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Zach's Draft Corner: Edge Position Primer/Tutorial,Top 10 Team Draft Needs, National Championship Breakdown

January 7, 2019

 

 

 

Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.

 

 

 

 

The regular season is over, and the 49ers find themselves at home for the postseason yet again.  Even more, they will have the second overall pick in the upcoming draft.  It’s officially draft season for 49er fans.  There is one topic that will certainly be talked about more than any other for the 49ers during draft season, and that’s which edge rusher is the one they should take?  Before you pick your favorite, I think it’s best to walk through the strengths and weaknesses of each prospect, including showing you some examples of what they do well, what they don’t do well, and how to scout the edge rusher position.

 

Before we get into that, it’s important for you to know the philosophy that shapes my evaluation of these prospects.  Intelligent people can have different philosophies, and they may look at prospects differently based on their individual philosophy.  While football is largely a team sport, it is still based on winning individual battles.  It was a favorite of a former Niners position coach, but "The Art of War" provides some good quotes that are applicable to the battles on the football field.  One particular quote that sticks out to me is "Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected."  Another is "Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances."

 

In other words, it is much easier to win the individual battle when you know exactly what your opponent is going to do, and when your opponent must be prepared for you to do any of a number of things.  Unless you have a single physical attribute that is so elite that the opponent is physically unable to counter that one attribute, wins come by moving in such a way that the opponent is unprepared for and unable to counter.  

 

If you are a linebacker, it's easier to tackle a running back who has limited change-of-direction agility, as you know where he will be at the point of contact.  As a cornerback, it's easier to cover a wide receiver who can run only a single route effectively, or one who gives away where he will be going through poor route running.  As a safety, it's easier to defend a quarterback who stares down his intended wide receiver as opposed to one with a quick release and who looks the safety off the route before making the ultimate throw.  As an offensive lineman, it's easier to block a defensive lineman who is able only to rush the passer in a single way, or who is ineffective in the counters available to them once engaged.  Much like a dance, maintaining balance, momentum, and strength throughout the pass rush is key, all while hoping to limit the balance, momentum, and strength of your opponent.

 

While sacks are important in rushing the passer, it is not the only way to evaluate prospects.  While a lineman may generate a sack, if they generate no pressure on every other pass play, then it should not be seen as a good game.  Pressure makes quarterbacks uncomfortable.  Pressure forces the quarterback to throw before they want to, and before the wide receiver is ready for the pass.  Pressure forces mistakes, and mistakes lead to turnovers.  What you want out of a pass rusher is the ability to generate pressure on the quarterback throughout the entirety of the game, regardless of whether they happen to get home.  Pressure will eventually lead to sacks, but a single sack will not lead to a game's worth of pressure.

 

This week, we are going to take a look at the different ways that each of the top pass rushing prospects are able to win their individual battles, what makes each prospect so effective, and who has a similar arsenal of moves at the professional level.

 

Types of Pass Rushers

 

Before we jump in to the individual prospects, terms you will hear thrown around a lot include “speed rushers” and “power rushers.”  While the distinction may seem obvious, there are key philosophical differences between how the two operate that are helpful for understanding how these different pass rushers attack opposing linemen.  However, both types of pass rushers rely on one overall goal:  to use whatever tools are at their disposal to control the balance of the opponent.  If you control your opponent’s balance, then you control your opponent.  If you control your opponent, then you can get by your opponent.

 

These terms are also not exclusive of one another.  In fact, the best pass rushers are able to utilize techniques from both categories, keeping the opponent guessing as to which move they will unleash from their arsenal.  Rushing the passer is the only defensive action where the defender holds all of the cards and the offense’s job is to react, so it follows that having more cards in your hand will put the defender in the better position.

 

Speed rushers, obviously, use their speed as the key weapon in controlling the opponent.  Through their movement away from the lineman, the speed rusher will try to minimize contact with the lineman only to what is necessary for the rusher to move past the lineman.  You will see speed rushers attempt to sprint and bend around the outside, of course, but speed rushers also tend to develop inside counters to catch the tackle in the middle of their kickback motions.  Mastering footwork for spin moves is one such effective inside counter, as well as swim and low rip moves.  The best speed rushers are also able to convert their speed into power, catching the tackle while they are standing high and moving backwards in their kickback motion by sprinting head on into their chest, knocking them off balance and leaving them unable to recover.

