Outside of quarterback, the next most important positions in the NFL are line-of-scrimmage defenders. If you look at the highest average salaries in the league, the top 32 contracts in the NFL are all either passers or some form of line-of-scrimmage defenders, either an interior lineman or edge-rusher, per Spotrac.
In a class where the quarterback pool is a bit volatile, and has only altered even more with the Clemson Tigers' Deshaun Watson's performance in a national title win against the Alabama Crimson Tide, it's quite possible teams turn to defenders early on in the coming 2017 NFL draft.
Luckily for them, this pass-rushing class very well might be the best we've seen since 2011.
In 2011, Pro Bowlers Von Miller, Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Jordan and Muhammad Wilkerson, who all spend time as rush ends or linebackers, were all selected in the first round, along with Adrian Clayborn, who showed promise before injuries stunted his progress as a professional.
When looking over this class, there could be as many as 10 first-round talents at pass-rushing positions, almost an unheard of amount of depth for any position in any draft class. If you're a team in need of a player who can put some pressure on opposing quarterbacks, you're going to be smiling at your draft board come April.
At the top of the board, there are two major names in Texas A&M's Myles Garrett and Alabama's Jonathan Allen. Garrett has been a pass-rushing star since he was a true freshman in College Station, and he's recorded more sacks as a true junior than anyone in college football history other than Derek Barnett of Tennessee, who is also in this draft class.
Garrett is a true pass-rushing prospect, who lined up both as a three-point defensive end and outside linebacker for the Aggies, and compares favorably to Jason Pierre-Paul in his prime, before back injuries and his incident with fireworks threw his career arch off. On the other hand, Allen is more of a defensive tackle than a linebacker.
According to Alabama's official site, Allen is 294 pounds, but the team still uses him as a base end in both 3-4 and 4-3 looks, though they are very multiple up front. If you're thinking about an immediate impact, Allen can give you similar production to a Kerry Hyder, who had a breakout eight-sack season with the Detroit Lions, right out of the gate.
Allen has a higher upside than what Hyder has accomplished, but that type of production early on, along with the ability to kick inside to defensive tackle on late and long downs, may have those two names compared often this draft season. That's not Alabama's only name in this class, though, as Tim Williams, another senior prospect, may also have his name floated around as a top-10 pick.
Williams only played situationally for the Crimson Tide, but his ability as a pure pass-rusher is evident when he's on the field. For a player who played in fewer than half of Alabama's defensive snaps in 2016, per Pro Football Focus, his nine sacks, 11 hurries and 38 quarterback hits are incredibly efficient.
He's somewhere on the Vic Beasley-Bruce Irvin spectrum as a prospect, and if Irvin, as a 24-year-old player coming out as an odd front end, was able to get drafted in the top 15 in 2012, Williams has a case to go as high, too.
Across the state at Auburn, Carl Lawson, another highly touted recruit turned SEC star, had enough of a college career to expect to be drafted in the first 30 picks of this class. Lawson missed his true sophomore season with a torn ACL, which is why he played with the Tigers through his redshirt junior season.
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
According to CBS Sports' Dane Brugler, 2016 first-round pick Laremy Tunsil, who played offensive tackle for the Mississippi Rebels in the SEC, called Lawson, not Garrett, Allen, Williams or Barnett, the best player he went toe-to-toe with in college. When you watch their 2015 matchup, when Lawson beats Tunsil with not just burst, but technique and hand usage, it becomes clear why Tunsil would make such a claim.
NFL Draft Scout has Lawson listed under 6'2", which is a bit of an issue, and his arm length reflects that. If you're talking about players who might be close to their maxed out form, Lawson is close to it for this tier of college pass-rushers. He's more of a Brandon Graham type of player than a 15-sack future All-Pro, but he's a safe bet.
After those names, there are three very interesting projects in this draft class. Solomon Thomas of Stanford is a redshirt sophomore who played more 3-4 defensive line than linebacker, Takkarist McKinley of UCLA is a 21-year-old junior college transfer with the athleticism of a DeMarcus Ware, and Charles Harris of Missouri went from an unlisted recruit to possibly the best one-move player in this class.
