10 pass rushers who will turn '15 draft class into best in a decade

BY foxsports • March 2, 2015

Count among the huge changes in the NFL over the past 10 seasons the vast increase in offensive output, both in yardage gained and in points on the scoreboard.

In the three seasons from 2003-05, the NFL boasted a total of seven teams that eclipsed the 6,000-yard mark in total offense and 19 that averaged greater than 25 points per game. Over the last three seasons, 22 teams slipped above the 6,000-yard mark (In 2013, the Broncos churned 7,317 yards of total offense) while 29 teams finished seasons with 25 points per game averages or better.

While teams try to find ways to keep up offensively, there's been a equal push on defense to thwart these advances. Two ways to diminish the aerial onslaught that's providing most of the offensive push of late is too put five and six defensive backs on the field at the same time, and to find way to get after the quarterback.

Pressure on the passer is a wonderfully effective method to level the playing field with teams that can utilize three to four receivers in the passing game and sometimes add a pass-catching running back to pound the ball down the field. Teams around the NFL are clamoring to find players that can rush the quarterback.

The class of pass rushers in the 2015 NFL draft are both plentiful, and in some cases, ready to produce in the NFL from Week 1. But just how good is this year's cadre of pass rushers compared to year's past?

The 2015 NFL draft could produce the best class of pass rushers the NFL has seen in the last 10 years. But before examining the strengths of this year's group, what year produced the best pass-rush class since 2005?

The 2009 draft class has been headlined by names like Connor Barwin (37.5 career sacks), Paul Kruger (31), Clay Matthews (61) and Brian Orakpo (40). The 2010 class featured Jason Pierre-Paul (42), Everson Griffen (29.5), Willie Young (16, 10 last season) and Greg Hardy (34).

But the 2011 group of pass rushers is by far the measuring stick for draft classes of late.

Four of the top seven sack artists from 2014 came from the 2011 class: Justin Houston (1st, 22), J.J. Watt (2nd, 20.5), Von Miller (6th, 14) and Ryan Kerrigan (7th, 13.5). Two more 2011 alumni rounded out the total of 18 different players to reach double digits in sacks last year: Robert Quinn (14th, 11) and Marcell Dareus (18th, 10).

Three other 2011 draftees were double-digit sack guys in 2013: Cam Jordan (12.5), Jurrell Casey (10.5) and Muhammad Wilkerson (10.5). Aldon Smith, Cameron Heyward, Corey Liuget and Pernell McPhee also add punch to 2011 class.

The 2015 draft class has the horsepower to pass the group from 2011.

With as many as six to eight potentially elite pass rushers slotted for the first round in the 2015 NFL draft, it's easy to focus there, and add a few more second-round gems to come up with 10 players in this year's draft that could lead the 2015 draft class.

USC's Leonard Williams could turn into the next Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy as a piercing pass-rush tool from the interior of the defensive line. But he also has the skills to move around the defensive line, and could become an effective pass rusher from the outside. Because of his versatility, any team that drafts him (he could go as early as No. 2 to Tennessee) could move him around and exploit matchups.

The next two pass rushers that could come off the draft board are Dante Fowler Jr., from Florida and Nebraska's Randy Gregory. Fowler amazed at the NFL combine with feats of speed and strength, and could be drafted as early as third to the Jaguars and be utilized on all three downs on defense. Gregory needs to improve his strength a bit, but has closing speed in droves and long arms to pull down quarterbacks. He's likely a top 10 pick that could very quickly emerge as an every-down defender.

Shane Ray, who's yet another polished defensive line product from Missouri, may have the most advanced pass-rushing toolkit in this year's draft. He's explosive, and once he fights through a block, can advance on a passer quickly. He's a likely top 10 pick too, especially if he impresses at his Pro Day on March 19.

Vic Beasley was a consensus All-American in 2013, and was voted the ACC's Defensive player of the Year in 2014. In his final two seasons at Clemson he notched 25 sacks and 44.5 tackles for loss. He truly impressed at the combine by coming in bigger than expected and still showing off blazing speed and agility.

Alvin "Bud" Dupree from Kentucky and Virginia's Eli Harold round out the likely first-round picks. Harold ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash with a 1.56 10-yard split. He's played with his hand in the ground and has rushed the passer from a standing-up start. Dupree quietly had an impressive combine. He showed a fast 40 at 4.56 seconds and will be explosive in the NFL. But he needs some work navigating NFL offensive linemen.

UCLA's Owamagbe Odighizuwa has intriguing upside. He posted 12.5 sacks for his career with the Bruins and 11.5 tackles for loss last year, even though he wasn't solely used on the outside as a pass rusher. His combine numbers were absolutely freak-like, and once he shows he's a fantastic combination of speed and strength, he'll explode in the NFL.

LSU didn't use Danielle Hunter like an NFL team will. Hunter is going to attack from the outside as a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker. His 4.57 40-yard dash was blazing fast, and he shows flashes of brilliances on film that will come out once he's unleashed full time in the NFL.

Nate Orchard showed scouts at the Senior Bowl that he's not just a lineman. Orchard offered some coverage skills that should get him noticed by teams that need a 3-4 outside linebacker. Once he's in the NFL and playing on all three downs, the pass-rush acumen he profiled at Utah will come to the forefront.



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