When it comes to top edge rushers, 2020 offers a great group of talent and upside, especially from the Big 10. These players include guys like Chase Young, A.J. Epenesa, and Yetur Gross-Matos. However, it appears that 2021 will be the year for the Atlantic Coast Conference. The top three players reign from the ACC, and while they appear less polished, they each carry an enormous amount of potential heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. These top-five edge rushers will be a force against opposing offenses in 2020.
Below, I will take a look at some of the better prospects at the collegiate level for the 2021 NFL Draft. The edge rusher position will be littered with first and second-round talent throughout and could even feature a few top-10 selections. This pool of top-five edge rushers is an exciting and explosive group that could change the landscape of the draft next April.
1. Gregory Rousseau – Miami (Fla.)
One of the real breakout stars of the 2019 season, Rousseau was a superstar defensive player last season for the Hurricanes. His 15.5 sacks during his redshirt-freshman season tied him for third in ACC single-season history with former Clemson great Da’Quan Bowers. Like Bowers, Rousseau is a long-limbed, athletic freak that is a regular in the opponent’s backfield.
Even for such a young player, he plays the run and pass efficiently, but excels in getting after the passer. He made a living in the backfield during the 2019 season, racking up an ACC-best 19.5 tackles for a loss. More than half of his tackles on the season came behind the line of scrimmage, as offensive lines and slower offensive tackles struggled to come up with an answer to stop the explosive freshman edge rusher.
👏The Nation’s Returning Sack Leader👏
He was only a RS freshman last season, and tormented offenses in the ACC. He finished only behind Ohio St’s Chase Young nationally with 15.5 sacks, and was T-7th in the country with 19.5 tackles for loss pic.twitter.com/JTrQBCJocy
— CFB Stats & Info (@CFBStatsInfo) February 11, 2020
His play and stature (6’7″, 253 lbs) are reminiscent of former Hurricane great, Calais Campbell. Campbell was a monster presence for the Hurricanes upfront from 2005-2007 before becoming a second-round pick and NFL Pro Bowler. The second round appears to be the absolute floor when it comes to the young Rousseau. Campbell was more of run-stuffer by nature, while Rousseau is a pass-rushing demon.
When Rousseau committed to Miami out of Champagnat Catholic high school, he was compared to another Miami football legend – former Miami Dolphin and Akron star Jason Taylor. The similarities are strong because of their long and lean build coupled with elite quickness. Both players also showed above-average strength and tackling ability, despite their ideal lack of bulk on the defensive line.
With his speed and length, Rousseau is never truly “out” of a play, and he displays a relentless motor when getting after ball carriers. He can also get into passing lanes and disrupt plays consistently while being nearly unblockable on passing downs. After missing the majority of his true freshman season in 2018 due to an ankle injury, he showed no ill effects in 2019 for the Hurricanes. The reigning ACC defensive rookie of the year and preseason All-American will team with Temple transfer Quincy Roche to form one of the most fearsome pass-rushing duos in college football next season. Rousseau’s upside is unmatched when it comes to his 2021 NFL Draft potential. If he continues at this pace, it’s easy to see Rousseau being selected in the top-10. He could even become the top defensive player and hear his name called as early as the top-five overall.
2. Xavier Thomas – Clemson
Xavier Thomas is a bit of a projection for the 2021 NFL Draft based on a decent amount of faith in his overall talent. The talented pass rusher recently appeared in the top-10 of Neal Driscoll’s 2021 Mock Draft. Thomas was a former prep star from the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, who came to Clemson as the number five overall player in the class in 2018, according to Rivals.com. He has 5.5 sacks through his first two seasons, but also has 16.5 tackles for a loss in that time. Even as a part-time player during his first two seasons, Thomas has shown tremendous promise and upside for defensive coordinator Brent Venables and the Clemson Tigers.
Clemson has experienced tremendous losses of front-seven stalwart players like Isaiah Simmons, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, and Christian Wilkins to the NFL in recent years. Therefore, Thomas will be a focal point of this defense as an every-down player in 2020. He will be heavily counted on to keep this defense elite and help the team get back to another National Championship game. Thomas should finish with double-digit sacks, and that would put him squarely in the mix as a top-15 draft choice and one of the top-five edge rushers available.
3. Carlos Basham Jr. – Wake Forest
The number three spot on this list belongs to one of my favorite draft-eligible players in 2021, Carlos Basham Jr. The Demon Deacon rusher showed great promise during his sophomore season but broke out in a big way during his junior year in 2019. He finished second in the ACC with 11 sacks to go along with 57 total tackles and three forced fumbles. Basham Jr. recorded 52 quarterback pressures in 2018 and improved to 54 this past season. He has an extensive array of pass-rushing moves and shows excellent discipline against the run. Basham Jr. also displays a relentless motor, as shown in this game against North Carolina.
One thing that is undeniable in all of his tape: Basham has a nonstop motor. Chase Young had a similar play to this earlier this year and he visibly gives up in pursuit in the flat. Not Carlos…he plays to the whistle. pic.twitter.com/gP6gxdgfce
— Jared Stanger (@JaredStanger) September 14, 2019
He was a consistent nuisance for quarterbacks in the Atlantic division and seems primed for yet another big year in 2020. Basham Jr. has the size and speed to fit into multiple defenses, and his scheme diversity will be a big plus to his draft stock next April. His best fit is a traditional end in a four-man front, but I have no doubt he could succeed standing up and rushing the passer. Basham Jr. would have been a late first-rounder in 2020 but could end up as a top-20 prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft.
4. Thomas Booker – Stanford
Stanford has been a factory for NFL-caliber edge rushers and linebackers in recent years, and Booker appears to be another strong candidate. Players like Henry Anderson, Trent Murphy, Solomon Thomas, and Blake Martinez are some past Cardinal players that have experienced success in the league. Each of these prospects was drafted in the fourth round or earlier and became starters in the NFL.
Booker is a former top prep prospect that has ideal size for an edge rusher in a four-person front. He plays the run well but also gets consistent pressure on the quarterback. Booker has made a decent impact despite a part-time role and finished fourth on the team with 50 tackles while collecting four sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss through six starts. He has the look of a potential top-50 pick with his best football ahead of him.
5. Tarron Jackson – Coastal Carolina
Rounding out this list is a small-school gem from the state of South Carolina who burst on the scene with ten sacks last year for the Chanticleers. Jackson was an absolute stud in the Sun Belt Conference in 2019 as he racked up 60 total tackles and ten quarterback pressures in addition to the double-digit sacks. He’s on the shorter side as an edge rusher at 6’2″ but is stout at the point of attack and is a relentless force on the defensive line.
Jackson is also extremely hard-working and always seems to find himself around the ball. He will make a ton of tackles in the NFL and could even find himself on special teams. PFN’s own Andrew DiCecco mentioned Jackson as one of the top 2020 draft-eligible players from the Sun Belt Conference. He instead opted to return for his senior season and has a chance to be a day two pick as one of the top-5 edge rushers in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Scott Gorman is a writer for PFN covering the 2021 NFL Draft. You can follow him at @sgormanPFN on Twitter.