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Pass rushers will be in demand

This is the second in a nine-part series previewing the NFL Draft on April 30-May 2. Today’s installment: Edge rushers.

// News Sports Reporter

Most of the discussion about the 2015 NFL Draft, as with most of the league’s drafts through the years, is about the quarterbacks.

Will one be selected at the top? Will quarterbacks be chosen in the first two spots? After Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, who will be the next quarterback taken?

But there is another side to that narrative.

Some believe it tells the real story of the draft.

“The NFL is a passing league, so you’re going to need guys to be able to rush the passer,” Vic Beasley said at last February’s NFL Scouting Combine at Indianapolis. “And that’s what this draft is predominantly based on. There are a lot of good pass rushers in this draft.”

Beasley, an outside linebacker from Clemson, is one of them. He’s widely seen as the second-best edge rusher in this year’s college crop, helping his stock tremendously by running a blazing 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the combine.

The best? Dante Fowler Jr., an outside linebacker from Florida.

“My production, and my stats, and the conference I did it in, honestly speak for themselves,” said Fowler, a first-team All-SEC selection last season after leading the Gators with 15 tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries to go along with 8.5 sacks. He had at least one tackle for loss in all but one game in 2014.

At the combine, Missouri offensive tackle Mitch Morse called Fowler the “toughest rusher” he faced.

“He’s got an incredible motor and his size,” Morse said. “It’s remarkable to see at times.”

Fowler and Beasley, who had 33 career sacks and 52.5 tackles for loss, are among a half-dozen or so edge rushers who could be drafted in the first round, giving the position as high a total as any to go on the draft’s opening night on April 30.

That includes Randy Gregory, a defensive end from Nebraska. At one point, he was considered a top-five candidate and was at or near the top of the list of edge rushers.

But Gregory’s stock has slipped because he not only failed two drug tests at Nebraska, but also one just before the combine. That already puts him in stage one of the NFL’s substance-abuse program.

“Randy Gregory is going down on ranking boards because of the off-field issues,” NFL Network draft analyst Charles Davis said. “But if he wasn’t an off-field” question mark, “he was my No. 2 edge rusher behind Fowler. Extremely silky, elusive athlete. He’s got to get better with his hands to keep people away from him because they love to cut-block him and I feel that gets him off his game pretty quickly when that happens early in a game.”

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., sees Gregory being selected “anywhere between eighth and 13th overall,” and that the team that grabs him is likely to believe it is “getting a top-five value.”

Davis likes Fowler’s “really good effort” and ability to play the run. Although Davis thinks Beasley could stand to add some pass-rush moves to his repertoire, “he’s got a chance to be extremely productive in the league.”

The same is true for the player widely regarded as the third-ranked edge rusher in the draft: Shane Ray from Missouri.

“Shane Ray is not the athlete that the other edge pass-rushers are in terms of measurables, but watch him play,” Davis said. “All-out effort, chases plays down on the backside, plenty of wiggle with the pass-rush moves, wins with his hands a lot and gets upfield against people. I think he’s going to be a very good player. I think he’s a better player than he is an athlete. And he’s not a horrendous athlete by any stretch of the imagination.”

Other edge rushers who multiple draft analysts figure will be first-round choices are Kentucky’s Alvin “Bud” Dupree, who ran an impressive 4.56-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and Virginia’s Eli Harold.

“Great workout, great skill set,” Kiper said of Dupree. “A little inconsistent productivity, but the way they used him, moved him around, up and down, and he’s the kind of guy some people look at as a” second-rounder. “But I think he tested so well, he’s going to be in the first, probably late first.”

Next: Linebackers.


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