Richner: 2015 Pass Rushers

Last Updated: 2/25/2016 7:35 PM ET
The two deepest position groups in the draft are wide receivers and pass rushers. This year's group of pass rushers has the highest overall ratings of any pass rushers I have graded out over the last eight years.

The pass rushers are split into two groups. The first group is for defensive ends, players who will play in a traditional 4-3 defensive scheme. The second group consists of outside linebackers who are suited to play in a 3-4 defensive scheme. This year's class for defensive ends isn't as strong from the top end of the spectrum, but it has depth and quality that can be found in the later rounds of the draft.

The defensive end position is filled with a handful of top-end, talented prospects who all have the ability to come in and be a starter for almost any team in the NFL. The top three players (Vic Beasley, Randy Gregory, and Dante Fowler Jr.) all possess the quick speed and production that warrant a top ten selection. Overall, this is a rare group consisting of players who have a wide array of skills and talents. In terms of depth at the defensive end position, there are 34 players that have a draftable grade. This means that a handful of players who have the abilities to contribute to an NFL team down the road will go undrafted.

One statistic that I like to incorporate is Impact Points. This is based on a formula I created that calculates a defensive player's point value based on total tackles, tackles-for-loss, sacks, forced fumbles, blocked kicks and their team's overall rush defense and pass defense.

I tracked and recorded for the 2014 season what the average snap-to-QB-hit time was for most of the players below. The snap-to-QB-hit time encompasses each player's time it took to record sacks, tackles for loss (on QB's only), and quarterback hits.

Outside Linebackers

1) Bud Dupree (Kentucky): With 36 starts, Alvin “Bud” Dupree was the captain and vocal leader of the Kentucky defense these past three seasons. This was a Kentucky defense that quietly became a physical group that flew around the field and was built around speed and attacking the ball carrier.

A finesse style player, Dupree was one of the few Wildcats who would rather run around a blocker than through him. He possesses tremendous speed and quickness for a 6'4”, 269 pound hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. He can attack an opposing quarterback or drop off into coverage. It's his initial first step and quickness that he typically utilizes to get after quarterbacks.

Though he has the frame and size, Dupree lacks the strength to fight through blockers and has a hard time disengaging from linemen once they get their hands on him. In 2014 his average snap-to-hit time was a blazing fast 2.32 seconds, a rate that is similar to what Von Miller posted his final year of college.

In 47 career games Dupree recorded 196 tackles, 36.5 TFL, 23.5 sacks, five PB, four FF, one INT and two blocked kicks. He had a total of 76 impact plays, an average of 1.62 impact plays per game.

Dupree had one of the best performances at the NFL Combine this year, posting in the top percentile in broad and vertical jump and the 40 yard dash compared to both the defensive ends and outside linebacker groups.

Dupree's ability to drop into coverage and run stride for stride with both a tight end and, in some cases a running back, was the most impressive part of Dupree's game. He put on 15 pounds of muscle during the past two seasons to become a better defensive end. His size and strength would match up well against bigger, stronger tight ends. He could also be used in different sub-packages as a pass rusher.

Overall Dupree's versatility is what separates him from the rest of the outside linebacker core. He is a three-down outside linebacker who can do a bit of everything at an exceptional level. Playmakers on defense are hard to come by and there might not be a bigger one in this draft class than Dupree. He is a quality leader and a workhorse type of player who can make an impact on every down and be a key contributor on special teams. Look for Dupree to be a first round pick.

2) Max Valles (Virginia): Though Bud Dupree was the solid, consistent starter, Max Valles is the energetic youngster who is more raw than refined, but has shown already that he is a force to be reckoned with. With only 22 games played, the redshirt sophomore
decided to declare for the NFL Draft even though he lacks technique and the refined skill set as an outside linebacker.

At the NFL Combine, Valles measured in at 6'5” and 251 pounds, a long lean frame that could put on more weight if called upon. He plays at a consistent level, he's shown a relentless pursuit for the football, and he will chase down ball carriers from behind.

In terms of technique, Valles lacks the refined skill set most pass rushers with this high of ranking would have. What he does show is speed and quickness off the edge that can beat most unsuspecting tackles. He showed a consistent ability to dip and bend around the corner and quickly get upfield to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. His average snap-to-QB hit time for 2014 was 2.67 seconds.

Another skill set that makes Valles such an attractive prospect is his ability to read opposing quarterbacks in pass protection. With uncanny timing, he displayed the ability to swat down a number of passes at the line of scrimmage during the past two seasons.
In 22 career games Valles recorded 55 tackles, 18 TFL, 12 sacks, 12 PB, four FF, and one interception. His pass breakup total is tied for second highest in this draft class amongst all outside linebackers. Valles had a total of 47 impact plays, an average of 2.14 impact plays per game, second highest amongst all outside linebackers.

