The offense-heavy first round in the 2021 draft was almost guaranteed, as an EDGE defender wasn’t selected until the 18th pick. Unlike in other years, there wasn’t two or three elite players at the position at the top of the board. Things will change in 2022, as there is a bevy of pass rushers going to be available in the draft.
The Falcons are going into the 2021 season with one real starter at the EDGE position — Dante Fowler. Even though he had a down year in 2020, there is a clear difference in Fowler’s burst, pass rush arsenal, and overall effectiveness compared to Steven Means, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Brandon Copeland, and Adetokunbo Ogundeji. All four of those players mentioned are backup-level EDGE defenders at this point in their respective careers, so even if Atlanta’s pass rush surprises people, Terry Fontenot will certainly address the position in the upcoming draft. I wouldn’t be surprised if Atlanta came away with two or more of these prospects.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon
This is the consensus blue-chip pass rusher — the Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa, or Chase Young of the 2022 class. Thibodeaux is one of the best prospects in this draft class, regardless of positions, and will certainly be one of the first few picks selected in next April’s draft. If the Falcons have another four-win season, they could be in the sweepstakes for him. What makes him so great is his incredibly high ceiling and his insane athletic traits. Thibodeaux is explosive, flexible, and has great length. At 6’5″, he has the height and frame to add weight without losing much of his play speed, which is already elite. He’s not only an effective pass rusher, but he’s also surprisingly impressive against the run.
Drake Jackson, USC
As a pure scheme fit, Jackson is perfect for Dean Pees’ defense. He has played a hybrid role in the Trojans defense over the past couple of seasons as both a defensive end and outside linebacker. At 6’4″ and 255 pounds, Jackson has the build to kick inside, whereas Thibodeaux would have to put on substantial weight. He has excellent athleticism for his size with the flexibility to rush the passer from multiple alignments, which is exactly what Pees needs.
George Karlaftis, Purdue
Standing at 6’4″ and 275 pounds, the Purdue product is easily the most physically imposing EDGE defender in this draft class. Similar to Jackson, Karlaftis has positional flexibility to play both inside and outside. He has a rare combination of size, power, and explosiveness — he’s able to win with pure strength and surprisingly athletic ability. His motor has to be one of the best in this class, and as a freshman, he recorded 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. As far as a scheme fit, Karlaftis would mesh well with what they’re trying to in Atlanta.
Zach Harrison, Ohio State
Harrison will not be as highly coveted as the Bosa brothers or Chase Young was, but he’s still continuing the Ohio State pass rusher pipeline. Standing at 6’6″ and 268 pounds, he’s able to win with pure size and strength. Still, what they do so well at Ohio State is developing hand usage in their pass rushers, and Harrison is no different. He can win with shockingly violent hand usage, and with more consistency, he’ll be looked at as a premier pass rusher in this class.
Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati
Sanders opted to return to school in an attempt to raise his draft stock, and he might be one of the best EDGE defenders in this draft. Sanders recorded 31 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 6 sacks while breaking up 5 passes in the 2020 season. He’s got all the measurables at 6’5″ and 258 pounds with incredible length. His upside is certainly tied to his athletic ability — explosiveness and flexibility to bend around edges. If he can continue his hand development, Sanders will rocket up draft boards.
This is just five of what seems like 20 potential starters in this EDGE defender class. Below are another dozen prospects that will surely be on Atlanta’s radar come April of 2022. I fully expect the Falcons to come away with two of these guys in next year’s draft.
Kingsley Enagbare, South Carolina; Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan; Brenton Cox, Florida; Ochaun Mathis, TCU; Will McDonald IV, Iowa State; Ali Gaye, LSU; Xavier Thomas, Clemson; Tyreke Smith, Ohio State; Boye Mafe, Minnesota; Owen Carney, Illinois; Nick Figueroa, USC; Justin Eboigbe, Alabama; Josh Paschal, Kentucky; Tariqious Tisdale, Mississippi; Solomon Byrd, Wyoming; LaQuan Johnson, Central Michigan; Andre Carter, Western Michigan; Thomas Booker, Stanford; Deslin Alexandre, Pittsburgh.
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