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Draft Preview | Edge Rushers, Georgia D-Linemen Figure Prominently in Round 1

Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson & Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux Are 1-2 in a Number of Analysts' Early Mocks

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Defensive line is a primary subunit in the scheme installed by head coach Robert Saleh and D-coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. That being said, the line had some nice individual moments during the past season but the group in general had its struggles. Opponents got up a head of running steak through the line with 138.3 yards/game (29th in the NFL) and 4.48 yards/carry (24th). The unit got 21 of the team's 33 sacks. So the work continues.

Will the Jets go high for an edge rusher? They could team a top rookie with Carl Lawson, returning from last summer's Achilles injury, plus end types John Franklin-Myers, Bryce Huff and newly signed Jacob Martin. Will they target a nose tackle type after Folorunso Fatukasi departed off of his stout 15-start season for Jacksonville to join interior linemen Quinnen Williams, Sheldon Rankins, Nathan Shepherd and Jonathan Marshall?

Either way, it seems likely that DL will be addressed somewhere in the draft, given Saleh's desire to have a strong rotation along the four-man front and GM Joe Douglas' belief in fortifying the trenches on either side of the ball.

Top of the Class
Edge Aidan Hutchinson (6-7, 260), Michigan Hutchinson is the No. 1 pick of the draft for many analysts. He built his four-year Wolverines career to a crescendo with last season's 14.0 sacks — third-most in FBS and exactly one sack a game — and 16.5 total tackles for loss. As he has said, "When you talk about pass rush, I'm going to hit you with speed first. I always hit you with speed-speed-speed." Supporting that approach, Hutch reeled off a 6.73-second time in the 3-cone drill, the fastest Combine time by any DL taller than 6-5 since 2003, according to Next Gen Stats.

Edge Kayvon Thibodeaux (6-4, 254), Oregon — Thibodeaux's a top-three pick for many mockers, usually right behind Hutchinson. The South Central L.A. product is not as large and younger, not as fast but more explosive. He charted up 7.0 sacks and 12.0 tackles for loss for the Ducks last season, 19.0 and 35.5 for his three-year career.

Both top edge rushers are hearing it from the nitpicking crowd. Some analysts cluck at Hutchinson's shorter-than-desirable 32⅛-inch arm length, others at his pro day benchpress after he skipped the bench at the Combine, 28 reps that they say was coach-aided. Then there are some who question Thibodeaux's passion for the game.

Greg McElroy, the former Jets QB who's turned into a prodigious football talking head, had an interesting take on the two: "Even if you look at the top two picks right now, according to everybody, it's Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux. While Aidan's productivity really wasn't consistent, he's a great player, a great culture guy, very good, talented play. But the difference between him and pick 15 is really not that significant. So I would rather have a quantity of picks this year as opposed to a pick with a higher priority."

Best of the Rest
DL Travon Walker (6-5, 272), Georgia — Draft observers don't have a consensus for where Walker will go, pegging him anywhere from second to 15th overall. He was faster in the Combine 40 at 4.51 seconds than either Hutchinson (4.74) or Thibodeaux (4.58) and his 6.89 time in the 3-cone was faster than all D-linemen except for Hutchinson. But his numbers in his third Bulldogs season were so-so (6.0 sacks, 7.5 TFLs, 33 tackles). Lance Zierlein, nfl.com's wordsmith draft analyst, describes him as playing "with violent hands, sluggish feet and all-day aggressiveness" and sees him as a 3-4 end type who initially may come off the field on passing downs."

DL Jordan Davis (6-6, 341), Georgia — It might be a stretch, but not much of one, if the Jets decided at No. 10 to replace Fatukasi with Davis, the fast-moving mountain for the Bulldogs and the top interior DL in this draft. As we noted last month, his 4.78-second Combine time in the 40 was stunning, considering that since 2000, only 10 other 300-plus-pounders on either side of the ball matched or beat that time, and all weighted less than 315 pounds. "Davis is a dominant run defender," draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah wrote, "with plenty of untapped potential as a pass rusher."

Day 3 Diamond
Edge Dominique Robinson (6-4, 256), Miami (OH) If the Jets or any other team doesn't secure a pass rusher higher in the draft, Robinson, the wideout-turned-edge, figures to be waiting low in the third round or high in Round 4. He's explosive and athletic — his 41.0-inch vertical was the Combine's best among D-ends and his 25 reps in the bench were second behind Thibodeaux. He's a work-in-progress with a high upside as a 4-3 end or 3-4 OLB.

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