 

Power rushers, meanwhile, are a little tougher to describe.  They are not simply bull rushers who try to overpower the lineman.  While that may happen occasionally, it is not a reliable pass rushing technique to simply bull rush every play.  Instead, power rushers are hand fighters, working to use heavy punches to knock the opposing lineman off balance.  Once the lineman stumbles, the power rusher will be set, using whatever move they see fit to finish the job, get past the lineman, and put a hit on the quarterback.  Power rushers are more wont to work inside in tighter areas, playing a game of chess with the opposing lineman until someone is unable to counter.  While this approach can lead to more stalemates than that of speed rushers (a stalemate, ultimately, being a victory for the offense), it can also lead to quicker penetration and a more direct route to the quarterback.  The best power rushers are able to incorporate some speed elements into their game, as having the threat to go outside is enough to keep the lineman from being fully committed to the power moves.  Power rushers also use length to their advantage, keeping the lineman away from their body and in their control.

 

Again, the best pass rushers are able to incorporate techniques from both categories.  For instance, a spin move, while being a speed move, can be very effective when the opponent is expecting a power rush.  While the lineman is loading up to get into the pass rusher’s body, the spin move can make the lineman attach to where the pass rusher was, but no longer is, throwing him off balance and leaving a clear path to the quarterback.  Similarly, the conversion of speed to power is most effective when the lineman is expecting the pass rusher to bend around the outside, leaving him vulnerable to a punch to the chest.  

 

"Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances."  Only the pass rusher knows what move they will use on any given play.  If they have a move that counters the immediate position the lineman has placed themselves in, that is where success can be had.  Those who find the most success, such as Von Miller and Khalil Mack, have a weapon for every situation.  Those who have only a single weapon tend to find themselves predictable and unsuccessful.

 

Nick Bosa, Ohio State University

 

There may be prospects who are a little faster than Bosa, like Josh Allen.  There may be some prospects who are a little bit better as pure power rushers than Bosa, like Quinnen Williams.  However, there is nobody more technically sound, and nobody with a better combination of speed and strength.  This is what makes Bosa the top edge rushing prospect in the draft.  No matter what the offensive lineman does to try to block Bosa, he has two ways to beat the blocker, allowing him to generate constant pressure.

The first element to Bosa's game is his speed rush.  The above GIF begins shortly after the snap.  By the time many of his linemates are beginning to engage with the opponents, Bosa is two yards past the line of scrimmage and even with the offensive tackle.  He uses his flexibility to bend around the tackle and get immediate pressure on the quarterback.  He doesn't get credit for a sack, but his immediate pressure forces the quarterback into a hurried throwaway.  This is a win for the defense.

Here, we see Bosa's power.  The Oklahoma offensive tackle manages to get in between Bosa and Baker Mayfield on this play.  This is not a problem for Bosa, because he has the sheer strength to throw the tackle on his backside and finish the sack anyways.

As if Bosa's speed and power wasn't enough, Bosa's hand-fighting technique is superb.  The tackle initially cuts off Bosa's speed rush, but some quick separation is gained by using his hands to move the tackle off of his intended path.  This gives Bosa a clear path to the quarterback, who might need some aspirin after that hit.

 

His technique isn't limited to outside counters.  On this play, the tackle expects a speed rush.  Bosa quickly identifies this and swims to the inside gap created between the tackle and the guard.  The tackle attempts to come forward and cut him off, but Bosa's strength and speed is too much.  Bosa gets another easy sack.

 

So how are you expected to block Bosa?  You need to account for so many things, that there will be holes that he has the strength, speed, and technique to exploit.  You can't possibly account for every possible move on any given play.  You can only hope that you guess correctly, and even then, you have to hope that you are able to stop his counter to your correct guess for long enough that the quarterback can deliver the pass.

