Draft 2002: Looking at the Defensive Ends

<P><STRONG>Julius Peppers, North Carolina</STRONG> (6-6, 283 lbs., 4.68) Peppers finished his Tar Heels' career with 30½ sacks and 53 tackles for loss, finishing second in school history in both categories.

As a sophomore he led the nation with 15 sacks, which was just one off the school's season record, established by NY Giants' Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor. His incredible athleticism is what has really impressed scouts, since he also starred on the basketball court by scoring 21 points in a NCAA tournament game two years ago.

The ACC All-American recorded 63 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He has an awesome wingspan, the potential to add 10 more pounds to his frame without sacrificing any of his athleticism and once his technique catches up to his physical tools -- watch out.

His 24 reps of 225 pounds and 4.70 average on his 40-times were not overly impressive Pro Day results. The knocks on him are that he does not play with great consistency and lacks ideal football instincts.

Teams will be smart to run right at him, since he cannot anchor his side versus the run and tends to be hooked by blockers at the point of attack. There are games where he will amaze opponents with his pure athleticism, but other times will disappear for long stretches.

Peppers is the type of natural athlete that will succeed in the NFL -- even if it's just as a pass rushing demon, but if he can become a more consistent and aggressive defender than he will outshine players like Courtney Brown (Browns), Simeon Rice (Buccaneers) and Jason Taylor (Dolphins) with ease.

Bryan Thomas, Alabama-Birmingham (6-4. 266 lbs., 4.48) Thomas is a slashing, edge rushing defensive end that gets an amazing amount of penetration and makes big plays with regularity. In fact, he had 148 career tackles, including 56 tackles for loss and 34 sacks. He has bulked up nearly 20 pounds, which will aid him in becoming a consistent every-down player.

His incredible showing at the Combine, including an eye-popping 4.48 40-time, 33 reps of 225 pounds and 34" vertical, likely catapulted him into the Top-30 players in this year's draft. He can still get locked up at the point of attack versus the run and tends to overrun some plays. His pure football instincts have continued to develop as he has gained more experience.

Several teams have toyed with the idea of using Thomas as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but his pass coverage skills would leave a lot to be desired. His ideal pro position will be at right defensive end, so that he can use his speed, quickness and natural rush skills to wreak havoc in opposing team's backfields.

Kalimba Edwards, South Carolina (6-6, 264 lbs., 4.70) - Edwards has amazing size and speed that should follow in the successful footsteps of former Gamecocks' standout John Abraham (Jets). He is a player with few flaws, as he did 24 reps of 225 pounds and had a 34" vertical at his Pro Day. A late season knee injury kept him from participating in any of the post-season All-Star games.

 Teams had wanted to view him at both defensive end and outside linebacker before deciding on his best pro position. He takes on blockers and uses his hands to keep separation, while also being a solid pursuit defender. As an outside linebacker he drops well into coverage and is an excellent blitzer. He moved from defensive end to outside linebacker during his junior campaign and responded with 11 of his 19.5 career sacks.

Another impressive note on Edwards is that he improved his tackle total each season with the Gamecocks. He has the range of motion and ability to bend his knees and turn his hips to play linebacker, but occasionally looks stiff and out of place. His lower-body strength will need to improve before he will be able to adjust to not beating opposing linemen with his first move. Overall, he will be better situated at right defensive end where Edwards has the wingspan, quickness and speed to become a premier rusher.

Dwight Freeney, Syracuse (6-1, 263 lbs., 4.41) Plain-and-simple Freeney is a pass rushing specialist. He has a great initial burst and overall pursuit speed. His ability to turn the corner, get off of blockers and finish strong help make him a defensive playmaker.

The All-Big East defender set single-season records in 2001 by forcing eight fumbles and registering 17.5 sacks. However, in Freeney's biggest college test against Miami in which he faced off against top-rated OT Bryant McKinnie, he was held without a sack as Syracuse was stomped 59-0. After that contest several scouts tried to make comparisons to Corey Moore, who was also an undersized Big-East pass rusher, but that is not fair since Freeney is nearly 25 pounds heavier.

In fact, at his Pro Day he stunned on-lookers by averaging 4.41 on his 40-times at 6-foot-1, 263 pounds. The Steelers and Texans see him as being the ideal 3-4 outside linebacker, while others say that he can still add 5-10 more pounds and equal the success of Huge Douglas (Eagles).

No matter the position Freeney will never be a big-time run stopper, but will anyone really care if he is consistently registering 12-15 sacks.

Charles Grant, Georgia (6-3, 268 lbs., 4.60) - Grant has some very impressive physical tools, but has been very inconsistent in his level of play. He is more quick than fast but shows solid closing speed and lays some leather on his hits. His junior campaign followed a similar trend to the past, as he started off slowly, but came on strong to finish with 12 tackles for loss and six sacks. A right knee injury during his sophomore season really slowed down his progress as a player and may have also taken away a gear of speed. He has excellent hands and they allow him to control and shed blockers.

However, his overall technique, consistency and ability to make plays at the point of attack still need refinement. Grant is also a tad undersized for a left defensive end and not the pure pass rusher teams crave out of a right side player. He has had several impressive workouts, averaging 4.6 on his most recent 40-times, doing 24 reps of 225 pounds and having a 36" vertical. The drop off at this position starts right here -- so look for Grant to be over-drafted early in round two by someone that has a strong need for a defensive end.

 "Sleeper" -- Ryan Denney, BYU (6-7, 276 lbs., 4.86) - Denney has great size, decent quickness and strength to make plays at the point of attack. He really needs some technique work as he tends to get off the ball too high and allows blockers to drive him out of the play. When he stays low, he has the strength to hold the point of attack and the speed to make plays in pursuit. He is an extremely smart, intense player with an amazing motor and leadership skills.

Those who thought he was just another blue collar player were pleasantly surprised at the Combine when he churned out 36 reps of 225 pounds and ran his short shuttle in 4.25. Denney has ideal size and power for a right defensive end to go along with intriguing growth potential -- down the line you can expect to see him play several positions along the defensive line.

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