When the Denver Broncos drafted Bradley Chubb with the fifth overall pick in 2018 some called him an edge, some called him an outside linebacker and some called him a defensive end. The reason for the confusion was that many NFL fans can’t tell you the difference between the three positions on defense and even whether a distinction exists. So let’s look at the NFL combine to see if a distinction does exist.
For some reason nflcombineresults.com does not have any data for OLBs at the 2020 combine. With that said, all of the other combine data in this come from that site.
The NFL combine forces players to choose a position group, but there are always going to be players who are “tweeners”. If you were a 230 pound wide receiver in college, should you classify yourself as a “move” tight end and run with the tight ends at the combine or stay with the WRs? If you are a 270 pound “hand-in-the-dirt” defensive lineman, should you classify yourself as a light defensive tackle, a defensive end or an extremely heavy outside linebacker?
For players at the NFL combine this seemingly trivial decision can mean a huge difference in draft spot (and rookie contract earnings). Let’s use Aaron Donald as an example. He weighed 285 pounds at the NFL combine in 2014 and was tied for the second lightest DT at the combine that year (Chris Waley at 269 was the lightest). Because he classified himself as a DT, his measurables, relative to other DTs, were amazing. He ran a 4.68 40, put up 35 reps on the bench, had a 32” vert, a 115” broad and ran a 4.39 SS and 7.11 3-cone. All of his drills would have been good for a 260 pound DE or even a 240 pound OLB. By classifying as a defensive tackle he signaled to the teams that might draft him that he plays like and thinks like a defensive tackle (albeit a light one), but he has the athleticism normally associated with much lighter DL players. The future (at that point) defensive player of the year in the NFL was creating his niche by which group he ran with at the combine. As we will see later, a player who went by Justin Watt at the time, choose to classify himself as a DE, despite weighing 290 at the combine.
At the 2018 combine, Chubb decided to run with the DEs, and not the OLBs. The average defensive end at the combine in 2018 was 264.1 pounds. Chubb was 269 at the combine, meaning that he was not that far from the average weight. The lightest DE at the combine that year was 224 (Qualen Cunningham) and the heaviest DE was 297 (DaShawn Hand). You have to wonder why a 224 pound and a 297 pound player would both call themselves defensive ends. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Cunningham to call himself an OLB (where 224 is much more normal) and for Hand to call himself as DT? For what it’s worth, Cunningham went undrafted and never played in the NFL. Hand was taken in the fourth round by the Lions and has had a decent career as a backup DL player for Detroit and Tennessee - starting 11 games over five seasons.
So what normally distinguishes an OLB and a DE at the combine? Looking at the data, the first thing to notice is that defensive ends have always been taller than outside linebackers. Over the history of the NFL combine the average defensive end (blue dots) was about 6’4” and 267 pounds while the average outside linebacker (orange dots) was 6’2” and 240 pounds.
The average height of defensive ends at the combine has been pretty stable since about 1990 - hovering around 76” - while the average weight has bounced around a bit, topping out at 273.3 in 2000 and then dipping all the way back down to 260.6 in 2006.
For OLBs the range is about the same for both height and weight but it’s centered on a lower value. OLB data shown below (notice that 2020 is missing)
The source of the confusion now becomes clear, a light DE and and a heavy OLB can literally have the same height and weight. Take Von Miller, for example. Von weighed 246 at the combine. At that weight he was either an average OLB (average that year for OLBs was 242.7) or a light DE. The lightest DE that year at the combine was Cheta Ozougwu at 247. The two heaviest defensive ends at the combine that year were some guy who went by Justin Watt (290 lbs) and Cameron Heyward (294 lbs). It would surprise no one if Heyward, Watt and Miller all end up in the hall of fame, but back to the combine. In case you didn’t catch it, Justin decided to go by J.J. in the NFL.
To make things more confusing, a heavy DE (blue dots) and a light DT (grey dots) can also have the same height and weight, although in general DTs are heavier and shorter than DEs (see below).
Notice that the average defensive tackle has been 300 pounds or more since the turn of the century.
Much of how guys classify at the combine comes down to how they were used on defense in college. That being said, defenders who rarely drop into coverage are generally called defensive ends even if they are light like OLBs. Enter the term, “edge defender”.
This term was created to denote guys who are the best on the team at rushing the passer - from the edge of the OL. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can’t move them around and use them in the A or B gap, but in general they are going to be found in a 7 or 9 position (C or D gap) attacking the tackle or the tight end (if he stays to block) on a pass play.
With the shift to more and more passing in the NFL, the value of the edge defender has gradually increased to the point where they are now some of the highest paid non-QBs in the league. There are currently three edge defenders (TJ Watt, Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett) who make more than 25 million per year according to overthecap.com. There are five WRs (Tyreek Hill, DaVante Adams, DeAndre Hopkins, Cooper Kupp and A.J Brown), one left tackle (Laremy Tunsil), and one DT (Donald) who make 25 per or more. You don’t want to know how many QBs make more than 25 million per year.
The NFL doesn’t recognize “edge defender” as a position so edge guys are either defensive ends or linebackers for the purposes of franchise tags. The franchise tag value for a “linebacker” in 2023 is 20.9 million, which is second only to QB at 32.4 million. WR and DE both come in at 19.7 million. Using franchise tag money, the NFL says that edge defenders are second only to QBs in terms of value to the team.