 

Comparison:  Cameron Jordan.  Similar to Bosa, there are better pure speed rushers, and there are better pure pass rushers.  However, you will be hard-pressed to find another pass rusher who is as well-rounded as Cameron Jordan.  He truly embodies Sun Tzu's "Art of War" better than most any other pass rusher in the game, which is why he's a perennial Pro Bowler and an All-Pro defensive lineman.  Since becoming a full-time starter, Jordan has averaged over 10 sacks a season and is consistently in the top-three for edge rushers on Pro Football Focus's year-end grades.

Clelin Ferrell, Clemson University

 

Ferrell does not possess the elite athleticism of other defensive ends in the non-Bosa tier, but is able to win consistently with technique and strength.  Ferrell is the least “sexy” of the second tier of defensive ends because he doesn’t have that top-end speed and bend that looks so beautiful in highlight videos.  So what makes him in the same tier as such athletes?

His top-end speed and flexibility may not be there, but Ferrell still explodes out of this stance and gets the initial advantage on the tackle as well as any pass rusher in this class.  Ferrell is an expert at timing the snap and getting into the backfield before the tackle is even out of his stance.  If you aren’t able to beat them in a footrace, then why not give yourself a head start?  Ferrell is so quick off the line that he still gets the advantage coming around the edge, forcing an errant throw by the quarterback.

Ferrell’s length is also rare.  Yes, other pass rushers may be as tall as he is, but his combination of strength and arm length gives him a weapon not available to many in this draft class.  In this clip, Ferrell uses his long arms to keep the tackle away from his body and off-balance.  When the quarterback is deep in his dropback and forced to step up, Ferrell is disengaged from the blocker and able to attack without obstacle.

Another old football adage is that the “low man wins.”  This clip shows that even though he is 6’5” and over 260 pounds, Ferrell can still get low.  Against Boston College, Ferrell is about to get double teamed by the left tackle and left guard.  There are very few defensive ends that would overcome this on an inside rush, but watch as Ferrell twists dips low to run underneath the chip from the tackle.  This leaves Ferrell one-on-one with the guard.  Ferrell gains separation in the backfield with his speed and length, getting to the quarterback’s depth by the time he finishes his dropback.  Ferrell then uses that long wingspan to reach out and bring the quarterback down.

This is another one of Ferrell’s many counters.  Despite the perceived lack of athleticism, Ferrell still is able to get the tackle off-balance with a well-timed spin move and generate interior pressure.  This forces the quarterback out of the pocket, where another Clemson defender is breaking free.  This is a prime example of where Ferrell’s skill won’t show up on non-Pro Football Focus stat sheets, but he is able to generate pressure in a way that makes the quarterback uncomfortable and leads to a win for the defense.

A lack of speed is still a hindrance.  On this play, Ferrell again tries his spin move in an effort to get by the tackle.  This time, the tackle is ready and maintains his balance throughout the move.  Ferrell is stuffed, and doesn’t have the speed to get the tackle off-balance after the initial failure.  The quarterback has a clean pocket and is able to make the throw.  Now, a pass rusher isn’t going to win every time, but some will generate pressure more often than others.  I’m comfortable with Ferrell’s arsenal being able to generate pressure with consistency, but he still is a step below prospects like Nick Bosa, who have it all.

 

Comparison:  Everson Griffen and Terrell Suggs.  Both Griffen and Suggs were downplayed in the scouting process because they did not display the athleticism desired of an edge rusher.  However, what led to their success in the NFL was the consistent strength and technical prowess that they displayed play-in and play-out.  While some of the same initial concerns are there with Ferrell, I also think that Ferrell has a similar ceiling to these all-time elite pass rushers.  Ferrell may actually have a higher ceiling than these two, as Ferrell possesses the additional length to keep the tackles at a distance.

Josh Allen, University of Kentucky

 

Josh Allen is speed.  Pure speed.  To the point where if he isn’t moving at least 50 miles-per-hour, his game explodes.  More on this later.  First, let’s get to the fun part.

