With the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine in full swing, I'll be unveiling my picks for the safest prospects at each position.
The more you rely solely on the quickness of a defender to win at the next level, the more likely he is to disappoint. This is especially true of edge rushers, whether projected as 4-3 defensive end, 3-4 linebacker, or something in between. If a defensive end doesn't hold his ground against the run on early downs, allowing the opposing offense to stay on schedule, then his ability to attack the quarterback doesn't really matter. Even on third-and-long, he'll be consistently stoned by NFL offensive tackles if he's always trying to win with speed on the outside. He'll eventually be relegated to a bit role.
These three edge rushers are my safe bets in the 2016 draft class. As with every position group in this series, there is a mix of top-rated prospects and others for whom I project a long NFL career without the early-round hype.
1. Joey Bosa, Ohio State: Bosa has been likened to a smaller J.J. Watt, but I think a more appropriate comparison is to Chris Long in his prime. Bosa might be more athletic than Long, but he's similarly smart and strong, and while rushing the passer isn't his best attribute, he could still become double-digit sack contributor, as Long was before injuries hampered his game. Even if he "only" gets 6-8 sacks per year, watch for this former Buckeye to be among the most well-rounded defensive ends in the game.
2. DeForest Buckner, Oregon: If you review the 2015 regular-season sack leaders, a few are longer, taller defenders like Buckner. As his body matures, his natural athleticism and aggressive nature to the ball will only become more pronounced. Buckner can play in any system, though his best fit might be as a five-technique on a three-man front playing a Calais Campbell-like role. His presence will only make pass-rushing linebackers better, which is exactly what you want from a top-rated prospect.
3. Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: I'm not sure if Calhoun will reach the quarterback on his initial rush very often at the next level, as veteran offensive tackles will likely carry him around the pocket. However, he's a very good all-around player who won't be pushed around and will give second or third efforts to bring down passers waiting too long to unload the ball. Defenses looking for an Andre Branch- or Kony Ealy-type should take a look at Calhoun in the second round.