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2022 NFL Draft: Edge Rushers in High Demand

Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan Wolverines, 2022 NFL Draft

The most coveted and compelling prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft are the edge defenders, a group that's led by potential No. 1 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson

In Minnesota, they call it the "Rush Room."

That's the place where the Gophers' edge rushers gather to plan and prepare. Cool name for a meeting room, right? Except the thing about the Rush Room is … it's not really a room, per se.

The Gophers had to make up a Rush Room because the position morphs like Minnesota fall foliage.

"We had our own position meetings because the position was so unique," says Boye Mafe, a no-name freshman turned sleeper NFL Draft prospect for the Gophers. "We couldn't meet with the defensive line. We couldn't sit with the linebackers. They have a different position than us."

So the assignments varied by week and sometimes by day — and sometimes even by play.

The Gophers edge rushers "bounced around the building," in Mafe's words. Maybe it was the position coach's office. Maybe it was an empty room they stumbled on. One time it was the players' lounge.

The fluid meeting place is fitting: The edge-rushing position is full of shape-shifters and maulers who move like water downhill.

And this is the year of Peak Edge, with several in the group slated to go in the first round of the draft. There's Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux, who are likely top-five picks. There's Michigan's David Ojabo*, Georgia's Travon Walker, Purdue's George Karlaftis and USC's Drake Jackson — also likely to go in Round 1. And there are sleepers like Florida State's Jermaine Johnson II who don't have household names but do have film that raises eyebrows and potentially salaries. Their varied backgrounds add another layer of intrigue to this group. You've got everything from Thibodeaux, who has been projected as a lights-out edge rusher for years, to Ojabo, who rose from the scout team to stardom.

Related: Defensive End Rankings for 2022 NFL Draft

Part of the ascendancy of edge rushers this year has to do with a relatively quarterback-light raft of prospects. But another part has to do with the growth of a position without definition — and its meaning in the sport overall.

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A good place to start is not with Hutchinson, but with his dad, Chris. The elder Hutchinson was Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year in 1992, a linchpin for four straight conference titles and one of Michigan's all-time leaders in sacks and tackles for a loss. What he was not, however, was an edge rusher. Technically.

"There wasn't such a position," Hutchinson says.

Of course, there was the ultimate exception — Lawrence Taylor, who revolutionized defense all by himself — but there were defensive ends and linebackers, and that's it.

Hutchinson remembers playing off the line "maybe twice a game to make the quarterback think about quick passes." But the idea of standing up was truly foreign to him. A generation later, his son prefers that.

"I always had my hand in the ground so I could focus on the guy on top of me," Chris Hutchinson says. "Aidan is able to do that and learn the tendencies of everyone else in his way."

Those tendencies include that of the quarterback. As resistance to the idea of a true dual-threat quarterback faded, the need for a true defensive answer grew. Maybe it's a coincidence that Google Trends searches for "edge rusher" really took off after Deshaun Watson threw for 405 yards and ran for another 73 in that epic 2016 national title game against Derrick Henry and Alabama. But by that point, a quarterback who could throw darts and lead his team in rushing was no longer a unicorn. That same year, the Associated Press panel that votes for the end-of-season awards created a new "edge" category. As the mobile quarterback shifted from nice-to-have to need-to-have, so did a hybrid defender who could do more than bull-rush.

That didn't mean a clearly defined category, though. T.J. Watt is 6'4", 252 pounds, while Myles Garrett is the same height and 20 pounds heavier. Khalil Mack is 6'3" 267, while J.J. Watt is 6'5", 288. Pro Football Focus lists all four players as "Edge Defenders."

"The goal of the edge defender designation is to avoid comparing players who have very different roles," PFF writes. "While responsibilities vary between a base 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker, their roles are more aligned than that of a 3-4 outside linebacker and most 4-3 outside linebackers. So, both 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers get labeled together as edge defenders."

So in other words, an edge rusher is a linebacker masquerading as a defensive end, and a defensive end masquerading as a linebacker.

"It got a little bit too difficult to distinguish between defensive end and guys playing stand-up outside linebacker in the 3-4," says Allen Trieu, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. "People called them all these names — the elephant, the husky, the bandit. If this guy went to a different school, he'd have his hand down."

This positional purgatory has already filtered down into high school — and not just high school football. Sam Hubbard was once a high school safety who committed to Notre Dame for lacrosse. He's now an edge rusher for the Cincinnati Bengals. Karlaftis was a star water polo goalie while growing up in Greece. "These guys used to play basketball," says Florida State defensive coordinator Adam Fuller. "Now it's, 'Do I want to play DE? Kids on the basketball court, they're 6'4", 200, and sophomores. They can see people on Sundays, and they see people who look like them and are good athletes, and they believe if they train that way, they have a chance to do this."

They're not wrong. The traditional football attributes — size and strength — only tell a little bit of the story here. When asked what makes a good edge rusher, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi immediately answers: "Speed. It all starts with speed. Speed and power. One services the other. Size helps. And great coaching. Kids have great ability and no coaching."

Coaching has to start early and adapt quickly — especially since many high school and even college coaches didn't really have a modern-day edge rush position when they played. As recently as a decade ago, a prep player with edge attributes was a "tweener" — in between two positions — and that was not necessarily a good thing. Much like some high school quarterbacks were shoehorned into one position or the other — is he a running back or a wide receiver or a defensive back or a true quarterback? — quite a few tweeners had to put on weight and put their hand in the dirt or shed weight and learn how to backpedal in space. Figuring that out was a positive for a coach, and these days it might actually be a negative. Now a coach who stumbles upon an edge rusher might have an answer rather than a question. And that leaves a window for younger mentors to ascend as rapidly as players. Mafe's coach, 42-year-old Joe Rossi, went from a quality control position in 2017 to the defensive coordinator of the third-ranked defense four years later. (No wonder the Rush Room evolved so quickly.)