While still a player who relies more on his athletic ability to overpower or run around his opponents, Valles is still a capable outside linebacker who can drop into coverage and defend. He is a raw talent who might need a season or two to grow and develop into the prospect that most scouts believe he can be. Valles is probably not a first or second day selection, but a team who is willing to put in the time and development with him could get themselves the steal of the draft.

3) Hau'oli Kikaha (Washington): Kikaha is a premier outside linebacker who offensive coordinators across college football will be glad to see embark on his career into the NFL. Kikaha finished tied for third amongst all FBS players with 13 sacks in 2013 and he led all FBS players in 2014 with 19 sacks.

A sackmaster coming off the edge for the Huskies, Kikaha is one of the fastest players coming off the edge in this draft class. He is a smart player who doesn't just rely on beating his man to the corner, but will set up his opponents instead. In terms of technique, he has a good inside spin move, chop and shed block, and he can dip his shoulder and get underneath an opposing blocker.

A number of Kikaha's sacks during the past two seasons came on inside stunt plays; he is able to utilize his quickness and agility to slip past interior offensive lineman. He won't put his blocker on skates and drive him backwards. While he lacks the strength to drive his man back into the pocket, Kikaha won't lose his ground and can hold his edge and force the traffic back towards the middle of the field.

In 43 career games Kikaha recorded 172.5 tackles, 51 TFL, 35.5 sacks, six PB, and seven forced fumbles. He had a total of 99.5 impact plays, an average of 2.31 impact plays per game.

In terms of who is the best outright pass rusher in this draft class, it is a tie between Kikaha and Vic Beasley (Clemson). Kikaha hasn't shown the consistent ability to drop into coverage. Part of the reasoning behind that was that he was so dangerous rushing the passer, his coaches didn't want their top defensive playmaker dropping into coverage.

Kikaha has dealt with injuries throughout his college career. He has had two torn ACLs with the last one being in 2012 and he missed extended game time in 2014 due to various nagging injuries. These injuries don't appear to have any effect on his speed as Kikaha had a snap-to-QB hit time of 2.79 seconds last season.

Overall, Kikaha has been a productive force off the edge and a player who understands his role as a playmaker. With seven forced fumbles, most of those coming on strip-sacks, he has the foresight to go after the football and cause a turnover. He can be a catalyst on defense and a player who, if used correctly, can develop from a situational pass rusher into a full time starter in a couple of years.

4) Cameron Lynch (Syracuse): Another undersized outside linebacker, Lynch just might be the epitome of undervalued talent in this year's draft class. He wasn't invited to the NFL Combine and most scouts have labeled him as undersized and someone who doesn't possess the strength to hold up in the NFL. What Lynch has done is become one of the best outside linebackers in this draft, a player who is capable of rushing the passer and a top tier linebacker in pass coverage.

A leader for the Orangemen, Lynch is a fantastic athlete who set a number of weight lifting records at Syracuse. His Pro Day numbers place him near the top in almost all the events compared to other outside linebackers in this draft class.

At 5'11” and 226 pounds, Lynch is still being tagged as too small of a prospect to be successful in the NFL. In 48 career games in college, Lynch recorded 210.5 tackles, 32 TFL, 17.5 sacks, eight PB, four FF, and two INT. He is ranked seventh for most tackles and fifth for most sacks compared to other outside linebackers in this draft class. While Lynch may be undersized, he had no problem taking down ball carriers by himself. He finished second amongst all outside linebackers in this draft class with 176 solo tackles. Lynch finished his career with 63.5 impact plays, an average of 1.32 impact plays per game.

Lynch's instincts show up on film along with his ability to shed blockers and make himself small when shooting a gap. He can run over a running back or fullback when chasing down opposing quarterbacks. He relies less on technique and more on hustle and outworking his opponent for sacks. Lynch's average snap-to-QB-hit time this past season was 2.98 seconds.

Lynch is a talented athlete who has experience and can be a leader in the weight room, film room and out on the field. He can cover a tailback in pass coverage or chase down opposing quarterbacks. Lynch will have trouble with bigger, more physical tight ends in pass coverage, but so do a lot of other taller linebackers. He will most likely be a late day three pick, but based on his college production, I believe that he will be a valuable NFL prospect if given the opportunity.

