NFL DRAFT 2021: GROUP OF FIVE EDGE DEFENDERS TO WATCH
By Rebecca Rennie
Summer scouting of the Group of Five resumes! These conferences are going to provide some exciting edge prospects for the 2021 NFL Draft. Take an early look at some of the names to know for the next draft class!
The Green Wave have been an improving presence in the AAC in recent years under Willie Fritz. The team success, including back-to-back bowl winning seasons, has been reflected in some quality next-level draft prospects. The 2020 class included two picks that could prove steals in hindsight in receiver Darnell Mooney and corner Thakarius Keyes. It will require putting together a strong senior season, but edge defender Patrick Johnson appears set to be a much earlier selection than either of his former teammates.
Johnson broke out in 2018 with a statistically dominant sophomore season. His backfield impact included compiling 16 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. While his production numbers dropped to 8.5 TFLs and 4 sacks last season, he was reportedly carrying knocks that slowed him down during the year. He continued to show flashes of the exciting traits that ought to translate well to the NFL level.
The former 2-star recruit has showcased a versatile blend of athleticism and physicality to create an impact in all facets of his play. He possesses the upfield burst and agility to threaten with speed off the edge and to dip-and-rip through offensive tackles. His rush style features aggressive intent and good power for his size. He consistently brings a strong motor and active hands at the point of attack.
Known as a film room junkie, much of the appeal with Johnson as a prospect lies in his well-rounded skill set. The Tulane senior shows good eyes and recognition, anticipation, and football IQ. Combined with his fluid movement and his lateral and backward agility, he looks the part in space and dropping into shallow coverage. There’s patience in his play versus the run, setting the edge well and hitting hard in the tackle.
Though Johnson has enough flexibility to win as an edge rusher, he could do with showing the ability to bend and turn the corner more consistently. His upper body technique is physical and improving but more defined rush moves and counters could unlock his unquestionable high ceiling. Putting together a dominant senior season could push the Green Wave standout into the top tier of edge prospects in 2021.
While Patrick Johnson’s stats took a dip in 2019, Malone’s numbers exploded. Leaving early for the NFL was an option for the Hilltoppers star but chose to return as a senior. His monster year included 99 tackles, 21 TFLs, 11.5 sacks and 16 QB hurries among his ridiculously good production. An energetic and twitched-up edge defender, Malone wins with quickness, hustle and pursuit. His usage from both sides of the line, 2- and 3-point stances, and comfort in space contribute to his impact.
As suggested by the stat sheet, Malone is constantly around the action and the ball on film. While his frame is relatively slight, his long limbs and movement skills provide avenues to success against more powerful opposition. The athletic rusher doesn’t feature notable strength to his game but showcases smart hand use to avoid or divert contact. Rush plans do not always look pre-planned but tries to switch up his attacks, string together different moves and use his twitchy dynamic movements to counter and redirect well.
The Western Kentucky standout has a tendency to jump upright out of his stance. His modest power is not helped by engaging into contact with high pad level. In spite of his obvious active game, there are times he can be washed out of plays and controlled. Often able to boost his numbers through his relentless motor, this could be a more common occurrence at the pro level. There are no issues with his commitment to run defense, however. Taking good angles to ball carriers, Malone impresses on the second level. Wrapping up with his long arms, he uses his momentum well as a tackler.
He may not be conventional, but the consistency with which Malone puts himself in positions to make plays is impressive. His excellent burst of acceleration off the snap can lead to some quick wins and early backfield disruption. His light feet and lateral shifts can make it difficult to lay hands on Malone as he works the edge. An optimistic comp for Malone could be a Yannick Ngakoue type as an upside projection. Another huge season could lead to Day 2 consideration in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Many of the prospects listed are not only great talents but helped by being a part of a team on the rise. Koonce and the Bulls are another to fit that profile. Buffalo made one of the most astute hirings in securing Lance Leipold from Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2015. The program has grown into a MAC contender, feature outstanding playmakers throughout the roster, and will see many of those stars as a part of NFL draft classes over the coming seasons.
Defensive end Malcolm Koonce looks poised to build on a breakout 2019 season. Part of a strong pass rush group overall, Koonce led the MAC in sacks with 9 last year. Already a popular sleeper name at this stage, he will become a more well-known prospect in draft circles should he make further progress as a senior.
The first step is nothing special, but the Bulls edge defender moves fluidly, aided by sharp footwork. One of the more polished and technically advanced pass rushers in this class, he plays with control and balance. His timing and execution of a wide array of rush moves sees him regularly exploit more raw O-linemen. Koonce plays with fantastic hustle and aggression that compensates for modest explosion at his size.
