The college football season is a few weeks away, but that doesn't stop NFL scouts from surveying the landscape to see which players have the potential to emerge as game changers at the next level. As a scout for the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, respectively, I would frequently jot down notes and make preliminary lists of the top players in my region to help me plan my travel schedule for the fall. Although these lists were etched in pencil instead of pen due to the constant change in the evaluation process, the compilation served as a nice starting point for my draft rankings.
I will share with you some of my preliminary lists this week to help pinpoint which college players to track this fall. Today, we will take a long, hard look at some of the top pass rushers in college football.
1. Myles Garrett, Texas A&M, DE/OLB: The copycat nature of the NFL leads scouts to constantly search for the next "big thing" at marquee positions (quarterback, pass rusher, offensive tackle and cornerback), especially when a Super Bowl MVP (Von Miller) completely dominates the postseason from one of those spots. That's why scouts are poised to spend plenty of time this fall in College Station as they check out the most explosive pass rusher in the college game. Garrett not only exhibits cat-like quickness out of his stance, but he has a remarkable closing burst that allows him to gobble up quarterbacks from the back side. He also complements his exceptional speed rush with an inside spin move. With Garrett also capable of overpowering blockers with a bull rush or outworking them with fanatical effort, the 6-foot-5, 262-pounder is an absolute monster off the edge. As the Aggies continue to give him more reps from a stand-up position or as a "speed" defensive tackle, Garrett is the kind of pass rusher that NFL franchises build premier defenses around.
2. Jonathan Allen, Alabama, DE: It's hard to find a polished interior pass rusher with size, quickness and disruptive hand skills, but NFL scouts could find a crown jewel at the position in Allen. The 6-3, 294-pounder is a versatile 5-technique with a quick first step and swivel hips. He does a nice job of working his hands and feet at the line of scrimmage to slip into cracks and around the corner on pass-rush attempts. Allen's skills make him a disruptive force on the line, particularly when he slides inside to play over the top of offensive guards. He flashes "butt-and-jerk" and two-hand-swipe maneuvers that complement his finesse moves and leave blockers on their heels in pass protection. Considering the value evaluators place on "three-down" pass rushers, Allen is squarely on the radar of scouts heading into the fall.
3. Charles Harris, Missouri, DE: There's something about the "Mizzou Made" defensive linemen that have NFL scouts flocking to Columbia to pluck pass-rush specialists. Harris is next in line at Missouri after displaying an impressive array of moves as a speed rusher off the edge. The 6-3, 255-pounder combines explosive first-step quickness and outstanding snap-count anticipation with a series of finesse maneuvers that befuddle offensive tackles at the line.
In addition, he flashes a power-stab move that allows him to "walk back" blockers into the quarterback's lap. Although Harris needs to play with better leverage (plays too upright to have consistent success against NFL tackles) and give better effort against the run, he has a knack for getting to the quarterback off the edge. In a pass-happy league where knocking down the quarterback is the top priority, Harris will command a lot of attention from scouts if he continues to dominate in the SEC.
4. Derek Barnett, Tennessee, DE: It's uncommon for a pure power rusher to emerge as the team's most productive sack artist, but that's the case in Tennessee with Barnett. The Vols' "swing" rusher (inside or outside) bullies blockers on the way to the quarterback, exhibiting exceptional balance, strength and power. Most impressively, he displays strong hands and combat skills to win with an assortment of power maneuvers (butt-and-jerk, two-handed swipe and arm over) in tight quarters. While he lacks the quickness and twitch to run around blockers, he is able to net sacks off effort, technique and determination. Those traits are hard to find in some elite players, but coaches searching for blue-collar workers along the front line will quickly fall in love with Barnett.
5. DeMarcus Walker, Florida State, DE: Every defensive coordinator in the NFL wants at least one pass rusher with a power-based game and a diverse set of skills that allow him to play multiple spots along the line. Walker certainly fits the bill as a heavy-handed rusher with an array of power moves that make him one of the most effective inside-outside pass rushers in college football. He mauls blockers at the line with a series of aggressive combat moves (butt-and-jerk, dip-and-rip and two-handed swipe), but also uses an occasional speed rush to win off the edge. Walker uses similar tactics when positioned inside at defensive tackle to slip past interior blockers on passing downs. With a non-stop motor and a bit of a nasty side that most coaches covet, Walker could rise up the charts with another strong season.
Watch list: Carl Lawson, Auburn, DE; Deatrich Wise Jr., Arkansas, DE: Tim Williams, Alabama, OLB; Devonte Fields, Louisville, OLB; Lewis Neal, LSU, DE