5) Jake Ryan (Michigan): With a good frame at 6'2” and 240 pounds, Ryan is one of the stoutest, run-stuffing outside linebackers that have come out of college in the last few years. He is a jack-of-all-trades type of player who can do a little bit of everything and do it all at a high level. You can tell he is a film room junkie; with the anticipation and timing he flashes on film he can be described as a player who watches a lot of film of his opponents.

With 41 career starts and 46 total games played, Ryan has a lengthy resume along with the experience of a starter who has played special teams. This experience will serve him well once he reaches the NFL. Don't be surprised if he becomes a special team's captain in a few years.

Ryan pursues the football with relentless speed and power while running over, through and around anyone who gets in his way. With his anticipation and understanding of opposing offenses, he is well versed in route and play concepts and always seems to be at the right spot at the right time. He is strong enough to set the edge and drive his man into the backfield.

While he won't win any pass rushing competitions, Ryan's play against the run and his ability to drop into coverage and not become a liability are why he is ranked this high. For his career he recorded 217 tackles, 34.5 TFL, five sacks, seven PB, eight FF, and one interception. He amassed 55.5 impact plays, an average of 1.21 impact plays per game.

A sure-handed tackler, Ryan minimizes opponents ability to pick up extra yards after contact. Last season he allowed on average just 1.2 yards after contact. He does a good job of breaking down a ball carrier in space and won't miss a tackle once he gets his hands on a ball carrier.

Ryan is most likely a mid-round draft selection, somewhere in the 4th or 5th round. At the very least, he will provide solid depth and be a key player on special teams. With his attention to detail, don't be surprised if he is a long term starter in the next few years.

Best of the Rest (Outside Linebackers)

6) Tony Bell (Tennessee-Martin): Career impact plays: 83.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.86

7) Lorenzo Mauldin (Louisville): Career impact plays: 65.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.34

8) Chi Chi Ariguzo (Northwestern): Career impact plays: 48.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.01

9) Martrell Spaight (Arkansas): Career impact plays: 19.5: Impact plays per game average: .89

10) D.J. Alexander (Oregon State): Career impact plays: 24: Impact plays per game average: 1.14

11) Cole Farrand (Maryland): Career impact plays: 31: Impact plays per game average: .69

12) Stephon Sanders (SMU): Career impact plays: 61.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.26

13) Dyshawn Davis (Syracuse): Career impact plays: 56.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.15

14) Zaire Anderson (Nebraska): Career impact plays: 30: Impact plays per game average: 1.07

15) J.R. Tavai (USC): Career impact plays: 41.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.06

16) Tony Washington (Oregon): Career impact plays: 51: Impact plays per game average: 1.0

17) Kwon Alexander (LSU): Career impact plays: 25.5: Impact plays per game average: .80

18) Houston Bates (La. Tech): Career impact plays: 52.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.077

19) Alani Fua (BYU): Career impact plays: 41.5: Impact plays per game average: .94

20) David Helton (Duke): Career impact plays: 21: Impact plays per game average: .43

Defensive Ends

1) Vic Beasley (Clemson): As the leader for the nation's top overall defense, Vic Beasley was a pass rushing monster during his college career. Clemson's defense allowed an NCAA best of 4.03 yards per play this season and only 260 YPG.

When watching his game film, the first thing you notice is that Beasley is routinely the first guy moving at the snap of the ball, on offense or defense. Whether its timing or anticipation, his initial reaction time has to be one of the fastest in college football.

In 48 career games played Beasley recorded 81 tackles, 52.5 TFL, 33 sacks, nine PB, and seven forced fumbles. He had a total of 101.5 impact plays, an average of 2.11 impact plays per game.

At 6'3” and 246 pounds, Beasley relies on his speed and quickness over power and strength to apply pressure. Beasley's size and his difficulty in separating himself from an offensive lineman are what worry scouts.

Against South Carolina earlier this season, Beasley was matched up against Corey Robinson who stands 6'7” and 324 pounds. South Carolina ran at Beasley's gap responsibility a total of nine times, resulting in 29 yards, with an average of 3.2 YPC. A decent performance, but Beasley's linebackers were quick to fill the hole that was vacated by him getting shoved out of the way by Robinson.

Without the ability to set the edge and become stout against the run, Beasley might be a liability against the run early in his career.

With 33 career sacks to his resume, Beasley is one of the best pure pass rushers to come out of college in the last few years. There have been conversations with a few teams on converting him to a 3-4 outside linebacker, but with his skill set Beasley can be used in a variety of different sub-packages and as a situational pass rusher. His speed and short area quickness will allow him to make plays in the NFL.

For a statistical and scouting comparison, Beasley is similar to Von Miller when he was coming out of college.