Given his evidently high football IQ, strong motor and competitive traits, Koonce can project well to the next level. That ought to include special teams units while he finds his feet at the pro level. The Buffalo pass rusher reads the run game well. He consistently shows fantastic play recognition, positioning himself accordingly. He’s not the most physically gifted but is controlled, flexible and well built for his frame, with good length. The Bulls should be a top GO5 school in 2020 and Koonce will play a big role in that success.
Though often overlooked as an FBS conference, the Sun Belt was an absolute blast to scout last season. The schools featured numerous talented prospected from improving and growing football programs. That looks set to continue with another fascinating group for 2021, including the next trio of edge prospects here. Coastal Carolina’s Tarron Jackson is the early personal favorite among the group.
As with several among this Group of Five edge class, Jackson is shorter than ideal for the position. However, his stout build for his size and explosive athletic traits provide the impetus for impact on the field. The Chanticleers defensive end has durability concerns, hampered by multiple injuries over his college career. His first two seasons in Conway both ended early, while his 2018 was hampered throughout by a leg issue. A breakout season followed in 2019, however. Johnson piled up 60 tackles, 13 TFLs, 10 sacks and 2 forced fumbles among his numbers.
Unranked out of high school by both 247Sports and ESPN, Jackson has far outplayed expectation. The edge defender features a powerful sturdy frame. Moving impressively for his build, Johnson shows effective upfield burst and changes direction well. His balance stands out in aiding him post-contact, working off blocks and winning with leverage.
His ability to win with either strength or quickness, and to switch up his attack mid-rush gives him multiple ways to win. Currently, he’s a work-in-progress in fully exploiting those abilities. Jackson’s technical application is raw at this stage. He is still developing his rush moves, combinations and counters. There are times he can dip his head and lose form as he engages, reducing some of his plus physical traits with how he executes technically. His balance and power compensate for unrefined and inconsistent hand usage.
Another area in which the Coastal Carolina prospect needs to show improvement as a senior is in run defense. Jackson is a better pass rusher than run defender at this stage, frequently proving a liability in the latter. He can often look lost, can miss assignments, get out of position and be exploited by the offense. The recognition, discipline and general consistency are not there as yet. There is plenty potential to improve, though. Jackson has the traits and power to work off blocks and is a physical finisher in the tackle.
While he lacks prototype length, there are clear positive traits and athleticism with Tarron Jackson. There’s untapped upside once his technique and positional IQ become more consistent. He ought to offer inside-outside versatility on the D-line and lines up from 2-point and 3-point stances. With another healthy, productive season and progress in run defense, Jackson looks the part of a mid-round prospect with an appealing ceiling.
The second of our Sun Belt edge trio, Taylor joined Jackson as a first team All-Sun Belt selection in 2019. His standout performance saw him dominate against good opposition in App State’s impressive win over in-state North Carolina. That outing saw Taylor put up 2.5 sacks, an interception and 2 forced fumbles, including returning one for a touchdown. His junior season overall included 44 tackles, 13 TFLs, 7 sacks, 4 PBUs and 3 forced fumbles.
Taylor is another of shorter build and ranks below Tarron Jackson in part due to lacking the same explosive athleticism. The upside and overall draft stock could be capped by some limited physical traits. That said, there is no questioning his outstanding football IQ and overall playmaking ability. His impact for Appalachian State is obvious, not only on defense but crucially on special teams also. That third phase play ought to aid him toward making an NFL roster.
Though Taylor has plenty to like, the first step and initial explosion isn’t the most dynamic. Where he does win is with his outstanding second phase work. Taylor stands out for his power and post-contact play. He consistently shows excellent use of pad level, leverage and balance alongside his punch and hand placement. Creating backward movement and working off blocks are areas in which Taylor excels. There’s a clear rush plan each snap, and knows how to unbalance opposing O-linemen and disengage.
Listed at 225lbs out of high school, Taylor has piled on bulk to his frame over the past few seasons. The result of that work has seen him develop from a 2-star recruit into a powerful next-level prospect. Though likely to have some limitations in space, his high motor stands out. His awareness and timing see him often make additional plays deflecting passes at the line. App State has produced some excellent pro prospects in recent years and Taylor projects as the next. Expect him to land somewhere on Day 3 of the draft.
Concluding our Sun Belt trio, Dillon looked like a potential star early in his college career. His redshirt freshman season in 2015 saw him make an immediate impact as the team’s leading pass rusher. His performances earned him freshman All-American recognition. With his long-limbed frame and athleticism backing up the production, there was plenty reason for optimism regarding Dillon’s future.
