NFL draft's deep class of pass-rushers begins to take shape

Montez Sweat was one of the standout pass-rushers at the Senior Bowl. John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports

MOBILE, Ala. -- Heading into last year's NFL draft, teams found themselves squinting really hard to find difference-making edge rushers after NC State's Bradley Chubb.

That isn't the case with the Class of 2019 pass-rushers, a group flush with talent. The early read on this year's class is that there will be no shortage of options come late April.

How deep is this year's class of edge rushers? ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has three defensive ends or outside linebackers ranked in his top six, four in his top nine and seven in his top 32. If you include interior players, McShay has eight projected defensive linemen in his top nine and 12 in his top 32.

Fellow ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s big board offers a similar breakdown with seven edge rushers in his top 25 and seven in his top 19. As one AFC scout said at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, this year's draft class is "like a buffet of pass-rushers."

The challenge now is sorting through a crop of pass-rushers that offers varying skill sets, different personalities and a wide range of potential scheme fits. It's a process that every NFL staff already began during the college season but kicked into overdrive in Mobile, which featured a handful of some of the best edge rushing prospects.

For the San Francisco 49ers, who hold the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft and have a glaring need at the position, the task might seem to be as simple as figuring out who the two best edge rushers are.

"[General manager] John [Lynch] and his staff do a great job," 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. "They give us a list, and then you just start watching each one. Which one fits the mold and which one is the type of person we want. You start athletically and which ones really stand out, then you dig into character and which ones fit the locker room the best, but the process is never-ending until the time we are on the clock."

As it stands, Ohio State's Nick Bosa is generally considered the draft's best player and the top edge rusher in the class. Kentucky's Josh Allen has emerged as next in line. Allen left the Niners and others disappointed, but understanding, about his last-minute decision not to partake in the Senior Bowl activities.

After that duo, though, there are plenty of other outside rushers looking to push their way to the top of the draft. Underclassmen such as Florida State's Brian Burns and Florida's Jachai Polite weren't in Mobile, but Mississippi State's Montez Sweat, Old Dominion's Oshane Ximines, Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson and Boston College's Zach Allen were.

From that group, nobody did more to boost his stock than Sweat, who had a dominant week of practices on the heels of a breakout season in which he posted 11.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries. Sweat was something of a curiosity entering last season but is still just scratching the surface of his potential.

During the week, Sweat impressed scouts with better-than-expected strength and as-advertised quickness off the edge. Although he didn't find much time to visit with media, his Bulldogs teammate Johnathan Abram did.

Abram, who is considered an early-round prospect at safety, said the light went on for Sweat in 2017 after he got his first sack and then he began working to add more to his game by forcing turnovers.

"I'm glad he came out here," Abram said. "He's got a chance to separate himself. A lot of guys, the media ranks a lot of guys high. But the main thing about Montez, he got kind of overshadowed with Jeff Simmons and myself, but Sweat is a really good player."

The Senior Bowl also offered a chance for small school prospects like Ximines and Ferguson to go up against elite competition. After watching Texas-San Antonio's Marcus Davenport have a good Senior Bowl week last year and then go No. 14 to New Orleans, Ximines and Ferguson recognized what a good week could do for their stock.

Ximines, in particular, impressed in Mobile, showing more upper body strength than expected after finishing with 12 sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss, 14 hurries and four forced fumbles last season. Ximines acknowledged the competition among edge rusher for draft positioning will be fierce, which is why Senior Bowl week was so important for him.

"It's not my job to worry about everybody else," Ximines said. "I'm out here to show them relentless effort and what I can do. But there are a lot of great pass-rushers in this class."

Over the next couple of months, there will be more opportunities for teams to hone in on how those pass-rushers rank. They'll go to the scouting combine where they can work out, gather important medical information and conduct interviews. They'll have pro days for more of the same.

Sorting through a deep and talented position in a draft class is important because the one thing they know for sure about any draft is that curveballs are common. In a loaded class, nobody wants to be the team that gets it wrong.

"I think that's why you do your due diligence on everyone because the twist and turns of the draft and what can transpire before then, on draft day and there's so many different things, what you have to do is be ready on everyone and have multiple scenarios, and if this happens we're going to do this, and if this happens we'll do this," Lynch said. "The first part of that is just the evaluation."