This is what everyone thinks of when they think of Josh Allen.  More than any prospect in this class, he is able to burst off the line, use his top-end speed to get by the tackle, end around the edge, and get to the quarterback.  This is an elite skill, and may be enough, in and of itself, to beat some tackles at the professional level.  Which is good, because this is mostly all that Josh Allen does.  I say mostly, because he has shown flashes of success with other techniques.

When you hear someone talk about “converting speed to power,” what Josh Allen does to Florida’s right tackle is what they mean.  With Allen’s threat of speed, the tackle begins his kickback from the snap.  However, instead of trying to bend the edge around him, Allen runs directly into his chest.  The tackle is off-balanced given his accounting for the speed rush, and Allen is able to drive his legs and push the tackle directly into the face of the quarterback.  The defense left a checkdown option wide open, leading to a completion, but this is the type of pressure that can make the quarterback uncomfortable.

Allen doesn’t have the same strength that Ferrell has, but is still able to use his length to his advantage.  Here, the left tackle thinks he has the matchup won, but Allen keeps his distance by extending his left arm to create separation.  He feels the tackle pushing back on him, and uses the opportunity to force the tackle off balance.  Allen collapses his arm, giving the tackle the feeling of the wall he is leaning on suddenly disappearing.  Allen uses this moment to get out of the tackle’s grasp, creating pressure on the quarterback.

This clip is the one clip that gives me the hope that Allen can learn to be a better technician, reaching his overall potential.  Allen’s hand usage is perfect on this play.  He uses his outside hand to push the tackle’s arms back inside.  This gives Allen an opportunity to take a quicker path around the tackle and to the quarterback.  By the time the tackle recovers, Allen is already past him and turning the corner towards the quarterback.  This is the type of move that Josh Allen needs to develop consistency with if he wants to succeed.

Remember what I said about what happens to Allen when his speed falls below 50 mph?  For some reason, Allen can’t seem to change direction quickly and cleanly.  In this clip, Allen tries to change direction, and is very deliberate in trying to do so.  This gives the right tackle ample time to stop his kickback and drive forward, completely taking Allen out of the play.  This is the most consistently ineffective move of any top prospect.  He uses it quite a bit in an effort to keep the tackle honest, but it rarely ever works due to the lack of change-of-direction speed in his rush.

 

Comparison:  Derrick Thomas.  The fact that I have to go back to Derrick Thomas shows the difficulty in projecting Allen as a pro.  There have certainly been athletic freaks that have come out of the draft before, like Bruce Irvin, Dante Fowler, and Dion Jordan.  None of those prospects, though, were able to learn any sort of consistent weapon to use outside of their athleticism.  In the NFL, most everyone is athletic, so there needs to be something more.  If you want to know what Josh Allen’s ceiling is, it’s the former member of the Crimson Tide and the Chiefs.  In college and his first year as a professional, he used his unparalleled athleticism to win.  Once he developed his technique in his second professional season, his production skyrocketed to the tune of twenty sacks, seven of which came in a single game.  He was unstoppable.  Allen has the athletic potential to be a Derrick Thomas.  He also has the inconsistency and floor to be a Dion Jordan.

Brian Burns, Florida State University

 

Brian Burns is a happy medium between Clelin Ferrell and Josh Allen.  He has more technical skills than Allen at this point, and is more athletic than Ferrell.  He doesn’t have the strength of either, being the weakest strength-wise of the five prospects described here.  However, he still has some interesting traits that will lead him to having success.

You’ve seen this move plenty of times at this point in the article, but it’s worth showing again with Burns, as it shows a different angle.  Here you can see the explosion Burns has off the line, the speed and stride length to reach the quarterback in six steps, dip around the tackle, and get the sack.

This spin move is a thing of beauty, and is set up by the threat of Burns’s speed rush.  The tackle tries to get deep enough to keep Burns from going around the edge.  Seeing his route getting cut off, Burns quickly and smoothly spins back inside to get right into the quarterback’s face.  The quarterback attempts to leave the pocket and get free, but Burns’s pursuit is too much.  This is exactly what you want to see from a rusher who doesn’t have the strength to square up against offensive linemen.  You want him to have a plan of attack, but have a strong counter move in his back pocket so that he never has to engage with the blocker.  Once Burns engages, he’s done, so the spin move keeps that from happening.

