Top 9 edge rushers in the 2021 NFL Draft

It’s been quite a journey for the 2021 NFL Draft‘s top edge rushers. When the 2020 season began, the edge rusher class was mired in complete and total ambiguity. Almost nine months later, not much has changed in that regard. There’s still a great deal of subjectivity that goes along with evaluating the 2021 NFL Draft’s top edge rushers. We saw this on display when putting together our PFN Top 300 Consensus Board — these are the top nine edge rushers in the 2021 NFL Draft.

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PFN’s Top 300 Consensus Big Board was compiled using rankings from four draft analysts — myself, Oliver Hodgkinson, Dalton Miller, and A.J. Schulte. PFN’s Chief Draft Analyst and NFL Insider Tony Pauline also provided his rankings to be aggregated with the rest.

Eight edge rushers who did not make the composite top nine still received top-100 grades from certain analysts. Those edge rushers were Elerson Smith, Cameron Sample, Quincy Roche, Dayo Odeyingbo, Rashad Weaver, Joe Tryon, Payton Turner, and Patrick Jones.

9) Jayson Oweh, Penn State

If there’s an edge rusher who accurately encapsulates the wide range of opinions regarding the 2021 NFL Draft’s edge rusher group, it’s Jayson Oweh. The Penn State product received an average ranking of 74.0, but his individual rankings were all across the board. His highest ranking was 38, while his lowest was 115, comfortably outside the top 100.

It’s not difficult to see why Oweh is so perplexing. He’s a quantifiably elite athlete. At his pro day, he earned a Relative Athletic Score of 9.92, with a 4.37 40-yard dash, a 39.5-inch vertical, a 134-inch broad jump, and a 6.9 three-cone at 6-foot-5, 257 pounds. He also has elite length with 34.5-inch arms. From a raw traits standpoint, Oweh has a potentially dominant physical makeup.

Unfortunately, that’s where the positives start to diminish. Oweh’s hand placement and power are both severely underdeveloped traits, and he struggles to stack rush moves against offensive tackles. Oweh still hasn’t proven he can hone his traits with any semblance of consistency. However, his upside alone will boost his stock tremendously and possibly elevate him into Round 1.

8) Jordan Smith, UAB

This might be one of the more surprising names on this list, but Jordan Smith earned consistently high marks from the PFN team. His lowest ranking was 85 and his highest was 49. Overall, he received three top-60 grades and averaged out at 66.2. An EDGE/linebacker hybrid, Smith was an extremely productive player in college, and he’s long been referenced as a potential Round 2 pick by Pauline.

One of Smith’s most marketed traits is his athleticism. He didn’t test quite as well as expected at his pro day, but his athletic skill set was on full display at the Senior Bowl in January.

Smith has the ability to play off the ball. Nonetheless, at the Senior Bowl, his primary use was as an edge rusher, and he flourished against top-tier competition. He showed off impressive burst, bend, and tenacity with his 6-foot-6, 264-pound frame, and he left the event as a consensus riser.

Given his long, lean frame, Smith likely projects best as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He has the explosiveness to get around the edge, but he also has some experience in coverage moving around the second level. Ultimately, Smith’s versatility can be seen as a strength, and with the right team, he could break out on the NFL stage.

7) Gregory Rousseau, Miami

Ahead of the 2020 season, many had Gregory Rousseau penciled in as the top edge rusher of the 2021 NFL Draft. His production enamored onlookers by the dozen. However, as more and more evaluators took a look at his tape, a disconnect was formed. On PFN’s Top 300 Consensus Board, Rousseau only has one Top 30 ranking, and two analysts ranked him outside the Top 60.

Rousseau’s decision to opt out cost him a valuable opportunity to keep developing, but his pro day might have been what truly deflated his stock. There, Rousseau’s lack of elite athleticism was reinforced. He measured in big as expected, with a 6-foot-7, 266-pound frame. Nevertheless, Rousseau’s explosiveness numbers thoroughly underwhelmed, as did his agility scores.

