The 2017 NFL draft class may be the deepest at the edge defender position since 2011, when the likes of Von Miller, Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Jordan, Muhammad Wilkerson and Justin Houston all entered the league at the same time.
The coming draft pool is a stark comparison to the 2016 class, which only featured two true college pass-rushers going off the board in the first round in San Diego's Joey Bosa and Buffalo's Shaq Lawson, and Bosa might be playing more as an interior player than as an edge defender with the Chargers.
Based on talent alone, it wouldn't be crazy to claim that there are double-digit draft-eligible pass-rushers who might be first-round picks.
Auburn's Carl Lawson, Alabama's Tim Williams, Texas A&M's Myles Garrett, Louisville's Devonte Fields, Illinois' Dawuane Smoot, Missouri's Charles Harris, Boston College's Harold Landry, Ohio State's Sam Hubbard, Alabama's Jonathan Allen, Tennessee's Derek Barnett and Rutgers' Kemoko Turay have all generated buzz in the spring before the 2016 regular season.
For the most part, Lawson and Garrett, both SEC edge defenders, are viewed as the best pass-rushing prospects in college football. For example, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked Lawson as his fifth overall player, the top edge defender in the class, and Garrett as his seventh overall player, his second edge defender in the class, during his May "early big board."
I agree with Miller's prognostication of Lawson being the top projected player at the position in the coming draft. Why? There are few pass-blockers who are NFL-caliber coming out of college football, and Lawson and Garrett went toe-to-toe with two of the three best bookends in amateur sports, with completely different results.
Neither Auburn nor Texas A&M played Notre Dame, which was led by left tackle Ronnie Stanley. But both played Ole Miss, which started Laremy Tunsil—once a potential first overall pick candidate—as its blindside bookend, and Alabama, which had Cam Robinson, whom Miller ranks as the sixth overall prospect in the draft and who is generally viewed as the only blue-chip offensive line prospect in the 2017 class.
Against those two opponents, Garrett really only made plays in space. Outside of one time that he "got" Robinson, he either blew by an offensive linemanatn the line of scrimmage or was washed out of plays. It's not that his presence wasn't felt; it's that how he won isn't translatable to the NFL.
As well-coached as Nick Saban's Alabama teams are, there are still miscommunications up front that lead to explosive athletes making more "splash plays" against them than they ever will in the NFL.
Outside of that one sack against Robinson, Garrett's impact in the passing game came mostly from tipping passes while in throwing lanes when unblocked. According to NFL Draft Scout, a site that does a good job at projecting measurables, Garrett is in the mid-6'4" range in terms of length. On paper, he's similar to Anthony Barr, the ninth overall pick in 2014 after Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack.
Barr was a long, freak athlete who was a bit of a finesse player, too. With a running back background in his past, the Minnesota Vikings elected to move him to an off-the-ball-linebacker role as a professional. Judging by the fact that Garrett easily gets reach-blocked by centers and loses open outside containment responsibilities, you'd begin to second-guess if the space player isn't better suited for a linebacker role, too.
During the draft process, Tunsil and Fahn Cooper, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the fifth round, both stated that Lawson, not Garrett, was the toughest individual they had faced in college football, per CBS Sports' Dane Brugler:
Tunsil and Fahn Cooper have both identified #Auburn DE/LB Carl Lawson as the best DL they've faced. If healthy, Lawson a future 1st rounder.— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) February 26, 2016
If you watch Lawson's and Garrett's battles with Tunsil back-to-back, you'd understand why. Garrett just didn't have the technique or leverage ability to pull off the pressures that Lawson was able to execute against Tunsil. While you'd think that length helps edge defenders, having long arms means a lot less at the position than being able to win the leverage battle.
One arm will always be longer than two. Because offensive tackles are human speed bumps, they need to use both of theirs, while edge defenders are only supposed to play half of a man, as they need to keep their outside shoulder clear, so they have the benefit of rushing with one arm.
Arm length has little to no value for pass-rushers, while being able to press a bookend up from underneath him has a tremendous amount of value.