In this clip, Burns shows us a third way that length can be a valuable tool for a pass rusher, but there is a common theme amongst each use of length:  get the tackle off balance.  Here, Burns uses a hesitation move that would make Russell Westbrook blush.  He pauses just long enough for the tackle to stop carrying his momentum backwards.  Once the tackle becomes flat-footed, Burns turns on the jets and extends his arms to swing around the tackle.  The quarterback steps up into the pocket, but Burns is able to swipe the ball away for a strip sack.

The swim move may be the most effective of all pass rush moves when done effectively.  In essence, the pass rusher attacks the inside half of the blocker.  Like I said before, the low man usually wins once engaged, so attacking the inside half forces the blocker to get low into their stance ready to attack.  However, instead of engaging, the pass rusher brings his outside arm over his head like a standing butterfly stroke, bypassing the blocker altogether.  This puts the rusher on a clear line to the quarterback from the interior, which is the quickest way to the quarterback.  Burns executes that move perfectly here.

Like I said before, when Burns engages with the lineman, it’s over.  An example of that is shown here.  The right tackle gets a clean lick on Burns and immediately knocks him back.  Burns makes another attempt, but runs into a brick wall and is stifled.  For Burns to be successful, he wants to make as little contact with the lineman as possible.  He simply doesn’t have the strength to beat blocks up close.

 

Comparison:  Vic Beasley in 2016.  Coming out of Clemson, Beasley was touted for his athleticism, speed, and incredible arsenal of pass rush moves, while also criticized for being too thin and unable to take on blockers.  Burns has the length, speed, and technique that made Beasley such an intriguing prospect, but also has the weakness of being… well, weak.  Beasley has had an up and down career thus far, being an all-pro with 15.5 sacks in 2016 and an afterthought with ten sacks over the past two seasons.  When these two pass rushers are on top of their game, very little will be able to stop them, making Burns’s ceiling somewhere around where Beasley was in his All-Pro 2016 campaign.  It will be interesting to see how Burns's weight and athleticism trade off, as he is trying to gain weight prior to weigh-ins at the combine.  It's unknown if that will affect his athleticism.  If so, Burns may remain an under-powered speed rusher who has the technique to counter.  This gives him a dependable floor, although a lower overall ceiling.

Jachai Polite, University of Florida

 

Jachai Polite is, more or less, Nick Bosa-light.  He is good at a lot of things, but just lacks the consistency at this point to be a game-changing talent.  If you watch highlight videos, there will be plenty that jumps out, but he disappears for large chunks of the game.  If he can develop that consistency, then he has the potential to be a star.  There won’t be any negative clips of Polite, because there seems to be no rhyme or reason to when he wins or loses.  He shows the flashes of winning in every way you would want a pass rusher to win, but many times, he simply doesn’t.

Similarly to everyone else on this list, Polite has the ability to bend around the outside and put pressure on the quarterback.  Here, the quarterback doesn’t even finish his dropback and he’s already feeling pressure from Polite.  He immediately pulls the ball down and starts dancing in the pocket, leaving himself open for another Gator to finish the job.  This play happens because of Polite, even though he doesn’t get the stat.

Now this is where it gets juicy.  Other spin moves have been effective, but Polite’s is violent.  His pivot point doubles as a catapult, launching the tackle completely out of the play.  Nobody is left to block Polite, who gets a clean shot at the quarterback.  Again, he doesn’t get the sack, but he is the reason the defense wins the play.

Polite is the one engaged with the left tackle here, driving him back into the face of the quarterback.  This isn’t converting speed to power, as Polite’s momentum is stopped once he engages with the tackle.  Instead, he simply gets low and uses his powerful legs to drive the tackle backwards.  A short crossing route comes open quickly, enabling the quarterback to get the ball off in time, but a different route combination could mean a highlight reel sack where Polite just tosses the tackle onto the quarterback like Justin Smith used to do.