Despite his falling stock, Rousseau has some upside. He’s incredibly long and rangy, and he can wrench open rushing lanes with his wingspan. On the other hand, I don’t see a particularly lucrative future for him at edge rusher since he doesn’t have great burst or bend.

I think Rousseau’s best role in the NFL would be at three-technique or inverted four-technique. His best rushing reps came on the interior in college. Thus, as a versatile hybrid EDGE/interior player, he has lots of appeal.

6) Carlos Basham Jr., Wake Forest

Another edge rusher who was already highly rated coming into 2020 was Carlos Basham Jr. Basham was a top-notch producer over his three-year starting career. His rankings on the PFN Top 300 Consensus Board were similarly steady. Basham’s range ran from 29 to 64, and his rankings averaged out to a healthy 49.

I was the lowest on Basham, mainly because I didn’t see top-end athletic traits on tape. I still think he needs to play to his athletic upside more consistently, but his pro day numbers really opened my eyes. At 6-foot-3, 272 pounds, Basham logged a 4.62 40-yard dash, a 34-inch vertical, and a 122-inch broad jump. Altogether, he earned an excellent Relative Athletic Score of 9.38.

In my opinion, Basham can still glean more consistency from his athletic traits on the edge. However, as it stands, he’s already a solid run defender.

Basham also has some inside/outside versatility on the defensive line. Particularly at the Senior Bowl, he flashed a lot as an interior lineman. Thus, his best fit might be on a team that utilizes multiple fronts. But wherever he goes, Basham has the traits to be a steady, if unspectacular, starter for years on end.

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Now we move on to the top five. There’s a noticeable uptick in quality from this point forward, and the PFN Top 300 Consensus Board reflected that. Between the average rankings of the fifth and sixth-ranked edge rushers, there is a gap of 12.6. The top five edge rushers in the 2021 NFL Draft are on a bit of an island, and that’s not by accident.

5) Joseph Ossai, Texas

Joseph Ossai transitioned from an off-ball role to edge rusher in 2020, and the results were outstanding. Ossai earned 5.5 sacks in nine games, along with 15.5 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles, and 2 pass deflections. His abrupt ascension earned him some of the most uniformly high rankings on PFN’s Top 300 Consensus Big Board. Ossai’s rankings ranged from 30 to 41 — a potential first-rounder for each analyst.

The athletic upside is extremely enticing with Ossai. He’s one of the most explosive, hair-raising edge rushers in this class. At his pro day, Ossai logged a 4.63 40-yard dash, a 41.5-inch vertical, and a 131-inch broad jump at 6-foot-4 and 256 pounds. In addition, Ossai has excellent proportional length with 34-inch arms.

Ossai’s combination of athleticism and length is elite, and he also brings a red-hot motor on the football field. He comes off the line of scrimmage with blistering heat, and at the point of attack, his length gives him immense potential energy. Ossai can still get stronger and improve his hand usage, but he has the burst, urgency, and bend capacity to be a potentially devastating pass rusher.

4) Ronnie Perkins, Oklahoma

Ossai and Ronnie Perkins were close on the PFN Top 300 Consensus Big Board, but three top-20 rankings gave Perkins the edge over Ossai. I was the only analyst who had Ossai ranked over Perkins. Still, even I can’t deny that Perkins brings a ton of potential to the NFL level and offers a similar safety net with his attitude as a rusher. In fact, A.J. had him as his top EDGE, and there are legitimate reasons for that.

The physical traits don’t quite pop off the page with Perkins, however. He’s only around 6-foot-3, 253 pounds. He also has a wingspan under 80 inches, which might hurt him against NFL offensive linemen. Furthermore, Perkins didn’t test as an elite athlete, with just a 4.71 40-yard dash and a 32-inch vertical at his size.

