One of the three most important positions on any NFL team is pass rusher (in addition to quarterback and blind-side protector), and identifying quality pass-rushing prospects is crucial to the team-building process.
Pass-rushing prospects should ideally possess the following four key traits, which have historically led to success at the NFL level, with the best NFL examples of each trait listed in parentheses:
-- First-step quickness (Khalil Mack): The ability to get off the ball quickly and beat the blocker.
-- Bend (Dwight Freeney): The ability to get low on the path to the quarterback and maintain balance. In his heyday, Freeney almost looked like he was perpendicular to the ground at times.
-- Ability to convert speed to power (J.J. Watt): After using speed to beat the blocker, it is important to convert that speed to the power that the pass rusher must bring to bear on their target.
-- Feel for depth (Michael Strahan): This trait prevents the pass rusher from running past the quarterback, and from allowing the offensive tackle to drive the pass rusher behind the quarterback.
Before we dig into the comparisons for my top five pass rushers, here are some quick notes explaining the absence of two prospects you might be expecting to see. A.J. Epenesa accomplished a lot at the college level, leaving Iowa with 26.5 sacks, but I don't really see any of the traits in him that you want in a pass-rushing prospect. And James Lynch is an enigma to me; I think he's been able to produce at Baylor because of his competitiveness, but again, he doesn't seem to have the traits needed for NFL success, and I'm not sure his competitiveness will be enough to close that gap.
Now, here are the five best pass rushers in this year's draft class, along with the pro comparison that best illustrate their NFL potential:
Pro comparison: Michael Strahan (141.5 career sacks, 854 tackles, 131 tackles for loss in 15 seasons, 1993-2007).
The athletic Young is a difference-maker as a pass-rusher, having collected 31 sacks in 23 starts over three seasons at Ohio State. And he also has the strength to stop the run, as reflected in his 42.5 tackles for loss. Young really possesses all four of the key traits needed for pass-rushing success at the NFL level, and the comparison to Strahan, who reached the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a seven-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro after 15 seasons with the Giants (and who holds the single-season sack record, with 22.5 in 2001), should give you an idea of the impact Young could have in his career.
Pro comparison: DeMarcus Ware (138.5 career sacks, 654 tackles, 171 tackles for loss in 12 seasons, 2005-2016).
While we don't have any measurables on Chaisson, who did not work out at the NFL Scouting Combine, all you have to do when considering his pro potential is zero in on his ability to rush the passer, as seen specifically in the tape of him against Alabama and how well he played against Oklahoma in the College Football Playoffs. Don't be misled by Chaisson's apparent lack of productivity at LSU (9.5 sacks in three years); I think he's a better player than fellow LSU product Danielle Hunter, who has made it to two Pro Bowls while amassing 54.5 sacks in five seasons with the Vikings. Chaisson looks like the kind of basketball player-esque pass rusher who can bend, turn the corner and get after the quarterback because of his athleticism. I see him as being similar to Ware, who excelled at getting off quickly.
Pro comparison: Aaron Kampman (58 career sacks, 483 tackles, 66 tackles for loss in 10 seasons, 2002-2011).
Gross-Matos is a very good bender with an exceedingly quick get-off. He has a long history of making sacks, going back to his senior year of high school, when he racked up 18.5, and running through his college career, in which he collected 19 sacks and 37 tackles for loss. He reminds me of Kampman, a former fifth-round pick who surprised a lot of people with his pass-rushing ability during a career with the Packers and Jaguars that included a three-year stretch in which he had 37 sacks.
Pro comparison: James Harrison (84.5 career sacks, 793 tackles, 128 tackles for loss in 15 seasons, 2002-2017).
Zuniga posted a 4.64-second 40-yard dash, including a very good 10-yard split of 1.61 seconds, and his above-average speed and athleticism will translate well at the NFL level. The former high school basketball player only played six games in 2019 because of injury but has all four of the traits you look for in a pass rusher. I could see him producing at a rate akin to what Harrison managed as a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro. Zuniga is a good player.
Pro comparison: Yannick Ngakoue (37.5 career sacks, 121 tackles, 42 tackles for loss in four seasons, 2017 to present).
Okwara is coming off a broken fibula suffered in 2019, but if you check his tape from when he was healthy in 2018, you'll see that he played extremely well, finishing that season with eight sacks and 21 QB hurries. And he showed off the first-step quickness and bend you want to see. Ngakoue burst onto the scene with eight sacks as a rookie, racked up 12 (along with a Pro Bowl nod) in his breakout second season and now is a sought-after asset, with the Jags attempting to find a trade partner for the franchise-tagged defender.