With no top-shelf quarterback prospects available in this year’s NFL draft, teams have understandably turned to the most valuable position on the defense: edge rusher.
Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson is a strong candidate to be the No. 1 overall selection, and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux and Georgia’s Travon Walker are projected in ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.’s most recent mock draft to also go in the top four. Edge rusher is widely considered to be one of the strengths — if not the greatest strength — of this year’s draft.
So will the 2022 NFL draft’s edge rusher class live up to its reputation?
One tool that could potentially help answer that question is SackSEER, Football Outsiders‘ system for projecting college edge rushers. SackSEER uses pre-draft workout data along with college statistics to project the NFL pass rushing prospects of defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers.
SackSEER agrees with the conventional wisdom that this is a generally strong and deep draft for edge rushers. That said, contrary to some draft hype, there is a considerable degree of uncertainty as to just who is most likely to succeed.
In SackSEER, Hutchinson, Thibodeaux and Walker are all effectively tied — with only a small fraction of a sack separating their projections. Check out more detail on how SackSEER works here.
Below, we take a look at SackSEER’s top prospects in the 2022 NFL draft, along with some similar prospects from previous drafts:
Walker’s draft stock has risen in recent weeks, and in SackSEER he manages to edge Hutchinson and Thibodeaux by a small margin.
Walker’s best SackSEER metrics come from his terrific combine. His workout numbers ranged from good to fantastic. His 4.51-second 40-yard dash was great, especially for a 272-pound player. His 6.89-second 3-cone drill is in the top 10% of times by drafted edge rushers. His 35.5-inch vertical leap and 10-foot, 3-inch broad jump were also good.
Of course, what drags him down a bit — and why many NFL fans are likely skeptical of his high draft position — is his lack of college production. Walker had only 9.5 sacks in three college seasons. Is Walker another workout warrior whose lack of college production foreshadows a disappointing NFL career? Don’t be so sure.
It may be counterintuitive, but workout scores are a more significant indicator of NFL success than college sack rate. Of course, you would prefer a prospect who had both production and strong workouts, but historically, if you had to choose, you would be better-off with the workout warrior than the productive player with bad workouts.
In college, players such as Ezekiel Ansah and Clay Matthews had even fewer career sacks than Walker, and both turned out to be successful NFL players. Meanwhile, Jarvis Jones and Calvin Pace — strong college performers with poor workout numbers — had only a limited impact in the NFL.
Walker is a strong prospect. However, like the other members of this year’s big three, he is not a “generational” prospect, and his projection is weaker than the projection for recent top edge rusher prospects such as Myles Garrett and Chase Young.
Hutchinson is a prospect that SackSEER has difficulty figuring out. On the one hand, Hutchinson was terrific as a senior, recording 14 sacks in 14 games. However, SackSEER is normally skeptical of a prospect with only one good season, especially when that season was the player’s senior season.
In Hutchinson’s case, of course, that gloss would be totally unfair. He did not have a true junior year, as he only played two games in Michigan’s COVID-shortened season. You really would have liked to see what Hutchinson could have done as a junior. To his credit, he finished with a strong passes defensed rate, which does portend professional success.
Hutchinson’s workouts were similarly mixed. His 6.73-second 3-cone drill was terrific — it is better than the times of all but three edge rushers drafted since 1998. His explosion drills, however, were just average.
It all adds up to a projection that is certainly positive — there is more to like than not to like with Hutchinson. However, there are some weaknesses in his projection, which means that Hutchinson is a very good prospect rather than a great one.
Check out NFL draft prospect Aidan Hutchinson’s relentless moments at Michigan as a defensive end.
Thibodeaux has great physical traits, but his pre-draft workouts did not quite match his reputation. He had a great 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the combine. However, he reserved the other workout drills for his pro day, and those numbers were less impressive. His 9-foot, 11-inch broad jump was shorter than what you would expect from a player with a similar 40, and Thibodeaux did not perform a vertical leap. Thibodeaux also ran the 3-cone in 7.32 seconds, which is much, much slower than one would expect from a player with his straight-line speed.
