NFL Draft 2011: A Look at the Top Pass Rushers

Ryan Lownes@@ryanlownesFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2011

NFL Draft 2011: A Look at the Top Pass Rushers

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    Aside from good Quarterback play, rushing the passer may be the single most important aspect of today’s NFL. Like Cornerback, teams can’t have enough players that fill this role successfully. With demand extremely high for these players, many will be deemed worthy of very high selections.

    This year’s pass-rushing crop looks to have the potential to be the best and deepest in quite some time. The following slideshow will illustrate the ten best pass-rushing prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft.

1. Von Miller - Outside Linebacker - Texas A&M

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    INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 28: Von Miller of Texas A&M works out during the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 28, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Rarely will you come across a college Linebacker that flies around the field and gets after the passer like Von Miller.  The Aggies used him primarily as a blitzing Outside Linebacker, allowing him to put his speed and explosion in pursuit of the ball. As a pass-rusher he’s no one-trick pony; he is extraordinarily quick and can beat Offensive Tackles on the edge and interior Offensive Linemen alike.

    At 6’2 ½ 244, Miller possesses the size, speed (4.49), and burst to wreak havoc in NFL backfields. He’s very fluid in space for his size and can dip and bend with the best of them. If he can’t simply run around blocks, he beats them by slipping under them, and when engaged, he uses his long arms and hands well, even flashing an explosive spin move to disengage at times.

    He projects best in any 3-4 or 4-3 attacking scheme that will allow him to pin his ears back and get after the Quarterback. Some NFL personnel have even drawn the parallel between he and former Chief legend Derrick Thomas. Miller is a cinch Top 10 pick and may even be selected among the draft’s first five picks.

2. Justin Houston - Defensive End/Outside Linebacker - Georgia

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    ATHENS, GA - NOVEMBER 27:  Justin Houston #42 of the Georgia Bulldogs sacks quarterback Tevin Washington #13 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Sanford Stadium on November 27, 2010 in Athens, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    When watching SEC football, the speed of the athletes and quality of the coaching really stands out.

    No pass-rusher in the conference exemplified this to the extent of Georgia’s Justin Houston in 2010.

    Perhaps the most versatile pass-rusher on this list, Houston lined up at Right End, Left End, and Outside Linebacker for the Bulldogs. As a down lineman he explodes off the snap, does a nice job staying low to the ground, and keeps his eyes on the ball. He shows the ability to dip his shoulder, bend at the waist, and manipulate blockers on the outside.

    Opposing teams must be conscious of his location at all times, as he’s a player that’s equally as effective standing up and rushing the passer. He may lack great maneuverability and fluidity in space, but he plays with tremendous instincts and is relentless in pursuit.

    No matter where he lines up, his first step is one of this class’ best and his on-field awareness makes him a threat.

    At 6’3, 270 pounds, Houston possesses the size to be an excellent end in any Cover-2 scheme, but he’ll also entice several Linebacker-needy 3-4 teams with his instincts and burst. Expect him to come off the board some time in the Top 20 in April’s draft. 

3. Robert Quinn - Defensive End/Outside Linebacker - North Carolina

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    CHAPEL HILL, NC - NOVEMBER 07:  Thaddeus Lewis #9 of the Duke Blue Devils is sacked by Robert Quinn #42 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Kenan Stadium on November 7, 2009 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Had he played in 2010, Robert Quinn may have made the Tarheels a BCS Bowl-caliber team in the ACC.

    He fits the prototype for a great 4-3 Right End edge-rusher with the size (6’4", 265 pounds) and athleticism to be a star at the next level. Although a bit raw in terms of strength and pass-rushing moves, Quinn excels due to his terrific burst and recognition skills. He’s a very fluid athlete who bends at the waist, dips his shoulder to gain position, and changes directions remarkably well for his size.

    He uses speed and explosiveness to keep blockers off balance and is an absolute terror in pursuit. He possesses quick hands but could afford to polish up his technique to improve disengaging from blocks. The work ethic appears to be there, as he was one of the most relentless pass-rushers in college football in 2009.

    His best fit may be at end in a 4-3 scheme, but expect 3-4 teams to take a close look due to his speed and maneuverability in space. Don’t expect him to fall out of the Top 15 despite not having played this past season.