2) Randy Gregory (Nebraska): With some players you know what you're going to get. With other players, you can roll the dice and either end up with nothing or strike it rich and get a perennial Pro Bowler. Randy Gregory is, by most accounts, a gamble. He has made bad decisions off the field which causes concern for some NFL teams, but his play on the field has been spectacular. There is no denying that Gregory is a pass rushing sensation that was capable of beating just about any left tackle in college football.

Gregory's biggest asset is his speed off the edge, capable of almost getting around the tackle without his opponent getting a hand on him. During one of the more impressive plays on his game tape, Gregory took a few steps inside on a zone read run. In most cases, the quarterback keeps the ball and is able to scramble for a big gain. Gregory displayed the quickness and agility to recover and make the tackle, allowing only a minimal gain. Few defensive ends in the country can recover as quickly as he can.

At 6'5” and 235 pounds, Gregory has the versatility to line up as a traditional 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker, which will allow him to move up to the top of most team's draft boards. He has the athleticism, speed and quickness that most teams covet from a premier pass rusher.

A former JUCO transfer, Gregory doesn't have the depth of experience but his first two seasons have been nothing short of remarkable in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 24 career games, Gregory recorded 90.5 tackles, 24.5 TFL, 16.5 sacks, four PB, two FF, two INT, and two blocked kicks. He amassed a total of 55 impact plays, an average of 2.29 impact plays per game.

The quickness and speed off the edge make him incredibly dangerous. Gregory has shown the ability to leap over a defender to attack opposing quarterbacks. His recorded snap-to-QB-hit time for 2014 was 2.31 seconds.

Gregory's off-field behavior is the major red flag for most NFL teams. Without the off-field issues and character concerns, Gregory would be talked about as a top-5 pick. He might end up there, or with the recent failed drug test at the combine, he could slide down to the later part of the first round.

His long, lean frame gives teams some worry about Gregory's ability to be a three-down lineman who can hold his ground against the rush. He does a good job at disengaging from his blockers and he showed consistently that he won't quit on a play. He might need to bulk up a few extra pounds, as long as it doesn't take away from his game speed.

Gregory is built similar to Aldon Smith who also only played a couple of seasons of college football. Like Smith, Gregory could be used initially as a situational pass rusher to start his career. Teams will be hoping to get the production similar to Smith, but without the off-field headaches.

3) Dante Fowler Jr. (Florida): A physical freak who is reminiscent of former Florida Gator Jevon Kearse, Dante Fowler Jr. is one of, if not the best, pass rusher in college football. At 6'3” and 260 pounds, Fowler Jr. has the agility and long arms that scouts routinely look for in a premier pass rusher.

He has the speed to get around the edge and quickness to beat his man inside. Fowler Jr. displayed the technique that is needed to win at the point of attack. He is capable of dropping into coverage or chasing down a tailback on the backside of a play.

Fowler Jr. rushed the quarterback from a two-point stance over 60% of the time last season. Opponents feared Fowler Jr.'s speed so much that he routinely forced his opponents into false starts hoping to beat him to the corner. His snap-to-sack time was an NFL caliber 2.41 seconds. There is no denying that he has the speed and quickness, which is rarely seen from a defensive end.

While the hype and talent have always been there for Fowler Jr., it wasn't until this past season when it all came together for him. In 2014 he recorded 8.5 sacks, and 15 TFL.

For his career in 37 games, Fowler Jr. recorded 106.5 tackles, 34 TFL, 14.5 sacks, two PB, and five forced fumbles. He amassed 55.5 impact plays, an average of 1.5 impact plays per game.

At 6'3” and 261 pounds, he has the size and stature to play a traditional 4-3 defensive end or he can be moved to outside linebacker in a 3-4. This type of versatility is what makes Fowler Jr. such an intriguing and valuable prospect in NFL circles.

In terms of scouting and statistical comparisons, he is similar to current Seattle Seahawks Cliff Avril. Fowler Jr. will most likely be a top-10 pick. While he might have begun to just scratch the surface on his potential, it might take him a season to adjust to the speed and power in the NFL.

4) Nate Orchard (Utah): One of the most impressive plays in all of college football showed up on Orchard's game film last season. Against Stanford, Orchard was battling against Stanford's left tackle Andrus Peat who has four inches and 67 pounds on Orchard. At the snap of the ball, Orchard buried his head into Peat's chest plate and bull rushed him right into the quarterback's pocket and came away with the sack. Any questions about Orchard's ability to hold his own and convert his speed into power ended there with his ability to just maul over Peat.

