There's a lot of great defensive talent in this draft class.
Cleveland's Denzel Ward, Miami's Minkah Fitzpatrick and Green Bay's Jaire Alexander are all high-level cornerbacks who can play multiple positions. Minnesota's Mike Hughes and Green Bay's Josh Jackson present as old-school aggressive cover corners. Chicago linebacker Roquan Smith sees the field with an eye teams don't generally get from a rookie. Denver's Bradley Chubb and Tennessee's Harold Landry project as edge-rushers with a ton of potential. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Vita Vea has ridiculous movement skills for a player his size (6'4", 347 lbs).
But when it comes to pure athletic possibility, there's no player in this class like Buffalo Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. If the Bills maximize what he can do from several spots, he has a great shot at a Defensive Rookie of the Year-level impact with his team.
The Bills went into the 2018 NFL draft at the end of April with the knowledge they'd have to replace two of their on-field leaders. Having lost linebacker Preston Brown to the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency and traded quarterback Tyrod Taylor to the Cleveland Browns, it was time for a new starting quarterback and a new defensive field general.
The Bills made perhaps the biggest splash of the draft when they traded up to take Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick, but their next move could provide the best dividends over time. Buffalo traded up with the Baltimore Ravens to acquire the 16th pick, and with that selection, it took Edmunds out of Virginia Tech.
Edmunds, who blew up the scouting combine by running a 4.54 40-yard dash at 6'5" and 253 pounds, is far more than a workout wonder. In three years with the Hokies (two as a full-time starter), he amassed 112 solo tackles, 33 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles.
While awareness issues show up in Edmunds' game—he's not always adept in coverage, and he tends to bite on play fakes too often—the overwhelming majority of his tape shows a player with virtually unlimited potential at the linebacker position.
That fits in well in an NFL in which linebackers are asked to do more than ever before; it's one reason the position has gotten smaller over the last decade. Only two of the inside linebackers in the 2018 draft class weighed over 250 pounds—California's Devante Downs and North Dakota State's Nick DeLuca—and NFL Draft Scout's three top inside linebackers (Georgia's Roquan Smith, Texas' Malik Jefferson and Iowa's Josey Jewell) all weigh less than 240 pounds.
What makes Edmunds special is he has every bit the mobility and range of those smaller linebackers in a bigger package. As one NFC regional scout told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein: "Good luck with your player comp on this one. They don't come like him. I don't think there has ever been a linebacker that has had his size and speed. You're better off comping him with a basketball player."
It's tough to make those comparisons, but Edmunds reminds me of Julian Peterson, selected 16th overall by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2000 draft. Peterson was similarly special in that he could rush the passer from the edge, patrol to either side of the field from linebacker depth and cover like a safety at 6'3" and 235 pounds. Peterson made five Pro Bowls in his 11-year career, doing everything you could expect of a linebacker and more. In many ways, he preceded the modern linebacker by a decade.
Edmunds has the potential to do even more and from a younger age. When the Bills drafted him, Edmunds was just 19 years old. He turned 20 on May 2, and though his inexperience shows on tape at times, he also has a family advantage. His father, Ferrell Edmunds, played tight end for the Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks from 1988 through 1994. His brother Trey played in all 16 games for the New Orleans Saints last season as a running back and special teamer. And his brother Terrell, a rangy safety, was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 28th overall pick.
"It's a big benefit because those guys, they can tell me a lot of things that I wouldn't know without them," Edmunds said of his family at the scouting combine, via Nate Atkins of MLive.com. "Guys that have been through that process—my dad, my brother went through it, I have a brother going through it now, guys that I can look to for advice is always good because I can talk football one-on-one with them, or we can all talk together.
"It helps me a lot having guys like that that have been through the process that can tell me what to look forward to, tell me things that I should work on."
Now, it's up to Edmunds to put it all together as a primary member of the Bills defense. That's where it gets interesting because head coach Sean McDermott and his staff have a player who can do more—and do it more effectively—than most linebackers.
"There's a lot that has to happen before [Edmunds] puts himself in that [starting] position," McDermott said last week before the team's rookie minicamp, per Nick Wojton of Bills Wire. "The No. 1 thing I'd say is that he has to earn it, and that goes for everyone on our roster. This is a place where we earn things.
"You'll see him out there today commanding the huddle, and that's a big part of the evaluation—a guy that, as a signal-caller, can come in have great command of the huddle. And then execute at a high level. There's a lot of work to do between now and the time when we name starters so—but Tremaine's another young man that I believe respects that. Respects what it takes to start at a level like this and in particular for the Buffalo Bills."
Edmunds projects as the team's starting middle linebacker, a position that has lost a lot of meaning in the last decade. With teams running more nickel and dime base defenses, linebackers are generally running to the weak or strong side, and they may be the only players at their position on the field for stretches. That requires tremendous versatility, and that's why Edmunds has to be exciting to his coaches.
At this point in his development, Edmunds' primary attribute is his closing speed, which is impressive for a player of his size. Against the Pitt Panthers in a 20-14 win on Nov. 18, Edmunds took down Jordan Whitehead (No. 9) behind the line of scrimmage. His combination of speed to and through the hole and tackling technique is too much for Pitt's offense to handle. If a team allows Edmunds to blast through the line without having a specific blocking plan for him, this will likely happen.
Buffalo will require Edmunds to take down running backs in the open field, and this tackle of Oklahoma State's Justice Hill is a fine example of his potential.
At the start of this play, Edmunds is standing up near the left slot, and Hill takes the ball to the right hashmarks.
Edmunds reads the play from the start, races across the field and drags down Hill. This is an impressive combination of agility, quickness, tracking ability and pure strength.
The tackling needs a bit of work—Hill gained yardage after Edmunds' attempt—but you can see what Bills coaches have to work with on a play like this.
Per Pro Football Focus, Edmunds led all college linebackers over the last two seasons with 121 stops, and this stop on a goal-line stand against the Clemson Tigers in September show how effective he is in crucial situations against the run.
The Tigers tried two straight runs with quarterback Kelly Bryant (No. 2). On both plays, Edmunds sifts through linemen, uses his athleticism to get in perfect position and prevents Bryant from scoring.
The Tigers signal-caller threw an incomplete pass to wide receiver Deon Cain on third down, and Clemson was limited to a field goal primarily because of Edmunds' efforts.
Edmunds' speed also shows up impressively when he's asked to cover downfield.
Here, in the Hokies' 10-0 win over the Virginia Cavaliers, he bails from linebacker depth as running back Jordan Ellis (No. 1) heads up the numbers to the left side.
Because Edmunds is so athletic, it's easy for him to track Ellis and match him step-for-step as quarterback Kurt Benkert (No. 6) overthrows his target. Edmunds didn't cover a lot in college, but he clearly has the nascent ability to run with just about any running back or tight end.
This blitz against Virginia shows Edmunds' potential as an edge-rusher.
Here, he moves from shallow linebacker depth and takes tight end Richard Burney (No. 16) around the edge, where Edmunds nearly gets to Benkert before the quarterback hands off to receiver Joe Reed (No. 2).
Edmunds is a potential edge-rusher who can get close to the quarterback even though he's not rushing from the line of scrimmage and only has a rudimentary array of pass-rushing moves.
With specific edge work and education in technique, Edmunds could be a real problem for opposing tackles as a situational pass-rusher.
It's this, and all his other talents, that makes Tremaine Edwards a rare prospect—the kind of prospect who could bring a Defensive Rookie of the Year award to Buffalo.