When Von Miller went down before week one, the Broncos’ playoff hopes died with him. Now that Miller is 32-years-old and a season removed from the sixth most pressures in the league by any linebacker, it may be easier to cling to the fact that he “only” notched eight sacks. If George Paton elects to part ways with Miller, the Broncos would have an additional $18 million in cap space. It would also turn what is currently a long-term question into a pressing one:
Do the Broncos need to chase a top tier edge this year?
Bradley Chubb made the Pro Bowl in his first year back from a season-ending ACL injury while Malik Reed led the team in sacks. They had 92 pressures between them. Because of the injuries above him on the depth chart, Reed is the rare undrafted free agent edge to log almost 1200 snaps across his first two years in the league. He’s battle-tested, so perhaps Miller’s heir-apparent is already on the roster.
On the other hand, Miller had generated more pressure and sacks than Chubb during his “down” 2019. According to Sports Info Solutions’ charting, Chubb finished with 7.5 sacks and 57 pressures while Miller had 8 and 63. It also speaks to the significance of Von Miller that the 2020 defense became blitzed more to account for his absence. If he doesn’t wear orange and blue in 2021, the Broncos will miss him.
If the Broncos’ new general manager elects to hold onto the future Hall of Famer, the looming questions about edge remains. The six-year extension Miller signed in 2016 is set to expire after this upcoming season while Chubb plays out the last year of his rookie contract. Reed will also be a restricted free agent.
It would be prudent for George Paton to draft an edge prospect this season. Where he takes that edge probably depends on his decision with Miller’s contract. What that edge looks like is an open question that may provide some answers on the future of the Broncos’ head coach. Fangio’s defense asks for more space play from his edge players as they’re treated like outside linebackers with coverage responsibilities while Paton’s Vikings drafted traditional 4-3 ends.
With all of the above in mind, I set out to evaluate the 2021 Draft. Since looking at linebackers, I’ve spent the last couple weeks digging into the upcoming edge class. It may not have a Chase Young or Bosa brother at the top, but there are a number of intriguing players for the Fangio defense that could contribute early.
Kwity Paye - Michigan
What stands out most: Tools
Paye has freaky athleticism in a 6’4, 270 lb. frame and displays a nice pad level and strength in how he plays along the edge. The Wolverines asked him to play up and down the line of scrimmage from a wide nine to a zero tech. He has the kind of quickness to be a mismatch for guards at the next level.
It would probably cost the Broncos a first round pick to acquire Paye.
Joseph Ossai - Texas
What stands out most: Burst
Years of Madden and Von Miller has given me a “type” at edge and Ossai fits the archetype. Standing at 6’4 and 254 lbs. Ossai is the bendy speed rusher who can beat a tackle off the snap and rip around the edge from out wide. He looks fluid in space and could be an asset for any defense that wants to drop its edge backers as part of simulated pressures. He needs to continue getting stronger to improve at the point of attack, but effort is not a question.
Ossai should be a lock for the top 50 picks.
Jaelan Phillips - Miami
What stands out most: Rush repertoire
Phillips is closer to Chubb than Von athletically, as he’s on the bigger side at 6’5 and 266 lbs. and displays a solid burst and good lateral quickness. He’s a very good run defender who displays the ability to stack and shed, plus the mobility to string runs out when necessary. He’s a hard defender who knows how to play within the defense, and that maturity shows up in how he attacks blockers. While some prospects in this class have extremely limited to zero snaps in coverage, the Hurricanes asked it of Phillips in every game I watched.
However, there is some uncertainty about Phillips’ draft stock due to medical questions.
Azeez Ojulari - Georgia
What stands out most: Fit
My favorite edge in the 2021 class is a 6’3”, 240 lb. Bulldog from Marietta, Georgia. Kirby Smart asks many of the same things from his outside backers as Fangio does, so there’s less projection to his game. Ojulari has very good lateral mobility that shows up when he’s crashing off the edge and when he’s playing in coverage. He’s an underrated run defender and showed no hesitation in meeting pulling guards against the Crimson Tide.
Some consider Ojulari ED1 in this class.