Michigan's Taco Charlton has a rare combination of size, length and athleticism. Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports
With the 2017 NFL draft rapidly approaching, I've been focusing in on the Patriots draft needs. From now until draft weekend, I'll be going over this draft class by position, with emphasis on the Pats positions of need. With that in mind, I'm starting the series with a closer look at the Patriots edge defenders. Depth is needed in the short-term, as both Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long have left this offseason. Edge defender remains one of the Pats largest long-term needs as well, as Trey Flowers is the only proven player signed beyond this coming season. The Patriots seem to agree, as they've scouted this year's deep class of pass rushers thoroughly, meeting privately with many of it's best prospects. Without further ado, here's a closer look at this year's crop of edge rushers.
First round talent:
I know, the Patriots don't currently have a first round pick. However, plenty could happen between now and April 27, and a trade involving either Jimmy Garoppolo or Malcolm Butler could net a draft pick back in this range. I will note that I've declined to include Texas A&M's Myles Garrett or Stanford's Solomon Thomas, each of whom have been widely projected as top 10 picks. I also did not include Alabama's Jonathan Allen, who I consider to be more of an interior lineman. I've also omitted Alabama's Tim Williams and UCLA's Takkarist McKinley, both of whom possesses pass rushing upside but lacks the bulk to hold up on running downs. I can't see the Patriots investing an early pick on a player they view as a third down specialist, even one with significant pass rushing upside. Williams also comes with major character concerns that would likely eliminate him from consideration here.
Taco Charlton: Michigan
The long, angular Charlton has a lot of similarities to former Patriot Chandler Jones, both in body type and style of play. Like Jones, the 6'6", 277 pound Charlton has an ideal frame for a base 4-3 defensive end. He has the length and size to hold up on the edge against the run, where he should continue to improve as he adds muscle. As a pass rusher, he has freaky burst off the line for a player of his size and the ability to bend around the edge once he gets a step on opposing tackles. Like Jones, "inconsistent" was a buzz word around Charlton for much of his career at Michigan, where he didn't earn a full time starting job until his senior season. However, Charlton improved throughout his Wolverine career, which culminated with an explosive senior season. While talented enough to play major snaps from day one, Charlton has the upside to develop into a far better player than he is now.
Barnett ability to dip his shoulder around the edge is rare
Derek Barnett: Tennessee
A three time All SEC honoree, Barnett left college after dominating SEC competition for 33 sacks in his three seasons with the Vols, breaking Reggie White's school record. At 6'3" and 259 pounds, Barnett isn't quite as big or lengthy as Charlton, but he plays with a violent demeanor that will aid him as an every down defensive end at the next level. Barnett's NFL-ready hands pack a vicious punch, which he uses well whether setting the edge or rushing the passer. As a pass rusher, he shows an uncanny ability to dip under the outside shoulder of his blocker, something which showed up repeatedly in his impressive game film. He would benefit from adding more variety to his pass rush approach, and will need to curb his habit of jumping the snap count (Bill Belichick doesn't take kindly to unnecessary offsides penalties). Still, Barnett projects as a day one starter with the upside to develop into one of the league's best defensive ends. Barnett had a private workout with the Patriots this spring.
Carl Lawson: Auburn
Lawson has been well known in the scouting community since earning Freshman All-American honors in 2013. However, last fall was the first time scouts managed to see him put his immense potential to use on tape since that impressive freshman season. That gap in his career timeline was the result of injuries: he lost his 2014 season to a torn ACL and missed six games in 2015 with a hip injury. However, Lawson finally stayed healthy in 2016 and demonstrated the talent that had long had him pegged as a future first round pick. Like Barnett, Lawson plays with a noticeably violent demeanor that helps him both against the run and the pass. While he could improve against the run, Lawson has a high upside as a pass rusher, where he already has an array of moves and counters. There's more risk here due to his injury history, but Lawson is another prospect with the upside to develop into a true, every-down defensive end with double digit sack potential. While that upside makes him a possible first rounder, it's more likely that his injury history drags him into the second round range. The Pats had a formal meeting with Lawson back at the Combine.