Back to the combine, one of the biggest things that separates an OLB from a DE is quickness - or is it? In 2022 the average DE at the combine ran a 4.35s short shuttle and a 7.03s 3-cone. The average OLB that same year ran a 4.33s SS and a 7.04s 3-cone. So in terms of quickness at the combine as measured by those two drills in 2022, OLBs and DEs were equivalent. However this is not the norm. In general OLBs run both the short shuttle and the 3-cone drill in less time on average than DEs. So generally OLBs are quicker on average than DEs, or at least they have been in most years.
In the final analysis it boils down to how a defensive coordinator thinks he can best use the talents of someone who is in the nexus of OLB/DE/DT/Edge. Some DC’s have a role for very light DE/OLBs who are pass rush specialists. Other light OLBs rarely rush the passer, but are coverage specialists (these are needed to slow elite TEs if you don’t have a top notch cover safety).
There is also something to be said for the element of surprise. Ejiro Evero did a great job of using surprise blitzers to generate pressure from an otherwise poor pass-rushing front seven (once Gregory went down) for the 2022 Broncos. Surprise can also work if you drop a guy like Chubb into coverage to confuse the pass protection. Chubb was used in coverage 18% of the time on passing plays with the Broncos in 2022 and then only 5% of the time with the Dolphins. Micah Parsons (listed as 245 lbs) dropped into coverage about half the time for the Cowboys in 2021 then only twelve percent of the time in 2022. Most defensive coordinators are loathe to use their best pass rusher in coverage and only do it for surprise.
According to SISdatahub.com, among volume pass rushers (200 or more pas rush snaps), the five best “edge” guys in 2022 were Josh Uche, Parsons, Jalen Phillips, Matt Judon and Von Miller. Uche was used in coverage 16 percent, Phillips 20 percent, Judon 17 percent and Miller 2 percent. Because of his age, Von was on “snap count restriction” and the DC in Buffalo didn’t want to “waste” his snaps by having him drop into coverage.
In other words, you can find coverage OLBs relatively cheap (like Kenny Young on Anthony Barr), but finding hall-of-fame-level pass rushing OLBs is not easy. Of course finding elite pass rushing DEs is also not easy to do, particularly when you’re not sure what to call them.
The simplest thing to do to distinguish and edge from a defensive end or an outside linebacker is to look at how often they drop into coverage on passing plays. I would argue that if you drop into coverage on more than 20% of passing plays, you are an OLB and can’t call yourself an edge defender, but then you cases like T.J. Watt, you know, Justin’s brother. ;-)
During his first two seasons in the NFL, he dropped into coverage on 39 and 24 percent of passing plays. Does that mean he wasn’t an edge defender? According to SISdatahub.com he accounted for 21 sacks and 61 pressures during his first two years in the NFL. That sure sounds like an edge defender to me. That being said, over the last four seasons he has only dropped back into coverage about 10 percent of the time.
Looking at another high-priced highly drafted edge guy, Myles Garrett, we find that he is much more on the “DE side” of the edge equation. Garrett has played on 2585 passing snaps during his career and has dropped into coverage 65 times over the course of six NFL seasons.
If we look at the first two overall picks in the last draft we have a great case study. Travon Walker is a DE or a light DT. While Aidan Hutchinson is a either a heavy OLB or an average DE. While both are considered edge defenders in the NFL, Walker dropped into coverage 14 percent of the time as rookie and Hutchinson dropped into coverage 4 percent.
Another thing to think about in this discussion is the difference between a good defensive coordinator (Bill Belichick) and a bad one (Vance Joseph). A good DC (or head coach who also fills the DC role) puts his players in the best situation to maximize their talents. There’s a reason why edge guys who play for Belicheat usually have their best seasons; he puts them in situations where they can best deploy their skills.
This not to suggest that Mike Caldwell is a bad DC because he dropped #1 overall pick Travon Walker into coverage as often as he did, but it is interesting to note how two players drafted at the top of the draft, who ostensibly play the same position and are about the same size, can be used so differently during their rookie seasons.
According to SIS Hutchinson has a pressure rate of 10.6% (53 pressures on 513 pass rushes) while Walker 33 pressures on 334 pass rush snaps - 9.9%. So when they rushed the passer they were comparable as rookies in terms of how often the generated pressure, but Walker gets dissed because he only had 3.5 sacks while Hutchinson gets praised because he had 9.5.
It gets even more interesting if you look at the guys taken with the 5th, 22nd and 26th picks in the 2022 draft. All three, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Quay Walker, and Jermain Johnson are all “edge” defenders (and listed as 250, 240 and 260 lbs) - or are they? Thibodeaux dropped into coverage 16 percent of the time in 2022 and generated pressure on 11.5% of his pass rush snaps. For Walker that was 84 percent and 18.0%. So Walker, at least as a rookie, was a coverage OLB. For an OLB that rarely rushed the passer, he was not very effective when asked to rush. Johnson was more like Hutchinson (despite playing much less), he only dropped into coverage two percent of the time and but only generated pressure on 6.5 percent of his pass rush snaps (which is terrible for a first round edge guy).