*Disclaimer: We classify edge rushers as 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers
Current Situation: The starters at the moment are Dont’a Hightower and John Simon. Reserves on the edge are Brandon Copeland, Deatrich Wise, Chase Winovich, Shilique Calhoun and Derek Rivers
Level of Need: Moderate to High
SHS Take: Edge rusher is always a complex position for the Patriot’s versatile front. They move players all over the defense and guys rarely stay in one place each play. Hightower is a prime example, as he played equally inside and on the edge last year. Same with Jamie Collins, and to a lesser extent Kyle Van Noy. Guys like Winovich, Simon, and Copeland are almost exclusively edge players, and will almost certainly have sizeable roles next season. What they could really use is another chess piece to rotate between the edge and on the inside, a la Hightower, Ninkovich, Collins, Phifer, etc.
Early Round Fits
A.J. Epenesa – Junior, Iowa, 6’5″, 275 lbs
Simply put, Epenesa is a perfect edge rusher for a Bill Belichick defense. He’s tall, strong, and flat out disruptive. At a whopping 275 pounds, Epenesa has the power to set the edge consistently and get to the quarterback when given the opportunity to rush the passer. The former Hawkeye is versatile as well, playing on the interior during obvious passing downs, something the Patriots have always valued heavily (see Chandler Jones, Trey Flowers, Jabaal Sheard, etc). Epenesa flourished in 2019 when given a shot to start, posting 11.5 sacks and 49 tackles in 13 games. Add in the fact that he played for noted FOB (friend of Bill) Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, and you have a nearly flawless Patriot prospect.
Projection: Mid to Late 1st
NFL Comparison: Arik Armstead
Yetur Gross-Matos – Junior, Penn State, 6’5″, 266 lbs
A prototypical 4-3 defensive end, Gross-Matos offers a wiry frame and fantastic first step. He was highly productive as a Nittany Lion, producing 8 sacks in 2018 and 9.5 in 2019. The Patriots haven’t taken many prospects like Gross-Matos in the past, usually going for thicker players who sacrifice quickness for strength, but if they are looking to switch things up and add more speed to their front seven, Gross-Matos would fit in nicely. He played with his hand in the dirt and rushed with reckless abandon at Penn State, so it would take some serious adjusting to become more disciplined, but Gross-Matos has the ability to make the necessary changes. Chandler Jones is a prime example of a guy who learned how to set the edge and stay in his lane when rushing, things Gross-Matos will need to do if he is to succeed as a Patriot.
Projection: Late 1st to Early 2nd
NFL Comparison: Yannick Ngakoue
Mid Round Fits
Anfernee Jennings – Redshirt Senior, 6’2″ 256 lbs
Jennings is a throwback 3-4 outside linebacker of the old Patriots regime. Watching his tape had me reminiscing of the days when McGinest and Vrabel set the edge each play. He’s a true outside linebacker in that he can drop back into coverage in addition to rushing the passer. When getting after the quarterback, Jennings has excellent technique and stays disciplined in his lane. The Alabama native’s main strength is his run-stuffing and edge setting, something Belichick values heavily. Playing for an NFL style defense at Alabama would give Jennings a leg up in winning playing time early in the season. A team captain in 2019 for the Crimson Tide, Jennings would provide quality leadership for a Patriots squad in need of some new life.
Projection: Early 3rd to Mid 4th
NFL Comparison: LaMarr Woodley
Late Round Fits
Jason Strowbridge – Senior, North Carolina, 6’4″, 275 lbs
Strowbridge is another versatile player that can be moved all along a defensive front. His 275-pound frame allows him to line up on the edge with his hand in the dirt in the five-technique, but also kick in inside in the three-technique in base defense. He is a good run defender and displays excellent strength at the point of attack. The former Tar Heel will never be a superstar pass rusher, but as a complementary chess piece that can move around the defense, Strowbridge provides excellent value.
Projection: Mid 4th to Mid 5th
NFL Comparison: Carlos Dunlap
Trevis Gipson – Redshirt Senior, Tulsa, 6’3″ 261 lbs
An intriguing option on the edge, Gipson possesses the athleticism and measurables of a top-tier edge rusher but failed to dominate while playing in the FCS. The Texas native is extremely raw, and frequently runs past the quarterback, but his explosiveness and pure athleticism make him a tantalizing prospect. If he can improve in those areas, I could see him being an impact sub-rusher in obvious passing downs early in his career. He’s no doubt a sizeable project but could reap serious rewards. With his athletic ability, he might be a candidate to move to off-the-ball linebacker, similar to Jamie Collins in 2013 coming out of Southern Mississippi as an edge player.
Projection: Mid 5th to Late 6th
NFL Comparison: Willie Young
Alton Robinson – Senior, Syracuse, 6’3″, 264 lbs
Robinson is another raw talent with superb athleticism. His run defense is porous at times, especially at the point of attack, but his burst is excellent and can have tackles twisting and turning in a hurry. The former Orangeman isn’t incredibly polished, and he needs more pass-rushing moves to become an effective edge defender, however, the talent and pure ability are noticeable. It would be interesting to see how another Syracuse edge rusher worked here after Chandler Jones was such a success. As a pure pass rusher in sub formations, Robinson could flourish in a plethora of defensive systems.
Projection: Late 5th to Early 7th
NFL Comparison: Charles Harris
*All stats and measurables via NFL.com and Walter Football