The NFL draft can be relentless, maddening, career-defining or career-crushing. For scouts and general managers, so much rides on getting things right.
And there are very few sure things.
So when the opportunity or necessity comes around to draft a pass-rusher, it can be met with a sigh of relief.
“If you sack the quarterback in college, you’re going to get sacks in the National Football League,” said Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller, who has 98 regular-season sacks in his eight seasons, six seasons with at least 11 sacks, and a Super Bowl MVP award. “That doesn’t mean you don’t have to work on your game, find some counters [moves] and study, but I think the sack guys in college usually are sack guys in the pros if they put in the work.”
“You have quarterbacks that may sit in the pocket a little longer. … [You have] bigger, more athletic tackles, you face tremendous players every week,” Bosa said. “It’s not a surprise when you play somebody who’s got a wide array of moves and stuff like that. … But I think I can do this; I think I’m ready to do this.”
This year’s group of defensive linemen is also one of the deepest groups in a decade.
After Bosa are Mississippi State combine sensation Montez Sweat and Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen. There are also edge-rushing defensive ends such as Florida State’s Brian Burns, Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell and Florida’s Jachai Polite, and disruptive tackles like Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Houston’s Ed Oliver.
By the time 40 picks are made, all those players could be off the board.
“It’s simple,” Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said earlier this offseason. “It’s a passing league. You have to have the quarterback you can win with and guys who affect the quarterback. And if a guy has the right makeup in how he works, those pass-rush skills can translate quickly.”
Former Broncos and Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan needed a pass-rusher in the 2006 draft. The best player available when the Broncos’ fourth-round pick came around was 5-foot-11 3/8 Elvis Dumervil, who wasn’t really a linebacker but was too short to be a defensive end. But Dumervil had two 30-sack seasons in high school and a 20-sack season in his last year at Louisville. The Broncos believed those numbers outweighed the size concerns.
“Our thinking was, if you can sack the quarterback, you can sack the quarterback,” Shanahan said. “Certainly we had other things other than his height we liked. He had a big reach, a reach of a much taller guy. We liked his approach, but in the end you could just see he knew how to get to the quarterback, and we thought he would only work harder to be better at it to go with what he already had.”
Dumervil finished his career with 105.5 sacks — even with one missed season with a torn pectoral — and led the league in sacks in 2009, with 17.
DeMarcus Ware emerged from college with pass-rush skills at a smaller program in Troy, amassed 138.5 sacks and went to nine Pro Bowls.
Miller and Ware see specific reasons for such a fast transition from college to the NFL. The basic skills and traits are the same, and the simple need to pressure the quarterback gets these players on the field.
“I don’t think it’s guaranteed … but the skills do move with you quickly,” Ware said. “Von showed that. He had those skills right away, the hands, the quickness, the bend, playing with leverage. He just did those things and maybe didn’t even really think about it. His learning curve was pass coverage, counters, things like that. But getting to the quarterback, he did that from Day 1. It’s being an athlete, but it’s instinct …”
It’s also about making an immediate impact.
“[Dumervil and Ware] showed me what to do with your skills, you know, how to apply them,” said Miller, who was a first-round pick and had 11.5 sacks in his rookie season. “And they both told me, ‘You can get sacks right away in this league. You got sacks before, you can get them now.'”
It’s why evaluators look at this year’s draft board and see the opportunity to be right, to get the value from the pick with an impact player who fills one of the biggest needs for any team in today’s pass-happy NFL.
“What I would say about the defensive line in general is that in the last 10 years I’d say it is the best defensive line group we’ve seen, both edge rushers and inside guys,” Oakland Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said. “I think when you start talking about the first round of the draft, I think it’s going to be dominated by defensive linemen.”
While evaluators see the need for Burns to add more strength to battle more savvy and powerful NFL tackles, or the need for Sweat to be more consistent — he had four games without a sack this past season — or for Bosa to have moved past the injury that ended his final season at Ohio State, the rushers know they’re needed, and they believe they can contribute.
“This is a very deep, talented defensive line group,” Sweat said. “I think I would separate myself with my effort and my play. Just getting after the QB is what I do best. … And teams want people who are going to get after the quarterback.”