 

 

My final clip for you in edge school is something we haven’t seen from the other prospects, and that’s some key awareness once the rusher knows he is defeated for the play.  It’s third down, and Polite tries to knock the right tackle off balance.  The tackle absorbs the blow and maintains his stance, and Polite is too close to try any other counters.  Instead of getting engulfed by the tackle, Polite backs up and reads the quarterback’s eyes.  He shuffles to his right to close off a passing lane, times his jump perfectly, and bats the ball out of the sky.  This is a play beyond his years, as very few college players think of getting into the lane and getting their hands up if they lose the rush.  He doesn’t get the sack, but causes a fourth down and gives his team the ball back.  That’s a win for the defense.

 

Comparison:  Ryan Kerrigan.  Much like Polite, Kerrigan has good speed, power, and technique.  If Polite can get more consistency in his game, Kerrigan is his ceiling.  While this may seem unimpressive due to Kerrigan being largely unheralded in Washington, he has averaged two sacks every three games in his NFL career and has averaged just under one additional quarterback hit per game since he was drafted out of Purdue in 2011.

Pass Rusher Rankings

 

Given these descriptions of the various pass rushers that may be available, here is how I would rank them in various categories based on the game film that I have watched.

 

Athleticism

1.  Josh Allen

2.  Brian Burns

3.  Nick Bosa

4.  Jachai Polite

5.  Clelin Ferrell

 

Strength

1.  Clelin Ferrell

2.  Nick Bosa

3.  Jachai Polite

4.  Josh Allen

5.  Brian Burns

 

Available Counter Moves

1.  Nick Bosa

2.  Brian Burns

3.  Clelin Ferrell

4.  Jachai Polite

5.  Josh Allen

 

Technical Soundness (including Hands and Footwork)

1.  Nick Bosa

2.  Clelin Ferrell

3.  Brian Burns

4.  Jachai Polite

5.  Josh Allen

 

Explosiveness Off the Line

1.  Josh Allen

2.  Clelin Ferrell

3.  Brian Burns 

4.  Nick Bosa

5.  Jachai Polite

 

Length

1.  Clelin Ferrell

2.  Josh Allen

3.  Brian Burns

4.  Nick Bosa

5.  Jachai Polite

 

Speed Rush Moves

1.  Brian Burns

2.  Josh Allen

3.  Nick Bosa

4.  Jachai Polite

5.  Clelin Ferrell

 

Power Rush Moves

1.  Nick Bosa

2.  Clelin Ferrell

3.  Jachai Polite

4.  Josh Allen

5.  Brian Burns

 

Pressure Consistency

1.  Nick Bosa

2.  Brian Burns

3.  Clelin Ferrell

4.  Josh Allen

5.  Jachai Polite

 

Highest Ceiling

1.  Josh Allen

2.  Nick Bosa

3.  Clelin Ferrell

4.  Brian Burns

5.  Jachai Polite

 

Highest Floor

1.  Nick Bosa

2.  Clelin Ferrell

3.  Brian Burns

4.  Jachai Polite

5.  Josh Allen

Top Ten Needs

The 49ers will be competing with the rest of the top ten for picks throughout the draft, so it’s good to know what the needs are for the competition when the 49ers are about to come on the clock or are considering a trade-down.

 

Arizona Cardinals

OL, WR, CB, DT, LB

 

New York Jets

OL, Edge, WR, RB, DT (depending on whether the Jets move on from Leonard Williams)

 

Homeless Raiders

Edge, DB, WR, QB (depending on whether the Raiders move on from Derek Carr)

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

DB, DE, RB, QB (depending on whether the Bucs move on from Jameis Winston)

 

New York Giants

QB, DL, OT

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

QB, WR, OL

 

Detroit Lions

DB, Edge, TE

 

Buffalo Bills

OL, WR, RB, LB

 

Denver Broncos

QB, OL, DB, LB

TV Guide

 

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T - University of Alabama vs. Clemson University in Santa Clara, CA - 8:00 PM, ESPN

 

There are tons of prospects to watch in this game, and my previous writeups have listed out all of the names you need to know.  However fair it is, scouts will look at how the prospects played in their biggest games, so their performance here could have a huge effect on their draft positioning come April.  Given this, rather than list out all of the potential players that could be drafted from this game, I’ve made a list of the most important on-field matchups to watch.

