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2020 NFL Combine preview: Edge rushers the Detroit Lions should watch

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With next to no pass rush in 2019, the Lions will be paying close attention to the edge rushers in this class.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Holiday Bowl - USC v Iowa Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Trey Flowers was one of the best players in a Lions uniform on either side of the ball in 2019. He was a one-man wrecking crew, wreaking havoc against any blocker that faced him and making life difficult for offensive tackles on a weekly basis. While that’s all good, the important part of that sentence was the “one man” part, as there wasn’t a single pass rusher on the Lions roster who provided anywhere near the benefit that Flowers did at any point on the season. With no meaningful pressure elsewhere, offenses keyed in on Flowers and pretty much ignored everyone else. The Lions need to improve their pass rush in 2020 and the team will certainly be watching every edge rusher in this class intently at the NFL Combine.

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Note: All RAS links will be updated during and after the Combine with official and tentative metrics. This will continue throughout the draft season.

A.J. Epenesa, Iowa

A.J. Epenesa RAS

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If Matt Patricia were in a football player lab and was tasked with putting together the perfect defensive lineman for his scheme, the output would be Iowa pass rusher A.J. Epenesa. At 6-foot-6 and 280 pounds with long vines for arms, Epenesa isn’t the typical edge physique for most defenses. For the Lions, however, he’s exactly what they’re looking for opposite Trey Flowers. Imagining a three-man rush with Flowers, Hand, and Epenesa isn’t nearly as depressing as Flowers, Robinson, and Okwara, as the former has the potential to actually get pressure while the latter, as we saw, does not.

Anything more complex than a three-man rush offers even more possibilities because you can do so much with Flowers and Epenesa to move them around the line and exploit matchups. The Combine is big for Epenesa as he’s expected to measure closer to a tackle than an end, but that’s perfectly fine for a 3-4 Edge type like Epenesa, just look to DeForest Buckner of the 49ers for an example of how it can work.

Bradlee Anae, Utah

Bradlee Anae RAS

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While Matt Patricia was in the lab building his perfect defensive lineman, he went ahead and built his perfect edge rusher as well. Anae operates at 100 percent every snap, he never slows down, he never wears down, he never stops trying to punish whoever is across from him for daring to wear a different uniform. There are still some physical questions that need to be answered regarding his length and overall athleticism, but if Anae even measures out as Flowers did (which was only just alright), then you’re looking at a likely day two pick for this football team.

Curtis Weaver, Boise State

Curtis Weaver RAS

ESPN High School Recruiting Scouting ReportWhat's On Draft | The Draft Network | DraftTek | Tankathon | NFL Draft Lounge | This player is a prospect in the 2020 NFL Draft. All metrics that have been recorded are unofficial if the metric is highlighted in yellow.

Weaver does a really good job of gaining leverage quickly and using his length to put his blockers at a disadvantage. More of an explosive rusher than one who will bend the edge each play, Weaver won in college because he won at the snap and didn’t relinquish that advantage. His style of play could lead to flying past the QB, which is something the Lions staff tends to avoid, but his physical traits and the ease with which he wins at the snap makes him an intriguing option to replace Romeo Okwara or Devon Kennard.

Julian Okwara, Notre Dame

Julian Okwara RAS

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A far more dynamic athlete than his brother, Romeo, Okwara could sneak into the first round with a strong Combine but is more likely going to be one of the early day two selections. Okwara would likely flip between Kennard’s and his brother’s job in the defense and could provide an upgrade over either or both. He tends to be a bit mechanical as a pass rusher and needs to learn a bit more to provide more of a threat, but would slide into this defensive scheme without much concern of a drop off in play.

K’Lavon Chaisson, Louisiana State

K'Lavon Chaisson RAS

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Looks every bit the part of an elite athlete on tape with top-tier explosiveness and speed for the position and good bend. The questions with Chaisson mainly deal with production as he only has 9.5 career sacks in college and only 19.0 tackles for a loss. The lack of production is a bit misleading if you watched him this season, however, as he was a true force for a very talented, championship defense. With first-round hype around his tangibles, teams are going to be taking quite the gamble that they’re going to get a Danielle Hunter and not a Dion Jordan.