To his credit, similar prospects whose physical traits were hyped but who disappointed in actual workouts — namely, Jason Pierre-Paul and Carlos Dunlap, whose workouts were far worse than Thibodeaux’s — ultimately had NFL careers more consistent with their hype than their workout numbers. Thibodeaux could certainly follow a similar path, and he might just be one of those unusual prospects whose athletic ability just does not translate into combine drills.
Thibodeaux’s production paints a similarly uncertain picture. He had 19 sacks in 30 games. That is much better than average, but falls behind some of the great prospects like Terrell Suggs and Julius Peppers.
Thibodeaux is an excellent prospect with a lot to his credit, and he is certainly worthy of a first-round pick. However, he is not quite a “can’t-miss” prospect, and no result — whether it be future star or bust — should be surprising.
SackSEER projection: 25.4 sacks through fifth NFL season
Scouts, Inc. overall ranking: No. 24
Similar historical prospects: T.J. Watt, Justin Smith
Karlaftis has a strong projection and is an interesting prospect because he has unusual “splits” in his SackSEER numbers. First, Karlaftis performed very well in the two jump drills, recording a 38-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot, 1-inch broad jump. Typically, a player who performs well on the jumps also runs a quick 40-yard dash. However, Karlaftis did not. He ran a 4.78-second 40-yard dash, which is below average.
A similar split occurs with Karlaftis’ production. Typically, edge rushers become more productive as they advance in college, which is why SackSEER is more impressed with a 10-sack junior season than a 10-sack senior one. However, Karlaftis arguably performed best as a freshman. He recorded 7.5 sacks in 12 games as a freshman while recording only 4.5 sacks in 12 games as a junior. Karlaftis, however, did record four passes defensed as a senior, and his projection benefits from a strong passes defensed rate overall.
Karlaftis, in many ways, is the perfect edge rusher for this draft, which has lots of potential but also includes a fair share of question marks.
SackSEER projection: 25.1 sacks through fifth NFL season
Scouts, Inc. overall ranking: No. 30
Similar historical prospects: Will Smith, Harold Landry III
Ojabo is an intriguing prospect with a lot to his credit, but unfortunately he tore his Achilles tendon during Michigan’s pro day.
Ojabo showed great explosion at the NFL combine, recording a 4.55-second 40-yard dash, a 35-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot, 2-inch broad jump. Ojabo loses some points because he did not have a 3-cone time and his time in the short shuttle — a relatively slow 4.55 seconds — implies that his 3-cone would have been much worse than his explosion numbers suggest.
Ojabo was also extremely productive early in his career, a good sign for success. He had 11 sacks in 13 games when just a sophomore at Michigan. However, early production is not a guarantee of professional success, as there have been prospects such as George Selvie who put up strong sack numbers as sophomores and then faded over their final two years. A skeptic might also suggest that Ojabo benefited tremendously from having possible first overall pick Hutchinson drawing attention on the other side. That said, Ojabo also made a few plays other than sacks and finished with a good passes defensed rate.
Ojabo’s injury makes his likely draft position highly uncertain. A team willing to wait a year for Ojabo to recover could end up getting great value if he turns out to be as good as some of his SackSEER numbers suggest.
SackSEER projection: 23.7 sacks through fifth NFL season
Scouts, Inc. overall ranking: No. 10
Similar historical prospects: Bradley Chubb, Kamerion Wimbley
Johnson is a similar prospect to Walker. His combine was excellent, although not quite as good as Walker’s. Johnson ran a quick 4.58-second 40-yard dash and had a great broad jump at 10 feet, 5 inches. Johnson did disappoint a bit at the vertical leap, gaining only 32 inches.
The biggest difference between Walker and Johnson is that Johnson did not run the 3-cone. Walker had an extremely quick 6.89-second 3-cone. SackSEER thinks that Johnson’s 3-cone would have been approximately 7.17 seconds based on Johnson’s other drills.
Johnson was more productive than Walker, notching 11.5 sacks as a senior and recording a slightly better passes defensed rate. However, because workouts are a stronger indicator of edge rusher success than sack production, Walker’s workouts put him on top. Overall, despite being SackSEER’s sixth-ranked prospect, Johnson is fewer than four sacks away from Walker, SackSEER’s top-rated prospect.