 

Jonah Williams (tackle, Alabama) vs. Clelin Ferrell (defensive end, Clemson)

 

This is the matchup that could define the top of the draft.  If Jonah Williams dominates Clelin Ferrell, one of the premiere edge rushers in this class, then he will further be cemented as OT1 and could move himself into the conversation for the number one overall pick.  If Ferrell comes out and generates pressure against the best tackle in this draft, Ferrell could move to the top of the non-Bosa defensive end rankings.

 

Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton (interior offensive linemen, Alabama) vs. Christian Wilkins (defensive tackle, Clemson)

 

The guards for Alabama are solidly in the mid-round conversation right now.  Meanwhile, people are all over the place on Christian Wilkins.  With Dexter Lawrence suspended, all of the attention will be on Wilkins.  If he overcomes this, he might carve out a first-round niche for himself.  Otherwise, he could tumble well into Day 2.

 

Jerry Jeudy and Henry Huggs (wide receivers, Alabama) vs. Trayvon Mullen (cornerback, Clemson)

 

Jeudy and Huggs are going to be a part of the best wide receiver class we have seen in a while, becoming draft eligible for the 2020 draft.  Jeudy may even be the number one receiver in that class.  Trayvon Mullen has garnered good grades from some scouts, but shutting down his opponent for the entire game could make him more universally viewed as a first-round guy.  If Jeudy and Huggs burn Mullen like they have every other cornerback they’ve faced this season, Mullen's critics will become louder.

 

Deointe Thompson (safety, Alabama) vs. Trevor Lawrence (quarterback, Clemson)

 

Trevor Lawrence was the best high school quarterback recruit in years, and he's showing why as a true freshman.  His advanced feel for the quarterback position, ability to read defenses, and his elite arm talent has been on display for months, and he will have his biggest test this week against Alabama.  Deionte Thompson will be tasked with trying to disguise looks, jump routes, and make plays for the talented Alabama defense.  This game of cat-and-mouse could decide the game, as well as Thompson's draft value at the top of the first round.

 

Mack Wilson (linebacker, Alabama) vs. Travis Etienne (running back, Clemson)

 

Travis Etienne has burst onto the scene as a premiere running back talent that will be eligible for the 2020 draft.  While Mack Wilson hasn't made an official decision, it looks like he may return to school.  If Wilson does decide to enter the NFL draft, shutting down Etienne would be a huge boost to his already impressive resume.

 

Quinnen Williams and Raekwon Davis (defensive tackles, Alabama) vs. Clemson Offensive Line

 

While most of Clemson's team is very talented, the offensive line isn't exactly anything to write home about, at least as far as draftable talent goes.  Meanwhile, Alabama has two first-round defensive tackles, one of which may be the first overall pick.  Williams and Davis shouldn't have any problems with Clemson, but a weak showing here could temper the expectations of both.

 

Trevon Diggs, Saivion Smith, and Shyheim Carter (cornerbacks, Alabama) vs. Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, and Hunter Renfrow (wide receivers, Clemson)

 

Clemson is becoming "Wide Receiver U," seemingly always pumping out high-level talent at the wide receiver position.  Meanwhile, the Alabama cornerbacks seem to be the weak point of the defense.  Helping stop the trio of Higgins, Ross, and Renfrow could go a long way to making the Alabama trio more than Day 3 picks, but that will be a tough assignment.

 

Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs, and Najee Harris (running backs, Alabama) vs. Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar (linebackers, Clemson)

 

Alabama uses a running-back-by-committee system, and all three of them are great talents.  Harris, the only one of the group likely to enter the draft, is fighting for the RB1 spot.  Meanwhile, Joseph and Lamar are looking to jump up the rankings in a weak linebacker class.  Whoever wins this matchup could go a long way to achieving their respective draft goals.

 

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