The Others

Alex Highsmith, Charlotte (RAS)

Pride of Detroit’s Mansur Shaheen already did a fantastic write up of Alex Highsmith back in December, which you can read here.

Alton Robinson, Syracuse (RAS)

Had a bit of a down year in 2019, but looks like he has explosive athletic traits and could be an end or a Jack linebacker in a multiple scheme.

Anfernee Jennings, Alabama (RAS)

As I talked about before, Jennings isn’t expected to measure all that well at the Combine so this is huge for him. Still fits the type of things Matt Patricia likes to do here.

Carter Coughlin, Minnesota (RAS)

Quick and athletic, but severely undersized as an edge rusher for most schemes. Probably a Jack in the NFL if he is able to get his weight up.

Chase Young, Ohio State (RAS)

The best defensive player in this draft class, Young is going to get plenty of attention at the Combine and is expected to challenge historical marks overall.

Chauncey Rivers, Mississippi State (RAS)

A versatile player who can play multiple spots both with his hand in the dirt and standing, questions about explosiveness and processing speed need to be answered.

D.J. Wonnum, South Carolina (RAS)

Medicals will be key as he’s dealt with injuries, but also has to show that he’s athletic enough to deal with NFL blockers.

Darrell Taylor, Tennessee (RAS)

Great athletic traits on tape, but nearly nothing in terms of technique and development, this is a true projection of a player.

Derrek Tuszka, North Dakota State (RAS)

A bit of his mess with his hand usage, but looks like he has plus athletic traits and a strong motor on tape.

Jabari Zuniga, Florida (RAS)

Has good size and appears to have good athletic ability but it seems like you only get to see it when he’s out in space. Not sure if that is processing or just initial burst.

James Smith-Williams, North Carolina State (RAS)

A real rocket launcher, has plenty of athletic traits but a lengthy injury history to contend with.

Jonathan Greenard, Florida (RAS)

Athletic questions could be answered at the Combine, but has some positional versatility that some teams will value.

Josh Uche, Michigan (RAS)

Dynamic speed rusher who just dominated the Senior Bowl practices and in game, would be an ideal Jack in Matt Patricia’s scheme to replace Kennard.

Kendall Coleman, Syracuse (RAS)

Not a very bendy prospect, Coleman has a good first step and decent enough hand usage to be on several teams’ radars.

Kenny Willekes, Michigan State (RAS)

A consistent, hard-working player who is more cerebral than he is a pure athlete.

Khalid Kareem, Notre Dame (RAS)

Better at rushing from the interior than the edge, relying on power and explosion far more than speed and bend.

LaDarius Hamilton, North Texas (RAS)

A good first step and speed will get scouts excited to return to his tape if he does well at the Combine.

Marlon Davidson, Auburn (RAS)

A larger edge for a three-man front or an interior rusher otherwise, he’s quite agile for a bigger dude and would be an interesting fit for a team that values bigger DL.

Qaadir Sheppard, Mississippi (RAS)

After transferring from Syracuse to Ole Miss, Sheppard acclimated to playing in multiple fronts but wasn’t able to find much production. He netted only 2.0 sacks total in his entire college career.

Terrell Lewis, Alabama (RAS)

Great length that he uses very well, Lewis looks exceptional rushing the passer. Needs work as a run defender, which might make him less desirable by this staff, but the traits are there.

Trevis Gipson, Tulsa (RAS)

Some good agility around the corner, but functional strength and explosiveness up front could use some refinement.

Trevon Hill, Miami (RAS)

A better pass rusher than run defender, has some decent bend and speed but needs a lot of work on his technique.

Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State (RAS)

Excellent size and length, Gross-Matos is one of the best “block of clay” prospects in the country. He’d have to take on new responsibilities as the Jack in this defense, but it’s intriguing.

Zack Baun, Wisconsin (RAS)

He doesn’t flash very strong athletic traits, but has a good motor and a strong workman attitude that coaches will like.