2022 NFL Draft Preview: Edge rusher sleepers and Broncos fits
The Denver Broncos need more pass-rushing help. Once a great strength of this team, the Broncos pass-rushers aren’t what they used to be. For example, when the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, they were bringing guys like Shaq Barrett (who has gone on to become a superstar) and Shane Ray (a first-round pick) off the bench behind Hall of Fame edge defenders Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
They have talent there now, perhaps Pro Bowl-level talent, but there are too many questions and not enough depth for them to avoid this position in the draft. Former No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb is not a bust, but he hasn’t been the player the Broncos thought he would be due to various injuries over the last few years. Chubb has talent, but will he ever be the same again?
They made a big move in free agency, snaring one of the top edge players available in former Dallas Cowboys rusher Randy Gregory. This gives them a great 1-2 punch, not quite Miller and Ware, but a lot of potential is there. However, like Chubb, Gregory has injury concerns and is no lock to play a full season – something he’s never done as a pro.
Good thing this draft class is chock full of edge talent. Not only is this class top heavy, with plenty of potential stars available, but there are mid-round players who could turn into great pro pass-rushers as well. The Broncos have five picks in the top 120 of this draft, and I think two of those picks need to be edge rushers.
In this article, I will look at the market for the position. I will also write about sleepers at the edge position and some players who could fit what the Broncos need in the 2022 NFL Draft.
I have six edge players as top-20 picks in this class, and there may be a seventh player who gets selected in the first round. As I stated earlier, this is a top-heavy class and there is a ton of talent coming into the league at the position. Since the Broncos don’t have a first-round pick thanks to the Russell Wilson trade, I won’t belabor the top edge rushers – although I easily could! I don’t think the Broncos move up for an edge player, and certainly moving into the first round from the end of the second round would be a big jump. The talent is there to be sure, but there’s plenty of depth and I can get you starters going into Day 3 of the draft.
Aiden Hutchinson (Michigan) is arguably the best player in this draft. He could be the no.1 overall pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and he’s got the makeup of an instant impact player at the pro level. Hutchinson can win from the edge in multiple ways: power, speed and quickness.
Kayvon Thibodeaux (Oregon) plays with a high football intelligence and knows how to get after the passer. His bend-and-burst is the best in this class, and he uses his quickness to make up ground and close on the passer before he can release the ball. Thibodeaux is constantly compared to former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney – and that’s an apt comparison.
Travon Walker (Georgia) has the build of a modern-day pass-rusher, weighing in at 270-ish pounds. He’s got freaky athletic traits for a man his size. He has multiple moves to get after the passer, but he doesn’t know how to stack them quickly just yet. That should change with pro coaching.
Jermaine Johnson (Florida State) was one of my favorite players to watch at the Reese’s Senior Bowl earlier this year. I liked his game on tape before the all-star game, grading him as a first-round pick. With an outstanding performance in multiple practices, Johnson increased his stock for those who didn’t have him graded properly. He wins with strength and length – a strategy that will serve him well as a pro.
George Karlaftis (Purdue) is a high-motor player who just doesn’t quit. He’s known to be a hard worker, and he wants to learn as much as possible when studying an opponent. Because he lacks elite twitch, Karlaftis makes up for it with hustle and heart. He can chase players down when the play goes away from him, and he never lets up – often getting stronger as the game goes on while his opponent wears down.
Arnold Ebiketie (Penn State) is maxed out in terms of weight (around 250 pounds). He wins with twitch and length, getting through his arc bend quickly. Ebiketie is still developing pass-rushing moves, but he’s got the upside to be a Pro Bowl player due to his length, twitch and violent striking hands.
Logan Hall (Houston) is a freak athlete at 280 pounds, and he played all over the defensive line. While he primarily played inside, Hall has shown the ability to rush the passer from the outside where his most likely spot will be in the NFL. He’s a disruptive player with position versatility who should hear his name called on day one or early in day two.
This is my favorite section of this article, because there are quite a few sleepers who could turn into stars at the pro level available in this draft. I remember watching Trey Hendrickson (FAU) years ago at the East-West Shrine Game (2017) and urging the Broncos (on the air) to draft him as a sleeper in the mid rounds. Instead, the Saints picked him up in the fourth round and he’s become one of the most dangerous EDGE players in the game today (now with the Bengals). I feel like we could have a couple of Hendrickson-like players in this class – and maybe more.
Myjai Sanders (Cincinatti) might be my favorite pass-rusher for the Broncos. I was excited to see him at the Senior Bowl earlier this year (like Jermaine Johnson), and he did not disappoint. I like the way he turns speed into power. Not every young rusher can do this, and those who can are ahead in their development. Sanders has weight fluctuation issues (he gained 20 pounds between the Combine and his Pro Day) that gives scouts some pause. If he maintains his weight (around 250 pounds now), Sanders is a mid-round pick with the upside to be a starter in the league someday.
DeAngelo Malone (Western Kentucky) is my “canary in the coal mine” for edge players in this draft class. When he goes off the board, likely on day three of the draft, there’s not much in terms of quality rushers behind him. Some players coming into the NFL don’t have much experience playing football. That’s not the case with Malone as he’s played football since he was four years old. Malone is a pure speed rusher who has great burst to get after the quarterback.
I would love the Broncos to scoop up Sanders and Malone in the third and fourth round of the draft, but there are other options I need to highlight, as well. Any of these guys would be fine picks for the Broncos, and again – I think they need to add two edge defenders as soon as possible.
Nik Bonitto (Oklahoma) will be a late second- or early third-round pick in the draft. The Broncos should see him on the board when they pick at No. 64 overall, but he won’t be there much longer (if he’s even on the board) much longer after that. Bonitto is a “moves” guy and not a “power” guy. However, he has the athleticism to turn in coverage and make plays downfield in addition to what he can do from the edge.
Cameron Thomas (San Diego State) was a player I wanted to see at the Senior Bowl, but a hamstring injury on the first day of practice knocked him out of action early. On film, Thomas is one of the most consistent players I’ve watched – regularly making plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. He’s versatile and can move across the defensive line. He played nose tackle for the Aztecs before moving outside to rush the passer over the last couple of seasons. Even dealing with the injury at the Senior Bowl, I think he’ll be a second-round pick.
Josh Paschal (Kentucky) is a player we all can root for. He came back from a cancer diagnosis in 2018, requiring multiple surgeries and having to learn to walk again. Paschal returned from cancer and set records with the Wildcats. He understands plays and diagnoses quickly as he’s fighting off the block. He’s a smart player with a ton of heart – and I would love if the Broncos picked him up in the second or third round.