Perhaps the most talent-laden position of the class, 2011’s pass-rushers are looking to make an immediate impact on defenses league-wide. Teams selecting all throughout the 1st round will have their shot at as many as twelve of the best QB killers that college football has to offer. Most of these freakish athletes can play with their knuckles in the dirt or standing on their toes in a 3-4. Looking back five years from now, 2011 will surely be remembered as the class of the pass-rusher.
1. Adrian Clayborn, Senior - Iowa
-In a class as outlandish as this, I decided to place Clayborn atop my list because, frankly, he fits the mold perfectly. Clayborn plays with his hand down, shoots past the line-of-scrimmage at snap speed, and forges a beeline for the ball carrier on virtually every snap. A consensus All-American, the Hawk-Eye crusader displayed brilliant footwork and ferocious hands en route to recording 11 quarterback sacks during the 2009 season. At 6’4” and 281lbs, this balanced future superstar won’t be easy to move but he has the lateral movement skills to toss aside blockers and essentially play the role of a linebacker behind the line-of-scrimmage once he dips under the OT. Adrian Clayborn is Dwight Freeney plus a couple of inches. He has the moves of a Pro-Bowl DE and the power of a top-10 pick. Where he will be picked could vary vastly, but I firmly believe he should be the first end drafted on April 28th.
2. J.J. Watt, Junior – Wisconsin
-In 2010, Watt not only led the Badgers in all major defensive categories including sacks, tackles-for-loss, forced fumbles, and blocked kicks – he led the best defense in the Big-10 in these categories. At 6’6” and 295lbs, the Lott IMPACT Trophy recipient fits an ironclad role at DE. With the power to overwhelm tackles and the quickness to make plays all over the lateral part of the field, Watt’s success in the NFL is all but guaranteed. He should be a top-10 pick without question.
3. Ryan Kerrigan, Senior – Purdue
-A lean, muscular physique, instinctive movement, and a knack for creating turnovers earn Kerrigan high praise from my likes and NFL scouts seem to share my views. One of the aspects that give Kerrigan credibility in my eyes is the fact that his stats back up his play. Fourteen forced fumbles and 33.5 sacks don’t lie. He’s a walking game-changer as well an All-American. Another attribute that makes him a highly coveted pick is his motor, which is constantly running. It doesn’t matter if he’s out-sized, overpowered, or simply not as talented as the guy across from him – he will never let himself get outworked, much like Green Bay’s Clay Matthews III. Kerrigan is a prototypical 4-3 end, however, he has the speed to play outside linebacker in most schemes if he can manage to show that he isn’t a dead man in coverage. Kerrigan is a top-15-worth pick that I can guarantee won’t be taken later than 25.
4. Robert Quinn, Junior – North Carolina
-While most experts have Quinn as the top pass rusher on their board, I have some concerns about how his skills will translate to the NFL. While I’m not going to downplay Quinn as an elite prospect, I’d like to draw an eye to his faulty inside-steps. Quinn, off the edge, may be the best player in the 2011 class but he showed that he has much to learn about team run-defense if he wants to be an every down player at the next level. His upside is ample but it will require near-perfect position coaching to unleash his full potential. I think he’ll be a Pro-Bowl caliber player 4-5 years down the road if he isn’t tagged as 2011’s Vernon Gholston by then.
5. Aldon Smith, Sophomore – Mizzou
-At 6’5” and 260lbs, Smith’s potential for greatness far outweighs his risk factor for inexperience. He stunned scouts at his pro-day, gliding like a jet through various drills and exercises, meanwhile, proving that the mechanics of the game come as 2nd nature to him. He’ll almost certainly play a 3-4 outside backer in the NFL, but don’t expect him to be anything but an every-down rusher. If Smith were bulky enough to fit a 4-3 scheme, I might consider him the best DE in this class.
6. Da’Quan Bowers, Junior – Clemson
-Bowers was a hot commodity heading into the offseason, but mysterious injuries and a sup-par performance in his speed and agility drills earn him a big question mark next to his name on my draft board. The former Tiger is a fine specimen, registering at 6’4” and 275lbs. He has the necessary strength to play defensive end and it was formerly believed that he would make an exquisite stand-up linebacker at the next level. However, his newfound drag has left scouts with a cautious mindset as the big day quickly approaches.
7. Cameron Heyward, Senior – Ohio St.
-Yet another prime example of the far outreaching branches of the NFL family tree – Cameron Heyward, the unfathomably talented son of former power-back Ironhead Heyward, has round-1 hopes as we face the 28th. Ohio State’s only legitimate draft prospect will be used as an all-purpose defensive lineman, utilizing his superb muscular 6’5”, 290lb frame to manhandle his way into the backfield. He plays the run and pass equally well, making use of a library of creative hand techniques while maintaining the composure to read his blocks, execute his mirror steps, and contain the ball-carrier before he can find an appropriate hole. Heyward’s services will be a valuable asset at the next level and his dad will be proud to know that I expect him to be picked in the 18-26 range.
8. Greg Romeus, Senior – Pitt.
-A severe knee injury is going to drastically hurt his stock and knock him out of the 1st round, but when facts meet facts, the stat sheet can give you a pretty accurate prediction of his career. Romeus was the Big-East Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 at 6’6” and 270lbs. He made good use of his Mario Williams-esque frame to record 8 sacks and 11.5 tackles-for-loss. Just looking at a picture of Romeus is almost enough to make you quiver. His long solid arms look like they could knock my head right off its perch and he’s proven on the field that manslaughter isn’t the only thing they’re good for. Those arms make it awfully hard for the offensive tackles to win the patty-cake battle up front and if a ball carrier takes a blow across the chest from one of those he’d better hope he remembered to apply the Stick ‘Um.
9. Cameron Jordan, Senior – Cal.
-Jordan has been steadily crawling up everybody’s draft board since his impressive outing at the 2011 Senior Bowl. The 2-time All-PAC-10 selection proved that aside from being a dangerous pass rusher, he can be a versatile threat on the inside, beating his man on the pinch to record 5 tackles. The 6’4”, 283lb product of Chandler, Arizona also recorded 34 sacks over 4 years, cementing his spot as one of the most effective pass rushers in PAC-10 history. Jordan should be picked in the late 1st-early 2nd round.
10. Sam Acho, Senior – Texas
-Acho was nothing less than spectacular during his 4-year letterman career at UT, spawning 23.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, and 37 tackles-for-loss. His constant drive left OTs sweating puddles as he plowed his way right into contention for various awards and recognitions including the Wuerffel and William V. Campbell Trophies. At 6’3” and 260lbs, Acho is going to need to drop some weight if he hopes to gain the competitive speed advantage that most stand-up 3-4 linebackers have at the next level. Otherwise, he may be doomed to endure the career of an effective DE, who just can’t seem to produce at a Pro-Bowl caliber level. Sam Acho could be a big time star in this league; expect him to be drafted in the mid-late 2nd round.
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