Thomas is a very up-and-down player, looking like a top-five pick against the likes of UCLA and North Carolina this year but vanishing against teams like Arizona during the Pac-12 slate. He's a young player, and he played almost every down for the Cardinal, but the 275-pounder, per NFL Draft Scout, has the potential to translate his 8.5-sack 2016 to a 8.5-sack 2017, if he gets the right coaching.
If you watch McKinley in the right game, like against Utah, you think the aliens have landed. His athleticism is not of this Earth, but he has the pad-level issues of a Paul Kruger, and that will make him a boom-bust type of prospect at the next level. A week at the Senior Bowl this January is going to be big for his NFL projection, one way or another.
Harris transitioned defenses in 2016 after returning to school as a redshirt junior, and he was held back a bit by a tackle-read defense before they adjusted on the defensive line. He has the best burst off the line of scrimmage in the draft, but he doesn't have a pass-rushing move other than an inside spin to counter against offensive tackles when they cheat outside, fearing his ability off the snap.
If he can find a way to set up that move better in the NFL, he can be the best Missouri defensive end to play in the league since Smith. All three of these players have the ability to be Garrett-like in terms of their peaks, but they need more work to get there.
Even after those high-upside players, there are still three more names in the running for first-round consideration, and they're players whom you will see all over mock drafts over the next four months. They are Malik McDowell of Michigan State, Barnett and Taco Charlton of Michigan.
McDowell played some nose tackle at Michigan State, like Thomas did at Stanford, and like Allen may end up being more of a defensive tackle prospect than a true pass-rusher. NFL Draft Scout lists McDowell at over 6'5" and just 276 pounds, though, and with his length and that weight, it's going to be hard to project him as a full-time player on the defensive interior.
He's played some defensive end throughout, and he has solid bend for a prospect of his size. In some ways, he's a lot like a DeForest Buckner type of prospect, who fits much better as a true 3-4 defensive end, a position that is going the way of fullbacks on the other side of the ball, but with more pass-rushing ability than Buckner had coming out.
Barnett is one of the more productive players in college football in recent years, as he's posted 32 career sacks and 52 career tackles for a loss. He's a player who lives off of a consistent, slow-churning bend and jumps the snap, though.
In the NFL, when he'll be playing in front of smaller, mixed crowds than he did in Tennessee's 102,455-capacity Neyland Stadium, it will be harder for him to earn as much of an advantage as a snap-jumper, as crowd noise will be less of a factor. When teams go into silent counts, because the crowd is loud in long or late downs, linemen can jump the snap by timing when a center "nods" his head.
That is how Barnett often wins, and it's why he is often called offsides. According to Pro Football Focus, Barnett led edge defenders in both called and accepted penalties in the 2016 season. There's legitimate concern for his NFL transition, but the way in which he wins, and how often he wins, is consistent on a game-to-game basis.
Charlton is a player who is receiving recent hype because of how he took over against the Ohio State Buckeyes in his final regular-season game of his career. Earlier on in the season, Charlton was visibly altered by playing through injuries, but his second half of the year included some of the best tape of anyone in the class.
According to NFL Draft Scout, he's listed around 6'5" and 272 pounds, which puts him in the range of a 3-4 defensive end, depending on what he wants to weigh in at the combine. He's a strong run defender who can burst and spin as a pass-rusher, and there isn't a defense in the league that he doesn't fit with. His flexibility will be his biggest trait moving forward.
Other names, like seniors DeMarcus Walker of Florida State, Ryan Anderson of Alabama, Haason Reddick of Temple and Devonte Fields of Louisville don't even crack the conversation right now. Underclassmen like Penn State's Garrett Sickels, Wisconsin's T.J. Watt and former Miami Hurricane Al-Quadin Muhammad are treated like afterthoughts.
Of the big names in college football, the only top pass-rusher who is returning for his senior season is Boston College's Harold Landry, who recorded 16.5 sacks this past season. With so many underclassmen declaring, after so many returned last season, the 2017 draft class really is like having two seasons of prospects in terms of top pass-rushing potential.
There's no excuse for coming out of Day 1 with a massive hole at the position this year.