to watch in 2017 at each position, continuing today with edge rushers.

NFL scouts are always looking to the CFB ranks to find next-level talent. While we won't speculate about where these potential future NFL stars will go in the draft one day, it's not too soon to take a peek at their game tape and start to stack them as the top players to watch.

Surprise, surprise. This list has players on it from LSU, Ohio State, Florida State and Missouri. The more things change, the more they stay the same. LSU's Arden Key doesn't have perfect tape and there are definitely areas where he needs to improve, but his unorthodox style is extremely difficult for tackles to handle. I thought highly of Boston College's Harold Landry last season before he decided to head back to school and my opinion hasn't changed.

Nick Bosa isn't just Joey Bosa's little brother -- he's a powerhouse headed for a huge season. Florida State's Josh Sweat, Missouri's Marcell Frazier and Kansas' Dorance Armstrong are three edge players who have the potential to fire up near the top of this list if they continue to improve.

Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done in evaluating each player during and after this season. Of the edge rushers I've studied, here are the top 10 to watch.

10. Jabari Zuniga, Florida

Keep an eye on Zuniga. During my work on draft profiles for the 2017 draft, I spent plenty of time watching Florida tape thanks to the program's abundance of draftable talent on defense. While I was looking at other players, No. 92 -- Zuniga -- kept flashing with his quickness and athleticism. He's a thin-framed player along the edge and is in need of more muscle mass to win at the point of attack rather than trying to hang on. He's extremely quick off the snap with the impressive footwork and agility to work free of blockers and chase plays. I think his size, burst and athleticism is best-suited as a rush linebacker at the next level. Look for a big second year from Zuniga.

9. Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State

Productive face-up rusher with great bloodlines but a lack of explosive qualities as a rusher. Chubb lacks the burst and hips to race and bend the edge as a rusher, but he might have the ability to post quality sack totals if he can improve his hand usage and maximize his power. Chubb plays with plus body control and is able to play strong through contact in the running game. His motor will not be an issue. He might have enough athleticism to be considered as a 3-4 outside linebacker for teams who covet size and power on the edge.

8. Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest

There are going to be better athletes on this list with longer arms and better builds, but there won't be a player on this list with the technique and understanding of how to play the position that Ejiofor possesses. The phrase "violent hands" gets thrown around a lot in draft circles, but Ejiofor has them. His hands are fast, powerful and efficient. He uses them to climb over the top of blockers and to rid his frame of blockers. Ejiofor has a smart, developed pass-rush plan. He also is seamless with his counter moves that he unleashes organically according to how the pass rep develops. He might not check the "traits" boxes for some teams, but his tape is good.

7. Dorance Armstrong, Kansas

It's hard to watch Armstrong operate and not think of 2017 first-rounder Haason Reddick. Like Reddick, Armstrong is an athletic edge defender who can play with a hand down or up. However, Armstrong is bigger than Reddick and appears to be stronger at the point of attack as well. Reddick's value was bolstered thanks to his ability to rush the passer on the edge and play inside linebacker. Armstrong is a pure edge player who keeps tackles busy with juke steps, stab moves and shoulder dips around the edge. He has the closing speed to finish as a sack artist and also possesses a knack for finding the ball and discarding blockers to make the tackle against the run. Armstrong has exciting upside.

6. Marcell Frazier, Missouri

Frazier started in just five contests and played in less than 48 percent of the defensive snaps, but that didn't stop him from creating 40 pressures and 7.5 sacks in his sophomore season. Frazier is a hyperkinetic defender with an abundance of energy and movement in his play. From the snap, his feet are in constant motion, making him a difficult target for tackles to square up as a pass rusher. But his activity isn't the only reason for his production. Frazier also possesses outstanding reactive athleticism, change of direction and closing burst. He needs to work on his ability to stuff run blocks at the point of attack.

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5. Sam Hubbard, Ohio State

Well-built with good overall size and length for the position. Hubbard is a quality hand fighter who can stick and move with his hands while maintaining his gaze into the backfield. He plays with a fairly sturdy base and his contact balance is above average, allowing him to operate from a tackle-ready position when the running back gets to him. Hubbard doesn't play with a big, sudden burst, so he's limited in his ability to threaten the edge, which means he'll have to continue to improve his pass-rush moves this season.

4. Josh Sweat, Florida State

Pandora's box might have finally been thrown completely open for Florida State's opponents over the last three games of the season. During that timeframe, Sweat had 18 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and was credited with 4.5 sacks. Sweat's effort level can run hot and cold, but when he really cranks it up, he shows off high-end talent. He can play with a hand down or standing up and does a nice job of giving blockers a moving target when he's allowed to rush with some space. He has nice hip flip to climb around a tackle's edge and displayed devastating potential in Florida State's twist game. His hands are underutilized and he still needs to add additional play strength for his work against the run.

3. Nick Bosa, Ohio State

As I watched tape of Ohio State's Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard, my eyes continued to be drawn to Nick Bosa, the younger brother of the Chargers' Joey Bosa. Bosa is part of a very deep and talented defensive front, but his impressive play strength and ability to get rid of blockers in front of him could make him the talk of that defensive front by the middle of the year. Bosa has the pure power to play defensive tackle and the athletic ability and pass rush instincts to pressure from the edge. Ohio State would be wise to windup Bosa along the interior on pass-rush downs and watch him go to work.

2. Harold Landry, Boston College

Landry absolutely exploded onto the scene last season as a pass rusher and finished 2016 with 16.5 sacks and an incredible 7 forced fumbles. Landry has an angular build with long arms that makes him feel taller and longer than his listed height of 6-foot-3. He's a dip-and-rip edge bender with the burst and stride length to consistently threaten the edge at the next level. Landry will need to add more functional strength to be able to hold up as an early down player, but his athletic traits and talent as a pass rusher create a high ceiling for him.

1. Arden Key, LSU

Key is all arms and legs. The combination of his gangly frame with his awkward movement style has been confounding offensive tackles for two straight years now. Key's lean, thin legs foreshadow his inability to control the point of attack and anchor down against the run, but his NFL bread will ultimately be buttered by his ability to rush the passer. Key was allowed to rush as an outside linebacker last season and it really fits his rush style. With a unique ability to accelerate instantly off of lateral direction change, Key has created a devastating inside/out pass-rush move. He's a little more tight-hipped than expected and needs to shore up some of his wasted motion off the snap, but long edge rushers with consistent production (like Key) tend to be at the top of these types of lists.



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