4. Ryan Kerrigan - Defensive End - Purdue

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    WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - SEPTEMBER 20:  Quarterback Dan LeFevour #13 of the Central Michigan Chippewas is tackled by Ryan Kerrigan #94 of the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium on September 20, 2008 in West Lafayette, Indiana.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    At the 2011 Senior Bowl, offensive linemen were polled by Denver Post columnist Jeff Legwold on which pass-rusher gave them the most trouble.

    The unanimous answer from the players was Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan.

    He had an incredibly productive career in the Big Ten and lived in opponents’ backfields. Though he may not be the best athlete on this list, he makes up for it with NFL size (6’4", 267 pounds), instincts, technique, and sheer relentlessness.

    He does a great job anticipating the snap and is very quick to move up-field. Though he lacks fluidity and maneuverability, he’s extremely effective in pursuit due to his closing speed, variety of counter moves, awareness on the field, and secure wrap-up tackling.

    He shows the ability to dip his shoulder and out-leverage blockers on the outside and has the quickness to beat interior linemen with his inside move, and does a nice job using his hands and will rip himself off blocks to disengage.

    He’s capable of playing in most 4-3 schemes at either Left End or Right End and should enjoy a long career as an effective pass-rusher. The 3-4 Linebacker talk is premature, however, and I think he is a bit too linear to work out there. I expect him to come off the board somewhere in the late First Round but could fall due to schematic limitations.

5. Da'Quan Bowers - Defensive End - Clemson

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    AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 18:  Da'Quan Bowers #93 of the Clemson Tigers against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on September 18, 2010 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    After failing to live up to lofty expectations during his Freshman and Sophomore seasons, the dormant pass-rusher within came to life in 2010.

    Da’Quan Bowers’s production soared this past season and he actually led the nation in sacks with 15.5. As one of the draft’s most coveted defensive players, he possesses the size (6’ 3½", 280 pounds) and rare athleticism required to be a disruptive force in the NFL for a long time.

    Though he lacks an elite first step off the snap, Bowers possesses top-notch recognition skills and incredible closing speed.

    He does a nice job controlling blocks with his hands and uses his eyes to track the ball simultaneously. He never gives up on plays and can be scary in pursuit due to that speed and acceleration. One of the class’ more versatile pass-rushing threats, he shows the ability to rush from either side as well as inside at 3-Tech.

    His best fit appears to be at Left End in most 4-3 schemes, though he could conceivably attract hybrid 3-4 teams as a potential 5-Tech. With recent injury concerns, it looks possible that Bowers could fall a bit further than previously thought; however, he’s still got the goods to be a Top 10 pick come April.

6. Nick Fairley - Defensive Tackle - Auburn

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    GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 10:  Nick Fairley #90 of the Auburn Tigers is congratulated by Daren Bates #25 on a sack against the Oregon Ducks during the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 10, 2011 in Glendale, A
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    It’s a bit of a surprise to see a Defensive Tackle on this list, but perhaps no player in the country gave offenses fits the way Nick Fairley did this past season.

    As a rotational player coming into the season, no one could have expected him to have anywhere close to the impact that he had in the Tigers’ biggest games.

    He’s blessed with terrific natural athleticism, quickness, and explosiveness for his size (6’4", 297 pounds). Few players these days play the game with the type of fire and physicality that Fairley does, as he often puts an exclamation point at the end of plays.

    He beats interior linemen with that burst and is extremely hard to block when he slants to the inside. He’s very active and even violent at times with his hand use and will rip blockers from his path. He’s your prototypical penetrator at Defensive Tackle, with all the talent necessary to translate his skills to the next level.

    He’ll be looked at primarily by 4-3 teams at the 3-Tech position, but it wouldn't be a shocker if a hybrid 3-4 team took a look were he to fall on draft day. Fairley will likely be a Top 10 pick.

7. Brooks Reed - Outside Linebacker - Arizona

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 05:  Defensive ends Brooks Reed #42 and Ricky Elmore #44 of the Arizona Wildcats celebrate after stopping the USC Trojans on the final play on December 5, 2009 at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. Arizona won
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    After playing four years in college at Defensive End, it looks like Brooks Reed is destined for a role standing up and rushing the passer at the next level.

    As a down lineman, he lacked the strength and power needed to be a dominant force. He made it very clear, however, at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, that he was quite athletic enough to make the full-time move to Outside Linebacker.

