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NFL draft's next big thing? Evaluating Houston DT Ed Oliver

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It's unusual for an underclassman to declare for the NFL draft before his would-be final college season begins, but Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver did just that, announcing in March that he intends to enter the 2019 draft. While the news sent shockwaves through the national media due to the timing of his announcement, scouts have been following Oliver's progress since he stepped onto the scene in 2016 as a five-star recruit with a polished game that was ideally suited for the pros.

The 6-foot-2, 290-pound playmaker flashed big-time potential as a true freshman in a marquee tilt against Oklahoma. With that spectacular debut (seven tackles, including two sacks) setting the table for an impressive two-year run that has seen him tally 39.5 tackles for loss in 25 career games, Oliver is already a household name in the scouting community.

Considering his position (nose tackle), and his less-than-ideal height, Oliver's inclusion in the conversation of college football's elite prospects speaks volumes about his immense talent and potential as a disruptive interior player.

He shows rare first-step quickness, lateral movement skills, explosive strength and hustle for a pass-rushing defensive tackle playing as a one-technique (shaded nose tackle) in a three-man front. Oliver combines his explosive athleticism with outstanding instincts, awareness and snap-count anticipation. With the Cougars employing a movement-based scheme that allows him to loop and stunt on a number of pass-rush attempts, the junior flashes the kind of versatility/variety that we commonly see from elite inside defenders.

As a run defender, Oliver shows terrific skills shooting gaps and taking on blockers at the point of attack. He routinely slips through cracks on slants and angled rushes while also showing exceptional strength and power. He bullies blockers on forklift maneuvers and bull rushes.

Oliver is capable of winning with finesse or power on the inside, but he wins most of his snaps by outworking his opponent at the line of scrimmage. Whether it's using a second or third move on a rush or simply running down a ball carrier from behind on a chase play, Oliver's energy and effort jump off the screen. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Sheldon Richardson's tape when I watched him make a ton of energy plays at Missouri as a disruptive playmaker.

From a critical standpoint, Oliver will need to show scouts that he can be a consistent sack producer to maximize his value in the draft. Despite his impressive TFL (tackles for loss) totals, Oliver has just 10.5 career sacks to his credit. It's worth noting that elite sack artists' production in college routinely matches their pro performance. For example, Aaron Donald tallied 66 tackles for loss and 29.5 sacks, including a pair of 11-sack seasons, during his three seasons at Pittsburgh. Thus, his emergence as the NFL's top defensive player isn't necessarily a surprise (39 sacks in four NFL seasons).

With impressive flashes as a pass rusher but only modest sack production, Oliver has to show evaluators that he can get home routinely despite facing double teams from opponents on passing downs. Considering how elite pass rushers are expected to win in difficult circumstances, Oliver's production should reflect his impact if he wants to be valued as a top rusher.

Overall, Oliver heads into his junior campaign viewed as one of the top defensive prospects in college football. As a disruptive interior defender with pass-rush skills, he could be a hot commodity in a 2019 draft that's expected to be loaded with ultra-talented defensive big bodies that offer diverse skill sets. If Oliver can build upon a pair of solid campaigns in which he displayed dynamic flashes, he has a chance to emerge as the top interior defensive lineman in the class.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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