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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."