One of the popular debates of this year's NFL Draft is who the first edge rusher selected will be between Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux, the two consensus top pass rushers in this class.
At this point, Hutchinson is the favorite in the clubhouse, but we still have over a month to go until the draft, with pro days and draft visits still on the docket.
While it will be interesting to see where both players ultimately go in the draft, Hutchinson and Thibodeaux aren't the only edge rushers coming out this year that are expected to have an immediate impact in the NFL. In fact, there may be another rusher in this class who could ultimately be a better pro than either Hutchinson or Thibodeaux.
Florida State's Jermaine Johnson II, Michigan's David Ojabo and Purdue's George Karlaftis were all expected to be first-round picks, but the Achilles injury suffered by Ojabo at Michigan's pro day last week might affect his first-round status. Players like Travon Walker (Georgia), Boye Mafe (Minnesota), Arnold Ebiketie (Penn State), Kingsley Enagbare (South Carolina), DeAngelo Malone (Western Kentucky), Nik Bonitto (Oklahoma) and others could also be impact players early in their NFL careers.
"I think I'm the best edge rusher in this draft," Johnson said at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this month. "Because I do everything exceptionally well. I play the run as well as I play the pass. Nobody in this class does that like I do."
The reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Johnson transferred from Georgia, where he had five sacks in seven games in 2020, to Florida State this past season. In 12 games with the Seminoles, Johnson registered 70 tackles (33 solo), 17.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He also had a terrific Combine, measuring in at 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds with 34-inch arms. He ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds with an elite 1.55 10-yard split. He also had a 32-inch vertical and 10'5" broad jump.
Before that standout week in Indianapolis, he dominated the Senior Bowl in Mobile. Johnson is scheme versatile, and there was a lot of buzz around him at the Combine as a player who might come off the board sooner than some people think.
"The only question mark on me is I've had this one year of really good production," Johnson said. "So that's a question mark, but I think if I had the same snaps before, I would've done the same thing. So if I'd done it two years consecutively, I don't think it'd be a question."
Ojabo has only been playing football since his junior year in high school, so the ceiling is really high for him. Hutchinson even joked at the Combine that there were times he was floored by some of the things Ojabo didn't know about the game, and he was still able to produce the way he did for the Wolverines this past season. In his only season playing significant snaps in 2021, Ojabo racked up 11.0 sacks and 12.0 tackles for loss playing opposite Hutchinson.
"I'm just getting started," Ojabo said at the Combine. "I've only played one year of true college football, so I'm just learning for sure."
The raw athletic skills and traits have teams excited about the kind of player Ojabo could become as a professional, but how will the Achilles injury affect his draft stock?
View photos of WR DJ Chark arriving in Detroit.
Walker had a terrific Combine, measuring in at 6-foot-5, 272 pounds and running the 40 in 4.51 seconds. He showed explosive traits in the vertical (35.5 inches) and broad jump (10'3"). He also had a good pro day at Georgia, showing off his position versatility. He has likely put himself into the first-round conversation.
"At University of Georgia, we play a lot of different defenses and so therefore you can be scattered all out on the field from playing a five technique, a four I on the front, you play a three," Walker said at the Combine.
Walker said playing the five technique, getting dirty in the run game and coming off the edge is where he thinks he projects best in the NFL.
The Detroit Lions need some help along their defensive edge this upcoming season, even with Romeo Okwara expected back from an Achilles injury suffered last season. The Lions' 30 sacks were the third fewest in the league last year.
The popular prediction is that Hutchinson is their guy if he gets past Jacksonville at No. 1. It makes sense -- local kid who grew up in Plymouth and played in Ann Arbor.
But if Hutchinson is off the board at No. 1 and Thibodeaux isn't their guy, there are edge rushers in this draft later in the first round and into Day 2 – the Lions also have the second pick in Round 2 – that can come in and have an impact right away on a young Lions' defense.