Carl Lawson (EDGE-Aub) doing a very good job of winning the leverage battle against Dominick Jackson (UDFA-Redskins) pic.twitter.com/264LgCbLcw— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) May 21, 2016
According to NFL Draft Scout, Lawson is in the mid-6'1" range, which means he's likely going to get knocked for his arm length around combine season if his arms correlate to his height. Take that with a grain of salt, as we've seen him win against Tunsil with hand technique, and players like Clay Matthews and Melvin Ingram have blown out the myth of short-armed pass-rushers having poor NFL careers.
His arm length is sometimes a factor in making tackles in space, but in a more constricted professional game, that should be less of a worry.
For example, that was the biggest knock for the 5'11" All-American linebacker Chris Borland coming out of Wisconsin in 2014. Landing as a third-round pick with the San Francisco 49ers, Borland posted 108 tackles as a part-time starting rookie in his one NFL season.
Lawson's feet can beat zone stretches against athletic tackles and tight ends, while interior offensive linemen were able to reach Garrett. The Tiger has proven over and over again that he can also keep linemen off of his knees on cut attempts, which is the best indication of testing well at the combine.
At this point, to claim that there is no or little correlation between combine testing and next-level success for edge defenders is a lie—or at least a poorly educated statement.
He's athletic, but he's also "grittier" than Garrett at the same time. He's not a finesse player who will lose at the line of scrimmage; he'll take on blocks against the play-side tackle, fullback and running back to make a tackle on a quarterback.
In the passing game, he knows how to win the small games inside of the big game. If he's not in the backfield instantly, he can still take advantage of an offensive tackle's extended arms, using them like a steering wheel and bending around the lineman.
He also has the fluid hips to pull off stunts that make quarterbacks throw too early or with too much hesitation, like Garrett and Barr. On third downs, when he's allowed to pin his ears back, he simply wins with bend and a putback rip in one-on-one situations.
At the moment, Texas A&M's Garrett is an athlete who is able to live and die off of his physical traits in the SEC, while Auburn's Lawson is a notch below as an athlete but is an A-class run defender for his size and is well-versed as a pass-rushing technician. In many ways, Garrett is this year's Barr, while Lawson is like a more athletic Shane Ray.
Coming out of Missouri in 2015, Ray was limited as an athlete. Despite a turf-toe injury and a charge for marijuana possession added to his resume about a week before the draft, Ray was still drafted with the 23rd pick in 2015. Had Ray not been arrested, he may not have gotten past the Atlanta Falcons, who held the eighth overall pick in his draft. Even after the arrest, former NFL scout Russell Lande was told that Ray was going to be the Falcons' pick.
That's how highly Ray was thought of based off his technical ability alone, a trait Lawson is on par with. At the same time, Lawson isn't limited by athleticism or a criminal record like Ray was, so to rank him as the fifth overall player, as Miller did, might actually be low-balling his potential.
Lawson's biggest flaw will be injury status.
After breaking out as a force as a true freshman in 2013, the same year Auburn was three points from winning a national title, he missed his entire true sophomore season with a torn ACL. In 2015, his redshirt sophomore season, he sustained an early-season hip injury that limited him to only seven games, netting 17 total tackles and one solo sack for the campaign.
Despite flashing as an individual, between his injuries and teams sliding protections toward him, Lawson, a top pass-rushing prospect, has only added one sack to his name since January of 2014. That alone raises a red flag and is likely why he didn't declare after his third year in college football.
Point blank, when you turn on the film of this year's possibly historical pass-rushing class, Lawson and Garrett are the cream of the crop. When it was time for iron to sharpen iron in the SEC, Lawson proved himself against established tackles as a more dominant pass-rusher than Garrett, even if his college stats—which aren't indicative of NFL success—didn't necessarily say so.
As long as Lawson can prove to scouts that he can stay healthy this upcoming season, we're talking about a slam-dunk prospect whom all 32 fanbases should have on their wish list.