Johnson’s proximity to Walker demonstrates just how closely SackSEER rates the top edge rushers in this year’s draft, and how a smart team might be able to snag a promising player at virtually any point in the first round.
Jackson is a bit unusual in that he performed every combine drill except for the 40-yard dash. That said, Jackson was excellent in the drills that he did perform in pre-draft workouts. He notched a 36.5-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot, 7-inch broad jump at the combine and then a 7.09-second 3-cone at his pro day. Jackson had very consistent production at USC, recording nearly the same sack total in each of his three seasons — approximately one sack every two games. He also finished with four PBUs, which gives him a better-than-average passes defensed rate.
Overall, Jackson is a solid prospect and could offer great value where he is currently rated, which is somewhere in the second round — and his SackSEER numbers are not far off from those of the top prospects. Indeed, if you did not adjust for expected draft position, Jackson’s projection would be comparable to that of the big three.
Check out the best highlights that contributed to a stellar college career for USC’s Drake Jackson.
SackSEER projection: 19.5 sacks through fifth NFL season
Scouts, Inc. overall ranking: No. 32
Similar historical prospects: Cliff Avril, Chandler Jones
Overall, Mafe performed better than any prospect in this draft in the “explosion” drills. Mafe recorded a 4.53-second 40-yard dash, a 38-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot, 5-inch broad jump — which are all great numbers. However, he fared less well on the agility drills, and his 3-cone time of 7.24 seconds was much slower than you would expect for an edge rusher who can run a sub-4.6 40.
Mafe’s projection also suffers a bit from lack of production. Mafe recorded only three passes defensed in 31 games, which translates into a below-average passes defensed rate. His sack numbers were just slightly above average for a drafted edge rusher — he recorded seven sacks in 12 games in 2021 and 4.5 sacks in six games in 2020.
Like many edge rushers in this draft, Mafe’s projection suggests some flaws, but his strong workout numbers suggest that he could have a tantalizing upside.
SackSEER projection: 12.1 sacks through fifth NFL season
Scouts, Inc. overall ranking: No. 136
Similar historical prospects: Maxx Crosby, Mark Anderson
This year, SackSEER might differ slightly with the conventional wisdom as to whether player X should be ranked over player Y but agrees with the general area where draftniks rate each edge rusher. The biggest exception, however, is Sam Williams, and the closer you look at his numbers, the more you wonder why he is flying under the radar.
Williams has a profile that reads like a high pick. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds at 261 pounds. His vertical leap was a bit disappointing at 32.5 inches, but that sticks out because he performed a 12-foot, 3-inch broad jump, which is very good. He rounded out his combine performance with a 7.03-second 3-cone at his pro day, suggesting that he has good lateral movement to go with his explosion.
Williams also had 12.5 sacks in 13 games on an SEC team last season. His production was just OK before last year. Overall, his production stacks up just fine against the other edge rushers available. Although it is a good draft for edge rushers generally, this year’s class is a bit weak in sack rate. Williams’ career sack rate is no worse than that of Travon Walker, Aidan Hutchinson, Jermaine Johnson and many other highly rated prospects. Williams’ worst metric is his passes defensed, but his workout numbers make up for it.
The quintessential SackSEER sleeper is a consistently productive small-school edge rusher with lots of passes defensed. Historically, NFL teams tend to underrate productive edge rushers from small schools, overrate unproductive edge rushers from large programs, and completely ignore pass defensed rate. Interestingly, Williams checks none of those boxes, and instead fits the profile of a player who would typically command a high pick. However, for some reason, he seems to be slotted in the fourth round.
SackSEER is based on a statistical analysis of all edge rushers drafted in the years 1998 through 2019, and measures the following:
The edge rusher’s projected draft position. Specifically, the rankings from ESPN’s Scouts Inc.;
An “explosion index” that measures the prospect’s scores in the 40-yard dash, the vertical leap and the broad jump in pre-draft workouts;
The prospect’s score on the 3-cone drill;
A metric called “SRAM” which stands for “sack rate as modified.” SRAM measures the prospect’s per-game sack productivity, but with adjustments for factors such as early entry in the NFL draft and position switches during college;
The prospect’s college passes defensed divided by college games played.