Charles Harris: Missouri
As far as pure pass rushing upside goes, Harris may be the best player in this class not named Myles Garrett. His explosive first step and Dwight Freeney-esque spin move pop on film, where he displayed immense upside as a pure speed rusher on the edge. However, at 6'3" and 253 pounds, Harris is significantly smaller than what the Patriots usually look for from their edge defenders, and that lack of bulk was glaring on film against the run. Simply put, Harris will need to add significant bulk to play on early downs at the pro level, and will likely be a pass rushing specialist early on. I nearly omitted him from this post as a result, but the Patriots interest in him (they put him through a formal interview at the combine) kept him on the list. It would be out of character for the Pats to use a pick in the first two rounds (Harris will likely go somewhere between pick 20 and pick 50) on a situational player, but Harris has the talent to make an immediate impact as a pass rusher, even in a limited role.
Day Two potential
This next tier of prospects consists of players who could conceivably be on the board when the Pats current first pick (72nd overall, 8th in the third round) comes up. Some of these players could also be options for the Pats next pick (96th overall, 32nd of third round).
Willis brings an intriguing mix of speed and power
Jordan Willis: Kansas State
A three year stater, Willis finished his Kansas State career by earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. He combined excellent length, power and burst off the line with a non-stop motor to rack up 21 sacks in his last two seasons, but will see a major jump in competition at the pro level. His hand usage and strength makes him a candidate to develop into an every-down end, but he'll need to further develop his raw pass rushing arsenal to translate his production to the pro level. Still, Willis brings starter-upside and is widely considered to have excellent football character (legendary K-State Coach Bill Snyder called him "the epitome" of Kansas State Football). The Pats formally met with Willis back at the Senior Bowl.
TJ Watt: Wisconsin
Yes, he's JJ's kid brother, but the youngest Watt made a name for himself at Wisconsin, where he solidified his standing as a day two prospect with a highly productive junior season. That was his first and only healthy season with the Badgers, as he redshirted as a freshman tight end in 2013 and missed the following season with a knee injury. He overcame yet another knee injury in the spring of 2015 along with a position change to defense, recovering from surgery in time to contribute as a reserve linebacker. However, finally healthy and with a year under his belt as a defensive player, Watt exploded this past fall, recording 11.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss. At 6'4" and 252 pounds, Watt is a little light compared to the Pats past preferences on the edge, but he has the frame to add muscle. His lone healthy season proved he's an instinctive, high motor player who uses his hands and excellent length well to defeat blockers, both as a rusher and in the run game. He's still a bit raw as a pass rusher, but his excellent football character (work ethic, approach, etc) suggests he should continue to develop. The Patriots have put him through a private workout this spring.
Tarell Basham: Ohio
A small-school standout who has risen up draft boards throughout the spring, Basham earned MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors for his 11.5 sack senior season. Like more heralded prospects such as Barnett and Lawson, Basham plays with a noticeable nastiness that will appeal to the Patriots. He has NFL size (6'4", 269 pounds) and excellent length, which he combines with his strong hands to set a hard edge in the running game. Basham also earns points for his motor and closing speed, which showed up on film at times against mobile quarterbacks. He is a raw as a pass rusher and will need to develop more moves and counters, but Basham displays the ability to develop into a three down player with better technique. None other than Bill Belichick himself put Basham through a private workout this spring.
Hendrickson dominated Conference USA for two seasons
Trey Hendrickson: Florida Atlantic
Few players have appeared in more mock drafts as Patriot picks than Hendrickson, who was highly productive against Conference USA competition the past two years. The positives are easy to see for him: he's a high motor rusher who displayed an excellent closing burst to the quarterback, both as a pure rusher and as a "spy" against mobile QBs. He'll get major bonus points in New England for his special teams prowess, where he blocked a punt, two field goals and an extra point just in 2016. He also displayed a nose for the ball, forcing six fumbles over his final two seasons. However, Hendrickson is currently a bit undersized and might be limited as a run defender early on. His early role will likely be as a pass rushing specialist with special teams value. He'll need to further develop his pass rushing repertoire to succeed in that role against NFL caliber tackles, which he simply did not encounter in college.
Derek Rivers: Youngstown State
Another small school prospect with intriguing collegiate production, Rivers was a third team FCS All American in 2016 following the second 14 sack season of his career. At 6'4" and 248 pounds, Rivers is a bit undersized, but he has some serious pass rushing potential, combining burst and high-level hand usage with natural bend around the edge. Like most small-school prospects, he's a bit raw and will go through an adjustment as he faces a much higher level of competition, but the athletic tools are there to develop into a dangerous rusher. He has a private workout coming up with the Patriots.