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Down at FSU, Johnson's arrival as a transfer from Georgia caused a bit of a ripple in Fuller's defense — just because the new guy was so good at his evolving job. Fuller saw it and seized it, rather than viewing it as a potential dilemma. "In the past I've used the edge in coverage," Fuller says. "I've done that rarely this year. Jermaine's best skills were moving forward. It wouldn't be using his strength."

By the time prospects get to the NFL Scouting Combine, they're tested for some outdated traits. Bench press? The 40? It's like evaluating a new iPhone by ease of dialing: Sure it matters, but it's not going to make the ultimate difference in this day and age.

"Can he bend?" asks Narduzzi. "Can he turn the corner? That's something we look for. Some guys have speed, but they're rough around the edges."

Narduzzi means that figuratively and literally. A lost step at the edge is a lost play.

Rossi agrees: "That trait becomes more valuable in the evaluation process. You'll look past other deficiencies."

So the best draftees have both an explosive mix of elements and a coach who can act as a mad scientist. Rigidity is the worst trait — both physically and mentally. If you can run-defend, great. If you can run-defend and sprint out to defend a bubble screen? Much better. If you can get to the quarterback, great. If you can get to the quarterback on a bootleg or a scramble and bring him down? Much better. That's the state of the game, and that's the state of the position now. You saw it if you watched that epic Bills-Chiefs playoff game in January. Both Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen threw for 300-plus yards and ran for 60-plus yards. More than that, they completely exhausted the defenses they faced. Mahomes performed better statistically under pressure than he did in a clean pocket. So yes, an edge rusher needs to have impact on far more than the pressure plays.

And he needs to tackle, of course. This part is more difficult than ever. (Allen is basically the size of an edge rusher himself.)

"The ability to finish becomes even more important," Rossi says. "You have to win and get a mobile QB on the ground. It's body control, speed, acceleration. You have to press the hip of the ball carrier, get him on the ground."

It's an evolution of the mind, too. In the old days, a pass rusher could simply get the signals from a linebacker in the huddle. Now when there is often no huddle, the edge must figure it out on his own. This is even more crucial when a quarterback runs a read-option and the edge rusher must read the reader — in real time. You can be the best bull-rusher in the stadium, but you will still look foolish if Kyler Murray leaves you crumpled in the backfield.

"There's a saying — 'Don't take the cheese,'" says ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid. "Stand pat, stay disciplined, don't take the cheese."

And even if you're sprinting full-out at a pocket passer, you still need the instincts to raise your arms in time to bat a ball down when a running back is waiting in the flat with no tacklers within 10 yards of him. (Maybe "edge defender" is indeed a better term than "edge rusher.")

So how do you evaluate the raft of edge rushers in this year's draft? The challenge for an evolving position is that the players are also evolving. It's easy to assume that Ojabo is just getting started, as he's really only played one season at edge. It's also easy to assume that Hutchinson is fully developed at his position. What if he has another level? Other Michigan rushers like Rashan Gary have only gotten better after leaving Ann Arbor.

One thing to look for is what Reid calls the "speed-to-power transition." And it's actually a power-to-speed-to-power transition if you think of winning the first battle, then getting to the quarterback and winning that battle.

"Hands are so important," Reid says. "Leverage, whether inside or outside, and knowing the gap."

But perhaps nothing is more important than how an edge rusher influences the offensive game plan. And that's not necessarily something that shows up in sacks. Purdue defensive coordinator Mark Hagen remembers how Notre Dame eased off running quarterback Jack Coan after Karlaftis began blowing up some plays in the Irish's September win over the Boilermakers. (Coan's final rushing stat line: five carries, minus-21 yards.)

"He was just able to react and realize when it was a pass," Hagen says, "and certainly the Notre Dame coaches understood that if they kept running him, some bad things could happen."

There is one other factor — something that all the top edge rushers in this draft have in common: work ethic. To be great at several things, you have to work at several things. And if you're an edge rusher, you have to work at several things on every single play.

"His work with his hands has been non-stop," says Hagen of Karlaftis. "He studies film more than any player I've been around."

"If he stays healthy and goes to work like he will," says Fuller of Johnson, "he'll be an All-Pro player. I feel that way."

That brings us back to Mafe, who perfectly embodies a position that in some ways is younger than he is. He's 6'4", 265, with a 4.57 40-yard dash, a 40.5-inch vertical jump and (wait for it) a 653-pound squat. One of his signature plays was textbook edge: in 2020, when he wrapped up 6'5", 245-pound Michigan quarterback Joe Milton III on a scramble, leading to a fourth-and-30 and a blocked punt. And Mafe comes from a family of athletes: His brother Dami ran track, and sister Tayo played for USA Rugby. It's as if Boye got the perfect ingredients for his future job.

But it's also the work.

"I thought it was just go play ball and go fast," Mafe says, "But there's a bigger picture — you can steal one from film study, from studying tendencies. If you know this formation, or people's tells, that makes the game so much slower."

Looks like someone spent a lot of time in the weight room, and in the Rush Room.

*Editor's note: This feature was written prior to David Ojabo tearing his Achilles during Michigan's pro day on March 18, an injury that is expected to impact where he goes in the draft.

— By Eric Adelson (@eric_adelson) for the Athlon Sports 2022 NFL Draft Guide.