A devastating injury saw that projection derailed however, almost to the point where retiring from football seemed highly likely. Dillon’s sophomore season lacked the same impact of the previous year. It was not known at the time, but he had been playing through a partially dislocated hip. That turned into a serious separated hip injury and resulting surgery. Complications with dying tissue around the hip, the same that essentially ended Bo Jackson’s career, further clouded his outlook.
That Dillon is back playing again is a phenomenal success story in itself. That there is still the potential of a shot at the NFL is an added bonus. Playing through pain and the determination to work his way back onto the field speaks to impressive intangibles and character. Watching his 2019 film, Dillon can be a little tentative in his play style. He’s also notably rotating on and off the field fairly regularly over the course of games. It will be interesting to see if either of those notes continue with another season removed from the injury.
As mentioned, Dillon’s rush style isn’t the most aggressive on contact or post-contact, with minimal punch or drive. More of a finesse rusher, he wins by using his impressive length, along with quickness and agility. His reach and long strides allow him to soften the edge as he turns the corner. Tough to shut down, he uses good footwork and lateral agility to find some late pressures and hustle plays. He flashes the ability to dip and bend round the outside, though other times plays very upright. His flexibility and bend are at best inconsistent.
His ability to cover ground quickly works to his advantage in space and in pursuit. Using his length, Dillon is reliable as a tackler to wrap up effectively. His run defense includes good patience and vision as he sets the edge, making consistently good decisions. That said, there are times he can be controlled at the point of attack, get stuck in traffic or struggle to shed blocks. After 9.5 TFLs and 7 sacks in 2019, Dillon is poised for his most productive season as a senior. Whether the medical red flags will keep him from being drafted remains to be seen.
With a prototypical frame for a pro defensive end, it is easy to see why Jones will draw looks from scouts. The size, bulk and length in his arms are a solid starting point to work with and develop. Currently a better run defender than pass rusher, the D-lineman totalled just four sacks over his first two seasons for the Rams, before notching five last season as a junior. He will greatly help his chances of being drafted if he can make further strides in 2020.
In addition to his good size, Jones moves well, looking comfortable playing from a 2-point stance and covering ground laterally. However, as a pass rusher, there’s a relative lack of explosion that factors into his modest pass rush impact. Average upfield burst and changes of direction result in his fair share of stalemates against single blocks.
Jones plays with good physicality. His core strength doesn’t quite match his sturdy size but with his stature that can continue to improve. The Colorado State DE clearly understands how to make good use of his length. Locking out his arms he finds his share of success in controlling the action at the point of attack.
That ability contributes to his effective run defense to position himself to make plays on the ball carrier. He could be more consistent shedding blocks but flashes the ability to do so. Jones often stands out for his work in pursuit to the sidelines. Wrapping up well with good tackling technique, he’s capable of making plays in space. His 2019 statistical improvements included a healthy total of 54 tackles on the year.
With Steve Addazio taking over as head coach this upcoming season, there’s changes throughout the coaching staff. That includes the highly experienced Chuck Heater returning to the program as the defensive coordinator. Manny Jones should be a great fit for what Heater typically asks of his defensive front and base ends. Should the senior thrive under Heater, he could see his stock rise as an NFL prospect.
OTHER PROSPECTS TO WATCH
Raymond Johnson III, Georgia Southern: Slightly miscast as a down lineman in a typically 3-man front for the Eagles, Johnson is a difficult eval. At 6’3” and 240lbs, he fits better as a stand-up edge. That did not prevent him from earning first team All-Sun Belt honors in 2019, regardless. On the occasions he’s given free reign to rush off the edge he flashes nice quickness, energy and hands. Playing too upright, his pad level could improve. His battling qualities in the trenches really stands out against bigger bodied O-linemen.
Joe Ozougwu, North Texas: The 6’3”, 238lb stand-up edge defender is another without an ideal combination of measurables and athleticism. That said, he’s really polished throughout his game, both technically and mentally. He plays with good body control, defined rush moves and efficient footwork. He backs that up with smart positioning, gap integrity and reads versus the run.
Chauncey Manac, Louisiana: A transfer from Georgia, via Community College, Manac was a coveted 4-star recruit. He hasn’t matched that projection however, and the 2019 film didn’t particularly excite. Manac features a good build with solid power and length but a low energy, low impact game overall with minimal explosion. He does show ability to soften the edge as a rusher and to shed blocks in the run game. There isn’t a great deal of nuance or variety in his rush technique or counters, however.
Feature Image Credit: Coastal Carolina University.
CFB/NFL DRAFT analyst
Rebecca is an NFL Draft analyst focusing primarily on the FCS and Group of Five conferences, and a fan of both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Stanford Cardinal. You can find her other articles here and follow on Twitter @bex_r86.