    In addition to possessing excellent speed for his size (6’ 2½", 260 pounds), Reed shows tremendous burst off the edge, along with the athleticism to dip his shoulder, bend at the waist, and get after the Quarterback.

    He appears very fluid in space and already possesses a small array of pass-rushing moves, including an explosive spin move. While lacking elite instincts, he is a hard worker and should flourish with the move to Linebacker.

    His best fit will likely come as a rush ‘backer in a 3-4 scheme, though a 4-3 team could like his fit on the strong-side, moving down to end on passing downs. He’ll come off the board in the late First to early Second Round range.

8. Jabaal Sheard - Defensive End/Outside Linebacker - Pittsburgh

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    CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 04:  Jabaal Sheard #97 of the Pittsburgh Panthers tackles Zach Collaros #12 of the Cincinnati Bearcats during the Big East Conference game against at Nippert Stadium on December 4, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Pittsburgh won 28-10.
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    In 2009, it’d be debatable whether Jabaal Sheard was the best pass-rushing end on his team; however, this past season he cemented himself as one of the biggest difference makers in the Big East.

    His anticipation of the snap is excellent and he fires out of his stance. He’s very active using his hands and displays several pass-rushing moves and counter moves, including a spin move to beat blockers to the inside.

    Though he lacks elite change of direction ability in space, Sheard demonstrates very good speed for his size (6’3", 264 pounds) and works hard in pursuit. His first step allows him to get blockers off balance and his quick hands allow him to disengage and eliminate would-be blockers.

    He shows the ability to dip his shoulder, keep blockers on his hip and out-leverage or out-run them on his way to the Quarterback. Displaying a good motor, he is an active player along the defensive front.

    He’ll likely draw the most interest from 4-3 teams, where he could potentially play Left or Right end. Many think there is a chance that 3-4 teams could covet him at Linebacker, but I think he will attract earlier attention as a down lineman. Expect Sheard to come off the board in the Second Round.

9. Aldon Smith - Defensive End - Missouri

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    COLUMBIA, MO - OCTOBER 23: Aldon Smith #85 of the Missouri Tigers in action against the Oklahoma Sooners at Faurot Field/Memorial Stadium on October 23, 2010 in Columbia, Missouri.  The Tigers beat the Sooners 36-27.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Image
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    In 2009, I’d often watch Missouri looking at Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, though one of their young ends frequently caught my eye. I soon learned the player that kept showing up on tape was then-Sophomore Aldon Smith.

    His build resembles that of a power forward at 6’ 4¼", 263 pounds, with vines for arms (35 ½”). Though he plays a bit too upright to threaten as an edge rusher, Smith has an extremely dangerous inside move. He’s violent with his hands and sheds blocks with a powerful club.

    He may not be the athlete that some originally had him, but he accelerates and closes fast in pursuit. His awareness and instincts are very good, as he tracks the ball well and gets his hands up into passing lanes. He’s able to rush the passer effectively both outside and inside, lined up opposite an Offensive Guard.

    He’ll likely be looked at only as a 4-3 Defensive End, but adds value as a guy that can move inside and rush the passer from the 3-Tech position on third down. Smith could go as high as the mid First Round, but I think he fits in the late First to early Second round range. 

10. Dontay Moch - Defensive End/Outside Linebacker - Nevada

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    INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 28: Defensive lineman Dontay Moch of Nevada runs a drill during the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 28, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    There may not be a more explosive pass-rusher in this class (other than Von Miller) than Dontay Moch of Nevada.

    The trouble in projecting him as an elite pass-rusher at the next level comes due to his lack of size (6’ 1½", 248 pouns) and physicality. He dominated the WAC as a Defensive End with an incredible first step and rare closing speed.

    However, Moch may lack the strength and size to be effective as an end. Likewise, there is doubt as to whether he can break it down in space and play Outside Linebacker. He is one of this class’ most explosive athletes and wowed scouts with a 4.44 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. There is some bend to his game, though he lacks instincts and does not appear very comfortable in space.

    Most 4-3 teams will probably see Moch as a down lineman in the NFL, where he fits at Right End in Tampa 2 or Cover 2 schemes. He’s sure to generate some interest from 3-4 teams at Outside Linebacker as well. It’s expected that he will come off the board between the Third and Fourth Round.