Nevertheless, Perkins is absolutely relentless off the line, and his game is noticeably more defined than Ossai’s. Perkins has better hand power and precision, and his shorter frame does allow him to get inside the body of offensive tackles. He’s also more explosive than his testing numbers indicate.

Perkins might fit best as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and his upside as a run defender might be limited. Still, Perkins can provide a big boost to an NFL team’s pass rush, and he can do so early in his career.

3) Kwity Paye, Michigan

Most draft classes have a tangible top tier at the edge position, but none of the top edge rushers in the 2021 NFL Draft separate across the board. Case in point: Kwity Paye.

Paye was the top-rated edge rusher for two analysts, but his rankings fluctuated widely for the other three. For two analysts, he was the fifth-ranked edge rusher and ranked fourth for the third. His range went from 12 to 47.

Like Perkins, Paye has below-average length. His 33-inch arms are decent, but his 78.5-inch wingspan isn’t ideal. Nevertheless, I feel more confident about Paye’s athletic makeup. At his pro day, he measured in around 6-foot-3, 261 pounds, with a 4.57 40-yard dash, a 35.5-inch vertical, and a 118-inch broad jump, as well as a whopping 36 bench reps.

Paye’s physical profile reminds me a bit of Carl Lawson, who just signed a lucrative deal with the New York Jets in free agency. Only I think Paye is an even better athlete.

Perkins is more refined with his hands at this point. Yet, Paye is more dense, more explosive, and more scheme-versatile. He also brings violence with his hands. He needs to improve his precision and timing to be an exceptional threat on the edge.

2) Azeez Ojulari, Georgia

Somehow, Azeez Ojulari wasn’t the top-ranked edge rusher by any analyst but still managed to come in ahead of two edge rushers who received first-place votes. Ojulari is one of just two edge rushers ranked inside the top 30 by all five analysts. Pauline had him highest at 16 overall, and three other analysts ranked him no lower than 24.

Among the top edge rushers in 2021, Ojulari was one of the most productive during the 2020 season, concluding his collegiate career with a dominant three-sack outing in the Peach Bowl. Ojulari tested in the elite tier at Georgia’s Pro Day with a 4.63 40-yard dash, a 127-inch broad jump, and 26 bench reps with arms over 34 inches long.

While other smaller edge rushers like Paye and Perkins have underwhelming length, Ojulari has incredible proportional length for his size. His combination of natural leverage and reach makes him a problem for taller tackles. Ojulari also shows off the ability to bend around the edge and multitask as he corners. He’ll also likely be relegated to a 3-4 scheme, but his combination of traits draws plenty of confidence.

1) Jaelan Phillips, Miami

If he can stay healthy in the NFL, Jaelan Phillips has a chance to come away from the 2021 class as the best edge rusher. Once the afterthought behind the massive reach of Rousseau, many have wised up to the potential that Phillips has. Consequently, he’s a popular pick for EDGE1, as our PFN Top 300 Consensus Board exemplified. Two analysts had Phillips as their top EDGE, and Dalton ranked him at 12 overall.

In truth, Phillips is the elite athlete many thought Rousseau was earlier in the draft cycle. At Miami’s Pro Day, Phillips earned a superb Relative Athletic Score of 9.87. Numbers that contributed to that score included a 4.58 40-yard dash, a 36-inch vertical, a 125-inch broad jump, and a 4.18 shuttle time at nearly 6-foot-6, 260 pounds.

On tape, Phillips confirms his athleticism. PFN’s top edge rusher in the 2021 NFL Draft moves with effortless ease in space and comes off the line with great explosiveness. Phillips can also stunt inside with his size, and he has quick, forceful hands to generate displacement. Phillips has the best combination of athletic upside and refinement in this EDGE class. Thus, it’s no surprise that he’s the top edge rusher on our big board.

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Ian Cummings is a Draft Analyst for Pro Football Network. You can find his writing here and his voice and face on Pro Football Network Daily. Follow him on Twitter @ian_cummings_9.

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