Making the most of his final season in college, Utah's defensive end Nate Orchard was one of the most dynamic playmakers on defense in college football this past season. Coming into the 2014 season, Orchard had a total of 6.5 sacks, 17.5 TFL and five forced fumbles to his resume. Orchard had a phenomenal season in 2014 finishing the season second in FBS with 18.5 sacks, 21 TFL and three forced fumbles. Showing a wide variety of pass rush moves, Orchard isn't a one trick pony, he will throw everything but the kitchen sink at his blockers to get around, over, or through them.

In 50 career games Orchard had 148 tackles, 39 TFL, 24.5 sacks, ten PB, and eight forced fumbles. He finished with 81.5 impact plays, an average of 1.63 impact plays per game. Orchard had a snap-to-QB-hit time of 2.77 seconds last season.

Though he shows good effort and the relentless ability to attack opposing quarterbacks, Orchard's strengths were often used against him last season. Opponents would run a number of counter run plays to his direction or quarterback read option plays. Often Orchard would bite on the fake and over-pursue the ball carrier leaving his gap responsibility wide open. Opponents were able to have a number of long runs against him this past season.

With his exceeding level of production this season, along with quality measurables, look for Orchard to be a possible early second round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft.

5) Markus Golden (Missouri): A junior college transfer, Markus Golden had to wait his turn with Kony Ealy and Michael Sam holding down the starter spots for the past two seasons. With the departure of Ealy and Sam to the NFL, Golden made the most of his opportunities this past season. Last season, he was one of the most efficient players on defense. Even though he played in only 40% of the defensive snaps, he still managed to rack up 55 tackles, 13 TFL, 6.5 sacks and eight PB.

A relentless pursuer to the football is how I would describe the style of play of Markus Golden. While some scouts use the term high motor, Golden doesn't give up on plays that are run to the opposite side of the field. Golden has chased receivers deep downfield to make a tackle. Most ends would give up deep pass plays, but not Golden.

The matchup against Texas A&M this past year proved to be a big test for Golden. He was matched up against right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, a likely first round selection and All-American last season. Golden more than held his own against Ogbuehi, beating him for one of his two sacks on the evening with an outside speed rush move that caught Ogbuehi flat footed.

Showing impressive speed at the snap, Golden was able to consistently get to the corner and get underneath the reach of his blocker.

At 6'2” and 260 pounds, Golden doesn't possess the long arms and stout run stopping ability of a traditional 4-3 defensive end.

In 39 career games Golden recorded 110.5 tackles, 33 TFL, 16.5 sacks, two PB, five FF, and one interception. He finished with a total of 57.5 impact plays, an average of 1.47 impact plays per game. His snap-to-QB-hit time for 2014 was 2.89 seconds.

Golden possess good balance and won't go down on initial contact; he is able to slip past his blockers and keep his feet when going through traffic. Golden's ability to go after the football when making a tackle make him a valuable prospect. He does a good job of getting his hands in-between the ball carrier and football to disengage the ball.

Golden is a quality player who might not possess elite physical skill, but he is a dependable player who brings pressure to opposing quarterbacks and is a complimentary pass rusher.

Look for Golden to be a late day two or early day three prospect.

Best of the Rest (Defensive Ends)

6) Lynden Trail (Norfolk State): Career impact plays: 110.5: Impact plays per game average: 3.16

7) Trey Flowers (Arkansas): Career impact plays: 83.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.70

8) Eli Harold (Virginia): Career impact plays: 56: Impact plays per game average: 1.56

9) Shane Ray (Missouri): Career impact plays: 52: Impact plays per game average: 1.30

10) Davis Tull (Chattanooga): Career impact plays: 108: Impact plays per game average: 2.25

11) Marcus Hardison (Arizona State): Career impact plays: 34: Impact plays per game average: 1.31

12) Cedric Reed (Texas): Career impact plays: 61: Impact plays per game average: 1.39

13) Zach Wagenmann (Montana): Career impact plays: 101.5: Impact plays per game average: 2.11

14) Ryan Mueller (Kansas State): Career impact plays: 73: Impact plays per game average: 1.40

15) Marcus Rush (Michigan State): Career impact plays: 85: Impact plays per game average: 1.57

16) Preston Smith (Mississippi State): Career impact plays: 63: Impact plays per game average: 1.34

17) Robert Singletary (UTSA): Career impact plays: 34: Impact plays per game average: 1.70

18) Mario Edwards Jr. (FSU): Career impact plays: 42: Impact plays per game average: 1.20

19) Henry Anderson (Stanford): Career impact plays: 54: Impact plays per game average: 1.15

20) Martin Ifedi (Memphis): Career impact plays: 64.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.40