There is a good group of edge rushers in this draft, and as many as five could come off the board in the top 15 or so picks.
The value placed on edge rushers is clear based on recent drafts: Three edge rushers have gone in the top 10 in each of the past two drafts, and 32 edge rushers have gone in the first round in the past five drafts. There have been six first-round edge rushers in each of the past two drafts, and eight went in the first round in 2011. NFL Media analyst Lance Zierlein has six edge rushers with first-round grades this year.
If your favorite team needs a top-ranked edge rusher, it better pick him early: In the past five drafts, the first 10 edge rushers have been off the board, on average, by the 53rd overall pick.
Here's a quickie look at edge rusher in this draft.
Teams with greatest need (in draft order): Jacksonville (third overall pick), Washington (fifth), New York Jets (sixth), Chicago (seventh), Atlanta (eighth), Cleveland (12th, 19th), New Orleans (13th, 31st), Pittsburgh (22nd), Baltimore (26th).
Mike Mayock's top 5 at the position: 1. Florida's Dante Fowler Jr.; 2. Nebraska's Randy Gregory; 3. Clemson's Vic Beasley; 4. Kentucky's Alvin "Bud" Dupree; 5. Missouri's Shane Ray.
Biggest upside: Florida's Dante Fowler Jr. There's a reason most analysts have Fowler as the top-ranked edge rusher in this draft. Fowler (6-foot-3, 261 pounds) played a reserve role as a true freshman in 2012, became a mildly effective fulltime starter in 2013, then began to blossom in 2014, when he was a first-team All-SEC pick and had 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. Florida coaches moved him all around in an effort to get the best one-on-matchup, and he lined up as a "traditional" end with his hand in the dirt, as a stand-up end and as a stand-up linebacker (mostly outside, but some on the inside). As he moves fully into an outside linebacker role in the NFL, he should be able to settle in and be a guy who puts up double-digit sacks as well as hold up well against the run.
Most underrated: Louisville's Lorenzo Mauldin. Mauldin, who never redshirted, was a defensive end in his first three seasons at Louisville, then moved to outside linebacker as a senior when a new coordinator installed a 3-4 defense. He adjusted well, finishing with 6.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and 11 quarterback hurries. His pass coverage still needs work, but he is a high-energy guy who can get to the passer and held up well against the run for the Cardinals. He has an impressive 80-inch wingspan. Mauldin (6-4, 259) also has an engaging personality and an inspiring back story (he lived in 16 foster homes growing up in the Atlanta area).
Most overrated: Missouri's Markus Golden. Golden was Mizzou's "other" end in 2014, lining up opposite Shane Ray, and Golden (6-3, 260) took advantage of the attention spent on Ray to finish with 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. Golden is a hard worker, but he isn't overly athletic and was just a one-season starter at Missouri. He spent two years in junior college (redshirting for one of those), then three at Mizzou; he didn't play much in 2012, backed up Michael Sam in 2013, then started in 2014. He must develop some pass-rush moves, but he might lack the explosiveness to ever be anything more than a bull rusher (which he does well, by the way).
Biggest sleeper: Oregon State's Obum Gwacham. There are raw players, and then there are raw players. Gwacham (6-5, 246) is in the latter category, having played the position for less than a year. He made the move from wide receiver (he caught 11 passes in his first three seasons and played a lot on special teams) to defensive end/outside linebacker during spring practice last season. He played in all 12 games at his new position, racking up 28 tackles and four sacks as a reserve. He runs well and is a good athlete, having been a high jumper and triple jumper for Oregon State's track team. He must add strength and bulk, and needs a lot of technique work. But because his athleticism is so appealing, the upside is intriguing. Gwacham was born in Nigeria and didn't move to the United State until he was 7.
Better pro than college player: Kentucky's Alvin "Bud" Dupree. Dupree had 21 sacks the past three seasons at Kentucky, but most of those came because of his sheer athleticism. The thought is that once NFL coaches get their hands on Dupree (6-4, 269), they can mold him into a high-caliber player who has the ability to wreak havoc off the edge. Dupree's athleticism is eye-opening: He ran a 4.56 40 at the combine, with a 42-inch vertical jump and a broad jump of 11 feet, 6 inches. Remember, this from a guy who weighs 269 pounds. If he can covert that athleticism into production, he's a future All-Pro.
Top small-school prospect: North Dakota State's Kyle Emanuel. He was the best defensive player on a team that won its fourth consecutive FCS title. After redshirting as a freshman in 2010, Emanuel (6-3, 255) was a starter on all four of those teams. He really blossomed in his final two seasons, with a combined 27 sacks, 42.5 tackles for loss and 144 overall tackles. He was an end for the Bison who will move to outside linebacker in the NFL; his best fit looks to be in a 3-4 set. His coverage ability is a concern, but he is tough-minded, has a good football IQ, owns a high-revving motor and can get to the passer.
Mike Huguenin can be reached at email@example.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.