Demarcus Walker: Florida State
It's hard to ignore Walker's collegiate production, as he racked up 26.5 sacks over his final two seasons with the Seminoles. Despite that, Walker is more likely to go in the third round range, and could fall even further. While his excellent size and length (6'4", 280) bodes well to his future as an edge setter on early downs, he lacks explosive traits as an edge rusher. Much like current Patriot Trey Flowers, his pass rushing future may be reducing inside on third downs to take advantage of slower interior blockers. Walker certainly has the ability to contribute in a rotation, but he lacks the pure edge rushing upside to warrant a higher selection. The Pats had an official meeting with him at the combine.
Kpassagnon has freakish talent but will need time to develop his craft
Tanoh Kpassagnon: Villanova
Quality of competition faced is a worthwhile concern for Kpassagnon, who rarely faced NFL caliber talent playing in the Colonial Athletic Association. You do have to credit Kpassagnon for how he dominated that level in 2016, racking up 21.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks en route to first team FCS All American honors. While still relatively raw, Kpassagnon has tantalizing physical tools, starting with his size. Simply put, he's a monster, measuring in at 6'7" and 289 pounds at the combine, with tree branch-esque 35 5/8" arms. Prospects with that body type generally get typecast as two-gapping 3-4 defensive ends, but Kpassagnon did most of his damage as an edge rusher in college, showing impressive burst off the snap and the strength to toss aside blockers. He'll no longer be a man amongst boys at the next level, but he has the tools to develop into a player versatile enough to excel in the Patriots system. If he takes well to pro coaching, he has the upside to turn into a disruptive pro. Late third round sounds right for a high upside project like this. The Patriots sent defensive line coach Brendan Daly to work Kpassagnon out this spring.
Later round flyers
These guys project to go on day three of the draft, where the Patriots have often found late round gems.
West Virginia's Noble Nwachukwu has an unusual body type for the edge (6'1", 268), but he brings a physical, nasty presence to the field that translated to a productive collegiate career. His serious, no-nonsense approach to the game will appeal to the Pats, as will his experience dropping into coverage.
Illinois' Dawuane Smoot brings some athleticism to the edge. A former US Junior Olympics hurdler, Smoot added 40 pounds of muscle to his frame throughout his collegiate career. While he failed to follow up on a strong 2015 season with the breakout campaign some expected, Smoot still finished his Illini career with 30 tackles for loss, 13 sacks and four forced fumbles over his final two seasons. With improved technique, he could develop into a useful rotational rusher.
Texas A&M's Daeshon Hall is still a big raw overall, but there's some physical talent to work with here. His long lanky frame is similar to Chandler Jones when the Patriots selected Jones out of Syracuse back in 2012. Like Jones, Hall has a frame that could add more bulk without sacrificing his explosiveness. His versatility will appeal to the Pats, as he played all over the line for the Aggies.
Arkansas' Deatrich Wise isn't an explosive edge rusher, but brings inside/outside versatility and physicality that would fit in New England's varied fronts. His exceptional length (35 5/8" arms) and strength allow him to play both inside as a 5 technique (3-4 defensive end) or as a physical edge setter in a 4-3. While he won't fill the Pats edge rushing void, he could have third down value as an interior rusher.
Youngstown State's Avery Moss teamed up with Derek Rivers to terrorize quarterbacks last fall, racking up 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for a loss. A former Nebraska recruit, Moss was a rising prospect before a 2014 incident in which he exposed himself to a fellow student. Moss was dismissed from the Huskers program following that incident, but he's stayed out of trouble since and made the most of his second chance at Youngstown State. Whether he remains on the Pats draft board with such an incident on his record is unclear, but Moss has the talent to be a major steal on Day 3 if he can add more nuance to his pass rushing technique, as he has the length and athleticism to develop into a productive rusher at the NFL level.
Florida's Bryan Cox Jr has instant name recognition as the son of former Patriot linebacker Bryan Cox Sr, but had an up-and-down career with the Gators. Improved technique would help him a great deal as a pass rusher, where his length and burst off the line give him some tools to work with.
Tennessee Chattanooga's Keionta Davis dominated the FCS level, racking up 24 sacks over his final two seasons, including an impressive showing against Alabama this fall. He lacks the elite edge athleticism to rack up sacks at the pro level, but his length, power and non-stop motor could make him a useful member of a rotation.
LSU's Lewis Neal led the Tigers with 8 sacks as a junior, but will likely be available late on day three due to an underwhelming senior season. He's a solid edge setter in the run game, as illustrated by his 11 tackle effort against Alabama this fall, but lacks pass rushing upside at the next level.